Right after watching 28mins of footage from the film, Citylights, I knew I had to interview Rajkumar Rao for #MMCinemaSchool. One of the finest actors to make an appearance in Bollywood in recent times, Rajkumar Rao (formerly Rajkumar Yadav and Rajkumar for a brief period) has been making interesting career choices right from the beginning. There couldn’t be a better actor to share his knowledge of the craft and experience of working in the field.
On a Thursday evening, I walk into the Vishesh Films office in Khar. As I open the glass door, Rajkumar is at the reception, in conversation with someone, and greets me with a wide smile. Patralekhaa is a few feet away, deeply engrossed in listening to something Mukesh Bhatt is saying to her. I am ushered into a conference room where the two shortly join me. Meanwhile, the conference room leads to an open door of another room, where Vikram Bhatt is sitting and someone is serenading the audience with their vocals. In exactly 5 minutes, I knew I was in a film office abuzz with creative minds. The Citylights standees are tucked at the back of the room and I prepare to start my interview.
Rajkumar walks in and in 2mins of talking to me, checks if the voice is actually recording on my phone placed on the table. I assure him that it is and this is the conversation that follows:
Team MissMalini: Was there a deciding moment, a point in your life when you knew you wanted to be an actor?
Rajkumar Rao: I don’t remember the exact point. But I was in school, in class 9, 10 and I was always into martial arts, dance, on stage. I was into it, the extra-curricular activities. But I did my first play when I was in class 10. And I enjoyed the experience thoroughly. I loved being on stage and living somebody else’s life. That was the time I decided. I also started getting a lot of praise, a lot of attention from all the parents, and teachers, and students. And I started loving the attention. I was always fascinated with films and stars and I thought this is my calling. This is what I love the most and I should continue this way only.
Team MM: Do you remember your first take? The first time you faced the camera for films?
RR: I think it was at FTII only. When I went to film school, I was doing another student’s project. I remember that moment. I was doing a short film, and I loved performing in front of the camera, thought it was very immature but I enjoyed it.
Patralekhaa joins us and I fill her in on. I ask her about her deciding moment.
Patralekhaa: When I was a child, I wanted to become everything. You know how it is. One day I wanted to become a doctor, one day an astronaut. Not like Raj, he always knew his path. Then I went to boarding school, the prospects of doing things just got larger. It was not just academics, we started doing sports, there were a lot of cultural activities every fortnight. But then, when I came to Mumbai, I got to do my graduation, and I started doing commercial ads. A couple of my commercial ads were noticed and the casting directors would call me to audition. By then, yes, I wanted to become an actor. So, after graduation, I took a 2 yr sabbatical, so I could go and learn acting, explore things out there. And then I landed the film.
Team MM: I have watched the film. For your debut, it was amazing. What really stands out is that both of you are such natural actors. Sometimes, while watching a film, you know the actor has thought out the scene before enacting it and it doesn’t seem instinctive. But that wasn’t the case with your performances.
RR: Thank you.
Team MM: To pick Citylights as your first film is not a very conventional choice. And even for you Rajkumar, the choices have never been conventional. Just taking Queen as an example, you have very little screen time, you’re a grey character, who literally leaves Kangana at the altar. How do you decide on these films as opposed to the more conventional, perhaps, commercial films?
RR: First of all, I really don’t categorise films as commercial, art or parallel. I just read them as stories. I read a lot of stories and if I think there is a role challenging enough for me as an actor, something I want to give 3-4 months of my life to. I listen to my heart, I do what my heart says.
P: How did I choose this film? I don’t come from a film background. I have nobody. Okay, that’s secondary. The first thing is, Hansal sir is directing the film. Shahid, Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar, Jayate and Bhatt saab giving a platform. Vishesh Films is known to nurture talent and the actor opposite me was Rajkumar. I couldn’t have asked for anything more. I think this is a dream debut, for me at least.
Team MM: You have been noticed for your style already. We’re decoding a lot of your style. How does that come in?
P: I am originally from Shillong. People are very stylish there. You cannot be a badly dressed woman there. It’s unfair. It cannot go. It doesn’t work. I think that’s what I’ve inherited from Shillong. You were just well dressed. Being stylish is a part of style.
Team MM: What are the challenges you have faced as actors, working on the kind if films you have.
RR: When we were shooting for Citylights, the conditions were not really easy. They were quite tough. We were shooting in real locations, sometimes even guerrilla shoots. The only thing is to keep your integrity intact, play your parts even in those harsh moments.
Team MM: In fact, where you are shown to live in Citylights is a building under construction, and it’s at such a height. Weren’t you scared at any point?
RR: I actually enjoy such things.
P: You know what was scary for me? There’s a sequence where Raj has to come drunk. And he’s not a drunk. He must have had about 500ml of vodka. In that scene, there were bricks, rods, etc and I had to push him. There was a lot of But I realised he kind of balanced himself. So I just told him. He was drunk but still his actor’s sense was there. We had about 11 retakes and dude, this guy, his actor is alive. If I am drunk, I’d be gone. I’d be like, forget it, I’m not doing this.
P: Hansal sir is basically an actor’s delight. He will not act out a scene and show it it you.
RR: Unless you’re really bad.
P: He gives you your space. First he’ll see what you have to do. Then, he’ll tweak it according to that.
RR: For him, his actors, his scene, his emotions are the most important thing in a film.
Team MM: Are there any directors you want to work with, ideally?
P: I want to work with all the directors. Every director has their own way of making a film, nobody is similar, if you see Imtiaz Ali and Vikas Bahl, they are both very different. If you even see the younger talent that is coming in, even they are so good.
RR: I want to work with Mr. Mahesh Bhatt. I really hope that one day, he decides he wants to work again and he casts us.
P: He’s such an inspiration. He’s buzzing with so much energy and he’s such a positive person. We are way younger than him but he’s just so energetic. Sometimes, I’m so tired and I see him, and he’s up and he’s talking and he’s there.
RR: There’s so much to learn from him.
Team MM: Apart from being an actor and going on set and delivering a performance, you are also stars and celebrities. You have to interact with so many people, talk about your film, etc. What is your approach to that?
RR: I think it’s important. Marketing is important, maybe equally and sometimes, even more than your film. I think we have understood it’a a part of our job. We have made this film with so much love and dedication. It’s time now to make people know and understand our film.
P: I am relishing this moment. I am loving every bit of it. Though Raj has done so many films and he knows how to tackle it. But for me, I don’t think I could have been in a happier space.
Team MM: What were your fangirl/fanboy moments?
P: It was with Vidya ma’am and with Shabana ma’am last night. When Vidya ma’am came and spoke to me, I didn’t know whether to listen to her, hug her or start crying.
RR: I’ve also had so many fanboy moments. I grew up watching Shah Rukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan. I remember when I met them first time, I would think, he is the one I was looking at for so many years. He’s Shah Rukh Khan.
Team MM: Were there any scenes or dialogues you would practice when you were younger?
RR: I used to mimic everyone. I remember all the dialogues from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, DDLJ, Hum, Agneepath, Ghulam. I remember everything. I was a big film buff.
P: I didn’t really have these. I grew up watching more Western films. So it was Kate Winslet‘s Titanic, Julia Roberts‘ Erin Brockovich, Pretty Woman.
Team MM: Rajkumar, you got the national award recently. Does that change anything for you? Does it affect you as an actor?
P: Firstly, you’ve become Shri Rajkumar by the way.
RR: Oh really? I didn’t know that. So, that has changed! Of course, I’m really happy that I’ve got it. I’m really grateful to everyone who thought I was deserving enough. People’s perceptions towards you changes a bit. Which I’m noticing now. Everyone’s like, now that you’ve won the national award, everyone’s expecting a lot from Citylights. People are very honest with their thoughts, but I don’t want to feel pressurised.
Team MM: The film is opening tomorrow. Your baby will be for the world to see. Hoe does it feel?
P: People have been asking me this and my response has been, for the last few days, that Friday, Saturday, Sunday is a weekend for me. I’m not thinking of it as my big Friday. Yes, I’m a bundle of nerves. I was just sitting with Bhatt saab and he was asking the same question and I told him I was very nervous.
Team MM: Are you going to the theatres to suss out audience reactions?
P: Yes, for sure!
Team MM: You two are in a relationship. That is spoken about too. Does it affect your working equation in any way?
RR: Not at all. Tomorrow, if you are my co-star, I’ll be the same with you.
P: People need to understand that we both are two different individuals. We both have our professional lives, very separate from each other and it doesn’t integrate at any point. So, there is no such any equation.
RR: It really doesn’t matter that she is my girlfriend when I’m working. When I’m acting, I’m not looking at her as Patralekhaa, I’m looking at her as Rakhee. How Deepak will look at Rekha.
Team MM: What’s in the future? What projects are you working on, listening to?
P: I don’t have anything. Nobody has come to me. I’m hoping people will watch my film and they find me suitable or good for their film, they will come to me.
RR: There’s Dolly Ki Doli with Sonam Kapoor, which I’m almost done with. And there’s Rajkumar Gupta‘s next, based on Chetan Bhagat‘s bestseller, Revolution 2020.
Team MM: What would you say to someone who’s also aspiring to be an actor? Any tips?
P: I’ll go first. I’d say only hard work pays off. Please work hard because that’s the only thing that made my dream come true. And dream carefully. They do come true.
RR: I would say there are no shortcuts. I want to tell everyone there are no tips. Just keep working hard. These days, people want to see actors on screen. Be an actor. Work on your craft.
Team MM: Were there any moments of struggle? Where it got really difficult? What did you tell yourself to still go on?
RR: For me, there was never a Plan B. The thought never crossed my mind that I should try something else. I didn’t know anything else. I still don’t know anything else I can do apart from acting. I was in it deep down.
P: My family is very supportive. My mum and dad somehow believed that I could make it and also, Rajkumar’s been such an inspiration. Someone who’s had no backing has come such a long way, only with his hard work. That constantly kept inspiring me.
Team MM: Rajkumar, do you want to talk about your roles in brief. They’ve all been very different from each other.
RR: That’s been a conscious decision to play a different part in every film. As an actor, that’s the only fun, to play different lives. It’s no fun playing the same character in every film. It all started with LSD (Love Sex Aur Dhokha). When Dibakar (Banerjee) came to me with the film, I tried not to make him a completely negative character, rather someone with shades of grey. The only thing I do as an actor, is try and stay as true to the script as possible. And not just put everything from my side. For instance, in Citylights, I play a Rajasthani character, so I tried to talk, behave and look like one.
P: He’s such a chameleon. It’s great.
Team MM: Any parting words?
RR: Watch Citylights. It’s like, in our industry, or even when I meet youngsters, they keep complaining that there aren’t any films to watch. “I don’t watch Bollywood ya”, they think it’s very cool to say that. I just want to tell them there’s a film that has a story, a soul, a heart, so come, watch it and then, you won’t crib.
Team MM: Best of luck. I’m sure it will be great.
Citylights, directed by Hansal Mehta, starring Rajkumar Rao and Patralekhaa opens in cinemas today. Do watch it!