2017 was Rajkummar Rao’s year. The 33-year-old actor won accolades for his performances in “Trapped”, “Newton” and “Bareilly Ki Barfi”. With his star rising in Bollywood, Rao says budgets have increased for his films and adulation on social media has gone up, but added that his focus is not on how much money his films make, but how well a day on set goes.
His first release this year, “Omerta”, sees him playing British-born Islamic militant Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who is currently in a Pakistani prison for the kidnapping and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002. Rao spoke to Reuters about his role in the film and why he shares his world view through films and social media.
Q: how do you approach playing a real-life character? Was this role tougher than “Shahid”?
A: With “Shahid” also, it was not really easy because there was not much available about him on the internet – hardly any pictures and no videos. My only access was through his brother. In the case of Omar, there was nothing. I didn’t want to meet his family – it’s a very sensitive subject and they would not like to talk about it. My only reference was what has he done, where is he coming from and what are the things he was involved in. Everything else came from my mind and imagination. Of course with Hansal (Mehta) sir’s help, I started learning the language, physically transforming myself and believe in what he was believing in – his ideologies, which as Raj, I don’t connect with.
Q: Was there any aspect of you performance that was difficult to navigate? Especially given the subject?
A: With this one actually, we didn’t really worry about that. I just let go of myself. As an antagonist, there is no limit. When you are so full of power, you can cross any limit. That is the fun of playing an antagonist on screen. There are a couple of scenes which are very disturbing for me as an actor and for the audience. It is something they have not seen on screens and something I would have never imagined myself doing, but when you play somebody like him, you have to go through all that.
Q: How do you humanize someone like Omar?
A: He has his own ideologies and his own beliefs, and when I was playing him, I had to believe in those ideologies. Otherwise, I strongly condemn them. What he does is inhuman and you cannot justify them. But the fact is, he is the truth of today’s world. He’s still living, he’s got a family, he comes from a well-to-do family, he has a wife – everything which makes him human.
Q: What does this film achieve cinematically?
A: It talks about boys… this is happening even today. Young, intelligent boys who could have been something and participated in making society a better place to live in, chose this path and chose to be these evil minds and created so much violence in the world. Why do they do that? Even now we know that boys from Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and India are joining various terrorist groups and getting brainwashed through WhatsApp messages, which is so scary. They are very gullible boys, very fragile. We as a society, as responsible citizens, have to do something about it.
Q: Why do you think there is such few political films in the industry? You seen to be the only one doing them.
A: It’s not a conscious decision. Maybe people see me as someone they can relate to and want me to be their voice. I just like these scripts and characters and I know this is the reality of our world. I connect with that.
Q: How political are you? does you politics or beliefs influence the kinds of films you choose?
A: I am quite politically aware. There was a time when I was quite disturbed…. disturbed about what was happening in the country. But then I told myself that I cannot be so involved that I stop working and I just keep thinking about it. It took me a while to be completely detached. But I try and put my point across whenever I can, through my films or social media. Because I believe what is wrong is wrong, you cannot justify it. You cannot justify violence. You cannot justify what Omar does, even if he has a motivation behind it. In the same way, you cannot justify violence happening in our country.
Q: You are one of the few mainstream actors to have worked across mediums. you’ve done a web series for ALT Balaji alongside films. Does the medium matter to you?
A: Films will always be my first love. Yeah, I have done a series, “Bose”, and we might do a season two next year. But I was happy doing it as it gave me a platform to do something that I would have never imagined myself doing. As long as the story is exciting, the medium doesn’t matter.