Versatile Gajraj Rao is happy with his lot

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Gajraj Rao (center) with Ritwik Bhowmik, Shristhi Shrivastava and Madhuri Dixit Nene form the Patel family in Amazon Prime Video’s Hindi original film, Maja Ma. Photo: Amazon Prime Video 

That he’s a consummate and versatile actor across mediums has been proved now for over 25 years. Yes, most are not aware that Gajraj Rao’s first appearance was way back in 1996 in Bandit Queen. Since then, he has acted in about 25 TV serials,  web series and movies. He has even produced a documentary, The Tribal Scoop, the offbeat Budhia Singh: Born to Run, and directed the ad film, Rorita: Write The New, featuring Sachin Tendulkar.

But it was in the 2018 Badhaai Ho that he made a true-blue impact as the middle-aged father-to-be protagonist. Since then, he has packed a punch again as the scheming and wicked politician in Lootcase and as the wrestler-turned-sports journalist in one episode of the movie anthology, Ray. He is now cast opposite his most glamorous co-star ever, Madhuri Dixit Nene, in Amazon Prime Video’s first original Hindi production, Maja Ma, which releases on October 6.

In a candid chat wherein he comes across as an amazingly grounded, a charmingly simple and a witty human being, Gajraj Rao expounds on his checkered career.

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Excerpts from an interview follow.

You play a Gujarati in this film, and opposite Madhuri Dixit Nene. Your take on these aspects?

The film is about Mrs. Patel, who is my wife, and me, and our son’s engagement to an NRI. It is a light drama about the complications and conflict that follow after this. Look, I hail from South Rajasthan, and Gujarat is very close to that region. I have grown up on shrikhand and, from my Gujarati friends, I have learnt that you can put sugar in your dal apart from salt! (Smiles) Also I have many relatives who stay in Ahmedabad, Surat and so on. So I was familiar with the ethos and culture.

Coming to Madhuri-ji, when I came to know that she was to be my co-star, my heartbeat stopped for a while, I think! Instead of 1-2, it was 1….1 and so on! (Laughs) It’s not every day that you not only can watch a legend at work but also get to work with her in an important part. It’s like what you call a dream come true!

Also, the offer came to me during the pandemic, when I was a bit scared of stepping out to work. But because it was her, I decided to care two hoots for Covid! (Laughs again) Of course, all safety protocols were followed. And it was unbelievable for me that I was in the same frame as her and we were speaking lines to each other. Madhuri Dixit has an aura about her, and she knows it too, but it’s her greatness that she interacts with all of us the way a simple co-star does!

The big question: you have been around from Bandit Queen in 1996.  What took you so long to make a mark, which you did only with Badhaai Ho in 2018, though you have been doing so much work all through?

It’s like this: If you are a reporter for a newspaper in a small town like Jabalpur or Coimbatore, and he suddenly gets the opportunity to be read in Time magazine, or New York Times, or even Indian Express, how will you feel? It was a life-changing experience, a tectonic shift! With a byline on a big platform, people’s perspective of you changes totally! I was surviving, had no complaints, and was doing decently with my acting and my work in ads, but the warmth and respect I got after Badhaai Ho was unprecedented.

And how did this tectonic shift happen?

Amit Sharma and I were both assistants to ad filmmaker Pradeep Sarkar and he was chosen to direct Badhaai Ho. Also, Ayushmann Khurrana and I had done a skit of sorts for the production company, TVF (The Viral Fever) in 2015 and he too recommended me. Finally, Alia, Amit Sharma’s wife, also thought I would be the right person for the role.

But you can imagine what happens if a guy from Jabalpur is suddenly asked to write for the Washington Post, right? He will wonder if he should rock the boat and can feel that whatever is going alright should not be disturbed! But I decided to be firm and not bother about how anyone looked at me! I wanted to do the part, which was the lengthiest I had done, and the most important male role!

Even my wife asked me what negative difference would it possibly make to my career, anyway? I was already 47 or 48, and I was not a Ranbir Kapoor anyway, who has to shoulder a film!

Would you agree to play a role that is not your age?

Why not? We are actors, and we cannot be put in a box! Pankaj Kapur and Annu Kapoor played 60 year-olds when in their twenties in the lovely film, Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, didn’t they?

You were there at the crossroads when TVF and web series first made an appearance, and no one knew their future.

Yes, I began to collaborate with TVF when no one was sure about OTT. No one then imagined it as a benchmark or a milestone. But I surrendered to the youngsters, though a lot of them were 20 to 22 years old—half my age. I abandoned the concept that they could not tell me what was right or wrong, because I was senior. I decided that since my approach was years older to them, they could be right about how things should be done now!

How do you look at OTT today for actors?

I think that with the big-time arrival of OTT, a golden period has begun, especially for actors and writers. Today, we actors get to choose from whatever is offered to us, so that we can work on what we would want to do rather than on what we have to do to sustain. We have many options now. As for writers, they are not available today, as the demand for them is so high. Earlier, they would be taken for granted!

Was an after-effect of Badhaai Ho a bevy of similar roles as the industry is prone to typecast actors?

Let me answer this question like this: my father worked for 30 years with the Indian Railways, and his shifts were either from 8 am to 2 pm or from 2-10 pm. .. I never saw or heard him complain of frustration or depression, or say that ‘I need space!’ Those negative aspects were never there in his mindset or vocabulary, and he was always happy.

I have followed his path in this: unless the story is almost the same, I have not been rigid about such things. I have not refused roles that are somewhat similar because I know the new film will have a different story, a new director, a different cast. And if I start turning such roles down, there will be 50,000 others ready to step in! I have to run my house too, pay my EMIs, so I cannot barricade myself!

You were brilliant in a negative role in Lootcase. We would like to see you beyond comedy.

I am doing a telefilm for ZEE5 called Gunehgaar, in which my role is slightly negative. I also have an almost antagonistic role in Maidaan, which is again directed by Amit Sharma.

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