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Rajkummar Rao: I would be more comfortable being an actor than a star

The Trapped actor speaks about pushing himself to extremes for his role in Vikramaditya Motwane's film and what he thinks of his 'serious actor' image.

Suparna Thombare

Rajkummar Rao made his debut in an experimental film, Dibakar Banerjee’s LSD: Love Sex Aur Dhoka, in 2010, and has come to be known since for playing some challenging parts in content-driven films. From Gangs Of Wasseypur 2 (2012) to Shahid (2013) and Aligarh (2016), the actor has gone from strength to strength. In his latest film, Trapped, directed by Vikramaditya Motwane, Rao plays a man who gets stuck in a Mumbai high-rise apartment for days without food, water and electricity.

The actor went to great lengths to make his character and the audience's experience as real as possible. For 25 days, Rao lived on carrots and coffee so that he could show the change in the character's physicality. This led to several blackouts during the shooting. But he did not give up. The actor even cut himself to make his injury look real. 

This methodical approach to acting is something that Rao has now come to be known for, and the audience of his films does not expect any less from the actor, who is also a darling of critics. In an interview with Cinestaan.com, Rajkummar Rao spoke about those very expectations that the 'serious actor' tag results in, about going to extremes with his latest role, and about what audiences can expect from him in the coming years.

You are known for doing smaller films. Do you concern yourself with their box-office performance?

Box-office figures matter to me. Everyone wants their film to do well. More money means more people have seen the film. It's good for the industry. If Trapped makes money, five more Trapped will be made. I think of the box office, but to an extent. I want my producers to make money so they can produce more films. But my true satisfaction is the whole process of shooting. How much I can achieve in that process of acting, that gives me a high. 

Your process as an actor involves stretching yourself to the maximum. You lived on carrots and coffee to lose weight in this film. How important is that method to you? Isn’t it easier to replace it with other ways to convince the audience?

We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to keep it real. We were stuck with the timelines and had to finish within these many days and that is exactly what happens in the apartment. And we just thought it was the right approach to shoot in a sequence and finish it in a given time. And that is why I thought taking a break and losing weight slowly wasn’t the right option. Also, there is a physical change in the film. I lose weight in like 20 days. It wouldn’t be that believable if we took a break in between.

You enjoy pushing yourself to the extreme as an actor, don’t you?

That is the fun of being an actor, that you get to do things that you wouldn’t do otherwise. I would have never almost starved myself to death. I had blackouts. It is bound to happen when you don’t eat or drink.

You do tend to pick up a variety of characters. Do you relate to any of them?

I am very different from all the characters I have played. I may relate to the ideology of some of my roles. Like Shahid. I believed in his power and fearlessness. But I am very different from him or all the other parts I have done. 

You are the only actor in Trapped. What did you do to make sure that monotony doesn't set in, or that people don’t get bored of seeing one person through the entire film?

That’s where the genius named Vikramaditya Motwane came in. He was very clear about what story he wanted to tell and how he wanted to tell it. My only job was to commit to my work and my character. He was taking care of the narration. It’s a very engaging and accessible film.

Did a lot of things change once you started shooting?

We did improvize a lot. There were no dialogues as such, so we improvized that. You really can’t plan for a film like this. I wouldn’t know how to react in such situations [like the ones in the film]. I would have to go there and actually live that character and react in a certain way. Vikramaditya and the DOP [director of photography Siddharth Diwan] and the whole team gave me a lot of freedom. They were there capturing what was happening very organically. 

Trapped plays on fear. Do you have any fear or a phobia?

I have a slight fear of heights, but after doing this film I am a little over it, I think. I was a little scared for the first couple of days. But when you spend time in a particular space then you feel comfortable. 

Are you happy about the way things have shaped up for you as an actor?

It has been a great ride. I feel happy and fortunate about the kind of directors I have worked with. And I want to work with all the genius directors of the nation.

Would you like to do a mainstream comedy soon?

I would love to explore comedy. That’s something that I haven’t done. Our concept of mainstream commercial films is also changing — Dangal (2016) or Kapoor & Sons (2016) or Queen (2014), they are all mainstream films.

Often, an actor gets stuck with an image. You are looked at as a serious actor who does content-driven cinema. Are you comfortable with the tag? 

I am very happy in that space. But I am waiting for these two films to come — Behen Hogi Teri and Bareilly Ki Barfi, which are very light-hearted and fun films. But both films have a story and talk about characters. There is a lot of fun in it and they have songs too.

Would you want to direct at some point?

I probably might. But not right now. There is such a variety of work [at the moment] and so many directors are working with me. Some day I may. 

Do you feel you were lucky to come in a time when content-driven films started getting made?

Manoj Bajpayee tells me that I am so jealous of you that you are here at this age in the industry when such exciting films are happening. When these guys came there were very few filmmakers who were making the kind of films they wanted to do. You are right. Cinema is going through a change nationwide, and not just in Hindi films. We have some very good regional films as well. I think thanks to the young generation of filmmakers who are experimenting with their storytelling. They are writing such fantastic stories and such fantastic characters. Earlier people were writing for certain actors and telling them we have written this for you. Now they write characters and then cast.

The poster of Newton recently came out and it looks very interesting....

I am very proud of it. It’s a black comedy. It's a story of Newton Kumar who was called Nutan Kumar, but he was so embarrassed with his name that he renamed himself Newton. He is given the job to hold fair elections in the forests of Chhattisgarh where nobody is actually aware about the process of election. It’s about how he wants to do this right and people around him aren’t really keen. There is also the Naxal presence.

You have done some amazing work with Hansal Mehta. How is your working equation with him?

He is more like family to me, now that we have worked so much with each other. Now there is Omerta, which will come out very soon. I think we understand each other really well. There is this trust factor that we share and it works for us. Somewhere we both believe in these stories and that is probably why we want to tell them together. 

So then Rajkummar as an actor or a star?

An actor first. Being a star is accidental. I would be more comfortable being an actor than a star.