Rajkummar Rao Interview: I don’t want to limit myself to any one genre

Actor Rajkummar Rao never ceases to stun audiences and critics alike with his versatility and talent. In the time when every other actor in Bollywood is running after attaining that ripped body, square jaw bones and gorgeous locks, Rao has found his niche with his hard-work and talent. After capping off 2017 with successful films like Trapped, Newton and Bareilly Ki Barfi, the actor is currently awaiting the release of his first film of 2018 – Omerta. Helmed by award-winning filmmaker Hansal Mehta, the biographical crime drama sees Rao in the role of terrorist Omar Sheikh. To know more about Omerta, the process he follows to get into and then get out of such intense characters and, of course, his line-up of films scheduled to hit screens this year, our Mumbai correspondent, Mohnish Singh, sits down with the talented actor for a freewheeling chat. Here’re the excerpts…

How do you prepare for such dark and intense characters like the one you essay in your forthcoming film Omerta? Does it require more efforts and time as compared to normal, regular characters in commercial Bollywood films?

Yeah, it does take a lot of time, especially while playing characters like Omar Sheikh (Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, British terrorist of Pakistani descent) from our film Omerta, because he is somebody I had no idea about. I didn’t know about his world at all. So I really had to start from scratch because I don’t connect with him on any level. Like with Newton, you connect with the character. But Omar was a very different guy. So I really had to start from scratch.

There was a lot of preparation, starting with the physical transformation. I had to grow my beard for three months. I had to be in a particular shape and look a little stronger than what I was. I was in London for three weeks, trying to pick up the accent and understand the culture. And also, there was a lot of reading involved. I read a lot of books on these (terrorist) groups, their ideologies and then watching a lot of documentaries, lots of horrific and disturbing videos also helped.

I could see there was a lot of hatred and anger inside Omar Sheikh, which was driving him, which was making him do things which he was doing. So I wanted to cultivate the same hatred and anger inside me and those videos, which were very disturbing, of course, not peaceful at all, I needed to have them to get the same kind of anger inside me.

What is your takeaway from the film? It must have been an emotionally draining film for you.

It was mentally very, very taxing for me because getting into the skin of these kinds of characters is not an easy process. My takeaway was…it was kind of an eye-opener. The kinds of things these guys do in the name of causes they believe in are hideous. I don’t see their cause. Killing innocent people and creating violence is not an answer to anything. For me, it was kind of an eye-opener, kind of a highly learning experience. And also, you will see that it’s happening today as well. These young boys, who are educated, who are intelligent are getting brainwashed. They are going and joining these (terror) organizations. They are being brainwashed on WhatsApp. It’s a scary thought but it’s happening.

In your previous film Shahid also, your character had a similar propensity. He too runs away and trains himself with a militant training camp. Is there any similarity between Shahid and Omar?

Not really, because they come from a very different background. Shahid was born and brought up in poverty. He was not from a privileged family. Omar, on the other hand, comes from a privileged family. He was studying in London School Of Economics. However, they both felt like victims. But Shahid realized at the early stage that the path he had chosen was not the right path and chose to be a human rights lawyer. On the other hand, Omar Sheikh continued. He became the most dreadful terrorist in this world. So Shahid’s training was for a very different purpose than Omar’s.

Were you ever worried about the thought that you’re playing an antagonist in the movie?

When I started filming Omerta, I was not worried about that I was playing an antagonist. Also, as an actor, somewhere we get very fascinated with dark characters. Be it in Hollywood where we see Heath Ledger and Anthony Hopkins in negative characters, or here in Bollywood where we have Shah Rukh who played an antagonist in Baazigar and Darr; Aamir Khan in Earth; Sanjay Dutt in Khalnayak and recently, of course, Ranveer Singh in Padmaavat. So there is something about these dark characters, these villains that we get attracted to. So I thought it was a great opportunity for me as an actor to explore something which I haven’t done earlier.

When you play such a dark character in reel life, does it affect you as a person in real life as well?

As a person, during the process, of course, it does hurt me. It does create a lot of mess in my mind. It can be very troublesome sometimes because you are dealing with a lot of horrific thoughts every day, even off set. While playing Omar, I was trying to be in that mental state. It can be tough sometimes, but then you know you will have to eventually come out of it and move on to play another character in another film.

Is there any process that you followed to come out of your character and how long did it take?

It does take some time; it’s not an overnight thing. Once I shaved off my beard, stopped watching those videos, deleted whatever I had with me or on my phone, I was back to my usual self. I changed my wallpaper to its normal self and started spending time with my friends, watching light-hearted entertainers. I think in a week or ten days time you eventually start getting back to your routine life.

If your upcoming film Fanne Khan, you will be seen opposite Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. How was it to work with her?

It was great, absolutely astonishing. She is such a diva and a very committed actor. We had some great scenes that we could film together. And also, Anil Kapoor is there. He brings so much of energy on set. He is such a young guy.

Aish is one of the most beautiful women in the world, known internationally for her work. Did you ever get starstruck while working with her?

No, I don’t get starstruck. Once we are on set, we all are playing our characters. We are not playing ourselves. She doesn’t give off that kind of energy. She is very grounded. We shared a great rapport together.

Last year was phenomenal for you with your films like Newton and Bareilly Ki Barfi receiving a huge response from the audience at the box office. So at this point in your career, would you like to do films like Ragini MMS or Love Sex Aur Dhokha, which you did at the beginning of your career?

Yeah, why not! As I said that I want to do everything. I don’t want to limit myself to any one genre. This year, there is Mental Hai Kya which is quite a wacko comedy thriller. There is Stree which is a desi horror-comedy. There is Fanne Khan which is a light-hearted film but talks about something socially very relevant and then there is Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga which is a very special film. It’s getting made with a lot of love.

There are many actors who are venturing into production. Have you ever thought of dabbling in any other sphere of filmmaking?

Right now, I think my plate is quite full with work. But eventually, I would love to get into production.