When he walked, rather danced, on to the sets of the Netflix film Ludo for the first time, Rajkummar Rao carried a boom box playing music from Mithun Chakraborty’s films. His character Aaloo, a restaurateur, is a fan of the actor, to such an extent that when Aaloo reels off the menu to customers, he does so in rapid speed, thrusting and twisting his pelvis in a mock dance reminiscent of the Disco Dancer star.
When Rao’s mother passed away while he was shooting in Chhattisgarh for the 2017 film Newton, the actor had to leave the set to attend to her last rites. Even as the producers contemplated a break in shoot schedule, Rao was back on the job two days later, leaving the crew in awe.
While shooting a sequence in the 2013 release Shahid, where his character is tortured in a police station, Rao took off all his clothes because he felt wearing trousers would mess up the scene. He wanted to be left alone for some time, didn’t say anything when the crew came back into the room, and just nodded to indicate he was ready. As the cameras rolled, he started crying. Even after director Hansal Mehta called “cut” and the scene was done, Rao kept crying for three hours.
Anecdotes, news reports and conversations about Rao reveal stories of professionalism, discipline, a dedication to his craft and an absence of self-obsession. “He has no airs about wanting to look good,” says Raj Nidimoru, who co-wrote and co-produced the 2018 film Stree. Amit Masurkar, who directed Newton, India’s entry to the Academy Awards that year, says, “A lot of actors prefer [to be shot at] certain angles, they have notions about themselves… You can put him in any clothes, with no make-up, and he will do what it takes.”
It’s only been a decade since Rao made his debut in Dibakar Banerjee’s LSD: Love, Sex Aur Dhokha, but it’s been a layered career, filled with nuanced performances and a professionalism that is repeatedly recounted. He has played a range of characters, adapting to them with a skill and discipline that his directors find admirable. Whether it was losing weight for Trapped (2016) or gaining it for Bose: Dead/Alive (2017), accruing an accent for Bareilly Ki Barfi(2017), or curling his hair for Newton, the 36-year-old with a National Award (for Shahid) is not someone who just shows up for the shoot having memorised his lines.
“I don’t live in a bubble,” Rao says over a Zoom call. “I have to recreate realities on-screen. If I don’t know [regular] people, how do I portray them? I talk to everyone – doctors, someone giving me a boarding pass, autorickshaw drivers… It’s important to know everybody’s journey.”
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