This is Rajkummar Rao’s year.

The acting powerhouse formerly known as Rajkumar Yadav has three confirmed releases in 2017, starting with Trapped on March 17, Behen Hogi Teri on May 26 and Bareilly Ki Barfi on July 21. There is also Newton, which was premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February and might be released this year, as will possibly be the recently completed Omerta.

By contrast, the A-list and B-plus brigade, including Varun Dhawan, Arjun Kapoor, Ranveer Singh and Ranbir Kapoor, are putting out films in ones and twos. Rao, of course, has no real peer in the category that he inhabits. There isn’t any other 32-year-old actor who can play just about any role that comes his way with conviction, perspicacity and honesty.

Rao has frequently portrayed ordinary men grappling with extraordinary situations, but in 2017 he will be seen in lighter romantic comedies too. The only thing left is perhaps an action film – Rao is fit and athletic, loves running and free-hand workouts, and had returned from the gym just in time for a conversation about Trapped, Newton, and the exciting turns his career has taken in recent months.

Rao attributes the rush of releases to serendipity, but the abundance is also an indicator of his increasing acceptance. “I actually want to do one film a year, and the moment people start paying me enough, I will do one film a year,” he said.

Rao spent 2016 swinging from one production to another with small breaks in between. Some of the films break his image as an intense, nervy and short-fused worrywart. “Behen Hogi Teri and Bareilly Ki Barfi are fun films that talk about small-town India,” he said. “They have songs, but I am not doing lip syncing. The story is what always matters the most.”

Rao’s astute choices have landed him in his present surroundings – a spacious apartment in a posh high-rise in Mumbai’s Andheri neighbourhood. The living room has unadorned white walls and minimal wooden furniture. He is represented by the celebrity management agency CAA-Kwan after years of never having an agent and handling his assignments and interviews by himself.

“Once money starts pouring in, your standard of living improves and you can afford quinoa instead of brown rice,” Rao said. Success has chiselled his face and body – he is wirier than he used to be. “I used to look different, I would eat as much as possible, sweets and samosas. People never saw me as a leading guy, but I would audition for that role nevertheless.”

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Queen (2014).

Rao is more than a solo lead in his first release of 2017. In Vikramaditya Motwane’s Trapped, Rao plays Shaurya, a company executive who gets locked into an apartment he moved into the previous night. For the most part, Trapped is a one-hander (if you don’t count the cockroach and the rat who give Shaurya company). The movie relies entirely on Rao’s ability to accurately depict Shaurya’s survival skills, despair and attempts to cling to hope as the apartment walls close in on him.

“We did a lot of improvisations, since I don’t believe in rehearsing too much,” Rao said. “My process is organic, and I want to live in the moment and react to it. Trapped is the only film in which I was mostly alone – I don’t know whether it will ever be like this again.”

Trapped did have a script, but much of the dialogue was made up as the shoot progressed. Motwane shot the film in sequence to map the character’s emotional arc from despair to courage, but also to capture the stages of physical dishevelment. Rao didn’t eat during the 20-odd days that the shoot lasted and locked himself into a shell, which he says made him angry – a rage that he channelled through Shaurya.

“Rajkummar is a terrific actor – he is vulnerable but you never get the feeling that he is overpowering you,” Motwane said. “He is not concerned about the length of the role. Look at Queen – he made that role human without playing to the gallery. I wanted to cast somebody for whom you feel bad, but you want to succeed. There is this latent energy in him, which is what I wanted for Shaurya.”

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Trapped (2017).

Rao made his debut in Dibakar Banerjee’s triptych Love Sex aur Dhoka in 2010. He had graduated from the acting course at the Film and Television Institute in India two years earlier, and had been doing the rounds when he was cast in the second of three stories about honour killings, MMS scandals, and sting operations. Rao played Adarsh, a convenience store employee who tricks his colleague into a sexual encounter that he secretly records and later sells. In Ragini MMS the following year, Rao’s character battles with an evil spirit.

Ragini MMS was a hit, and caught the attention of the director who has had the greatest influence on Rao’s career. In 2012, Hansal Mehta was casting for a movie he was planning on Shahid Azmi, the Mumbai lawyer and activist whose salutary work for people wrongly accused of terrorist links was cut short when he was killed by gangsters in 2010.

Mehta’s producer, Sunil Bohra, wanted a saleable actor for the risky project, but Mehta drew a blank. Rao had just finished Gangs of Wasseypur with Anurag Kashyap, and both the filmmaker and influential casting director Mukesh Chhabra persuaded Mehta to meet Rao.

“Mukesh called me up and said, the guy is standing right below your office,” Mehta recalled. “I said, this is blackmail, but I met him anyway. We had a 10-minute conversation, and I instinctively liked him a lot – his basic honesty, his personality, which was very, very calm, but also his hunger. Rajkummar told me, this is my Raging Bull, and I said, this is the guy.”

But Rao still wasn’t saleable. The problem solved itself when Mehta took Bohra to watch Ragini MSS. “Around 20 minutes into the film, Sunil whispered into my ear, why don’t you take Rajkummar?”

Mehta said he had found his muse – “the actor I have missed throughout my career”.

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Shahid (2013).

Shahid is one of Rao’s most accomplished performances, and marked the beginning of a partnership with Mehta that has yielded Citylights (2014), Aligarh (2016) and the upcoming Omerta. Rao is a migrant defeated by Mumbai in Citylights and a journalist who befriends a persecuted homosexual professor in Aligarh – both vastly different roles that benefit from the evident comfort between filmmaker and actor.

“Our method has been of mutual trust – he puts his faith in the director and reads the script, of course,” Mehta said. “We never lock our scripts¸ but he has a definite process. For Citylights, which was partly set in Rajasthan, he accompanied me to the recee, spent time in people’s homes, and picked up the dialect. He would speak to me only in that dialect.”

Omerta will see Rao in malevolent mode – “it’s a Rajkummar we haven’t seen before,” Mehta promised. There is an omerta on the terrorism-themed movie’s plot, and all Mehta will say at the moment is that it is a political thriller based on a person who is alive. “He is a cold-blooded person,” Mehta said. “There was humanity to Rajkummar’s previous characters, and this is the complete opposite.”

Rao slipped under the skin of the monster just as skilfully as he had for his previous roles. When his girlfriend, the actress Patralekha, visited him on the sets, she was repelled by the all-too-convincing transformation.

“We were shooting in Delhi, she was there for an event, and she came to see me,” Rao said. “She said, I am going back [to Mumbai], there is something wrong¸ finish the film and we will meet properly. When you try and live a character, it does affect you.”

Before Omerta, Rao will show off another instance of his versatility in Amit V Masurkar’s Newton. The satire is about Nutan Kumar, an Election Commission of India official who tries to organise peaceful polling in a Maoist zone. “He is the only sane guy, but people around him feel he is insane,” Rao said about Nutan/Newton. “He is an idealist and is following a given path. He is very real, but given the times we are living in, people simply cannot accept him.”

Rao got the role though Manish Mundhra, the founder of Drishyam Films and Newton’s producer. “Amit said he had written the script keeping me in mind,” Rao said. “It’s a really sweet, simple and very Indian story. Amit had written a very strong script, but there was room to improvise. I said I would get my hair curled for the role, just to give the character a different trait. This meant that I had to wake up at 2.30 am every day and set my hair for the next three hours. Both the hair stylist and I would be half asleep.”

Newton was premiered at the prestigious Forum section in Berlin, which showcases inventive independent films from around the world. It won the CICAE Art Cinema Award, which is awarded by an independent jury on behalf of the International Confederation of Art House Cinemas.

Rao’s films have travelled to international festivals before, but this was the first time he was attending one. “It was minus seven degrees and freezing cold, but the whole vibe was wonderful,” he said. “I met like-minded people, and all we did was talk about films.”

Newton (2017).
Newton (2017).

Talking movies is all Rao and his Mumbai set seems to be doing these days, but cinema was on the periphery of his childhood and early adulthood. He grew up in a joint family in Gurgaon, and is the youngest of three siblings. His parents worked for the government, and they loved films as well as encouraged Rao’s extra-curricular activities, including dance classes and martial arts. “My parents would have encouraged me just as much if I had wanted to be a doctor,” Rao said.

Cinema was a “parallel universe” for the young Rao. He wept into his pillow after watching Amitabh Bachchan die in the 1990 crime drama Agneepath. He wanted to enroll in the dream factory, and yet, upon joining FTII after graduating from Atma Ram Sanatan Dharma College in Delhi, he veered towards realism.

“Things changed at FTII – I started looking at these amazingly real performances, and I got influenced,” said Rao, whose classmates included Pitobash Tripathy and Jaideep Ahlawat.

Indian cinema had already embraced greater verisimilitude in its themes and acting styles by the time he moved to Mumbai to join the ranks of strugglers. “I must say that I enjoyed my time – I was prepared for the struggle,” Rao said. “I would go out and meet as many people as I could. I did initially miss working, because acting was the only thing that mattered. All my energy was into acting.”

As then, so now – Rao describes himself as a “greedy and hungry actor” who is never sated. An early breakthrough was Abhishek Kapoor’s Kai Po Che! in 2010, in which he played an Ahmadabad resident who sets up a sports academy with his friends, but later drifts away from them. Key roles followed in Shahid (2013), Queen (2014), and Hamari Adhuri Kahani (2015).

“I fell in love with my craft, and I am living my dream,” Rao said. He attributes his ability to unerringly play ordinary people to his hatred for fakery. “If I have to portray real characters on the screen, I have to be real too – otherwise I would be lying to myself,” he said.

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Aligarh (2016).

Recognition has brought roles, awards, and creature comforts, but has also robbed him of his anonymity. Not that Rao minds being included in a selfie. “But it is getting hard to just walk around anymore,” he said. “I request my family to not inform the neighbours every time I visit home.”

He savours his anonymity when he travels out of India – travelling is another passion. The name on the passport is the original one – Rajkumar. “My own surname is Yadav, but my siblings use Rao, and we had it changed at some point,” Rao said. He also added an m to the spelling of his first name. Surely that is not the reason for the extra luminosity?

“It has nothing to do with that, it is ultimately about hard work – you have to be at it all the time,” Rao said. “I have no regrets and could not have imagined that I would come this far. All I need at times is two hours to myself, but I don’t get them.”

On that score, he can safely forget about 2017. It is going to be packed with interviews, public appearances and film festival duties. The year belongs to Rajkummar Rao, and the desired two-hour break can wait.

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Kai Po Che! (2013).