The memo from his handlers is clear: no political discussions related to Padmaavat, no gossipy chitchat.
The road is clear, therefore, to talk about the bits from Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s blockbuster that have been the subject of WhatsApp forwards, giggly phone calls and water-cooler conversations: Ranveer Singh’s omnisexual portrayal of a fourteenth-century historical figure.
Playing the Delhi Sultanate ruler who falls so hard for a married queen he has never seen that he destroys a kingdom, Ranveer Singh gives Bhansali’s period epic the erotic edge it fully deserves. Whether he is going at it on his wedding night with a woman who is not his bride, swaying in a bath tub as his gay aide serenades him, suggestively sprinkling perfume on a swooning courtier or blowing kisses to his own reflection, Singh’s Alauddin Khilji is as removed from the history textbooks as Bhansali is from the feminist classic The Second Sex.
The bathtub moment is part of the song Binte Dil, in which Khilji’s aide, Malik Kafur, sings plaintively of his love for his master while watching him bed down with another companion. The song wasn’t choreographed, Singh said in an interview, one of many he has given since Padmaavat’s release on January 25. “Mr Bhansali told me, there is no choreographer for this song, this is the sort of shit I want you to do. I want you to go Jim Morrison.”
Like the rapacious conquerors of yore, Singh’s Khilji has plundered all the attention. Hindi cinema is littered with charismatic villains who are more memorable than the righteous heroes – Amjad Khan’s Gabbar Singh, Amrish Puri’s Mogambo, Sanjay Dutt’s Khalnayak. But none of them has been presented as an object of lust, a sexy savage more desirable than the leading man.
“What really clicked was that me and Mr Bhansali came together to have a blast with the character,” Singh said. “I cannot say that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy myself. I created a base for the character and on set, Mr Bhansali would add some layers, I would add some layers, he would come with so many ideas. It is about how much we enjoyed collaborating and creating this unique character in the gamut of films today, especially by a leading man. That is what is unique about him. You don’t see a mainstream leading man in Hindi cinema taking this kind of a plunge. This entertaining villain kind of propels the film.”
Dressed in a gray sweatshirt and velvet track pants one recent evening, Singh is several kilos lighter than the Delhi king who seeks to annex Chittor along with its queen, Padmavati (Deepika Padukone). The actor has knocked off the weight for his next project, Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy. Set in the Mumbai slum Dharavi and co-starring Alia Bhatt, Gully Boy has been inspired by the stories of homegrown rappers Naezy and Divine.
After logging a series of 12-hour shifts, Singh has been returning every day to Yash Raj Films, the studio that launched him and manages his career, to chat with queuing journalists eager to know about the physical and psychological transformation he undertook for Padmaavat. Little has been left unreported – how the 32-year-old actor locked up himself up in his apartment for 21 days to get under the skin of the degenerate king, how he “tapped into long-lost dark memories” to depict the treacherous and demented sultan, and how he pushed himself, to the extent that “I found myself on my knees vomiting plenty of times, bleeding”.
Singh wore hazelnut-green coloured lenses throughout the shoot, but there was another, equally important, transformation – working on his boyish voice. “I tried to work with different voice coaches, and I wasn’t learning anything,” he said. “I worked with an accent for seven days of the shoot before dropping it. The accent didn’t work with Mr Bhansali or me. It didn’t feel as organic as the Delhi tilt of Band Baaja Baraat, the Gujarati tilt of Ram-Leela or the Marathi tilt of Bajirao Mastani. I am glad we dropped it – it was hindering and drawing too much attention.”
Instead, Singh worked on voice modulation. “How this man spoke, nobody knows, and the choice was left to me,” he said. “I decided to go with proper Urdu. I did change my voice, and that is, again, walking a tightrope. Several actors I admire have told me how difficult it is to perform heightened emotions while maintaining a crafted voice quality that is isn’t one’s own.”
Singh chose a “gruff growl”. He said, “When I was prepping for three weeks in isolation, I couldn’t imagine this character without that voice quality. I didn’t want to entrap or restrict myself, but nothing else was feeling right. This was the voice that came out when I read the lines. It is a visceral sound, and I am very happy with it.”
He had a bad throat for over the year that the movie was made as a result, he added. “It is a small price to pay.”
Despite Bhansali’s well-recorded fascination with the legend of Padmavati, which is celebrated in the sixteenth-century poem Padmavat by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, the director’s adaptation was always going to be about the enemy rather than the woman at the centre of the action. Singh might have wanted to play Khilji as more repulsive than he already is, but Bhansali wanted a “sexy villain”.
Bhansali first cast Singh in a career-altering role in Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela (2013), based on William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. Mild traces of Singh’s rakish charm and high energy were evident in his well-regarded debut in Band Baaja Baraat (2010) and Ladies Vs Ricky Bahl (2011). In Vikramaditya Motwane’s Lootera (2013), Singh was cast against type as a buttoned-up and brooding trickster. When Singh’s biography is eventually written, Lootera will be counted as a director’s early recognition of the volcano simmering beneath the camera-friendly bluster.
Yet, it was Bhansali who caused the lava to erupt in Ram-Leela. Bhansali cast Singh as a sybarite and pushed him well ahead in the Bollywood battle of the chiselled chests. Every inch of Singh’s body is pressed into service in his thrusting and lusting version of Romeo. (His character Ram’s measurements: “shirt size, large; pant size, extra large”.)
Bhansali persuaded a deeply reluctant Singh to play Khilji by telling him the character had “75 kilo balls”, the actor told News18. In Ranveer Singh, Bhansali has found the perfect vessel through which to express his singular vision of male beauty. The machismo that Bhansali unleashed through Singh in Ram-Leela continued with the 2015 period drama Bajirao Mastani (in which he plays a similarly sexed-up version of the eighteenth-century king) and exploded on the screen in Padmaavat. An early poster of the movie originally titled Padmavati featured a bare-bodied Singh glaring into the camera.
Among the notes that Singh made for Khilji, the word “lusty” appeared frequently. “He is a very lusty guy, that is one of the first impressions I had,” he said. “For some reason, in my interpretation, lust was one of the starting points.”
The first sequence Singh shot comes in the middle of the movie, when he agrees to visit Chittor on the invitation of its king Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor) alone and unarmed. To an anxious question from his general about his safety, Khilji looks mock-afraid and then laughs, before spitting out “Manzoor hai.”
“Whatever it takes to get to Padmavati is worth it, he has decided that he is going to Chittor regardless, and he is having fun being in cahoots with his lieutenant,” Singh said.
Khilji’s lack of boundaries and his tendency to project his emotions and advertise his masculinity overlap with Singh’s well-publicised exuberance and manic energy in real life. Singh’s jack-in-the-box persona has become inextricable from some of his recent roles. Even his mentor, Yash Raj Films head Aditya Chopra, took note in Befkire. In the 2016 romantic comedy, Singh and Vaani Kapoor play a libertine couple in Paris. In his first scene in the movie, Singh is stripped down to his underwear. In a later scene, he flashes his bottom.
Singh’s comfort with his body extends to his public appearances and his outre sartorial style. By hugging and planting kisses on the welcoming cheeks of blushing journalists (male and female) at press events, he shares a part of what has become his calling card – the body chiseled to perfection in gyms and oiled and pampered for public consumption.
“The entire body is one’s instrument, with the most special part of it being the eyes and then your facial muscles,” Singh observed. “Every part of you is an instrument that you can use to express. I don’t use my body consciously. I have learnt to internalise, feel the emotion I am supposed to be feeling, and let the body follow. And invariably, it does.”
The cue for how far he will push a character’s physicality comes from the director, and once it is given, it helps shape Singh’s overall performance. “When you change your body to be a certain way, you will then stand different, sit different, walk different – it affects everything,” he said. “In my approach the entire physiology reacts to the emotion. If I have to play being angry, I actually start feeling, my hands start shaking, I start feeling uneasy in my gut. I get fucking acidity when I am supposed to do angry scenes. I am lucky that I have the ability to tap into certain life experiences to work myself up.”
At least two of Singh’s upcoming films are unlikely to echo Khilji’s antics. Simmba won’t be among them. Rohit Shetty’s movie is an official remake of the Telugu hit Temper, known for its exaggerated action sequences and humour.
In addition to Gully Boy, Singh will appear in Kabir Khan’s account of India’s historic Cricket World Cup in 1983. The movie is titled 83, and Singh will play the team captain Kapil Dev.
Gully Boy is at the other end of the spectrum from Padmaavat, Singh said. It is his second collaboration with Zoya Akhtar after Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), in which he convincingly plays the unambitious son of an alpha male businessman.
“One is very high status, and one is low status,” Singh said. “Alauddin considers himself to be the heir apparent to the world, whereas in Gully Boy, you have this boy from a disenfranchised lot. They are poles apart. Also, it is a coming-of-age film – the character isn’t a full person yet.”
Rappers are known for their flamboyance too. Will there be some overlaps with Padmaavat? “I am an entertainer, and I am here to play to the gallery,” Singh said. “It comes naturally to me. But that other way of performance, sort of what I managed to achieve in Dil Dhadakne Do, that is something that I have learnt on the job and added to my repertoire, but it’s is not home territory.”