on the actor's trail

Interview: Rajkummar Rao on his new film ‘Stree’ – and why he’s developing a pot belly

The talented actor’s next release is the comedy-laced horror ‘Stree’, which is out on August 31.

Barely done with a flurry of promotions for his most recent release Fanney Khan, actor Rajkummar Rao is already neck-deep in interviews and promotional events for his next release. The horror-comedy Stree (August 31), directed by Amar Kaushik, also stars Shraddha Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi, Aparshakti Khurana and Abhishek Banerjee. Tell-tale signs of promotional fatigue are evident, and yet Rao is attentive, responding thoughtfully and often cautiously. Excerpts from an interview.

Last year you were in seven films, including ‘Newton’, ‘Bareilly Ki Barfi’ and ‘Trapped’, besides the web series ‘Bose Dead or Alive’. This year you have been in ‘Omerta’, ‘Fanney Khan’ and now ‘Stree’. Do you worry about overexposure?
Not really, because all the films are vastly different and, after Stree, I don’t think I have a release till February next year. I will start shooting Mikhil Musale’s Made in China next month, followed by Anurag Basu’s Imli.

The moment I feel I am repeating characters, I will get bored. As long as the character looks and sounds different, I will be contented. Of course I crave another Shahid or a Trapped, but trust me, even the character in Stree does not come to me naturally. Vicky cannot sound like a Delhi boy. I have to work on that particular Madhya Pradesh accent, the body language, and bring a different pitch to the performance.

Amar Kaushik’s ‘Stree’ has been written by Raj and DK (‘Go Goa Gone’, ‘A Gentleman’), who are known for their proclivity to genre films.
Yes, and they are very good writers. I loved Shor in the City and Go Goa Gone. I enjoyed the script of Stree and thought they had created an incredible world with these characters and this ghost and so much humour interwoven.

I also have immense respect for [producer] Dinesh Vijan. He’s so passionate about the films he has backed. I had seen Amar’s short films and he was bringing his own experiences. I also loved my part. I have not explored a character born and raised in Madhya Pradesh. While I have played many characters from Uttar Pradesh, this film gave me a chance to use a new language.

Vicky is a talented lady’s tailor. He’s aspirational and doesn’t fit into this small town, and unlike the rest of the town, he does not believe in ghosts and spirits.

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Stree (2018).

You played the role of Adhir in ‘Fanney Khan’. What was it about the part that interested you?
There were so many reasons to do this film. I wanted to do work with Mr Anil Kapoor. I have grown up on his films and danced to the songs of Ram Lakhan. I am glad I did it as, through this film, I have found a friend in him.

Secondly, Fanney Khan has been produced by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and his Rang De Basanti is one of my all-time favourite films. So I had the opportunity to work with him and I am sure we will have more opportunities in the future too. Thirdly, I liked the script and my scenes.

In some interviews, Anil Kapoor has said that he learnt from you while working in ‘Fanney Khan’ and, later, ‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga’. What was he referring to?
That’s very kind of him. I think he loves me, and I love him back. On the contrary, I have learnt a lot from him. He has such discipline, his commitment to his craft, his energy – there is so much to learn from him. Even at this age he is still full of vivacious energy and killing it.

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Halka Halka, Fanney Khan (2018).

From intense characters such as Shahid Azmi in ‘Shahid’ and Deepak in ‘Citylights’, you seem to have pivoted to light-hearted comedies.
Yes, most of my films have been intense and serious, but I have started enjoying this light-hearted, humorous side to my characters. Going forward, I am also doing films that are a mix of drama and humour.

Do you prefer reading a script or a narration?
I don’t take narrations. I believe in reading a script. Also I don’t really enjoy narrations. I get very restless during narrations, especially if I am not enjoying it then I feel stuck for two-three hours. It’s rude to get up mid-way and say it’s not happening.

Are you affected by box office results?
It definitely matters. Everybody wants his or her films to do well. Everybody wants to get money back. I can’t control the box office. I can’t control reviews. As long as my sincerity connects with people and they can see it on the screen, I think I am okay.

Having said that, box office success does give you greater reach and a better choice of films. The options are better and bigger. Last year, I saw some good success at the box office but, honestly, I don’t know how to crack it. I don’t know if anyone has the sure-shot formula.

For instance, Raazi got phenomenal numbers, but I don’t know if anyone could have predicted that. So there’s no point in thinking about something you cannot guarantee. It’s more important to enjoy the process – give it your best and then hope for the best.

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Newton (2017).

You have carved quite a niche for yourself. Who do you see as your competition?
I don’t believe in competition. We are a huge industry making so many films that there is enough out there for everyone. People do compare and that’s fine, but I don’t bother about that because I believe each person is unique. What I can do someone else can’t do, and what they can do I can’t do.

I think what works for is that people connect with me. They believe what I am doing, and they think this could be happening to one of us. Instead of competing with one another, healthier competition would be in the kinds of films we are making.

Whom among your contemporaries do you find interesting?
Ranbir Kapoor, Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt, Kangana Ranaut, Anushka Sharma, who is both producing and acting, Deepika Padukone, Kriti Sanon and Shraddha Kapoor who will surprise audiences with her work in Stree.

Is a sequel to the web series ‘Bose on the cards?
Yes, we have talked about it, but it’s won’t happen any time soon because to prepare for it, I will have to shave my head and gain all that weight again, and that’s a long process. Currently, I am developing a potbelly for the part of a Gujarati businessman in Made in China.

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Trapped (2016).
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.