Gajraj Rao has been lurking in the movies for so many years, it was only a matter of time before he pushed his way front and centre.
In Mani Ratnam’s terrorism-themed Dil Se (1998), the actor was hovering around Piyush Mishra’s shoulder as one of the Central Bureau of Investigation officials. In Anurag Kashyap’s investigative thriller Black Friday (2004), his tonsured head is on the posters – although Rao has only a small part. Rao played Dawood Phanse, a small-time smuggler who is thrilled to bits to meet his more powerful namesake.
But the roles were few and far between. This prompted Rao to move away from acting between 2008 and 2015 to focus on Code Red Films, the advertising agency he had co-founded in 2003. “It’s not like I was deprived of work – I just wasn’t getting convincing scripts during that period, so I focused on making ad films,” Rao told Scroll.in. He didn’t want to be a “bechara actor”, a struggler. “The thing is when you are a bechara, your friends and family too are becharas – your pain is shared by all of them,” Rao observed.
After returning to the screen as a comically inept police inspector in Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar (2015), Rao’s assignments included the television series Bang Baaja Baaraat and F.A.T.H.E.R.S and the TVF comedy sketch Tech Conversations With My Dad. His big day arrived in 2018 with Amit Sharma’s Badhaai Ho. The critical and commercial hit about a couple in their fifties who are expecting a child represents for Rao that decisive moment between mere familiarity and stardom, recognition and adulation.
Now, Rao is one of the star attractions of the upcoming comedy series PariWar. His character heads a family that is coming apart at the seams over the question of property inheritance. The Arre Studio and Disney+ Hotstar series will be out on September 23. Its director, Sagar Ballary, made the sleeper hit Bheja Fry in 2007 – one the reasons Rao leapt at the PariWar offer.
“Bheja Fry is one of my favourite films, I can watch it any time, “Rao said. “The script for PariWar too is very funny and interesting.”
Comedy seems to come easy to the 50-year-old actor from Rajasthan. But his breakthrough role in Badhaai Ho depended on more than following the script’s humorous beats. Rao’s character Jitendra Kaushik is a genial sort, a loving husband (which explains the late-arriving baby) and a dutiful son to his stern mother – a range of facets that Rao dexterously explores through his performance.
In a previous interview with ScoopWhoop in 2018, Rao spoke of his formative years in an Indian Railways colony. His father was in the ticketing reservation department. “I grew up amidst several such Jitender Kaushiks, so this world was not unknown to me,” Rao had said.
Rao would have been a second-generation actor if his father had heeded the advice of a film personality whom he met back in the day. “Many movie stars and technicians would travel by trains in those days, and my father met many people,” Rao recalled. “One anecdote he keeps repeating is that he once met Santosh Anand, the poet and lyricist who worked in many Manoj Kumar films. My father was quite handsome in those days. Santosh Anand told him, come to Bombay, I will make you a star, but my father couldn’t because of his family responsibilities. He keeps reminding us that he missed his chance.”
Gajraj Rao did try to do one better, appearing in stage productions in Delhi while pursing various odd jobs. A parallel career in advertising seemed more feasible. After assisting filmmaker Pradeep Sarkar for a couple of years, Rao moved to Mumbai for good in 2002.
He continued to act in minor roles, but his breakthrough came as late as two years ago, with Badhaai Ho – the perfect example of the adage that all good things come to those who wait.
Rao had an inkling that nothing would ever be the same again at a pre-release screening of Badhaai Ho. On that day, amidst the cast and crew, which included actor Neena Gupta, Ayushmann Khurrana and Sanya Malhotra, emerged measurable proof that Rao’s hard work has finally paid off.
“The way people hugged me, it a dream-like situation,” Rao recalled. “I had ever experienced that kind of adulation and warmth ever before. I still have goose bumps thinking about it.”
The roles started pouring in too, and they were meatier than before, but some of them wanted him to repeat his Badhaai Ho act.
“If there is a script in the same zone that replicates Badhaai Ho, I humbly turn it down,” Rao said. In Hitesh Kewalya’s Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (2020), Rao’s pater familias Shankar Tripathi is not as genial or tolerant as Jitender from Badhaai Ho. Shankar is a scientist who has developed a rare black cauliflower, but he doesn’t have the expanse of mind to accept his son’s homosexuality.
“There is nothing wrong in being a father, but the universe needs to be different each time, the problems and the day-to-day life need to be different,” Rao observed. In Rajesh Krishnan’s comedy Lootcase, which was streamed directly on Disney+ Hotstar in July, Rao played a corrupt politician.
His upcoming roles include a newspaper editor in Amit Sharma’s period biopic Maidaan, starring Ajay Devgn as the celebrated football coach Syed Abdul Rahim, and an Abhishek Chaubey adaptation of a Satyajit Ray story.
Acting, always a passion rather than a hobby, still doesn’t flow as smoothly as it should. “It’s a very, very difficult job – even after 25-odd years, when I go for a shoot, for at least half an hour or so I am very nervous, like the batman who takes time to figure out the ball,” Rao said. Then it all snaps into place and voila! Gajraj Rao is ready to hit it out of the park.