By playing challenging roles in thought-provoking films, acclaimed actor Rajkummar Rao is using his talent to help broaden the horizons of Indian cinema.
He will be doing that again in powerful drama Aligarh, which is being screened at this year’s BFI London Film Festival and revolves around a gay professor fighting to keep his job. Rao plays a journalist in the Hansal Mehta-directed film, which is based on real-life events.
Eastern Eye caught up with Rao to talk about the film, acting and more.
You are in demand right now. How are you selecting your projects?
I listen to my heart. I read all the scripts, and whatever excites me as an actor and is something I can invest several months of my life into, I just say yes to it. It should just touch me somewhere as an actor.
You have developed a strong working relationship with Hansal Mehta. Does he perhaps challenge you more than other directors?
I don’t know if it’s about him challen-ging me more – he is more like family now. We understand each other really well after doing a few films together. We don’t need too many words to communicate; we understand each other’s expressions. I know what he is expecting from me and vice versa. The challenge is to not let him feel that he has seen this kind of character or performance before. I should not make him feel like his last film.
What did you like about Aligarh when he approached you with the sensitive subject?
It is a really important and special film for all of us, especially in India, where Section 377 criminalises homosexuality. So it’s a really important film of our times. When I read the script it just really moved me. I was compelled to be a part of it.
Tell us about your character?
My character is a south Indian guy from Delhi. He spends a lot of his time in the city. He is newly recruited and very passionate about his work. He is always on his toes. He is not really close to his family and is a loner. After meeting Manoj (Bajpayee) sir’s character, he is also finding himself. It’s his journey as well, what he actually wants to do in life.
Do you have a favourite moment in the film?
I won’t reveal the story, but there is a scene where I get to hear something really sad, which I wasn’t expecting and it was a really difficult situation to shoot. And it was in tricky circumstances too, because when we were shooting, it was really hot. But I think some magic happened there. It was one of those moments as an actor I really enjoyed.
Did you think a film about this subject was too risky to make in India?
No, not at all. We didn’t think about all that.
How much does it mean to you that Aligarh has been selected as part of the BFI London Film Festival?
I feel really honoured to be part of such a prestigious film festival, and of the film as well. Like I said, it’s a really important film for us and what bigger platform than BFI?
How important is a festival like this for a movie like Aligarh?
It is very important because we want all our films to be seen worldwide. Now the film festival is giving us that international platform and people can see that India also makes films like The Lunchbox and Aligarh. We are not only about song and dance routines in films.
You are one of the finest actors working in India, but how much does it help you when you are acting alongside someone great like Manoj Bajpayee?
Thank you first of all, Asjad. Working with someone like him makes my job really easy. To see him doing such brilliant work – I was just there as a viewer reacting to whatever he was doing.
What do you think is the secret of a good performance?
There are no secrets – just to be there in the moment and do it truthfully.
You are mixing up bigger commercial movies with lower budget ones. Are you more at home doing the smaller films?
As I said earlier, for me it is the story and role that matter. If someone wants to put Rs100 crores or Rs1 crore I am okay with that.
As an actor, do you have a dream role you would love to play?
My only dream was to be an actor and I am just trying to live that ambition every day.
Can you see yourself following in the footsteps of Bollywood actors like Irrfan Khan and doing international cinema?
I would love to explore myself in international films, so why not?
Why do you love cinema?
I love cinema because we all love stories. We all love telling and listening to stories since childhood. And India lives on cinema and cricket. I am not that fond of cricket, so all my love is for cinema.
Today what inspires you?
A good film, a good performance, a good trailer and somebody doing a good deed; everything, really.
Finally why should we all watch Aligarh at the BFI London Film Festival?
Because it’s something that you have not seen before – how we treat people based on their sexual preference in India and in our cinema. It is something that is very real and very different. We have not seen that kind of stuff before on our screens. And watch it for Manoj Bajpayee giving a fantastic performance.
Aligarh is being screened at The BFI London Film Festival, which runs until October 18. To book tickets and find out more log onto www.bfi.org.uk/lff or call 020-7928 3232 between 10am-8:30pm.