Gajraj Rao’s performance as the bashful, romantic, middle-aged man who grapples with unexpected parenthood in the recent Bollywood film “Badhaai Ho” has come in for praise from critics and audiences.
Rao, a theatre actor from Delhi, made his film debut way back in 1994 in Shekhar Kapur’s “Bandit Queen”, but has had a chequered filmography, which he attributes to the lack of good roles and low pay for the type of roles he was being offered.
Rao spoke to Reuters about how it felt to see his face on a film poster for the first time, why talent is not enough to get you roles in Bollywood, and why “Badhaai Ho” could be the defining film of his career.
Q: You are on the poster of a film, perhaps for the first time. Are you enjoying the attention?
A: First of all, I am not familiar with the kind of preparation that goes into this. I see Sanya (Malhotra) and Ayushmann (Khurrana) talking to journalists – and they know what they are talking about. Mera toh tai tai phis ho jaata hai! (I get nervous). I asked Junglee (the producers) why they need my interview. Maybe after this film I’ll get three or four more interesting roles, and maybe then I’ll have something interesting to say. I am clueless. I don’t have any trivia to narrate or a funny story to tell.
But I will say this, in my acting career, it will be ‘Before Badhaai Ho’ and ‘After Badhaai Ho’. If you take the footage of all my movies put together, it will be less than the screen time I get in “Badhaai Ho”. They were all important parts, but they were all three or five scenes long.
Q: Why is that?
A: It was by choice. I go for interesting parts, which are crucial to the narrative. I wanted big roles, but big roles with content were never offered to me.
Q: Did you consider trying harder for bigger roles? Approaching producers, calling people, etc?
A: I would – I keep messaging people I know. But very early in my career, I was part of a theatre group called Act One in Delhi, where we created some amazing theatre for four-five years. That gave me clarity of vision. During that period, I used to hear stories of the ‘Bombay Struggle’ and people were coming back to Delhi. I heard the story of an actor who didn’t have money and slept on a railway platform one night, only to realise the next morning that he was sleeping next to a dead body! I didn’t want to be in that position.
I did come to Bombay a couple of times after “Bandit Queen” just to explore things, and realized that for every role, there are 50 to 500 actors, and good actors. Getting that one part depended on too many factors other than your talent - whether your director likes you, or you agree for a lesser amount of money… When you have so many actors vying for a role, you become greedy and go for the cheapest option. At the same time, there was a company called TV18, which was started by Raghav Bahl, and he asked me to write the anchor scripts for their news channel.
Q: Was writing scripts for news programmes satisfying?A: No, but it took care of my bills. I didn’t need to ask my father for money. Even at that time, I was clear that I would struggle for good parts, but I will not be a bechara (helpless) actor.
Q: But so many actors romanticize their struggle.
A: You have to always have reality checks. A businessman was part of our theatre group and when he saw me down and out, he offered me a job as a supervisor in his factory. I tried it for three months, and realized I could act like a supervisor but couldn’t be one. But I kept writing, joined Pradeep Sarkar as an assistant while he was an ad filmmaker in Delhi. These two journeys happened simultaneously, where I had my job that took care of my bills, and for films, I would approach people I knew. I got some good roles in movies like “Black Friday”, “Talvar” etc.
Q: Why is your Bollywood film career so chequered? You have three-four years between each film.
A: Because my kind of filmmakers, those who like me, don’t make too many films. Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bhardwaj, they all make a film a year. People with a commercial approach do offer me roles, but they are cardboard characters. There is no meat or substance. And again, the money is never good. In a big production house, you are expected to be happy that you are offered a role. I have heard stories where production houses get offended if you ask for money.
Q: Do you wish you had your face on a poster when you were younger and in the prime of your life?
A: Times were different then. We were not in the scheme of things. But yes, I never thought I’d see my face on a hoarding. It’s really exciting. Who wouldn’t like it? And it’s not for some Ganpati mandal poster – it’s for a film, which people are appreciating. It makes me happy.
Editing by David Lalmalsawma; This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.