Rajkummar Rao had six films, web show in 2017 and he delivered in all of them

Updated: Dec 29, 2017, 17:31 IST | Mayank Shekhar

Honestly, guys like me-call them critic-types if you will, but essentially film buffs who desire more than bread-and-butter for big-screen entertainment-hold a sub-conscious stake in propping up an actor like Rajkummar Rao, or a Nawazuddin Siddiqui

The year of Rajkummar

Honestly, guys like me-call them critic-types if you will, but essentially film buffs who desire more than bread-and-butter for big-screen entertainment - hold a sub-conscious stake in propping up an actor like Rajkummar Rao, or a Nawazuddin Siddiqui, or even an Irrfan Khan, if you may. That they're sharp, well-trained, fantastic performers, is a given. But appreciating their talents to the point of anointing them stars in their own right (which they are) only widens the elbow room for the kind of scripts that can get green-lit, or mainstream films that can be made, with them wholly in the foreground, playing men who're often like you and I, or at any rate people we can relate to - rather than mystical, celestial beings from another sky, altogether trapped in their own galaxy of a fan-base, image, and audience expectations.

Rajkummar Rao in a still from Bareilly Ki Barfi
Rajkummar Rao in a still from Bareilly Ki Barfi in Trapped

Of course, the more mainstream '100 crore' actors don't particularly fancy this 'fitrat' (tendency). A reasonably drunk Rishi Kapoor had hauled me over the coals once at a party for being this lallu "critic type" who simply can't understand how much harder it is to be a dancing, lip-syncing, commercial hero, rather than a brooding Everyman. Which is odd. I (like millions others) totally adore the on-screen Rishi Kapoor (even more so now). It's not an either-or kinda scenario.

Rajkummar Rao in a still from Bareilly Ki Barfiin Raabta
Rajkummar Rao in a still from Bareilly Ki Barfiin Raabta

Kapoor's grouse was against the level of praise heaped on Naseeruddin Shah all through his career. Which is odder still, since I was not even an embryo when the under-stated Naseer, film after film, stormed into the scene in the '70s, cornering considerable critical acclaim for the realism (or humanism) in his roles, gradually morphing into a star of a parallel universe (or parallel cinema, as it were).

 Rajkummar Rao in a still from Bareilly Ki Barfi in Newton
Rajkummar Rao in a still from Bareilly Ki Barfi in Newton

Not sure if it's the short-build, curly hair, or the self-righteousness of his character, or perhaps the fact that he's also an FTII trained actor, but looking at Rajkummar Rao (formerly known as Rajkumar Yadav) in Amit Masurkar's Newton, it was hard for me to not observe him as the 'new generation's Naseer', expressing it so many words in my review of the film as well. Rao, I noticed, naturally shied away from the compliment, when asked to respond to this analogy, in an online interview. Which is fair. Naseer has a body of work spanning five decades - during one of which (the '80s), he happened to be absolutely in the right place, at the right time.

Still, if you look back at this year alone, the number of right places Rao has simultaneously found himself in defies the diurnal clock of the universe, which must've clearly conspired to make 2017 a landmark/milestone in his career, with seven releases, one of which was a full-on, nine-part web-series Bose: Dead/Alive.

Rajkummar Rao in a still from Bareilly Ki Barfi in Bose: Dead Or Alive
Rajkummar Rao in a still from Bareilly Ki Barfi in Bose: Dead Or Alive

Now I haven't seen too many Indian web-shows (my New Year resolution is to change that). But from the limited set that I did binge on, it might be fair to suggest that Bose (having watched six out of nine episodes) appears to be the best, if not the most ambitious, Indian web-series around - pacy, packed with drama, history, and conspiracy theories, and above all, an incredibly calm, sorted, podgy, and full of swag Rao, killing it as the balding, badass (to the Brits), Subhash Chandra Bose. Rao's so good that you ignore the fact that we'd been OD'ing on Bose this year (Vishal Bhardwaj's Rangoon, Tigmanshu Dhulia's Raag Desh, were both centred on the Indian National Army).

Shaadi Mein Zaroor Aana
Shaadi Mein Zaroor Aana

Over few months, to picture Rao as the one-man army Bose, and also as one vulnerable man Shaurya, stuck in a mid-town Mumbai high-rise, with the camera-lens equally stuck on him, capturing his moves and 'feels' - highs and lows - from every possible angle for 100 minutes' flat, has to be a study in contrasts. "Emotion nichod daala": to put it in Bollywood-speak. Beyond doubt, Rao delivered his finest performance (ever) in Vikramaditya Motwane's Trapped.

Which is to take away nothing from his other gig, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari's Bareilly Ki Barfi, where audiences loved him even more. In fact Rao's role in Bareilly is built entirely on the idea of contrast, where he switches from a meek bloke into a 'Bhai' type, every few minutes, with crowds cracking up before the screen. 'Status' (flipping between a person with 'high' and 'low' status in the same situation) is a popular game played at acting workshops. You knew Rao would've aced it each time while honing his craft. I'm sure others did too.

Behen Hogi Teri
Behen Hogi Teri

The point I'm trying to make is simply this. Of course Rao is a phenomenal talent. But this was the year when we could watch him effectively exploit every facet of it. And yet, none of this would matter in a film industry, which works purely on profit-loss, investment-returns. It's a sign of the changing times (or audience tastes) that he delivered hits, which makes one redefine what's a "critic-type" star, or a "real one" anyway. Bareilly (also starring Ayushmann Khurana), Newton, and Trapped performed considerably well at the box-office. I didn't watch Rao's other two releases, Behen Hogi Teri, and Shaadi Mein Zaroor Aana, fearing (perhaps, incorrectly) that it might ruin my Rajkummar Rao experience. But the latter movie, I'm told, had large audiences queue up in theatres, especially after the first week. Raabta, I saw, and it bombed (maybe rightly so). But it's a sure sign of stardom that Rao got picked to make a special appearance in the movie. He was under so much prosthetic make-up that it could have been anybody playing that part from pre-history.

We told you so Rao in mid-days
We told you so! Rao in mid-day's 2016 list of people to look out for in '17

This was pretty much the year when most of Bollywood's unwritten box-office rules were shattered. Hyderabadi Prabhas's Baahubali: The Conclusion was the biggest blockbuster; Salman Khan's Tubelight totally tanked. Besides Golmaal 4, Judwaa 2, and Tiger Zinda Hai, I suspect all the major commercial successes were 'sleeper-hits'. Basically, no one saw 'em coming - pictures on erectile dysfunction, toilets, sexually deprived women, with audiences lapping 'em up. What used to be "serious", "boring", "parallel" has seamlessly merged into the mainstream. Heroes/heroines matter less. If anything Akshay Kumar is the 'huge-budget' Nawaz/Irrfan/Rao. I don't know how much of that gets reflected in Bollywood's starry, made-for-TV award shows. It's hard to tell how many gongs will go Rao's way either.

But so far as accolades go, I happened to be standing right in front of Rao (unintentionally eavesdropping), when he received the hugest one: Sachin Tendulkar just wouldn't stop gushing, going ga-ga over Rao, as Rao smiled all through. To use a sporting analogy, 2017 was to Rao what 1998 was to Tendulkar. He's in top form, smashing everything around, with hopefully, a whole lot in store as well.

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