Rajkummar Rao exceeds the audience’s expectations with every film that he does, whether commercial cinema or out-of-the-box, content-driven films. Continuing this journey, the actor talks to Team Box Office India about his latest film Omerta
You have played characters based on real people before, in Shahid and in the web-series Bose: Dead/Alive. In Omerta too, your role is based on the life of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh. Do you find it easy or tough to play someone real as against playing a fictional character?
Every character comes with its own challenges. But, yes, when you are playing a real-life character on screen, the responsibility is much bigger. It was especially so in the case of Shahid and Subhash Chandra Bose, where the people, the audience, are familiar with these characters. In such cases, the audience will judge you on their perception of the real-life people.
But, in the case of Omerta, I don’t think many people know who Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh is, especially in our country. We don’t even know what he looks like. I too had no idea about him, his life, his upbringing and his struggles. So, I had to start from the beginning, portray this character from scratch, and give him my own voice. My main focus throughout the prepping and making was to get the psyche right. I wanted to catch the mental state that he was in. There were reasons that were driving him to do violent things in the world and I wanted to know what they were. You cannot be sane and do all these things. Hence I had to figure out that part of the character to get it right.
There are so many actors who say they need to find some connection with their characters. Isn’t it difficult to do that when you are playing the role of a protagonist who is a terrorist?
(Laughs) It is not at all possible to relate to such a character. There is no way I could relate to Omar Saeed Sheikh on any level. I am a completely different guy in my personal life than he is. I am young, peaceful, a city boy who is secular and decent. And then there is this ruthless, deadly terrorist who plays a huge part in taking innocent lives.
But, he is a very smart guy. He was very sharp and intelligent when he was younger while studying at the London School of Economics. Then, somewhere between 1993 and 1994, something happened, something changed inside him, and he started seeing things differently. There are people waiting for such vulnerable boys. These people brainwash the boys and make them do things they otherwise wouldn’t. Things that are very inhuman.
And what about the audience’s connect to the central character? How does that come into the picture? They will not relate to a ruthless protagonist.
I think the audience will see a story that they have not been told before. And it has been told very uniquely by Hansal sir (Mehta). We have always seen films with villains in them but never a film which is only about a villain. Imagine if there was a film only about Gabbar and there was no Jai, Veeru or Thakur in it. It is different but definitely fascinating.
This is purely a story of this antagonist, of this experience. Plus, it is true. It is based on real incidents. It is still happening all around us. Terrorism is one of the biggest problems that we are facing in the world today. And, to date, there are young boys like Omar Sheikh who are intelligent, who could be useful to society, can probably help bring about a change in society for the better but they are getting brainwashed. These things are happening on WhatsApp groups now and then these boys go out and join organisations which teach them about violence. Hence, this film is socially very relevant. It is the story of this one villain. People who have seen the film claim it is Hansal sir’s best film till date. They think that it is also my best performance till date. I am very happy with these compliments.
You use the word vulnerable in the description of your character. Often, in films with sensitive central themes, the central characters, even if negative, are justified and/or glorified.
Of course, that is not the case in Omerta. That is the difference between Hansal (Mehta) sir and someone else. This is where his unique style comes into play. He keeps everything very real. He will show you the way things are and won’t use any gimmicks. That is exactly what Omerta is. It is very real, it is true to its nature and we are not commenting on anything as such but just portraying things as they are. It is the audience that needs to decide what they want to feel for the people and the characters that they see on the screen.
You have done many well-received films with Hansal Mehta in the past. But when he offered this unapologetic negative character to you, were there any second thoughts about taking it up?
Not at all. Actually, to tell you the truth, I was very happy that he offered this particular part to me. As an actor, there is always some fascination you have towards dark characters. We can see it in the past that a superstar like Shah Rukh (Khan) sir started his career with roles in films like Baazigar or Darr where he played the villain. Even Aamir (Khan) sir played a negative role in Earth 1947 and so did Irrfan Khan in so many of his movies like Haasil. Now, we have Ranveer (Singh) who has played a villain in Padmaavat. So, this means there has always been a fascination for roles like this.
I was also interested in the kind of guy Omar Saaed Sheikh is. I have never played a role like this in my career. He is somebody who is so ruthless, so purely villainous, you cannot even say that he is a grey character. He is all black. That is interesting to me and that is why I wanted to explore this genre as an actor and who better to do it with than Hansal sir?
Films based on subjects like these, especially terrorism, have faced a backlash from the Central Board of Film Certification before. Do you think it is better today? And why so?
I definitely think it is better now that the audience is more accepting. Our audience here has evolved in the last few years and one of the reasons is streaming channels, OTT platforms and VODs coming in. The audience has access to a lot of international stuff right now. They know that these are the kind of films which are being made outside, these are the kind of series that are made outside India. They want and expect some kind of quality work from us as well.
This is why, last year, movies like Newton, Bareilly Ki Barfi, Lipstick Under My Burkha and Shubh Mangal Saavdhan became such huge box office successes. The change only came about because our audience agreed to give their precious time and money to these films.
What is the significance of the title?
There is a story behind this unique title. When Hansal sir was planning this film with another producer, they were not ready to talk about this film to anyone. So, they used to say that this is basically our ‘omerta’, which means ‘code of silence between people’. In the gangster world, it means that you don’t support the authorities or you don’t cooperate with them. Otherwise, this can be between us, between anybody, where we are not sharing something with anybody else. It means maintaining a code of silence.
What kind of mental and physical preparation did you go through to play this character?
It is mentally very stressful when you have to play someone as dark as Omar Sheikh. As I said, I could not connect with him or relate on any level. I had to start my preparation on the level of generating so much anger and hatred inside me which I thought was driving him as well.
Then to take that, the things that are happening in those videos, and make it very personal, was quite a difficult task. There was a physical transformation I had to go through as well. I had to grow my beard, gain some weight and be muscular. I had to go to London and learn to grasp the accent there. But the most important thing was to get his psyche, his mindset, right.
The locations of the film add a strong dose of realism to the story. Can you tell us about the experience of shooting at such locations?
As an actor, I feel real locations always help me when I am shooting for any film. I have always preferred real locations over shooting on a film set because it adds a lot to your performance. Coming to Omerta, we shot in Chandni Chowk, around the Masala Market, and it is just impossible to shoot there. It is a real challenge to sync the sound as well since it is so crowded. I would like to credit our team and sound designer Mandar, our DOP Anuj and everyone else on the team, for making this sequence happen.
Other than Chandni Chowk, we shot at several other locations in Delhi. We shot at the Red Fort, Qutub Minar. Also, some of it was shot in the Phargunj area and also India Gate. We also shot in London for almost 20 days. We shot in Manali, we shot in Mumbai, Pune, where we kind of recreated Pakistan. All in all, there were a lot of real locations involved while shooting this film.
You have done so many films with Hansal Mehta. Is there a comfort level that has grown with every film that you have worked in with him?
I think we definitely share a comfort zone and the level of comfort is a lot more than when we started. There is also a trust factor that has developed between us. I trust him with a lot of things. Whenever he tells a story, whether or not he has me in mind, I know the story comes from a very honest mind, a very honest space. And, whenever he offers me a film, I know it is not because he knows I will say yes but because it will be worth the time we both invest in the project. For instance, he did not offer me Simran because he thought the film did not require me but he did offer me this film. I was very sure that I wanted to do this film, since it would be totally worth it.
Many of your films have been screened at international festivals. Do you find a difference in the way the Indian audience acknowledges your films versus the audience overseas?
Honestly, I do not; there is just one big audience for our films. I think the difference we experienced years ago, when the audience was different, is becoming smaller and smaller. For example, Omerta is a very universal film. It is a film about terrorism and people know about terrorism. It is a dark truth that is common all over the world.
The audience reaction to my film in Toronto was exactly the same as it was when it was screened at the MAMI festival. I think that there might be some members of the audience who might feel disturbed or angry after watching the film but it is very important for people to know the story.
The film has received a lot of acclaim at international festivals outside and within the country. A lot of film critics have praised the film here after it was screened. Does it help the film gain exposure on a commercial platform?
Yes, I feel it does help the film in a way. Screening at festivals brings positive feedback that influences the audience here. There is an elite audience that watches the film as well as critics who can provide positive feedback, which helps the film enjoy a better run at the box office. We have made a new, edited version of the film for our theatrical release. It is a different cut from what we have shown at the festivals.
You had a great run in 2017, with many of your films doing very well. Does that add any pressure while choosing your future projects?
I cannot work under pressure. I am very impulsive and the process remains the same as it has been always. It always has to be my heart; I always listen to my heart. And that’s how I decide whether or not I want to do a film.
Taking that question further, all the characters you have played are very different from each other, each one with different shades. How do you detach yourself from one character and move on to the next?
Well, in this case, I shot Omerta first. It is humanly possible to detach yourself from one character but there are certain characters where you need time to prepare. Omerta needed three months of preparation; on the other hand Shaadi Mein Zaroor Ana did not require very much effort. It is a light-hearted film. You don’t really have to go deep into the mental processes of your character. It is very organic. My theatre days and film institute days really help.
Omerta is an out-of-the-box film and it is releasing with other films. On the business front, do you have any apprehension about the other films that are releasing on the same day?
I think I have answered this earlier. It is something I am not concerned with because I have no control over it. I don’t think it is possible to get a solo release unless you are bhai and you have a release every Eid or you are a superstar. You will always have to release alongside another film. There is no point thinking about it. The only thing is that Omerta is a very different film, a different genre. Nanu Ki Jaanu, which has Patralekha in it, is a film of a different genre. As long as they are films of different genres, the audience can always decide which film to watch.
As an actor, do you follow box office numbers? How do you detach yourself from it after the weekend?
I think it is very difficult to not follow the numbers these days. Every other person is a trade guy, people send it on WhatsApp. Everybody wants their films to do well. I won’t lie and say it doesn’t affect me. But, I don’t have any specific numbers in mind or that my film should break records. It also depends on the kind of film that it is. Like Omerta might get a different opening compared to a film that is a mass, commercial film like Bareily Ki Barfi. Every film has its own audience. Omerta is a very word-of-mouth film. We know the budget of the film and our expectations are in line with that.
Considering the subject of the film, what do you want the audience to take away from it?
I want the audience to experience a world that they don’t have an idea about. It is not gimmicky, hence to experience the world as it is.
You are doing a horror comedy next; you have done comedy, drama and romantic films. Is there a genre that is left for you to explore as an actor?
I think action; I haven’t done much action. I am fascinated by drama, like a Revolutionary Road kind of film. I want to try an out-and-out comedy, though I have tried it a bit in Bareily…, like a Hangover or an Andaz Apna Apna.