Rajkummar Rao, the Shape-Shifter of Bollywood

On the actor’s 38th birthday, we celebrate the many shades he brings to the big screen
Rajkummar Rao, the Shape-Shifter of Bollywood

When Ram Gopal Varma's Rann was released in 2010, the short role of a news reader in a grey suit went uncredited. It was only years later that the man was revealed to be actor Rajkummar Rao. Known today as a powerhouse of talent today, Rao has the ability to slip into versatile roles. Beginning with supporting roles such as those in Talaash: The Answer Lies Within (2012) and Kai Po Che! (2013), the actor progressed to becoming a leading man. Hansal Mehta's Shahid (2013) was Rao's first triumph. With blockbusters like Stree (2018), a horror-comedy that acted as an allegory for female empowerment, and critically-acclaimed films like Newton (2017), a black comedy on the ideas underpinning the democratic system, and Badhaai Do (2022), Rao has established himself as a thinking actor who is also an all-round entertainer. 

Here are some of our favourite roles from Rao's filmography so far. 

The Common Man: Citylights (2014)

A remake of the British film, Metro Manila (2013), this was Rao's second collaboration with director Hansal Mehta. Rao's recent roles show off his superb comic timing, but at the start of his career, the actor was known for his serious roles. Citylights, starring Rao and Patralekha (who is also Rao's wife), is a poignant rendering of a family from a small town trying to make it in the big city that is Mumbai. At first glance (and in 2022), the plot may seem clichéd – for instance, Patralekha's character, Rakhi, has to work in a dance bar to support the family – but Citylights is a film that makes you forget you're watching a done-and-dusted set-up due to the authenticity with which it portrays these characters' laborious lives. Rao plays Deepak Singh, a gullible man from a village in Rajasthan who inadvertently gets embroiled in a web of crime and deception once he reaches Mumbai. Apart from the spot-on dialect, the actor imbues the role with heartbreaking vulnerability as he plays a man struggling to hold on to his pride as he goes up against a city determined to break him. 

The Criminal: Omertà (2018) 

Remember Rao's terrifying sneer as British-Pakistani terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, notorious for the 1994 kidnappings of Westerners in India? The title of the film refers to the mafia code of honour and silence, but is also a play on Sheikh's first name. The biographical drama, again helmed by Mehta, showcases Rao's talent as the actor transformed into what the director described as the "Hannibal" of terrorism. The actor's performance complements the horrific brutality shown in the film. Rao said the process of preparing for the role left him "very disturbed" and that it was the toughest character he'd played till that point. Despite its quick disappearance from the theatres – possibly owing to the release of Raazi (2018) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018) – Rao's performance was widely praised. 

The Irreplaceable Aide: Aligarh (2016)

It's hard to shine when your co-star is delivering a career-best performance. Manoj Bajpayee, as professor Ramchandra Siras, an unjustly persecuted queer man, is the very portrait of loneliness and deep-seated dignity. Yet, Rajkummar Rao, as journalist Deepu Sebastian and the only one who sees the humanity of the professor, manages to be equally memorable. Rao's boyish charm offers a contrast to the professor's reticent persona. Deepu listens with a bashful laugh as the professor complains about the younger generation. He cracks jokes to ease the tension between them. The pair's unlikely friendship offers us a glimpse of the professor's more tender moments, like when he smiles shyly in response to Deepu insisting he looks good in a picture. Once again, this was another film in which director Hansal Mehta and Rao brought out the best in one another. 

The Lovesick Fool: Ludo (2020)

Rao plays a small-time criminal called Aloo in Ludo, and his introduction goes, "Jaise chaat ho yaa biryani, Aloo har kahin set hai. Uss hi prakaar, yeh saiyad bhi hair role main fit hai" (Whether it's a snack or the main course, potato [Aloo] fits in everywhere. In the same way, this man fits into every role). Rao might not have found many similarities between himself and Aloo, but this description applies just as neatly to Rao as an actor. A Mithun-Chakraborty-worshipping simpleton, Aloo has been in a one-sided relationship with Pinky (Fatima Sana Shaikh) for as long as he can remember. Rao plays the role with masterful comic timing, using his physicality to channel the character's quirky mannerisms of a Mithun Da fan. Rao's cheekiness, previously seen in Stree (2018), is on full-throttle here. If you're looking for a slightly louder Rajkummar Rao performance, under the guidance of director Anurag Basu, watch Ludo (it's streaming on Netflix). 

The Funny Man: Badhaai Do (2022)

Rao as the bicep-loving, protein-shake-chugging closeted gay policeman in Badhaai Do is a gift. Despite the film's uneven writing, the actor brings out Shardul's internalised homophobia with subtlety, humour and grace. In a scene where he proposes the fateful lavender marriage to Suman (Bhumi Pednekar), he fears that his coming out has been overheard by a junior constable. Though this is played for laughs, Rao makes sure we see Shardul is terrified, which acts as a reminder that decriminalising homosexuality in legal terms doesn't guarantee a change in social mindsets. Despite Shardul being queer himself, he isn't more evolved than the average Dehradun resident (the place where the film is set). Rao's deft switches between a stereotypical sexist husband, a tough cop and a tired man craving acceptance are a masterclass on realism in acting. 

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