Sometimes the greatness of an actor can be gauged by the most embarrassing movies in their filmography. Their sheer presence in a bad movie does the job of a pain relief balm. Actor Vijay Raaz has been that person in a number of films. Let's take the forgettable 2004 movie Run, starring Abhishek Bachchan and Bhumika Chawla in the lead. Running parallel to their troubled loved story is a bizarre subplot involving Vijay Raaz's character Ganesh. Ganesh is a dimwit who comes to Delhi to find his best friend but is hit with bad luck. He first loses his suitcase, then wallet, watch, clothes and so on. By the end of the film he even loses his kidney and mistakenly stars in a porn film. These ridiculous events have no bearing on the main plot. At one point, Ganesh eats biryani made of crow meat and starts cawing like a bird.
None of this makes any sense and yet, you can't look away. Therein lies the brilliance of Vijay Raaz. He almost makes you judge yourself for buying into this drivel. Run is available on Netflix, and if you need a laugh, it's not a bad idea to revisit only his scenes. More recently, Raaz starred in the lacklustre Netflix original, Chopsticks. Here he is local gangster Faiyaz bhai who has a pet goat he lovingly calls Baahubali. On Baahubali's birthday, he throws him a fancy party. When he sees the caterer serve guests mutton kebabs, he is enraged by the insensitivity shown to Baahubali. "Apni biradri waale ko plate main dekhega toh kaisa lagega usko?" he thunders. The movie needed more such absurd Vijay Raaz moments.
So what are Vijay Raaz's acting secrets? Why do his characters find themselves in such unique situations? (Remember Delhi Belly? More on that later) We at Film Companion tried finding out. And we failed. On one occasion he responded to an interview request with a curt 'No'. Another time he explained that he wasn't comfortable speaking. One hears that he once told a journalist he rather catch up on sleep than talk about himself.
No one really knows what Raaz will do in a scene till he's actually doing it. He isn't a fan of rehearsals and is not known to ask deep questions about his character's backstory.
There isn't too much on the actor on the internet – no sad stories of his 'struggler days' or rants on how the industry failed to recognise his talent. In his controversial biography, actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui mentions a time when Raaz was his roommate and they survived on a steady diet of Parle-G biscuits because they were broke. But we've never heard these tales from Raaz. His characters have been extensively dissected, but Raaz himself, like his last name fittingly suggests, is a bit of a mystery. Those who have collaborated with him also struggle to define him. After speaking to a few, I got plenty of adjectives like "reclusive", "unassuming", "saintly" and "shy". A co-actor explains, "woh sant aadmi hain. Apne main hi rehte hain." National-award winning writer Juhi Chaturvedi, who recently worked with Raaz on her upcoming movie Gulabo Sitabo, starring Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana, says it's hilarious to watch the actor get awkward when fans request a selfie. "He's completely detached and incapable of small talk," says Chaturvedi.
Her most enduring memory of working with him involves a game of cricket. It was the middle of a work day when the entire crew decided to play a match. Chaturvedi was batting, Khurrana was bowling. "At one point Vijay quietly said 'let me take over' and began bowling. His deliveries are crazy. Thank god we were playing with sponge balls. You really need to be careful when he's bowling to you," she says. Sometime later, it was his turn to bat. "He's outstanding at that too! He was hitting the ball dhaad, dhaad in all directions. There was absolutely no inhibition. And that's when I made an observation… This is exactly how Vijay acts as well. When he comes on set it's like a khula maidan for him. You don't know if he'll hit right, left or centre, but it's going to be a sixer," she adds.
Last year, writer-director Raj Nidimoru had a similar experience when he requested the actor to do a special scene in the hit horror-comedy Stree. Raaz plays an old man who "has lost his marbles". He's the only person who knows the truth about Stree, a vengeful female ghost who abducts men, but he's of no use because he's lost his mind. On the day of the shoot Raaz mostly kept to himself and listened to the brief patiently. He had no questions and there were no rehearsals. "When we started rolling, Vijay started improvising and doing things he didn't tell any of us about. We were shooting the scene at an old woman's home. She was sitting in the far corner smoking a beedi. Suddenly Vijay walks up to her during the shot, takes her beedi and starts smoking… At one point Aparshakti (Khurrana) asks him a question about Stree and out of nowhere Vijay replies, 'Tumne subah tatti ki'?" Sadly none of this madness could make it to the final movie. "I want to release that entire take on YouTube someday," he adds.
Raaz isn't a trained actor. But he worked at the National School of Drama's The Repertory Company – a performing wing of the school that inducts theatre artists. This is where actor Naseeruddin Shah first discovered him and recommended him to the makers of Bhopal Express, a film he was doing at the time. This became Raaz's debut Hindi film in 1999. "I saw him in a play called Agni aur Barkha by Girish Karnad. When he first appeared, I thought it was a photographic trick! I hadn't seen any actor with that kind of body control and I found his face fascinating," says Shah.
Interestingly, actress Amruta Subhash, who played Raaz's wife in this year's Gully Boy, also saw him for the first time in the same play. She was a student at NSD and Raaz was getting a lot of attention for his character Raibhya. "He was a rishi who was always angry and cursing people. But Vijay sir played him as a man who would lose muscle control each time he got angry. Can you imagine being on stage with every muscle moving constantly? It was like seeing a miracle," she says.
Subhash met him in person years later in Zoya Akhtar's living room while rehearsing for Gully Boy. She was excited to finally tell him about the deep impact Raibhya had on her. "I started imitating his performance in front of him to show Zoya. He was embarrassed but also amused. I think that helped us break the ice," she says. Subhash would use any chance she had to quiz him on his process. "I'd keep saying, 'sir, mujhe gyan baatiye'," she says. He made it very clear that he hated to talk shop.
But he did help her through a tense altercation scene in Gully Boy. It comes at a point where her character is arguing with Raaz's for bringing home a younger second wife. "It's the scene where he tells me 'Tune kaunsi sej saja ke rakhi mere liye'. Zoya kept shouting 'give it back to him, babe'. My comeback was 'Tune kabhi seekha ki mujhe kaise chhoona hai'. We did many takes where I kept saying my line immediately after his. Before the final take Vijay sir took me aside and said, 'Beta, yahaan is aadmi ka status hil raha hai. After I say my line, pause for a bit and take in the insult. While you process it, I'll go into the room and shut the door on you. And then when you say the line, the camera will be just on you'." She followed his instructions to the T and that's what made it to the film.
This is Raaz's 20th year in the movies. In the over 70 films he's appeared in, many have been one-scene roles. When I saw Stree last year, the audience broke into a loud cheer when he appeared for a just a few minutes. But we'll never know what attracts him to such parts. Actor Pankaj Tripathi (fun fact: he made his debut in the crow biryani scene in Run) has said that he began to get a kick out of making his presence felt in the slimmest of parts. Perhaps, Raaz feels the same way. Or not.
Many of his memorable scenes belong to films in which he only briefly appears. In 2011, he immortalised the meme-worthy line 'Sir, yeh toh tatti hai' in Delhi Belly. For the uninitiated, Raaz plays an angry gangster who has lost his diamonds in a botched up smuggling job. When they're finally returned to him, he wants to savour the moment. He takes out a red felt cloth and removes a tiny strand of lint before he can lay out his diamonds. He doesn't know that his bottle of shiny diamonds has been switched with another character's stool test. Someone suffering from Delhi belly.
In writer Akshat Verma's script, Raaz empties the runny poop onto his palm and not a felt cloth. A speck goes flying into his nose, and all hell breaks loose. "If it was any other actor I would have stuck to the script," says director Abhinay Deo. "But I didn't want Vijay to yell. I wanted him to be poker-faced till his henchman states the obvious by saying 'Sir, yeh toh tatti hai'. We did only two takes. Vijay was outstanding in the first but the guy playing the henchman missed his timing," adds Deo.
Raaz has played a shady guy many times, most recently in the web show Made in Heaven. But we almost never get to see him play a man in love like PK Dubey in Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding. PK Dubey is a rough around the edges Delhi wedding planner but when he's around the house help Alice, he's soft like putty. Nair also gives Dubey one of the sweetest proposal scenes. "Vijay's great strength is that he lives life fully, engages in it and conserves his energy to give the screen all he's got. He is always unpredictable in his acting choices which makes it electric to watch him," says Nair, who will be working with him again in her adaptation of Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy.
No one really knows what Raaz will do in a scene till he's actually doing it. He isn't a fan of rehearsals and is not known to ask deep questions about his character's backstory. Before an emotionally demanding scene, don't expect him to be doing anything special to "get into the zone". And if you ask him too many questions about how he did a scene, he immediately tunes you out. "I don't think he works that hard. He barely remembers his lines. Sometimes I feel he doesn't even know what scene we're shooting. You have to go into a scene with him with an open mind and just have fun. There's no telling what he's going to do or what his body language will be. He's an unpredictable person and that shows in his acting," explains actress Radhika Madan, who played his daughter in Vishal Bhardwaj's Pataakha last year.
So will he ever be open to having his brain picked? Subhash says post the success of Gully Boy, journalists have been requesting her to get him to talk, but he looks least interested. "His most attractive quality is that he doesn't give a damn," she says. This is how Chaturvedi explains it: "You want to know him? Then you have to make the effort. He's not going to help you."