A question actor Gajraj Rao has been getting a lot is ‘Kahaan the tum itne saal?’ This is from those who only recently woke up to his brilliance after Badhaai Ho, one of 2018’s biggest hits. To answer the question, Rao has been around for over two decades. He’s the kind of actor you know you’ve seen, but you’re not sure where. He’s dabbled in minor parts on TV shows, ads and film. More recently, you’ve known him as the dad in TVF’s Tech Conversations with Dad series and the cop in Meghna Gulzar’s Talwar. But he’s never handled anything as meaty as the role of Mr Kaushik in Badhaai Ho. “I was like badi elaichi and tej patta. People feel it in the dish but don’t pay attention,” he says.
This is an apt summation of his acting career. But Rao says this with no bitterness. Early on, he made a deliberate choice to kill the idea of a movie career. A year of auditions and waiting at hotel lobbies in Delhi taught him that he wasn’t made for the daily struggle and heartbreak that strugglers must make their peace with. “We’d hear that Mani Ratnam is coming for casting and there would be 300 struggling actors who would land up. It is very humiliating when people look at you like herd. There is no physical nuksaan in sitting in an AC lobby, but it was the humiliation that bothered me… main itna nahi jhel sakta,” he says.
That said, one of Rao’s biggest regrets is that he couldn’t clear the entrance for the National School of Drama after making it to the final interview round. “I remember I said I enjoy reading classic plays but unka koi future nahi hai. Later I realised I shouldn’t have done that. I still regret that I didn’t go to an institution. You get decorum when you’re from NSD.”
Despite his pledge to not pursue acting, Rao kept coming back to it in roundabout ways. It was like a hidden weapon he used only in times of trouble. Years ago when Rao was jobless, he requested Siddharth Basu to help him find work. Basu ended up creating a role for him in the television quiz show he was hosting at the time. Rao’s job was to warm up the audience before the show by conducting a mock quiz. “Talking to the audience and getting them to participate in a mock quiz was like acting. I looked at it as rehearsal,” he says. Later when he joined ad filmmaker Pradeep Sarkar’s firm, he began casting actors for advertisements. If an actor couldn’t perform well, Rao would quickly jump into the frame and save the day. “I was not afraid of doing small parts. You’ll spot me in a lot of his old music videos and commercials,” he says. You’ll also spot him in the 90s crime show Bhanwar. Rao was the dialogue writer on that TV show and while narrating the episodes to director Sanjay Ray Chaudhuri, he’d end up being cast for a few parts himself.
For the last 12 years, Rao has been running Code Red Films – an ad film production house that he co-founded. He describes this as a job that “helps keep his pride intact”. He occasionally hops across to the TVF office to shoot a sketch, but at most times he’s at his desk in Khar, running an office. When Badhaai Ho was offered, he was concerned about taking a long leave of absence for the shoot and later promotions. Thankfully, he accepted.
“After many years I had to do some homework for a role. I recorded dialogues of other people in my phone and created gaps for my lines. It was a huge responsibility. I genuinely thought they cast me by mistake because no one has ever cast me in such a big part before,” he says.
Now that we know what Rao’s pre-Badhaai Ho life looked like, the next question that comes to mind is ‘Will we finally see more of him now?’ The actor is pretty non-committal on the matter. “I’m still trying to adjust to this because it’s been 20-25 years and I have never got this kind of appreciation,” he says. Also, he explains that he doesn’t really fancy or need a film career at this point. Nor does he look at the success of the film as the spectacular Bollywood entry he briefly dreamt of. “I’m not in a hurry. Also I have spondylosis so I am limited. I cant do action, I can’t run fast and I can’t dance. I don’t know how many other directors will work around my problems,” he says.
But then he comes to the real problem. “Also, where will I find such a good script. It’s not possible that after 3 weeks I’ll get another script that’s as amazing as this. If it’s not good enough, I won’t do it.” Till then, he’s happy to be back at his desk. “I lost out on some projects during this time. I better get back to calling my clients,” he says. As for that next magical script, he says he lives in hope. So will we.