There is a scene early on in Hansal Mehta’s Shahid (2013), where Shahid Azmi, played by Rajkummar Rao, meets Omar Sheikh in Tihar jail. Shahid, a Muslim youth from Mumbai is serving his sentence for allegedly plotting to kill a politician, while Omar, a British-born Pakistani is serving his sentence for kidnapping of foreign tourists in Delhi. “I’m getting out of here,” says the London School of Economics-educated Omar, in English, to Shahid, asking him to join him and other radical Islamists.
Shahid would go on to serve his time in prison, resume his education, and become a criminal defence lawyer so that he could fight for Muslims who were wrongly charged with terrorism; Omar would be released by the Indian Government to meet the demands of hijackers who had seized an Air India flight in 1999, would go on to mastermind the murder of the American journalist Daniel Pearl (the gruesome video of his beheading was released later), and play a role in the 9/11 attacks.
Eight years ago, Shahid was killed by unnamed assailants, and Omar is serving his time in a jail in Karachi for the past 16 years. In what was his first lead role, Rao’s portrayal of Shahid was full of nervous energy, that channelled the anger against injustice into passionate activism. 5 years after Shahid, befittingly, Rao plays Omar in Omertà, also directed by Mehta.
It not just speaks of the intimate director-actor partnership of Mehta and Rao which has grown over the years – City Lights, Aligarh; Mehta had wanted to make a film on Omar even before he made Shahid, and he must’ve discussed it with Rao during its filming. It also shows Rao’s growth as an actor. Shahid and Omar, are in a way, exact opposites, and Rao plays the man with many contradictions with a chilling distantness: A cool guy to hang with, playing chess with a group of British backpackers in an old Delhi cafe one day, a violent oppressor on the next.
In an interview conducted in the banquet hall of a hotel in Andheri ahead of the film’s release, Rao spoke about the changing faces of Omar, why he couldn’t connect to him at all, his upcoming roles, and what he binges on on a film set. Edited excerpts:
Actors who’ve played monstrous, detestable characters often say that they tap into a part of themselves that they find in common with the character. Did you find a common link with Omar Sheikh?
I couldn’t connect to Omar at all, on any level. He has lot of hatred, a lot of anger inside him, which as Raj I don’t have. I am quite a peaceful, fun loving, secular guy. So I started thinking like him and to generate that anger inside me, I started watching a lot of disturbing videos, things which would make me very sad, helpless, things that motivated Omar. Like what’s happening in Syria right now. If you see the videos, they are quite disturbing, Even today we know there are young boys who are getting brainwashed, sometimes on WhatsApp groups, going out and joining these terrorist groups and doing destructive things and creating violence. I was trying to generate all this hatred inside me, which these images, documentaries, and hate speeches helped me with.
I also got to know a part of the history I wasn’t really aware of, the whole Bosnia-Herzegovina massacre that happened at that time. It was quite an eye opener and disturbing. I could see where he was coming from, but the path he chose was wrong.
Hansal Mehta said in an interview that despite being such a negative character, there is “something sensual” about Omar. Can you elaborate on that?
I think Omar has a lot of internal violence. When he talks to somebody, he is listening to you, but there is also an internal struggle going on. In those pauses you see that he is looking at you, but he is thinking about so many other things that he can do to you, or he is thinking about something that happened to him. I think those pauses, those looks became a very important element in the characterisation which helped in getting that sensuality out.
He was also an actor; he was playing different characters with different people. Rohit Verma with those foreigners, Bashir with Daniel Pearl. He was quite a chameleon. I think very few people saw the real Omar. Who was he? He was different with the establishment people, different with his father, he was a very different guy with his wife, with who we see him for a few scenes, but you can see that he is a male chauvinist. That’s what I was enjoying in the character, I got to play these shades with different people.
2017 was an exciting year, the kind of genres I had, and the appreciation I got for different films. Some of them ended up being box office successes as well, which helps a lot. But I didn’t plan it that way, all I was doing is having fun on the set.
Bose: Dead/Alive, the TV series you did with Hansal Mehta, didn’t seem to have worked. Do you think a lot of people didn’t watch it, let alone not like it?
On the contrary, a lot of people saw it. The kind of messages Hansal and I got the day it released online, it felt like a film has released. The Alt Balaji people say it’s their most watched show. It did pretty well, and there is a demand for Season 2.
2017 was the defining year of your career. Did you anticipate it?
It was an exciting year, the kind of genres I had, and the appreciation I got for different films. Some of them ended up being box office successes as well, which helps a lot. But I didn’t plan it that way, all I was doing is having fun on the set.
Tell us about your upcoming films.
There’s Fanne Khan. Anil sir (Kapoor) and I are playing friends, companions, colleagues, it’s a beautiful relationship. There is a friendship between mine and Aishwarya’s character as well. There is Stree, a unique desi horror comedy, where I am playing a boy from small town Madhya Pradesh and I have that MP accent. There is 5 Weddings, where I play a Punjab Police cop who is suspicious of Nargis Fakhri‘s character, an American journalist who is in India to do a story on weddings. There is Ek Ladki Ko Dekha with Sonam Kapoor, set in Punjab and Delhi; its a very special story and it talks about something beautiful. I start shooting Mental Hai Kya with Kangana on the first week of May. It’s a whacko crazy story about these two crazy people.
I’ll deviate a bit from the line of questions. What do you like to do in your free time? Do you read, watch movies, travel?
I travel a lot and sometimes just like being home and doing nothing. I used to read a lot more, but when I am shooting I don’t get the time. Now watching has taken over reading. I end up watching something in my iPad and my iPhone X between shots, when I have 15 minutes gap. Right now I am tripping on Wild Wild Country, it’s such a well made documentary series, I still have one episode to finish.
I rewatch a lot of films. I must have seen Reservoir Dogs 20 times, but I will watch it every 6 months. The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Snatch, these are films I keep going back to. I saw Forrest Gump again, I just saw Seven Years in Tibet, when I was shooting for Stree. You can watch things on the set with a film like Stree, but not with a Trapped or Omerta, where all your energy goes into the part.