Rajkummar Rao And The Journey Of So-Called ‘No-Name’ Actors In Bollywood

Rao has played an immigrant in Bombay, a bumbling saree salesman, a daily joe trapped in an apartment, a psycho serial killer and a terrorist; but what he has seldom played is rich
Rajkummar Rao And The Journey Of So-Called ‘No-Name’ Actors In Bollywood

A car accident, rich drunk passengers, a sobering reality and a 'domino effect' of events that leads to murder – what film am I talking about? Shaitan or The White Tiger? While the two films evolve in different directions from the narrative shock provided by the hit-and-run, there is a small common link we may not remember.

Shaitan (2011) had an ensemble cast so you'd be forgiven if you forgot that Rajkummar Rao was also part of the film, as a sleazy, manipulative, low-life policeman called Pintya who sees his opportunity when a bunch of spoilt rich kids get into a fender bender. Nine years have passed and Rajkummar Rao finds himself on the gentrified side of the tracks – from the blackmailer to the blackmailed, Rao seems to have risen in the caste system that is unique to movies and the Hindi film industry in particular.

The White Tiger is an average film based on a stellar concept, one that asks us to look at those from whom we avert our gaze, to delve into the lives of those we're more comfortable forgetting about. Balram is a driver who is more acquainted with the heel of the boot and a curse word from his masters than self-respect and dignity. Being grateful for scraps is part of the job profile. But when he is asked to take on the blame of a fatal car accident he has no contribution in but as a hapless bystander, Balram is grateful no longer. Balram's disposition as a faithful servant, his inner conflict with thankless loyalty and how he turns the tables on those who count on his disposability form the journey of the film. Several have called this film morally dubious, corrupt and promoting the wrong message; these people would do well with a renewed viewing of the film Parasite.

"They are rich but nice." "They are nice because they are rich."

The rich nice people in question here are Ashok and his wife Pinky, played by Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra respectively. While they may share the frame now, die-hard Bollywood fans know that as per Bollywood's inexplicable sections and hierarchies, it was highly improbable for the two to bag the same project. Both actors have seen dizzyingly different routes to success, but it is Rao's hard-won popularity that forms a real-life narrative parallel to this complex film.

Casting for films in Bollywood follows a disrespectful caste system where 'no-name' actors, for lack of a better term, are routinely relegated to the side lines. If you cannot boast of an affluent lineage everything differs and is automatically considered sub-par, from production houses to the directors who will sign you, from the nature of the project to those cast with you. In keeping with this tradition, Rao has played an immigrant in Bombay, a bumbling saree salesman, a daily joe trapped in an apartment like a modern-day Cast Away, a psycho serial killer and a terrorist; but what he has seldom played is rich.

He is far from the only one. Nawazuddin Siddiqui has yet to see a day where he gets to play the rich yet righteous protagonist that seems reserved only for star kids or established megastars. Projects seem segregated by who knows whom rather than who can act. While this has been questioned sporadically, more often recently courtesy the debate around nepotism, producers, directors and sometimes even critics will talk about the bankability of an actor as if it were an innate trait that a person is born with, not earned with talent and, more importantly, with visibility. We're expected to ignore how only kids carrying genetic material of former superstars are blessed with this bankability.

OTT streaming platforms are a different beast though. Because of the variation in the demographic of people who watch online content versus those who watch mainstream movies, or the fact that an online platform is literally pitting your work against that of NBC or Phoebe Waller-Bridge, or just the impact of the recent pandemic, every creator knows they have to level up. To ditch a film now doesn't involve leaving the theatre, but just closing the tab. Talent that has been in the industry for years virtually unrecognised has found its fair share of fame working in online shows: Jaideep Ahlawat in Paatal Lok, or Amit Sadh in Breathe. Hell, even Abhishek Bachchan seems to have kickstarted a successful second innings with Ludo and Breathe. OTT is suited to mine the kind of talent unconventional, dependable performers are able to provide.

Rajkummar Rao inhabits this space not as a newcomer but as a frontrunner. As I watched the adult Balram, portrayed by the stupendous Adarsh Gourav, pounding coal and calculating his escape from enforced hierarchies, I thought to myself, Rajkummar Rao could have played that. He could have played the hell out of that. Knowing that he stood outside Shah Rukh Khan's house for hours at one point, years before he became a household name, I realised, in this universe, Rajkummar Rao is not unlike Balram.

It's fair to say that in the absence of these hyper-competitive platforms, the influx of international material, the rise of independent production houses and daring people who dream differently for this industry, Indians would be stuck with the same drivel that passes in the name of Hindi movies: sequels and remakes where neither the creator is challenged nor the wit of the audience. Today's young crop of talent, which includes Rao and Vicky Kaushal, is not where they are because of this system but despite it, proving it wrong, playing the odds with nothing but talent and a smattering of luck.

Balram sheds servitude to gain his life back, dismisses the argument of morality and attacks the powers that be like a starved tiger at a watering hole. For someone to make a breakthrough, something's gotta give.

Even though he is credited as a supporting actor, watching Rao speak in a believable American accent sitting in the back of a Pajero struggling with the moral dilemma like only a good hero can, feels oddly satisfying, like it was long overdue. Comparing Shaitan and The White Tiger, I can imagine that the intuitive actor really got to show off his acting chops in the former, playing a greedy, dubious slimeball. As a sample, watch for the scene in Shaitan where Rajkummar threatens the group with dire consequences if he doesn't get his bribe. His hair-raising, callous Pintya makes Balram look almost civilised. But a movie released on the most popular streaming platform in the world, trending at number one, opposite Priyanka Chopra Jonas as actor and producer – this project has everything Shaitan wasn't given: more reach and more eyeballs, putting this man on the world stage where he belongs. He isn't the first and he won't be the last. If we want to see how it plays out for him, the screen is our crystal ball. Look at Irrfan Khan

Irrfan Khan burst onto the international stage with the The Namesake, based on the beautiful and soul-stirring book of the same name, which led to him starring in several ambitious international projects. That, in turn, led to more rewarding movies in Bollywood as well. However, few might remember that before this Cinderella-esque turn of events, Irrfan starred in the poorly made thriller The Killer alongside Emraan Hashmi, which was a disaster at the box office, the same year he starred in The Namesake. The point here is we have trouble recognising talent and have trouble giving credibility to those who deserve it, which is why we can't fault our best for seeking greener pastures and knowing what they deserve.

Gourav Adarsh is fortunate as he is an upcoming actor in this hyperconnected era, when legitimacy is given to all manner of content, not just big-ticket items that are released on the silver screen. From Hostel Daze to the lead in The White Tiger, his journey is stupefying. Bollywood might have a long way to go before ridding itself of this habit of discarding talent. But the talent of Adarsh, akin to that of Rao, is not one that can be written off, or that will fade into the shadows. Twenty years ago, heroes were heroes, while side-actors were 'hero ka dost', 'second lead' or 'mean fiancé to be dumped in the climax'. Now, like never before, people demand actors, and all spots are up for grabs. I can say with certainty that Adarsh will not know the humiliation of knowing he is talented and playing itty-bitty parts in movies while mediocre actors take centre stage. He will not know the anonymity that India's most talented actors live in, names I cannot even cite because they are completely unknown. He will perhaps not know of the caricatures that we subject actors to just because they look like ordinary, common, brown Indians, as most of us do. Instead, there is a good chance he will know humongous success, international recognition and most likely interviews with Ellen DeGeneres, and we can pretend that we had a part to play in it.

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