Gajraj Rao talks about his acting journey, which started with Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen, and his experience of shooting for the Netflix anthology series Ray during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Following an arduous struggle, Gajraj Rao has succeeded in carving a niche for himself as a bankable actor in the Mumbai entertainment industry. Over the last few years, Rao has demonstrated a rare mastery over playing character roles. His comfort at playing middle-aged characters, regular as well as eccentric ones, has catapulted him into stardom that few Indian actors have tasted while essaying character roles.
In this interview, Rao talks about his acting journey which started with Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen, experience of shooting for the Netflix anthology series Ray during the pandemic, his love for Delhi, the digital revolution in the content space, and his upcoming projects
Q. ‘Ray’ has received mixed response but one segment that has received unanimous praise is ‘Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa’ featuring you and Manoj Bajpayee. What do you attribute this to?
A. Perhaps what has happened is that ‘Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa’ is the closest to the world of Satyajit Ray. Also, it unfolds in flashbacks and so it transports us back in time. Now, I must tell you that I enjoyed watching the anthology as a whole. But, as opposed our segment, the other three segments deal with modern motifs and characters. So, basically they are contemporary retellings of Ray’s short stories. Now, Satyajit Ray continues to enjoy a huge fan following and his fans are very passionate about his body of work and any new rendition of his work is bound to elicit strong reactions from them.
Q. ‘Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa’ is based on a very popular Satyajit Ray short story about Kleptomania. Now, the segment is beautifully set up in the world of Urdu poetry and ghazals. How did the whole thing evolve?
A. I remember the script first came to me during the lockdown last summer and at the time I was not in favor of stepping out of my house for any shoot. Honey Trehan approached me with it. Subsequently, I learned that it would be a part of an anthology series based on Saytajit Ray’s short stories for Netflix. And Manoj Bajpayee whom I have known from the theatre days was going to play the other lead alongside me. So that itself was very tempting to me as an actor and the fact that it would be helmed by Abhishek Chaubey made it even more special. So we met up for reading sessions while strictly adhering to the Covid-19 guidelines. The readings helped set the ball rolling. It did feel challenging at the time as we had to wear masks at all times except when the camera was rolling and we had to regularly sanitize our hands, but the excitement levels were so high that we overcome all obstacles working together as a team. It was really an unforgettable experience for me.
Q. Manoj Bajpayee said in a recent interview with The Sunday Guardian that actors used to fear you in the theater days because of your ability to improvise. How often do you improvise while working on films and series?
A. Coming from a theatre background it is natural for us to improvise whenever we can but it depends on the actors around you. If the other actor isn’t comfortable with it then you just cannot take the liberty. Now, there is a great level of trust between me and Manoj and I know that he is someone who will not let me fall. You have to understand that right now Manoj is at the summit of his craft. When you are at the top of Mt. Everest you are privy to a very different view of the world. What I experienced while working with him on ‘Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa’ is that he wasn’t just focusing on his character Musafir Ali during the shoot but he was also able to contribute to the world of my character Aslam Baig. After every shot I used to look towards him and he would give me subtle cues and nods that greatly helped me. Also, because of the trust we share, I would also give him certain suggestions. So, if there a certain comfort level between performers then there is always some scope for improvisation as long as the director approves it.
Q. How do you choose your roles? Is there anything specific that you look for in the script?
A. First of all let me tell you that it’s very heartening that writers are approaching me with scripts that they have written specifically for me. To tell you the truth, this is happening for the first time following a very long struggle. So there is great responsibility on my shoulders to do justice to their efforts by reading the scripts in detail. So, I can take up to a month to fully read and scrutinize a script. Now, it’s very difficult for me to say ‘no’ but often one has to turn down offers owing to various reasons. When I am reading a script I try to look for something new in the story from what I have already done. Also, the director’s vision is very important for me regardless of whether he/she is well-established or a new comer. For me the entire journey on a given project is very important and so there is no point doing a project for the sake of it.
Q. You mentioned about your long struggle. How was your life as a struggling artist?
A. Well, I was born in Dungarpur, Rajasthan. But, I spent most of my youth in Delhi. The city continues to hold a special place in my heart. During my days in Delhi, I did many odd jobs. Operating as a freelance journalist in the early ‘90s, I interviewed many famous film personalities such as Yash Chopra, Anupam Kher, etc. I used to get hot tips from my photographer friends that a certain celebrity was in the town and I would cold-call them. Once the plan backfired with Shatrughan Sinha who I remember was staying at the Taj Mansingh Hotel. When I called him he caught me off guard by asking me to first connect him with the editor whom he knew personally. Now, I was calling him from the telephone booth near Nathu Sweets in Bengali Market and so I had no chance to connect him with the editor from there (chuckles). Then one evening while watching a play at Mandi House I decided to become an actor. I subsequently started doing theatre. Occasionally, I would also audition for movies but even for small roles there used to be very long queues. That’s how I landed with a role in ‘Bandit Queen’. Now, my family situation wasn’t very strong but the acting jobs didn’t pay much. So I didn’t have the luxury to go to Mumbai and struggle. That’s when I started assisting Pradeep Sarkar. Eventually when he shifted to Mumbai in the 2000s, I also followed him. Subsequently, I started my own ad film production house called Code Red Films. But every now and I kept on taking up acting assignments that piqued my interest. That’s how I got to play the part of Dawood Phanse in Anurag Kashyap’s ‘Black Friday’.
Q. Whether it’s Inspector Dhaniram in Talvar, the father in Badhaai Ho, Prince Alexander in Tripling 2, MLA Patil in Lootcase, or Aslam Baig in Ray, you have had some fascinating parts to play in the recent years. What has changed so much since the ‘90s?
A. I think the digital revolution in the entertainment space has had a tremendous impact on how the content is produced. When every Friday you are dependent on box-office success you are bound to have many compulsions. You have to have an item number in your film and can’t look beyond a certain pool of actors. Now, OTT offers a lot of flexibility to the creators in that regard. Also, the writers and directors of today have fresh ideas and they are certainly not limited to the tried and tested formulae. They are already exposed to global content. When one looks at the works of the likes of Zoya Akhtar, Vasan Bala, or Amar Kaushik one sees a totally fresh perspective toward making filmmaking and I think that has made a huge difference.
Q. Tell us about your upcoming projects.
A. You will next see me in Amit Sharma’s upcoming film Maidaan alongside Ajay Devgn. Few other projects are currently in the pipeline.

Murtaza Ali Khan is an Indian critic/journalist who has been covering entertainment for the last 10 years.