I never planned to be an actor, I went with the flow: Gajraj Rao

These days, movies are no longer about stars that assume the narrative. Gajraj Rao , who emerged as one of the 2018 show thieves for his role as a middle-class, shy and romantic Jitender Kaushik in the film, Badhaai ho , gives credit to young writers and directors for bringing Hindi movies to life. The actor, who is in Kolkata to shoot for Amit Sharma Maidaan what stars Ajay Devgn At the head, he took time to tell CT about the interesting turn his life took with the National Prize-winning drama, his connection with Bengal, upcoming projects and more ... So what brings you to Kolkata?

We are shooting for Amit Sharma’s latest film, Maidaan. It's a period film that focuses on the golden years of Indian football between 1951 and 1962. Ajay Devgn is playing the role of Syed Abdul Rahim, who was the then coach and manager of the national football team. I play one of the antagonists in the film. Since it is not something I have done before, I am enjoying it even more. We have shot a few scenes in Chandernagore as well. As a director, Amit is very clear in his head and I trust him a lot. He gives equal importance to every actor. We have already completed 40% of the shoot.

Can you follow the language here?

Ami Bangla Bolteo Paris, Bujhteo Paris. This is not the first time I come to Kolkata. I share a special bond with the City of Joy. When I was doing theater in Delhi in the late 80s and 90s, we used to come to Kolkata very often to participate in several theater festivals. After I started making announcements, I regularly came here to shoot. Again, my wife's father, who was in the BSF, was published in Kalyani. All my life I have been associated with people who are Bengali or non-Bengali with a touch of language. I have helped Pradeep Sarkar for almost six years. I would start with English while giving instructions, and before we knew it, I would switch to Bengali. Sometimes my wife and I speak Bengali at home. It is our code language (laughs).

How is it working with Ajay Devgn? It has been really good so far. Ajay is a very sincere actor, who comes to the set all ready. He is a very reserved and disciplined man. It takes a lot of dedication and hard work to become a star like him. It is always open to ideas. And when he shares the screen space with someone like him, he automatically gets inspired.

Who was Gajraj Rao before I joined Bollywood?

I was born in Rajasthan but I grew up in Delhi. My father moved to Delhi for his work. I was on the railways. I started my career with theater. Manoj Bajpayee, Ashish Vidyarthi and I were in the same group. The theater taught me a lot. Ashish was my mentor. A few years later, I realized that while theater was my life, it could not be my livelihood. I never planned to be an actor. I got into several things. I used to work on my own for a national newspaper. Finally, I found my true vocation in advertising. I went with the flow.

He debuted with Bandit Queen in 1994. How has the trip been so far?

So far, so good... I was doing theatre back then, when I got this offer for a role in Bandit Queen. It was a small but important role. I went to Mumbai a couple of times after that just to explore things. But I realised that for every role, there were several good actors. Thereafter, I did films like Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, Black Friday, Aamir and so on... I think my career graph runs like a film. Sometimes it so happens that the first half of the film is just about okay, but the second half turns out to be more gripping and the film becomes a hit. It holds true for me as well. From doing theatre, working in the garment export business, becoming an ad professional to acting in films — I have struggled a lot in life. There have been many highs and lows. But every chapter in my life taught me a new lesson. My work was appreciated in Talvar as well. But with Badhaai ho , I entered a new phase and that’s a hit.

Are you enjoying all the attention?

Earlier, I would be happy with only a line saying, ‘ Gajraj Rao did well in the film’. I expected the same for Badhaai ho as well. But the kind of response I got was beyond my imagination. I was overwhelmed. It feels good when people recognise your work. It’s an energy booster for any actor. And yes, I am enjoying it thoroughly.

What do you think of the digital platform?

They are creating very good content, which is why young people have many options to choose from. Every good director is working for the web. It is a very good phase for the entertainment industry. Now, you have the option of saying no to trash. Not only the public, even actors, costume designers and art directors have many options. They can expand their horizon and there is a lot of work for them. They can choose their work according to their taste.

What is it like to be part of the advertising industry?

Advertising taught me discipline. In the theater, finances are not involved. Actors only need to focus on the creative part. In advertising, there is a lot of money at stake with several bosses working for the same project. So, there is always room for debate. You have to tell a story in 30 or 60 seconds, and that is the biggest challenge. As a director, you need a lot of patience. It is your vision and you have to make decisions. Sometimes you are nervous. But, after all, it's your baby. So, there is creative satisfaction.

Do you think character actors are finally getting their deserved?

I wouldn’t say that. If you watch movies by Basu Chatterjee, Bimal Roy or those by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, you’ll find that every character in their films had a significant role to play. Now, if you watch an Andhadhun, Piku or a Badhaai ho ... you get the same flavour. There is no insecurity about things like the lead actor would get the best dialogues or hog all the limelight. However, things became too clichéd in the ’90s. The audience had no choice but to accept it. I’m glad the situation is getting better with time. According to me, this happened because of actors like Ayushmann Khurrana, Deepika Padukone, Ranbir Kapoor, Ranveer Singh, Rajkummar Rao and so on. They are always looking for a little hatke content.

Since you have been associated with the film and advertising industry for years, do you think the #MeToo movement was very necessary in Bollywood?

Yes, it was very necessary. I'm glad women dared to speak. Although there have been some cases in which people tried to take advantage of the situation, in general it was a significant movement. I am sure that farms occur everywhere in every industry. The only reason why the film industry has missed the scanner is because of its glam factor and everything we do is analyzed anyway. Now, these people will think several times before committing a crime.

Tell us about your next projects.

Right now, I am busy with Maidaan and Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan . We need about three or four months to complete these projects. After that, I will take a break for a few months. I will go to a remote area and finish the script of my film, which I intend to direct in due course.