In Pursuit of Greatness

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Just two years ago, directors were hesitant to cast Raj Kumar Yadav as a hero. Now, with Kai Po Che and Shahid to his credit, this Gurgaon lad is generating much interest

Raj Kumar Yadav seems like a guy who has something to prove. There are many things going on in his head, one of them is a recurring question: ‘How can I become India’s greatest actor?’ That may sound a bit bumptious but Yadav calls it ‘confidence’—his ‘style’. Sure, it may take him decades of labour and luck to achieve such self-set greatness, but his string of ace performances—starting from Love Sex aur Dhokha, Ragini MMS and Shaitan all the way to Gangs of Wasseypur and Talaash—have marked him out as a brilliantly self-assured actor. Many eyes across India are fixed on him and the other two talented boys who make up the lead cast of his new release Kai Po Che.

Of the three main characters in the film, Sushant Singh Rajput and Amit Sadh may appear to have the more glamorous roles, but the odds of attracting attention are in favour of Yadav, who plays Govind, a staid but ambitious man focused single-mindedly on making it big. He identifies with Govind’s bellyfire. “Like him, I have my priorities clear,” he says.

Yadav belongs to a group of actors who emerged from the Dibakar Banerjee-Anurag Kashyap school of cinema. “Things have changed considerably in the last decade. There is place for actors like me now,” he says. It was this change that made his 2005 passage to Mumbai possible. Originally from Gurgaon, Haryana, he schooled at Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, before moving to tinseltown.

Hansal Mehta, who directed Yadav in Shahid, an upcoming biopic of the slain lawyer Shahid Azmi, who had defended some of the accused in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks case, talks about Yadav’s honesty in his craft. “He looks earnest—okay, let’s not say ‘earnest’ because it is such an abused word in this industry now. How shall I put it? There is an endearing simplicity about him,” says Mehta. “If you see him for the first time, like I did in 2011 when I was casting Shahid, he will strike you as a regular guy—very unassuming. But when the camera turns on, he can transform himself into an unbelievably good actor. He has quick reflexes and responds instinctively to any given situation.”

Mehta was at first hesitant to cast him as a hero, unsure of selling tickets on his name, “That was two years ago. Now, there is a lot of interest in him. He is what we call a ‘lambi race ka ghoda’ (long-distance runner).”

Other directors, like Dibakar Banerjee and Anurag Kashyap, who placed faith in him when nobody else would, have pulled no punches in promoting him. These are also the two Yadav has learnt the most from.

“It is incredible to see the kind of passion they bring to their work. They are genuine film lovers. They enjoy every single day and moment of being filmmakers. Theirs is an environment in which any good actor can grow,” says Yadav.

It was Dibakar Banerjee who launched him in Love Sex aur Dhokha. Yadav counts himself lucky on two fronts: one, that a “top-class director like Dibakar picked me”, and two, that his arrival in Mumbai coincided with the “casting directors boom”. Fresh off the FTII boat, he thankfully escaped the so-bemoaned ‘struggle’ that befalls many young aspirants.

Though he faced rejection several times over, never once did he lose hope. “The first few days in Mumbai were very busy,” he says. Busy not with acting assignments but with doing up his rented apartment in suburban Mumbai. “A week went by like that, in buying household stuff—mattresses, groceries, basic things,” he says, “Once I settled in, every day I would go out to meet people. Some would decline politely, others not so politely: ‘Oh, sorry, we need a tall guy’, ‘You don’t fit the bill, actually’ or ‘You look fine but we need a fair guy.’”

To pay his rent and other bills, he had to rely on money that his family sent regularly from Gurgaon. “Sometimes, when I think back,” he says, “my family has been very patient with me. When I was a kid, I had decided to become an actor. I was a notorious kid, you know—not very easy to deal with. But they never discouraged me. When I came to Mumbai, they supported me financially. For one-and-a-half years, I had no work, but they kept pushing and inspiring me. Ours was a middle-class family, like any other; my dad was in a government job. But somehow they were always more hopeful than I was. It seems they dreamed my dreams.” It was, as Yadav says, a family of film addicts. “It was the kind of household where films were not looked upon as mere entertainment, but respected as a craft.” This is a word that comes up often in the conversation.

Yadav says he is always in search of new ways of approaching his craft. “I am a man of extremes,” he says, “When I am with my close friends, I am something else—I am like a man on fire. I crack silly jokes, which only we can understand, and laugh over [them] the whole day. But when I am talking to another actor or a director, I am very serious. You won’t believe that I am the same guy who was cracking silly jokes and laughing his guts out.”

Part of his game is to watch films and “study performances”. For instance, he recently watched Lincoln, which stars his hero Daniel Day-Lewis—“He is not human, he is God”—as the late US President. “After coming out of Lincoln, I felt the same way I did after watching The Godfather, Shool and Rang De Basanti—it had that impact on me. I haven’t seen Abraham Lincoln, but I know he would be like Daniel. Now, whenever I will think of Abraham Lincoln, I will have the image of Daniel Day-Lewis flash before me.”

Yadav says he would like to invest his performances with the same kind of believability. “When you are acting, you have to stop being yourself. You have to make it look real.”

For that, he says, “the character has to be clear in your mind; you can’t sit in front of the mirror and say, ‘I am going to react this way’, ‘move my hands like that’ or ‘walk like that.’ You have to go into a scene and respond to the actual situation. That’s acting.”

There is one more thing about Daniel Day-Lewis that he wants to emulate—his impossible reclusiveness. “And the way he works on his craft,” Yadav says, “When he is not acting, he cuts himself off from the world—or, remember how he took off to apprentice as a cobbler?”

When I remind Yadav, tongue-in-cheek, what Day-Lewis once said about celebrityhood—“Actors should never give interviews; once you know what colour socks they wear, you’ll remember it the next time you see them performing and it will get in the way”—Yadav says defensively, “Of course, it’s next to impossible for us to stay away from the media or to do one film in four years like him. But I still want to do it. I don’t want to be recognised on the streets.”

After Kai Po Che, he is taking off for Gurgaon and then the Maha Kumbh in Allahabad. “I want to be away and just regain my sanity,” he says, laughing, “Once I am back, I know what it’ll be like—the same routine.”

Yadav, who was raised on a Bollywood diet of the 1990s, says mainstream Hindi cinema does not appeal to him much. “I don’t mind doing an Andaz Apna Apna kind of film,” he says, “It’s full of buffoonery. Not that they were pretending to make a meaningful film with a message. But the way Aamir Khan, Salman Khan and even Paresh Rawal performed, I think they raised the bar. When I see Andaz Apna Apna, I always feel these characters—however over-the-top they are—exist somewhere in real life. That’s an example of good acting for me.”