Real roles fascinate me

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After his successful stint in LSD and a short but significant appearance in Aamir Khan’s Talaash, Rajkumar Rao has a few exciting films coming up. While his work in Kaipo Che was noticed, his role in Hansal Mehta’s Shahid has been well lauded. He is now looking forward to Queen. Manju Ramanan speaks to the actor who feels that the era of stars in the Hindi film will not last long.
That is a bold statement to say that stars will not last long and actors will?
Yes I believe in it. Audiences are changing and their so are their preferences. While stars will continue to be part of the public consciousness, they will have to act too to keep their credibility alive. People can be mesmerized by a star pull but finally what you put out there are also your acting skills. Audiences across the world are getting sensitive to that aspect which is heart-warming. Also Indian cinema is going through this transition where a whole lot of fresh thought and perspective is entering the realm of the industry and as part of the wave newness is appreciated. Old mindsets are changing, the internet is becoming a huger influence in people’s minds – there is more exposure to international cinema today – so people cannot be fooled anymore.
Did you know of Shahid Azmi before taking up the role?
No I didn’t. I remember reading a small piece about him being shot dead in the papers, but that is about it. Shahid was a 32 year young lawyer based in Mumbai who was shot dead by some ‘unidentified’ persons at his office on 11th February 2010. He was quite a person. He wasn’t just another advocate who practiced law to earn his livelihood but was a fearless crusader for justice. He was fighting many terror related cases, including for those falsely accused in the Malegaon blasts.
What interested you about his life?
I connect to real characters. Shahid Azmi had shades to his life. His character grew throughout his life and became a human rights lawyer after understanding the system. He starts off being the victim – he was arrested for violence during the 1992 Mumbai communal riots and crossed over into Pakistan-administered Kashmir, where he spent a brief period at a militant training camp. There he realized that wasn’t his calling, serves his sentence in Tihar jail, returns back and studies law and becomes an independent lawyer in 2003 and starts picking up cases of Muslims charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002 (POTA). Well respected and loved, at the peak of his activism, he is shot dead. What interested me about Shahid Azmi was that he didn’t do anything for money. He believed in justice.
Was the film shown to his family?
Yes, his brother has seen it and he is very proud of it. There is great responsibility in enacting a role such as this because it is a bio-pic and is about a person who is loved and respected and has a family watching the film. The best part was, wherever we shot in Mumbai and were asked which film we were shooting and we said it was based on Shahid Azmi, we got support. That was the reach of his character.
Script versus star, what is your take?
The script is gaining more prominence today. An actor like Ranbir Kapoor is a star too. That is the perfect balance, artistes our generation can achieve. I am lucky to be part of the Indian film industry at the right time.
You are working with Kangana in Queen ?
Kangana’s character is called Rani and my character who is in love with her calls her Queen. It is a love story. I play this Delhi boy.
Are you choosy about your roles?
Yes I am. It is very important for actors like me to be choosy about their roles. I choose to do real characters, the ones I can connect to. I am particularly close to Shahid’s character because I lived his life, sat on his chair and admired the way he lead his life. Today, Faheem Ansari, one of the cases he fought for was released. It is a victory for us!

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