Actors and shooting stars Rajkummar Rao and Aditi Rao Hydari have little in common — except for talent, focus, a deep love of their craft and a name that is beginning to wield power, writes Mayank Shekhar
“It’s so beautiful, na,” Aditi Rao Hydari sighs, high up in the air, on a stuck Ferris wheel. “We could’ve been at a restaurant instead,” Rajkummar Rao, next to her, grumbles. Then, Hydari fishes out a box of chocolates from her bag and wishes him a happy wedding anniversary. Rao hands her a piece. “Thankoo,” she adorably manages while chewing. The giant wheel starts up again.
This popular chocolate brand’s one-minute ad, streaming on YouTube — with a string of “so-cutes” and “they-look-adorables” in the comments section — is the only time Hydari and Rao, playing husband-wife, have been on screen together. And their chemistry is palpable. Now, in the vanity van after the ELLE photo shoot — which is also the first time they’ve posed together for a magazine cover — it’s quite the same.
I ask if they’ve come close to being in a film together. “Probably there were times when…” he trails off. She chips in, “But, I feel like he’s....” “A really stupid guy,” he finishes. “Yeah, that too,” she agrees, before telling me how supremely comfortable she feels in his company.
And to think Hydari and Rao have such little in common. Where they come from, to begin with. Originally from Hyderabad, Hydari calls herself, “a khichdi: the poster child for national integration. My nani is Konkani Mangalorean. My nana is Telugu. My father is Bohri Muslim, with Irish or Scottish blood, from his mother’s half…I am so mixed.”
Hydari left for boarding school, at the relatively tony, “(Jiddu) Krishnamurti Foundation School called Rishi Valley,” in Andhra Pradesh, known for its alternate approach to classroom education. “She’s royalty,” Rao mock-whispers as she mentions her schooling, quickly adding with faux defensiveness, “Not like I went to an all-boys’ school. I also went to a co-ed. [Around Hydari], I feel like this ‘lukkha’ (ruffian), maaroing chaku (thrusting knives) at everyone!” “He’s the gentlest lukkha if there was ever one,” she teases. Both laugh.
A proper Haryana-Delhi boy by his own admission, Rao grew up in Gurgaon, now Gurugram, much before the satellite district on Delhi’s outskirts became a sky-scraping, concrete extension of the bustling capital, sprawling with malls, snazzy headquarters of major corporations, and high-rise apartment blocks with Greco-Roman names.
“It was just the old Gurgaon. There was nothing; no DLF [the massive township],” Rao says. But there were plenty of ‘characters’ all around, many of whom have served as inspiration. “I’ve seen Vijay [Rao’s character] from Queen (2014). There were people like Newton...I’m so glad I was born there. I was curious, meeting so many amazing people, from all from all theatres of life. It really helps me in my performance.”
Hydari says her experiences growing were equally enriching artistically: “My life was sheltered, but it offered stimuli of a different kind, a hectic upheaval that sort of helps me understand certain characters in an emotional way. [It was] a more human sort of experience.” “I didn’t meet non-humans,” Rao says straight-faced. They could carry on like this forever.
That Hydari and Rao, from such disparate worlds, are legitimate lead actors in Bollywood, speaks volumes of the diversity this industry that is often accused of being a gated community of families and friends, has allowed to seep in. It’s of course still hard to get a foot in the door, but much easier than before.
“Manoj sir [Manoj Bajpayee, who shot to fame with the 1998 cult-classic Satya] tells me every so often,” says Rao. “You’re so lucky to be here at this time in the industry, when there are so many opportunities. If you had come in the ’90s, toh phir baat hi khatam ho jaati (your time would have already been up).”
“This is even true for girls. All the stories you hear of girls being in strange situations are all pretty true,” says Hydari, alluding to the casting-couch, Bollywood’s #MeToo ticking bomb. “It [demands for sexual favours] is never spelled out so clearly. You’re not quite sure what is being suggested. It is difficult to keep working and getting opportunities when you choose to work a particular way. And if you’re not pandering to a system — male egos, of producers or actors recommending your name, or someone’s hand on your head — every step is slower. But every step can be very sure, and a step forward.”
Hydari and Rao — currently in the prime of their careers — have still clearly been able to secure a sequence of stellar opportunities, which places them at that perfect insider-outsider intersection in Bollywood. But like their backgrounds, their journeys in showbiz couldn’t be more different—save for having moved to Mumbai around the same time. They both went to university in Delhi, although Rao spent most of his time performing theatre at a local company, before enrolling in the acting programme at Pune’s Film And Television Institute Of India (FTII).
Hydari was training in Bharatanatyam. This is how she landed Sringaram (2004), her debut Tamil film, when she was still at Lady Sri Ram College. She says it was pure chance, since the film, a period-drama on devadasis, happened to be centred on (temple) dance. It didn’t release in theatres, but travelled widely to festivals.
While Bollywood audiences would’ve first caught an extended glimpse of Hydari in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Delhi 6 (2009), she prefers to officially log her career only from the point she packed her bags and landed in Mumbai for good, towards the end of 2010, when she’d made a “conscious decision to be an actor”.
Rao’s filmography, on the other hand, consists of a series of both well- and lesser-known, but much loved, movies: Bejoy Nambiar’s Shaitan (2011), Bedabrata Pain’s Chittagong (2012), Reema Kagti’s Talaash (2012), Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs Of Wasseypur 2 (2012) — with him playing roles of such varying lengths that spotting him in them can be a party-game of its own.
He distinctly remembers, “I shifted to Mumbai on February 17, 2008. My first audition was on March 3. It was for an ad. And I got it. I started singing the song, ‘Bam bam bam bam Bambai. Bambai hum ko jum gayi’! And then, no work for two years.” On a trip to his alma mater, he read a newspaper ad posted by director Dibakar Banerjee, who was “looking for newcomers for India’s first digital film”. Banerjee’s works had until then chiefly centred on characters from Delhi, which Rao felt he could crack. After going through three rounds of auditions, he “finally got that ‘call’ that everyone waits for” — in his case, to star in Love Sex Aur Dhokha (2010). In the anthology of short-films, with life-like, grainy camerawork, the characters reproduce such grimy realities of the street that they aren’t even supposed to come across as professional actors. Rao still doesn’t go unnoticed.
His breakthrough film, though — that brought him the audience’s undivided attention — was Abhishek Kapoor’s Kai Po Che (2013), based on Chetan Bhagat’s Three Mistakes Of My Life, a big-budget UTV production, then one of Bollywood’s top studios. Casting agent Mukesh Chhabra, entrusted with shortlisting the three male leads, zeroed in on Rao, Amit Sadh and Sushant Singh Rajput, all of whom earned a ticket to mainstream Bollywood through the critically acclaimed hit film.
Hydari had it relatively easy. Her ‘call’, she remembers, came soon after she moved to Mumbai, for Sudhir Mishra’s Yeh Saali Zindagi (2011): “I was about to board a flight to Sri Lanka, and [casting agent] Shanoo Sharma called, asking me to get in touch with her as soon as I returned.” She did, but the part by then had already been taken. About a week later — “something in the universe must have shifted” — the offer resurfaced, she auditioned with her co-actor Arunoday Singh at Sharma’s office, met Mishra right after, and they were set to roll. Hydari has successfully played leading lady in a variety of mainstream films — pure masala (Boss, 2013), rom-com (London Paris New York, 2012), erotic thriller (Murder 3 , 2013) — ever since.
Both actors argue that the casting agent, a relatively new phenomenon in Bollywood, has changed the game for those like themselves. The agent has replaced the sleazebag producer, for one. And a proper screen test with an advertised casting call is the closest one can get to merit in a field where everything, including talent, is subjective. “The good thing was that the trend of [film-makers employing professional] casting directors had begun, when I was starting out. You knew whom to meet, show your work to and then audition for. I’m sure 10 or 20 years back, it would’ve been tough to meet directors and producers,” says Rao.
The other thing the two have in common, points out Hydari, is their love for cinema as a process and journey. “We really love working and discovering with a [good] director.” This is easily evidenced by the fact that she has shown up for relatively minor parts in a host of big films — Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar (2011), Abhishek Kapoor’s Fitoor (2016), Bejoy Nambiar’s Wazir (2016) and most recently, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat (2018) — chiefly for the film-makers helming them.
Rao, too, charted his course on the same principle, and it worked out well. Because of Kashyap’s Gangs Of Wasseypur 2, he says, he got Hansal Mehta’s Shahid, which won him the National Award for Best Actor. Shahid, in turn, helped him bag Kai Po Che: “It’s all connected.”
This chain-reaction eventually culminated in 2017, a milestone year in Rao’s career, throughout the whole of which he enthralled audiences in his expansive role (quite literally; he put on weight for it) as Subhash Chandra Bose in a nine-part biographical web series on the freedom-fighter. This, only a few months after he’d shed all his weight, with his ribcage showing, for Vikramaditya Motwane’s one-man, one-room experimental film, Trapped.
The don-with-swag-meets-meek-dude see-saw in Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s commercially successful Bareilly Ki Barfi got him immense fan-love. Besides, that is, the conscientious civil-servant Newton, in the sleeper hit film of the same name, whose theatrical release coincided with its announcement as India’s entry to the Oscars!
He began 2018 on an equally strong footing, with Mehta’s Omerta, playing the dreaded Pakistani terrorist of British descent, Umer Sheikh. “This year, I have four to five releases lined up as well. So, it’s fine, as long as I get to play different characters. The day it starts getting monotonous, I’ll stop.”
Was 2017 as spectacular for Hydari too? Oh, yes. She smashed an audition to join that exclusive pantheon of Mani Ratnam’s heroines, playing a vulnerable yet firm-footed young girl, in an abusive relationship with a hot-headed Air Force officer, in his large-scale romance Kaatru Veliyidai. Ratnam already has the self-confessed “director’s actor” onboard for his next, Chekka Chevantha Vaanam, due in 2019.
I wonder, could Rao be the next power surname in Bollywood? This set of Raos is all laughs about it. “Actually my Rao is very different from her Rao,” he jumps in. He was Rajkumar Yadav (still is, on his passport), when he entered films, but adopted Rao to avoid confusion with the other Yadavs (Raghubir, Rajpal, etc.) in the industry. Rao, he says, is a title given to his community in Haryana: “We are called Rao Sahibs. So, I thought I may as well keep that.” Likewise, Hydari carries her mother’s last name, which is also originally an honorary title bestowed on her maternal clan.
Well then, I’ll answer for them: I hope so. Because both these talents are swiftly heading where few, without Kapoor or Khan suffixed to their name, have been before. And we, the audiences, are better for it.
All the photos from Rajkummar Rao and Aditi Rao Hydari's first-ever photoshoot in ELLE's July 2018 issue:
Photographs: Tarun Khiwal
Styling: Rahul Vijay
Art Direction: Mrudul Pathak Kundu
Hair (Rajkummar Rao): Vijay Pandurang Raskar
Make-Up (Rajkummar Rao): Nitin Purohit
Hair and Make-Up (Aditi Rao Hydari): Elton Fernandez/Inega Model Management
Assisted by: Divya Gursahani, Pujarini Ghosh, Vedika Chotirmall And Stacey Cardoz (Styling), Abhishek Verma And Antony K Joseph (Photography)