By Divya Unny
Five years ago when Ranveer Singh made his debut in Hindi films, his story seemed too good to be true. He was an average-looking Bombay boy with no industry connections being launched by one of India's biggest production houses.
As the loud-mouthed, over-ambitious Dilli da munda in Band Baaja Baaraat, he became a household name almost overnight. He was nothing like the conventional Hindi film hero. He did not come with a famous surname, did not flash a six- pack and did not even say the 'right' things as the new kid on the block. Many called it a stroke of luck. Despite a brutally honest effort by a newcomer, he was deemed a one-film wonder. "'He's got potential, but won't last,' is what I heard too many people around me say," reveals Ranveer Singh.
Today, as he discusses the response to his latest film Bajirao Mastani with his studio boss over the phone, there's a sense of achievement in his voice. We hear bouts of king-like laughter from the inside room of the five-star suite at Sun-n-Sand Hotel in Juhu, Mumbai. "I'm so sorry to make you wait. Did you hear my conversation in there?" he asks, sounding a little embarrassed. As we assure him that it was only his uproarious laugh that made it to our ears, he seems relieved. His spontaneity is refreshing. It has always been. It makes him unpredictable.
Twiddling with the cushions next to him, Ranveer is still trying to process the response to Bajirao Mastani. In a lemon green T-shirt, trousers and a hat, coupled with Bajirao's traditional moustache, something makes him look like he belongs to another time. "I shot this film for over 200 days. That's a lot of time in Bajirao's world, being him, thinking like him, breathing his air. It's not going to be erased that soon," he says.
It's undoubtedly the role of a lifetime for Ranveer. With expressive body language, flawless Marathi diction and the right amount of swag and valour required to play one of India's greatest warriors, the actor draws us in from the minute Peshwa Bajirao's name is called out in the king's darbaar. His eyes gleamed with passion for his kingdom and the women in his life. His voice trembled as a helpless lover and surged as an indomitable warrior on the battlefield. There's a manic energy in Ranveer which he translated beautifully onto screen to portray the Peshwa's despair in his last days. For someone who mostly played urban roles, jumping around in his jeans (or dhoti in Ram-Leela), wooing too many women around him, this was by no means easy to achieve.
"They say you can never give away too much of yourself to a role, but at one point I thought I was going to lose myself completely to Bajirao," he says, "I was suffering both emotionally and physically, and I thought I would never make it to the end of this film. I had injured my shoulder and I had to rehearse for my fight sequences. I know it's my job as an actor to put in that kind of effort, but this film taught me that for an actor, effort is limitless." The film has taken in over Rs 170 crore at the domestic box office in two weeks, and is being lauded well over Shah Rukh Khan's Dilwale, which released the same day.
Ranveer is happy beyond expression, but also a bit nervous about having to watch the film with his mother this very evening. "I don't know how I'm going to watch it with her. She saw me die in Ram-Leela and then Lootera and now this. It's a very difficult experience for her," he says with an innocent smile.
It's what's most appealing about Ranveer. On the onset, he may come across like this hyper human trying to please and entertain everyone around, but an emotional mama's boy begins to emerge from deep within. It's perhaps what got him to do what he does best in the first place. "I don't know how it happened, but I think I was a born actor. I always had too many emotions I was juggling at any given point and I would always look for channels to streamline them. I wasn't an extraordinary sportsman or particularly great at academics, but on our annual day, I used to shine."
When his friends would be busy playing cricket in the evenings, he'd be listening to music or watching a new film. "I'd play the lead in all the plays and I would win debates, dramas, elocutions. I was always at the forefront of it, and very early in life I got validation about the fact that I was a good performer. My teachers and friends would constantly push me to pursue it."
It was at the age of 18, when he was studying in Indiana University, that Ranveer got the experience that would shape the performer in him significantly. He learnt how to put up a play. He joined a bunch of students to put together large college productions for the town's residents. "Indiana University had the most powerful theatre faculty. Apart from being a college town, it was also a retirement town, and we would put up plays for the senior citizens residing there. I did lighting, production, acting, sound, everything possible. It was a whole new world for me," says Ranveer. However, though the Western form and method of storytelling was alluring, he was clear about making it big in Indian cinema. "I came back. I had immense clarity that I wanted to be an actor in mainstream Hindi films," he says with an emphasis on 'mainstream'. "I always wanted to be Rambo, Shahenshah, Toofan, Ajooba, Lakhan. I knew I'll do whatever the hell it [takes] to make it happen. I believed in my ability. I just didn't believe in my luck."
Like any newcomer who did not have a godfather in the business, Ranveer was confused at first. Unsolicited advice by a few industry insiders landed him at an acting school in Mumbai, which he now believes was a complete waste of time. "Somebody suggested, 'You are trained in Western drama, why don't you do something that's more rooted, more desi?' That became a very jaded experience, to be honest. I felt it was regressive, and I felt like they were propagating very loud acting; [while] the definition of acting in Hindi cinema was changing, they weren't evolving with the prevailing mood of acting."
It did not distract him from his core love of performance, however. Like any sincere struggler, he went from one production house to another with a flashy portfolio and a sense of confidence that refused to flag. "The three years I was struggling only increased my belief about what I wanted to do. Nine out of ten times, every audition I walked into, I would get a call back. Sometimes I went for auditions even though I knew I would never take up those parts just so I don't lose practice. I made sure people knew there was this new actor on the block looking for work and I'd just wait for that phone to ring."
He confesses that things often looked bleak to him. There were times he felt his ambition was never going to be achieved. "My chances were a million to one. I had no idea how to step foot into this nepotistic industry. All I knew was when I act, the audience loves it, and I just had that validation to ride on."
He was even offered a few films before Band Baaja Baaraat, but for some reason, he says, they never felt like the right fit. "Those films got made and got very successful and all the artists who did it are working today. But at that time, my gut told me that I should gamble and wait a bit longer. Something better was in store for me. And when I was called to test for Band Baaja Baaraat, I knew this was the most important audition of my life," says Ranveer, who was the first solo hero ever to be launched by Yash Raj Films.
It turned him into a star overnight. With Lootera and Ram-Leela on one hand, and a Westernised film like Dil Dhadakne Do on the other, in a short span of time, Ranveer proved that he was not just versatile but was the complete package that made for Bollywood stardom.
Ranveer believes he may not have handled his success very well, but is slowly coming to terms with it. "The fame, the glamour, the attention on my personal life, all of it is very easy to give in to. I remember a few days before I started shooting for my film Kill Dil, a very close friend of mine told me that my heart was not in it. He said I was speaking about my endorsements and my appearances more than my character and my scenes. That's when I realised how true he was. I completely cut myself from everything for a while because I had to remind myself why I got into acting in the first place." Drawn from that, he has advice for newcomers. "When I meet a new actor I now tell him to make sure he's in it for the right reasons."
The last couple of years, he observes, have been the most transformative for him as an actor. Films like Ram-Leela and Bajirao Mastani have helped him explore a side of him he did not know he had. "I don't believe that I have any boundaries, any restrictions or limitations," he says, "I have fallen more in love with acting and I have started to believe that the possibilities in the realm are endless. I have become obsessed with it."
Today, he is known as a man who can brighten up an entire room just by walking into it. He's probably the only Indian film star who can walk onto the streets of Mumbai in a superhero costume without any qualms (or an entourage for that matter). Many say it's an act he's putting up, and he doesn't disagree. "Maybe at some level I'm making it all up. I'm protecting myself by putting up a face to the world. But the fact is I genuinely enjoy putting up a show."
Naseeruddin Shah once told him that if the world was a stage and life was a drama, "You, my friend, will be the fool." Laughs Ranveer, "I have no interest in being the king. I'm happy being the jester!"
It's tough to believe, but Ranveer's ideal day is one in which he shoots for 12 hours, goes back to some daal chaawal at home, and gets a good night's sleep. We guess he leaves the rest of it to the screen.
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