Rajpal Yadav has never looked back ever since he made his debut with Ram Gopal Varma’s Jungle in 2000. Over the last couple of decades, he has managed to carve a niche for himself as a bankable character actor.
His unique comic timing has always been an added advantage. Last year in November he got embroiled in a legal hassle and had to spend three months in prison. But the ordeal has only made him stronger. Today he is more committed to his craft than ever, as evident from the impressive lineup of films scheduled for release.
In this interview, he talks about his acting journey from Shahjahanpur to Mumbai, his new youth-centric initiative called Rajpal Ki Paathshala, changing trends in Hindi cinema and his upcoming projects.
A lot of young actors from the Hindi belt talk about how your success greatly influenced them. What motivated you to undertake the journey from Shahjahanpur to the Mumbai film industry?
After doing 10 years of theatre in Shahjahanpur and five years of training (two years at Bhartendu Natya Academy in Lucknow and then three years at National School of Drama in Delhi) I finally mustered the courage to travel to Mumbai.
Right from the time I was in Class 3, I was an active participant in school functions. From Class 9 onwards, I forayed into proper theatre. While I was growing up, we would have a fair in our village once a year during which Tapra Talkies (rural makeshift tent theatres) would screen movies. I remember I was once watching a film in a Tapra starring Amitabh Bachchan. I was absolutely mesmerised by his screen presence. It was then that I wondered what would I do to look so grand on the big screen.
Being short-built, I was determined that what I lacked in terms of height I would compensate through my fighting spirit. Among the many things that gave me inspiration was how bravely Sachin Tendulkar would face a tall fast bowler like McGrath. I was a big fan of his timing. At the end of the day, you just cannot win on the basis of physical strength alone. You must also have a strong mind. If the timing is right you can hit a boundary but if it’s wrong, you are bound to get out regardless of how strongly you hit the ball.
Then later on when I moved to Lucknow I watched a film called The Great Dictator, starring Charlie Chaplin. After watching it, I realised where I stood as an actor. All the illusions were broken. It occurred to me that great artists like Chaplin have already achieved so much. In a way, the realisation also made me feel a bit relaxed. But from that day onwards I started working more seriously on my craft.
Hindi cinema in recent times has changed a lot. Films no longer rely on specialist comedians. How do you see this transition?
Change is the only constant. But I don’t think that any actor of today can replace artists such as Kadar Khan, Mehmood, Jagdeep, or Johnny Lever. Our cinema stands on the foundations laid down by all these people as well as the likes of Dilip Sahab, Rajesh Khanna and Sanjeev Kumar, among others. Can anyone possibly forget Raj Kapoor’s cinema?
Today the world is connected by the internet, and through social media, you can send a message across the seven seas in no time. But these legends enjoyed a global following long before the days of social media. Even if someone works ten times as much even then they cannot hope to make people forget their predecessors who are the real reason why our cinema has reached where it has reached today. Earlier we used to primarily have tragic films and so the role of the comedian was to provide some comic relief but today it all boils down to entertainment. Everyone in the star cast, whether lead or supporting, is supposed to entertain the audience. That’s why today the concept is the real hero and every actor is an entertainer. So, the change should be welcomed but we must not forget our roots.
How do you choose your roles? How do you go about preparing your characters? Also, tell us about your approach to acting
I don’t pay much heed to the length of the character in the movie. What I look for is the strength. The idea is to be able to communicate it to the audience in an entertaining way. And in that, if I can make them laugh then it’s really an added bonus. Acting is all about self-confidence, sacrifice, and hard work. The better you are at choosing the characters the better you will be able to do justice to them. So, it’s important for me to be able to identify with the character. I don’t take up a character unless I am able to fully fathom it.
How important is it for actors to evolve with time and choose roles that not only suit their age but also the audience’s taste?
I think it is very important because you cannot really fool with your outer appearance. Ageing is a natural process and an actor must respect that and choose his/her roles accordingly. In the journey called life, you find a new road at every corner and all roads look the same and so a lot depends on chances also. But the key is to keep on honing your skills. Just like a doctor cannot hope to prescribe the same medicine again and again, an actor too cannot afford to stay the same. It is very important to constantly evolve as only then can you keep on meeting the audience’s expectations. Now, I played a dacoit in my first film Jungle. It was a huge success and everybody praised my performance. And yet I have consciously made an effort of not repeating it in the 200 odd films that I have done after Jungle over the last two decades.
Typecasting is a major concern with a lot of actors. How can an actor avoid being typecast?
Whether you are 18 or 80 you must remember that every new role that you take up –you must start from scratch. It’s like a cricket match. Every time, you have to start your innings from 0. You cannot allow yourself to get fixated to a certain gesture or trait. Even if you get a similar character to the one you have done earlier, you can still work towards changing its mentality and that requires a lot of homework on your part as an actor. In fact, if the director wants you to replicate something you have done before then also you can show some new aspect that was note there in the earlier character.
You had to go through a very difficult phase last year when you had to spend time in jail. How was it like to suddenly go through something like that? How did you motivate yourself while in jail?
Right from the time when I was 8 years old I had to earn money in order to buy my books. Today it’s called child labour, but at the time I wasn’t even aware of the term. I wasn’t afraid of doing hard work then and I am not afraid of doing hard work now. When a person leaves this world, everything stays behind other than the person’s good deeds. The only thing that I like to steal is people’s hearts. So, during the time I spent in jail, I continued to steal people’s hearts. I got the opportunity to conduct interactive sessions with other inmates. I like to call it Rajpal Ki Paathshala. And now that I am out I plan to take the idea to the youth all across the country. I would consider myself really fortunate if I can motivate them and bring a positive change in their lives. I hope to continue with the initiative for the rest of my life.
Tell us about your upcoming projects.
My upcoming projects include the remake of Coolie with Varun Dhawan, Bole Chudiyan alongside Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Tamannaah, Jaako Rakhe Saaiyan with Arjun Rampal. Then I am playing the titular character in Rajat Mukherjee’s Maavan. Also, there are a few other projects in the pipeline.