In As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII Shakespeare talks about the world being a stage, and all men and women merely players. This unassumingly simple idea may actually have two different perspectives – one for the audience and one for the actor. For the audience, it would resonate with the myriad of duties that they might have being a son, a father, a friend and so on. However, for the actor, it lends a very different meaning. For him, the world is not reality. It is a set where every person is a character who has to act a certain way depending on what ‘set’ he/she is in. He wears many faces and behaves as the situation requires. It is these subtle nuances that define an individual’s personality. Perhaps, this is the whole idea behind ‘Method Acting’ – breaking down a real-life character into a set of mannerisms defined by his motivations in his time and life.
Also read: Daniel Day Lewis – Biography
It is hardly a secret that Bollywood’s newest poster-boy Rajkummar Rao is heavily inspired by the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis. Lewis who wrote the book on Method Acting and counts several biopics in his illustrious career such as My Left Foot (1989) where he played Irish artist Christy Brown earning him his very first Oscar, In the name of the father (1993) where he played Gerry Conlon who struggled his wrongful conviction for 15 years and the more recent Lincoln (2013) based on the life of one of the most influential presidents in American History Abraham Lincoln. Early on in his career, Rajkummar Rao seems to have followed his footsteps in a way having associated himself with projects like Hansal Mehta’s Shahid (2013) based on the life of lawyer and activist Shahid Azmi who was brutally assassinated in Mumbai in 2010. He also played a pivotal role in Mehta’s Aligarh (2016) as a crack journalist who helped Manoj Bajpayee’s character Ramchandra Siras when he was suspended from Aligarh Muslim University on ‘moral grounds’. Rao has also portrayed Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose in a dramatized biopic series by AltBalaji called Bose : Dead / Alive, adapated from the book – “India’s Biggest Cover-up” by Anuj Dhar.
After Rao’s performance in Mehta’s earlier biopics, it was not a surprise that he was chosen for Omertà as well. Based on the life of a terror strategist Ahmed Omar Said Sheikh, Omertà was not exactly a dream project any actor would want to associate himself with. It was unlike anything that even Rao had done before. There is no gratification, pride or inspiration in playing a character who was instrumental in some of the most heinous terror attacks in history. So why did Rajkummar Rao play such a character ? Method acting is actually a misnomer of sorts, given that it is not as methodical as you might think it to be. When an actor plays a fictional character, he is apprised with a rough vision of the director but then he is also allowed to take creative liberties with the character to make it his own. However, while playing a real life character, an actor needs to be very aware and conscious of what he is doing. He has to imbibe the person he is playing, into him by studying his mannerisms, reading about him or listening to him. This doesn’t necessarily mean that method acting can be done with non-fictional characters only but coming to biopics, it becomes an essential ingredient. Omertà is a project which would require Rao to become Omar, against his own moral structure, against his own ideals as a person. He would need to change his own worldview to Omar’s worldview so that he can make his actions convincing to himself and to the audience. The inherent challenge of the whole ordeal is appealing enough for an ardent Method actor to accept this role.
Omertà is a project which would require Rao to become Omar, against his own moral structure, against his own ideals as a person. He would need to change his own worldview to Omar’s worldview so that he can make his actions convincing to himself and to the audience. The inherent challenge of the whole ordeal is appealing enough for an ardent Method actor to accept this role.
Interestingly, in one of his interviews Rao talks about how he prepared himself before he could don Omar’s garb. He would research about terrorist attacks, beheadings and about the atrocities that the west perpetrated on Syria. If you wanted to portray a young, well-educated British Muslim boy who is deeply distressed with how his Muslim brothers and sisters were suffering around the world, you are wont to try and understand his motivation behind leaving a cozy life and going to Pakistan to join a terrorist outfit. Rao mentioned how he almost got arrested in Heathrow. For the shoot, he was required to keep a full beard and incidentally had a lot of disturbing videos on his phone. If he had been detained and if they had checked his phone, they would have found a man who was actively studying terrorist events and may even be a radical. Luckily he was not, albeit he did have to convince him that he was an Indian actor and had come for a shoot (no pun intended). He even had to show them a poster of the film.
Hansal Mehta’s biopic takes you through a crash-course journey of a man who was one of the masterminds behind 9/11 and the attack on the Taj hotel in Mumbai. He was also the one behind the brutal beheading of Washington Post journalist Daniel Pearl. Despite the intriguing premise of a young man transforming into a terrorist mastermind, the film carried itself only on Rao’s able shoulders. The screenplay lacked fluidity and it felt like a montage of a set of disjointed videos and pictures that were trying to tell a story. The first act of the film is designed for you to understand Omar’s hatred of the west and Mehta drives it through using actual pictures from the 1995 Bosnian genocide where no less than 8000 Bosnian muslims were slaughtered. The second act subverts your empathy towards Omar by turning him into a monster, especially through a highly distressing scene where he takes his time to saw through Daniel Pearl’s head !
Rao as Omar is a highly sophisticated version of a turban-clad warmonger. He blends in easily in elite circles and can sweet-talk you into befriending him. He is fearless and highly-driven in his objective to destroy the western establishment. While being escorted by the police before his sentence in Pakistan’s Hyderabad prison, you see a smug smile on his face as he faces the hordes of journalists. You are inadvertently reminded of a quote by Alfred from The Dark Knight – “Some people like to watch the world burn.” and you think to himself, this is that man.
Check out this video where Rao talks about some of his favourite Method Actors and Biopics:
In a chat with the SnG Comedy team, Rao was asked that if a biopic were made on him, who would he want to play his character, to which he answered that he would want Ranbir Kapoor to play him. Interestingly, Ranbir is coming up with his own dramatized biopic in Raju Hirani’s Sanju. I think this is a just a beginning for a wave of biopics in India. There are so many influential characters whose stories we barely know. It’s about time we brought them forward to the big screen as truthfully as we can.