He has delivered some of the most momentous films of the last decade. From Love, Sex Aur Dhoka to Omerta, Rajkummar Rao’s growth trajectory, spanning 10 years and 35 films, has been rather astounding. An alumnus of the Film and Television Institute of India, the actor is an inspiration to all young, aspiring actors looking to make it big in the industry. Here’s my ranking of the 11 best performances from Rajkummar Rao. It’s been my toughest list to rank, thus far:
11. Stree (2018)
Otherwise known for his rather art-house, non-glam cinema, Rao is known to frequently experiment with commercial cinema, and the results are absolutely fantastic. One such film is Stree, that blends comedy with horror, creating a rare concoction of genres. Rao makes the film so much of his own, that after a point it becomes impossible to envision anyone else playing the role of Vicky, the carefree protagonist who goes on to solve the mystery of the ‘stree’ figure. The film is based on the Bangalore urban legend by the name of Nale Ba (which means ‘come tomorrow’), revolving around a ghost woman who knocks at people’s doors at night. Managing to make a plot funny, yet inciting scares while managing to fit in the classic Bollywood item number, all at the same time, it would be an understatement to say that Rao delivers this one powerfully.
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10. Queen (2013)
Directed by Vikas Bahl, this film follows the journey of a girl from Delhi who decides to go on her honeymoon all by herself upon the cancellation of her marriage. Although it stars Rao in a supporting role, the film revolves around an act he commits, that is abandon his bride, played by Kangana Ranaut. Even in that limited space, Rao goes on to prove his mettle as an actor. The pairing in the film later starred in Judgemental Hai Kya which was subject to a lot of controversy.
Queen won Bahl and Ranaut a National Award each, along with several other awards.
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9. Kai Po Che (2013)
Based on Chetan Bhagat’s novel The Three Mistakes of My Life, this film follows three friends into their adventures pertaining to the world of politics and business. Mingling the backdrop of Godhra riots with the innocent business plans and promises made between the three friends hailing from different backgrounds, the film goes on to show the stark realities that cause things to turn sour in the realm of relationships. Starring Rao alongside the likes of Sushant Singh Rajput, Amit Sadh and Amrita Puri in lead roles, the film portrays Rao as a shy Govind, the only boy in the story to have a love story around his character. It’s only later we find out how and why that love story is absolutely pivotal to the plot.
After a remarkabe debut with Love Sex aur Dhokha, Kai Po Che further reinstated Rao’s position In the industry. [Related: Dibakar Banerjee’s 5 Best Movies, Ranked]
All in all, director Abhishek Kapoor’s second outing proves to be a treat for film lovers, for its emotionality and candour. Dealing with the struggles of friendships in terms of its thematics, the film is a sensitive portrayal of all that could go wrong or right when it comes to human companionship. It premiered at the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival, then the first ever Indian film to feature in the World Panorama section.
8. CityLights (2014)
Citylights follows the story of a farmer from Rajasthan, who, upon migrating to the city of dreams realises its brutal, heartless nature. Directed by Hansal Mehta, the film is a remake of the BAFTA nominated Sean Ellis’ British film Metro Manila (2013). Scoring high in the film throughout, Rajkummar Rao delivers a pitch perfect performance as Deepak Singh. In a true-to-life narrative that thrives on the poignancy of the many tragedies associated with human nature and its extremities, he is flawless as the protagonist who leads the film. Supporting him is Patralekha, in the role of his wife. While both our actors more than deliver, the story doesn’t quite have enough to hold you through. Yet, it can easily be counted among Rao’s best performances. Special mention to Manav Kaul for a brief but stunningly impactful performance.
7. Bareilly ki Barfi (2017)
Another Rajkumar Rao film that blended the commercial with the artistic, this film featured him in the role of a secretive matchmaker. With the story centering around real middle-class people, lacking the glitz and glamour of Bollywood, the film succeeds due to its charming characters. Starring Ayushmann Khurrana and Kriti Sanon alongwith Rao in the lead roles, this film follows what seems like a love triangle between three people, but reveals to be something entirely different. The Ashvini Iyer Tiwari directorial is beautiful because it is simplistic in its construction as well as approach towards its characters. Rao, in the role of Pritam Vidrohi, shines as the person who brings the couple together by pretending to be a roadblock.
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6. Trapped (2016)
With a self revealing title, this film stars Rao in the role of a call centre employee who gets trapped inside an apartment without no resources for survival. The film was shot in an apartment in Prabhadevi, Mumbai over a period of 20 days. With Rao taking up most of the screen-time, the film relies heavily on his performance for its critical success. While director Vikramaditya Motwane’s sheer brilliance lies in his ability to turn the familiar into gory, it is Rao who gets into the skin of his character to reveal the human desire for survival in its rawest form. Capturing the pure claustrophobia of a survival-based existence, Rao’s Shaurya is truly worth the ‘shaurya’ it garnered. Trapped premiered to a standing ovation at the Mumbai Film Festival.
Watch Trapped on Amazon Prime
5. Omerta (2017)
It is a truth universally acknowledged that for any actor, delivering impressionable and impressive performances is the sole aim, and Rajkumar Rao aces his aim time after time. His latest OTT release Omerta is a riveting experience that captures the 1994 kidnappings of Westerners in India wherein a terrorist named Omar was convicted. Director Hansal Mehta and Rao have collaborated in the past over films like Shahid and Aligarh, both of which are nothing short of exemplary. Delivering a performance so utterly convincing, Rao warps into the character of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh. He renders the already known factual realities with perfection, allowing the action to unfold with fluidity and ease. Out of the many film festivals it was screened at, the most noteworthy is the Busan International Film Festival.
4. Love Sex aur Dhokha (2013)
Marking his debut in the film industry, this film cemented Rao’s place in the landscape of Indian cinema. His stellar performance coupled with the film’s unique storyline created a lethal combination. Blending art and mainstream, Rao’s portrayal set him apart from the very start of his career. Centering around themes like voyeurism in the Indian context, the film braids together three stories that seem unrelated but have a deeper link. Being a film that is meant to be savoured in the connotative sense of the word, it provided the perfect debut space to Rao, allowing him to emerge as a bankable actor. Besides its flawless performances, it garnered acclaim for its technicalities, winning 2 National Awards, for Editing and Sound Design, respectively.
3. Aligarh (2015)
Marking Rajkummar Rao and Hansal Mehta’s finest collaboration, Aligarh draws from 64-year-old Professor Siras who came to be suspended by AMU for being a homosexual. Despite starring alongside acting heavyweight like Manoj Bajpayee, Rao gives the film its teeth. Rao plays a journalist who is pivotal in Siras’ release in this biographical drama. He provides us a window into Siras’ emotional world. It is through Rao’s character that we come to experience the story. The film premiered to a standing ovation at the 20th Busan International Film Festival.
2. Shahid (2012)
The third Hansal Mehta directorial on the list has Rao essay the role of human rights lawyer Shahid Azmi. Slipping into the skin of a real-life character with conviction, he captures the nuances of the story with candour. While the film is innately humane, it is undoubtedly rendered so by the performances. Also featuring Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Kay Kay Menon, the film packs some of the most brilliant performances of the last decade.
Shahid premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. Travelling across festivals and winning several accolades, the film is particularly significant in Rao’s career. It won him a National Award for Best Actor. Shahid also won Hansal Mehta a National Award for Best Director.
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1. Newton (2017)
This dark comedy follows Rajkumar Rao’s character into the forests (literally and metaphorically) of a corrupted system, wherein he has to find his own way to thrive. As he morphs into Nutan (Newton), the man who, despite his modest job as a government clerk, has the vision to change the system, Rajkumar delivers one of his finest performances. Supported by the likes of Pankaj Tripathi and Raghubir Yadav, Rao becomes part of the film’s universe with effective ease.
It brings out the humour and the poignancy behind the blind ambition to conduct fair elections in a naxal area. Newton succeeds on both levels and intersperses the comedic with the tragic. Travelling that kind of dynamic range within the ambit of one film itself, Rao is beyond magical in his portrayal. Besides the performances, credit is also due to director Amit V. Masurkar for spectacular storytelling.
The film premiered in the Forum section of the Berlin International Film Festival. Besides being selected as the Indian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, the film went on to win the National Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi. It also won Rajkumar Rao several awards for his exemplary performance.
Watch Newton on Amazon Prime
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When we talk of a man of the greatness that Rao possesses, there is never an exhaustive list of films. This is our attempt at handpicking the best ones out of the lot. His other noteworthy films include Gangs of Wasseypur, Made in China, Talaash, Shaitaan and Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga. With an oeuvre spanning most of last decade, not only has the man come to define our film tastes, but has effectively radicalised the audiences into believing in the power of a good story over anything else.
What do you think about my ranking? How would you rate his best performances/movies Tell us your rankings in the comments below!
By Sanghmitra Jethwani