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In his latest Hindi-language biopic ‘Srikanth’, National Award-winning Indian actor Rajkummar Rao brings to life the stirring tale of a blind industrialist who didn’t let his disability define his existence. Srikanth Bolla, who was born poor but went on to study at Massachusetts Institute Of Technology in the United States, built a company worth Dh220 million dirhams in South India. He also famously sued an Indian state when they told him it was illegal to study Maths or Science at his secondary school because he was blind. His eventful and inspiring life is now a Bollywood film with Rao playing the central character.

Rao’s credo is simple. Differently-abled individuals don’t need our sympathy but want opportunities in life to join mainstream society.

“Helping a visually-impaired person to cross the road isn’t good karma. That’s not what they need because they are trained to do that on their own. They need opportunities,” said Rajkummar Rao in an interview with Gulf News.

Rajkummar Rao plays Srikanth Bolla in his new biopic

This self-made actor, who made his mark in films like "Kai Po Che!", "Shahid", and "Newton", is known for his ability to delve into complex characters with depth and authenticity.

“I'm an artist who's hungry. I don't want to put myself in a comfort zone and do all those things where it would be easy. I want to push those boundaries, limits and do something that surprises me,” he added. Ahead of the release of ‘Srikanth’ in the UAE on May 10, we caught up with Rao to find out more about his new film, the biggest challenges attached to playing a differently-abled man, and more….

Why should we watch the film ‘Srikanth’?

Watch this one for a great inspiring story because when I read the script and I got to know about Srikanth, I was absolutely moved. I'm somebody who's always looking for inspiration around me and he inspires me. In the day and time we are living in, we want such kind of inspiration from outside to push us to do better things in life and to grow bigger. Srikanth does that for you.

srikanth bolla
A picture of real-life Srikanth Bolla, on whom Rajkummar Rao's biopic is based on.

The trailers indicate that your character does not want to be defined by his disability and is trying to rise out of it… He doesn’t want your sympathy either. Is that what you want the viewers to take away from it as well?

Absolutely. When I met Srikanth and many other visually impaired people during my preparation for my role, that’s exactly what I figured out. They don't need our sympathy, but what they need is opportunity and what they need is our respect. Remember, they are capable of doing everything that we all do. When I met Srikanth, I was impressed by his confidence and his full-of-life persona. Plus, he’s so witty and you don’t get that feeling of him being this “bechara” [victim] when you meet him. He has achieved so much in life that he’s no bechara.

‘Srikanth’ is also a movie about the triumph of the human spirit, but such underdog tales tend to become didactic in Bollywood and is reduced to some boring morality tale. Were you worried about that?

As a director, Tushar [Hiranandani], is a capable and a very intelligent filmmaker. When it came to writing, we wanted Srikanth to be very human and flawed. Not everybody is a good boy with no flaws. This movie does not intend to showcase Srikanth as this perfect man. But let’s not discount the fact that what he has done in life is very inspiring. We were careful we didn’t want the tone of this film to be preachy. We just wanted to project a story that’s close to his reality. We were moved just by listening to his story and we want that same feeling communicated through our movie too.

Rajkummar Rao and Jyothika in 'Srikanth', out in UAE cinemas on May 10

The movie also touches upon how India or several countries are not entirely supportive towards the differently-abled… There’s a telling scene in the trailer where he’s not allowed to fly to Boston to attend his MIT course because the blind cannot travel unaccompanied…

Absolutely… Things have changed now. 15 years ago when Srikanth faced those challenges, it was a different time. It’s slightly better than what it was back then. There’s a lot we can do as a country for the disabled people. Back then, things were so different and tough for people with disabilities at that point in time.

How did you go about preparing to play a visually-impaired person because it’s a reality that’s alien to you…

I was very scared because I wanted my portrayal to be convincing and truthful and I knew I had to do a lot of preparation for this film. A lot of homework was needed and it began by me visiting blind schools. I spent time with visually impaired people there and spent hours sitting beside them and talking about their life. I observed them quietly, learning their mannerisms and their body language. After that, I started spending time with Srikanth because I knew I was living his life on the big screen. I got to learn from him. I recorded his life for hours and would go over it, again and again when I was back home. This role was a big challenge and I didn’t want it to go wrong because you don’t get this opportunity again and again to play somebody like Srikanth.

This could be your career-defining role… Do you get attached to stories like these?

I think this is who I am. Inherently, these stories attract me a lot. While I may end up doing films like ‘Baraielly Ki Barfi’, ‘Ludo’, ‘Sthree’ – fun movies – my heart gravitates towards stories and biopics like ‘Shahid’, ‘Trapped’, or ‘Newton’. Biopics are my favourite genre, followed by drama.

Aamir Khan’s hit song ‘Papa Kehte Hain’ makes a resounding comeback in this film… As an 80s kid who invariably sought parents’ approval and validation, this song still holds sway… Do you think, all Indian kids ultimately are conditioned to want their parents’ approval…

We all want our parents to be proud of us. We all works towards that. Srikanth was born so poor and he wanted to do so much for his parents and take them out of that impoverished life. He wanted to give them a better life. For him, this song was like his mantra and his parents were always proud of him. His father always wanted him to do better things in life. This song fits in so well because Srikanth is somebody who made his parents very proud.

Rajkummar Rao says he interacted with dozens of visually-impaired individuals to understand his character better

Are you in  a good space as an actor…

Honestly, no. I don’t sit back and think like that. I just enjoy working a lot and it’s something that gives me a lot of peace and happiness. I wanted to be an actor for myself and not to prove a point to anyone. Acting makes me the happiest. All I do is spend time with my loved ones and be on a film set. But I don’t think about what I have achieved in life or where I will be in the next five years. I live in the moment and I cherish that.

How important are reviews and word-of-mouth in today’s entertainment scene?

Reviews are very important and word-of-mouth is the biggest promotional campaign that anyone can do. I can do thousands of interviews and travel to thousands of cities, but nothing matters if the film is not good. For a mid-budget film like ours with great intention and a beautiful story, word-of-mouth becomes important and helpful. I am hopeful that we get great reviews for ‘Srikanth’ because it’s an important story. If such films don’t work, it’s troublesome for our industry because no one will invest in such stories… Remember, you are not going to see ‘Srikanth’ because it’s a film about a visually-impaired boy, you are going to see it because it’s a story of great achievement. It’s a triumph of life and he just happens to be visually-impaired. We don’t want you to pity Srikanth, he’s way bigger than that.