When Ranveer Singh — one of Bollywood’s most flamboyant and kooky actors — claims he’s an introvert, you take his remark with a pinch of salt.
“It’s something I don’t like to project or present in any kind of social scenario or public platform,” said Singh in an exclusive interview over the phone from Mumbai.
“That side of me is reserved only for those who are near and dear to me. My family, my wife and my closest friends know that it’s a real, authentic side to me,” he added.
His extravagant showmanship and glitzy, furry costumes may put the late American pianist Liberace to shame, but this outlandish talent claims he wears his “entertainer persona” like a cloak.
“I seem to get some security out of it. It’s a weird defence mechanism. But [director] Zoya [Akthar’s] film allows me to explore that [shy] side.”
In the rap-to-riches Hindi movie ‘Gully Boy’ — out in the UAE on February 14 — Singh plays Murad, an underdog who becomes a breakout rapper from the slums of Mumbai. The film, which premiered at the ongoing Berlin Film Festival, opened to deafening cheers and stellar reviews that singled out Singh’s unvarnished, gritty performance.
“Zoya’s nurturing attitude towards me allowed me to represent that authentic, personal side to myself... The most amazing part of this story is that it’s about a kid who is finding himself and what he wants to do with his life. Everybody is faced with that thought at some point in their lives.”
‘Gully Boy’ also stars Bollywood’s woman-of-the-moment Alia Bhatt, who plays a feisty medical student born into a conservative Muslim household, and who has a complication connection with Murad. Perhaps for the first time in a Bollywood film, Akhtar explores ambition and angst set against the backdrop of India’s burgeoning hip-hop scene in Mumbai’s underbelly.
“‘Gully Boy’ is about the pursuit of passion and choosing the difficult path where the reward is your biggest take away... Whatever tussles I had in my family life when I tried to find my passion as an actor is something that I tapped into while trying to construct my character.”
He describe’ ‘Gully Boy’ — inspired by the lives of real-life musicians Divine and Naezy — as a “beautiful underdog story”.
“Zoya is one of the finest filmmakers in our country and she’s one director who manages to rein me in. It’s the journey of a kid who is just finding his voice and ways to express himself. He’s quiet, he is an introvert and is almost voiceless until he finds the courage to express himself... I am not driving any of the scenes here. I am simply reacting and people around me are doing the acting.”
A similar approach where Singh held back and exercised restraint on the big screen was his turn in director Vikramaditya Motwane’s period film ‘Lootera’, in which he played a con man.
Singh, 33, is the perfect antidote to the nepotism debate raging in Bollywood. He’s the quintessential outsider who wasn’t born into an acting dynasty boasting famous actor-relatives and earned his stripes through his blazing talent and personality alone. His wealthy entrepreneur parents may have made his passage easier, but his stratospheric success can only be attributed to his bold career choices. Be it playing a bestial invader in the controversial epic ‘Padmaavat’ or a cheeky corrupt cop in the recent blockbuster ‘Simmba’, which earned over Rs2.3 billion (Dh118.52 million) at the box office, Singh is fast becoming infallible.
So how was the experience of playing a rapper?
“It was cathartic... ‘Gully Boy’ freed the rapper trapped inside my body... Hip-hop is the most streamed music in the world and is widely subscribed by the youth culture. The youth is able to relate to rap and hip-hop if the content is relatable and reflects the stuff that’s happening around their society... Rap is like samachar [news] from the streets.”
Singh, who recently married Bollywood A-lister Deepika Padukone in Italy, never lets us forget his penchant for rapping or rhyming. For instance, during several interviews in the past, Singh greeted this journalist by singing aloud a jingle that rhymed with her name.
It doesn’t always land, but it’s an effective ice breaker.
Singh also remembers a time when he worked as a copywriter in an advertisement agency and earned the reputation of being the go-to guy for rhyming jingles or tag lines.
“This film acted as a catalyst in me discovering my musicality, myself and those thoughts inside galvanised into action. I want to take music forward in my career. For Gully Boy, I have rapped what other people have written … Over a period of time, I will have my own bank of verses. I have found my flow.”
Singh claims he has been into rap since childhood. His cousin from America, who was armed with Tupac Shakur’s cassettes, acquainted him with the genre.
“I started off with mainstream rappers like MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice and gradually moved to more hardcore rap... That kind of stuff blew my mind. The themes were well beyond my years, but I thought it was somebody who was authentically expressing themselves through their music. It felt real and palpable... I even dressed like them. I wore baggy jeans and my friends called me Yo Yo Singh in school.”
He gravitated toward rap for its authenticity, and hopes that ‘Gully Boy’ will have that same sincere pull as Bollywood’s landscape shifts. 2018 was a year which saw hyped, star-driven films (Shah Rukh Khan’s ‘Zero’, Aamir Khan’s ‘Thugs Of Hindostan’ and Salman Khan’s ‘Race’) flop as content-rich films (‘Andhadhun’ and ‘Badhaai Ho!’) took the spotlight and earned a place in people’s hearts.
“It’s a level playing field now... The onus is now on the creators of content to pull up their socks. Films that had so much hype were instantly rejected... There has to be authenticity and genuine entertainment value in what we present... Let me put it this way: the audiences won’t be fooled anymore.”
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‘Gully Boy’ is out in the UAE on February 14.