One fateful morning, around two-and-a-half decades ago, Saurabh Shukla walked into my room with train tickets in his hands. We both were studying at the National School of Drama. ‘Do you know that Frontier Express will leave for Mumbai at 2:20pm today?’ he told me. ‘It does so every day. What’s special about today?’ I replied. ‘You are boarding it with me,’ he said,” reminisces Rajesh Jais, the now famous TV and film actor.
Jais was hesitant, but nevertheless boarded the train with Shukla. Today, he is happy that he listened to his friend. It was for a small role in a TV serial, which paved the way for a successful career. Apart from TV serials Shanti, Sorry Meri Lorry, Nazdeekiyan, Zanjeerain etc, Jais also did hit movies Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, Airlift, Tashan, Joggers’ Park, Raazi, Why Cheat India, Indoo Ki Jawani and Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety, etc. In his upcoming release, Ruhi Afza, he plays Jahnvi Kapoor’s dad. At present, he is shooting in Pipariya town of Hoshangabad district, Madhya Pradesh, for Chhorii the remake of a Marathi horror flick, Lapachhapi.
Jais is multifaceted — he is a classical singer; was part of the NCC and Scouts & Guides; did aeromodelling, gliding and shooting; has an honorary doctorate in performing arts (from the National Virtual University for Peace and Education registered with Niti Aayog, Govt of India in association with UNO, Geneva); cleared the UGC’s NET fellowship for PhD and lecturer-ship in theatre; and was a journalist with Ranchi Express. Twice, he was selected as a Territorial Army lieutenant.
“After completing studies, , I was looking for a career option. Though acting was my first love, I had backup plans B, C, D, in place, in case I wasn’t successful as an actor. I had too much self-respect to go studio-hopping with a photo album in hand,” shares Jais, son of an IAF officer. Thankfully, his talent brought him enough work so he never had to studio-hop.
Jais started acting with theatre while doing his Bachelor’s at Ranchi’s Marwari College. After college, he joined NSD, completing the course with specialisation in acting in 1991. For a while, he taught theatre and performing arts. “My plan was to teach at Delhi University — I had cleared the NET entrance — and do theatre in the evenings. I even bought a piece of land in Noida to build my house. But god had other plans,” he avers.
He made his TV debut with Main Bhi Detective (Zee). “Manoj Bajpayee had the role, but he got a movie, and introduced me to director Adi Pocha. Two days later, I began shooting. Adi was also about to make the first daily soap, Shanti, and gave me my first major break — I played Nanu Jasoos in Shanti,” he says. After that, offers poured in for various roles which planted his feet firmly in the TV industry. Around 2015, he quit TV altogether — Shastri Sisters (2014) being his last serial. “I had got totally saturated, and moved to web series. I changed my look to reinvent myself, and likewise the characters I was offered also changed,” he says. “I have reached a stage where I can pick and choose what I want to do,” he says, contentedly.
OTT is the best market for everyone, he says. “It has fresh, different content, and unlike TV, there is no rush,” he says, adding that now the challenge for Indian filmmakers is to create content with a global appeal. “As viewers have access to international stuff, their expectations are sky high.”
Despite success in TV, films and OTT, theatre remains his first love, which he indulges in whenever the opportunity strikes. Last year, he became a part of the country’s first Broadway, Mughal-e-Azam. “We performed in Singapore, Malaysia, Qatar, Dubai. Forty shows were planned in India, and post November 2020, we were to move to the UK and USA. Then the lockdown happened.” says Jais, who apart from being the narrator of the play is also playing the rebel sculptor in Mughal-e-Azam.