Rajkummar Rao: I love playing characters who are stuck in life

Rajkummar Rao, along with Radhika Apte and Sikandar Kher, discusses specific scenes and highlights from Vasan Bala’s Monica, O My Darling
Poster of Netflix's Monica, O My Darling
Poster of Netflix's Monica, O My Darling

Rajkummar Rao races a train in Monica, O My Darling. At a breathless juncture in Vasan Bala’s entertaining new film, Jayant, Rajkummar’s character, has just disposed of a body in Khandala and returned to Mumbai. It’s the wee hours of the morning, but already the intercity trains are pulling out.

Jayant, having ditched his getaway van, decides to hotfoot it. The camera (lodged in what I presume is a high-speed car or truck) tracks Rajkummar as he darts and blazes through the screen. In a film filled with sight gags and snatches of action, it’s my favourite shot of all. It offers brief but exhilarating proof of the many possibilities of Rajkummar Rao, an actor who can literally run the whole gamut—from Newton to Barry Allen.

At a Mumbai five-star a few days ahead of the film’s launch on Netflix, Rajkummar smiles as I bring up that sequence. “I love running and I run pretty fast,” he says, reminding me of his striking agility in a comic chase in Gangs of Wasseypur: Part 2. “In fact, there were takes where Vasan went, “Yaar thoda dheere bhaag, camera follow nahi kar pa raha hai (Run a little slower, the camera can’t follow you).”

Elsewhere in Monica, O My Darling, he hangs precariously off a building as the voice of Hemant Kumar (it’s actually Sagnik Sen’s, though I was fooled) effervesces on the soundtrack. The entire sequence is an ingenious if inadvertent reversal of Rajkummar’s predicament in Trapped (2016), where he was stuck inside a building trying to get out. “They all come from the same filmmaking school – Vasan and (Vikramaditya) Motwane,” Raj laughs. “One of them wants me to get out and the other wants me to get in.”

An adaptation of the Japanese novel Burūtasu no Shinzou, Monica’s screenplay was developed under the aegis of Sriram Raghavan. “It was his brainchild,” Raj says. Pegged (a touch misleadingly) by some as a whodunit, the film is best described as a Raghavanian comic noir. For starters, it’s not much of a secret who the primary killer might turn out to be. And Jayant, a robotics expert stuck between a rock and a hard place, is not a sympathetic protagonist. The character bears shades of past Rajkummar Rao characters: his typical underdog reimagined as an anxious mongrel. “I love playing characters who are stuck in situations. It has happened before, be it in Bareilly Ki Barfi, Stree or even Newton. I think that’s how life is – you are always trying to survive and manage things.”

Radhika Apte, who plays the irrepressibly funny ACP Naidu, a character worth petitioning Netflix for a spin-off show, says her performance evolved organically on set, jokes pouring in from all directions as she and Vasan improvised on the move. “There’s one scene where he just asked me to clasp my hands and make a gesture (like bursting a bubble). I couldn’t make head or tail of it… but it’s turned out so funny.”
Raj, Radhika and Huma Qureshi—who plays the titular minx—are consistently entertaining in Monica, O My Darling. Yet, for my money, it’s the supporting players who really make the show.

At the top of the list is Sikandar Kher, who, even in a clichéd and limited-duration role, brings great villainy to the proceedings. He’s unforgotten in a hotel room scene in the dark, coldly dishing out directions for a murder while rolling casino coins on his fingers. “I used to play poker professionally a long time ago,” Sikandar shares. “It’s something I picked from observing other players. This film was a chance to throw that talent in.”

Less than a week since release, the soundtrack of Monica, O My Darling has broken out wide. Eschewing remixes—the original Asha Bhosle song ‘Piya Tu’ from Caravan (1971) is left unblemished—composer Achint Thakkar has crafted a bouquet of retro tributes, tipping his hat to 70s icons like RD Burman and Shankar-Jaikisan. Lyricist Varun Grover rises valiantly to the task, rhyming ‘dil-kashi’ with ‘fantasy’ or interposing a sly ‘tata!’ in the song ‘Bye Bye Adios’. “After a long time I have absolutely loved a Hindi film’s album,” Rajkummar beams, enjoying a nice victory stretch on his chair.

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