THE CHARACTER ARTISTE: GAJRAJ RAO
The puppy-eyed gent who plays ‘the father’ in Badhai Ho is adman Gajraj Rao. A career ad film director, Rao debuted as an actor with Bandit Queen and has since featured in films like like Black Friday, Dil Se, Aamir and Talvar. Among younger audiences, Rao is known as the tech-challenged ‘TVF dad’.
Back in the day, Rao, like Amit Sharma, worked with Pradeep Sarkar and eventually started production house Code Red Films with Subrat Ray. He was part of theatre group ACT 1 in Delhi, with Manoj Bajpai, Ashish Vidyarthi and Shoojit Sircar. While this is the first time he’s being directed by Sharma, he has acted in numerous ads made by Prasoon Pandey (of Corcoise Films) in the past. "It was a paid workshop for me on direction; I learnt what not to do on my set," recalls Rao.
While acting, Rao says he leaves the director in him at home, and shuts out the actor in him while directing. "I realised long ago that you shouldn’t be both at the same time," he says.
Sharma and his partner at Chrome Hemant Bhandari had to convince Rao to take up this part, one that matched the lead in screen-time. "A month was a long time to be away from advertising. Also, I can’t run or dance due to spondylitis, and this was a big role," he says, "but they had faith and reminded me that I do 12-hour shifts while directing. For Hyundai (Atul Kulkarni plays an army man in this ad), in fact, we shot for 18 hours nonstop at Rohtang." Other memorable ads from Rao’s recent kitty include those for Flipkart (including the ‘Dolly Mashi’ spot) and IndusInd Bank (with Boman Irani).
Did he have any other apprehensions during the filming of Badhai Ho? "Actors fear looking stupid; if it’s a comedy it shouldn’t be buffoonery and the emotional bits shouldn’t be hammy. Cinema is a director’s medium, and if the director is unsure, then I need to keep checking the monitor," he answers.
Rao says about the filming process, "On Day One of the shoot, I saw Amit’s depth; there was substance in his narration. He ruled the set and his was the last word," adding, "While Mani Ratnam doesn’t talk or explain much and Anurag Kashyap will have a whole thesis for your dialogue, Amit gives you the exact reason behind every scene." Rao knew Sharma as the 18-year-old AD working for Sarkar. "I remembered him as a flamboyant Delhi boy; I watched him do great work as an ad filmmaker over the years. My perception changed completely while shooting. He knew exactly how a writer would react to various situations; his nuanced understanding was a revelation."
In Badhai Ho, he learnt how to create pauses in sequence: "It’s difficult for ad filmmakers who are used to creating stories in 30 seconds - they’re economical with pauses. When people lack confidence in their craft, they make it pacy."
‘Character roles’, that were commonplace in the ‘60s and ‘70s, have made a comeback thanks to the new universe of content created by Amazon and Netflix, Rao believes.
He prefers story-driven films to graphics-based projects. For instance, "shampoo ads are all about the hair going ‘swish-swoosh’ and flying this way and that - I can’t tell stories there." He avoids such briefs even if the cost is losing the project.