Four years ago, Rajeev Khandelwal made news by doing what’s considered blasphemy for a TV actor. He quit Balaji Telefilms, leaving the soap Kahiin To Hoga, where he played Sujal — “a brooding hero”, according to his fans—because of “creative differences” with Ekta Kapoor. Kapoor gave him the break in that soap, after he had spent about a year in Mumbai trying to make it—this included doing the
rounds of TV production companies with the pilot tape of a TV series on the Indian Army, which he had produced in New Delhi. The Jaipur boy, now 31, still has few competitors for the title of Indian TV’s pin-up boy. But the protagonist of his critically acclaimed debut film Aamir — which Khandelwal plays with great conviction and intensity—is a hero in the most profound sense. Directed by Raj Kumar Gupta, Aamir is about many things — religious identity, terrorism and the idea of heroism, among others. At its best, though, it is a great thriller—you just don’t know what’ll happen next. Khandelwal talked to Lounge about his role and his journey in showbiz so far. Edited excerpts:
Reel life: Stills from Aamir, a thriller that is also a meditation on the idea of heroism.
‘Aamir’ isn’t a dream debut for any Jaipur boy who comes to Mumbai looking to make it big —no big stars, no dancing, no happy ending. What clinched it for you?
I followed my instinct. Honestly, I didn’t give it much thought when I accepted it. When I read the script the first time, I knew it was a film with enough meat, a heart and a soul. And, of course, there was the challenge of single-handedly carrying it off; as you know, there’s only one big role in the film.
From controlled studio set-ups to real life locations in crowded Mumbai streets. Was it an easy transition?
No, it was very difficult; it was one of the most challenging things about Aamir. The filming was done on some of the most crowded streets of Mumbai, such as Dongri and Chor Bazaar. Because of budget constraints, there were no extras. All the locations were natural and the people in the background were real people who were there at that time. Most times, I couldn’t see where the camera was and where the director and crew were. An assistant director would come and tell me when they were rolling and I would start acting; or they would send me a text message on my phone saying “start”. The noise and the crowd around didn’t help.
What was the most difficult scene in terms of performance?
The chase sequence, where two men snatch the red suitcase (that contained what the character later realizes is a bomb) from Aamir and he runs after them through dirty, narrow alleys. At one point, he bangs into an iron stand. It is an edge-of-your-seat sequence and it required me to be very natural in difficult conditions. No rehearsals were done for it.
Do you miss your fans from your TV days?
I think I still have some fans.
What are the lessons you’ve learnt from Aamir?
That self-belief matters. That you don’t need godfathers to make it in showbiz. That there’s no formula for a good film or good acting. I had to do an acting workshop with a theatre actor before the filming began, which helped me a lot. The film’s message — that heroes are not born, they can be made in very ordinary circumstances — is also a lesson for me.
Any role models in tinseltown?
I have no role models; I’m not inspired by anyone.
A love story. I can’t divulge the details now, except that it’s produced by UTV Spotboy Films, the same banner that produced Aamir.
So what’s more scary — a red suitcase or Ekta Kapoor?
(Laughs)...(long silence)...A red suitcase. I have put an end to all the controversies. Balaji Telefilms is behind me now and I don’t want to dwell on it. But one thing is for sure: I’ll never go back to TV. After Aamir, it will be the worst kind of regression.