Vikramaditya Motwane’s stunning directorial debut, Udaan (2010) played a significant role in rejuvenating the spirit of realism of Hindi cinema.
Produced by Anurag Kashyap, this landmark coming-of-age film set in the steel city of Jamshedpur, chronicles the life of Rohan Singh, a teenager with a talent for poetry, who successfully rebels against his dictatorial and often ruthless father.
It’s a film about love, loss, aspiration, friendship, brotherhood, rebellion, and more importantly, the spirit of freedom.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of a film which captured the imagination of millions. Speaking to The Better India, Rajat Barmecha (31), who played the role of Rohan (it was his debut film) looks back at the journey towards the role of a lifetime, and after.
Getting the part
Born on 24 April 1989 in Ladnun, a village in Rajasthan, Rajat grew up and went to school in the national capital, where his father ran a business.
“Bollywood ruled the Barmecha household, and my father is responsible for my inclination towards acting and cinema. When my brother, sister, and I were little, he took us to watch films in the cinema hall every weekend. He has continued the practice till this day, and watches practically every new release,” recalls Rajat.
Rajat was barely 18 when he arrived in Mumbai to fulfill his life-long dream of becoming a Bollywood star. For around a year and a half, he found work appearing in a series of TV commercials before hearing about auditions for an Anurag Kashyap film from his elder brother Vicky, and a friend.
Looking for someone to play a high school boy, the casting team had initially chosen not to even take Rajat’s audition since his ‘look’ at the time didn’t suit the role. A fortnight later, however, he received a call back from the casting team, who told him that Vikramaditya Motwane, the film’s director, wanted him to give a screen test.
“The first screen test I gave for Udaan, in 2009, was awful. But there was something Vikram liked about me and asked to meet me in person. At the time, Vikram used to work out of filmmaker Nikhil Advani’s office. I met him there, had a small chat, and we really got along. After that, he asked me to give a few more screen tests. One day, we worked on some scenes for four-five hours. Finally, I did two scenes that Vikram really liked. After performing these two scenes, I was regularly called to Anurag’s office,” recalls Rajat.
There, Rajat would spend quality time with Anurag, Vikram, his wife Ishika, and the rest of the film’s cast and crew. They would ask him to read poems, listen to music, but he still didn’t know whether he got the part. One fine day, Vikram called him for a walk in and around the Aram Nagar area. There, he confirmed his part in the film.
While Rajat’s desire to become an actor was driven initially by a fascination with the Hindi film industry and the name, fame and money associated with being a big star, working with Vikram and Anurag had a massive influence on changing the way he approached cinema.
“For a newcomer in the film industry without any personal connections, all you know about cinema is what you see on screen, but you know nothing about the technicalities or the craft. Vikram changed all that for me. He is my acting and filmmaking school—in fact, my entire foundation as an actor rests on what I learnt from him. When we were shooting Udaan, if I had any doubts about the process, Vikram would patiently answer them after work was over for the day. I haven’t attended a single acting workshop, or received any formal training of any sort, and when people praise me for being a natural performer on screen, I give all the credit to him because he taught me how to do that. Today, whenever I meet any other director, I always compare that person to him,” he says.
Shooting for Udaan
Besides working with such a stellar filmmaker, Rajat also shared the screen with two legends of Indian television in Ronit Roy, who plays his abrasive father, and Ram Kapoor, the benevolent uncle. It was an experience he cherishes till this day.
‘I loved working with both of them and they were extremely kind to me. It was my first film and those two were legends in Indian television. But they never made me feel as if I was a young guy just starting out. The entire cast and crew of Udaan felt like a family. There was no hierarchy. I remember there was only one Cafe Coffee Day in Jamshedpur at the time, which was right under the hotel where we were staying. Whenever a break day came, we would all chill together at CCD or at the hotel. It was like a family getting together every day,” he says.
As actors, Rajat feels that Ram and Ronit are very different.
“Ram is someone who knows his lines so well and in detail that he would not even miss a word. On the other hand, although Ronit knows his lines, he improvises on screen. He is very spontaneous. I have ended up becoming more like Ronit because I don’t remember my lines too well, but improvise and understand the feel that is required to emote them. Vikram was never crazy about us actors sticking to our lines. For him, it was about getting the emotion and feel right,” recalls Rajat.
Made with a budget of Rs 3 crore, Udaan released on 16 July 2010, to rave reviews, capturing the imagination of everyone in the film industry and the entertainment media. Whoever he met during parties and award functions, including the likes of Amitabh Bachhan and Karan Johar, heaped praise on his performance.
After an impressive debut, however, Rajat completely went under the radar. Apart from a cameo in Bejoy Nambiar’s Shaitan (2011) and a series of short films, including the National Film Award-winning The Finish Line (2011) directed by Akshay Roy of Meri Pyaari Bindu (2017) fame, we didn’t see much of him.
When asked this question, he talks about the paucity of quality scripts and roles that came before him.
“The offers I got post Udaan were similar to the film, and the scripts weren’t interesting enough. Also, I didn’t get that many offers from big directors as well because I was much younger at the time and wasn’t a star in the conventional sense. Whatever the script, all producers needed was a star. That dynamic still exists, but it’s much better today. Today you have Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who can play the lead actor. Back then, it wasn’t possible,” he says.
Was it just a question of bad timing that he didn’t get the sort of roles he was looking for since Hindi cinema at the time was primarily driven by star power and big budgets?
Today, actors like Ayushmann Khurrana, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Rajkummar Rao, Bhumi Pednekar and Kangana Ranaut are telling stories with tighter scripts and great attention to characterisation that are steeped in realism. Their films are telling stories from beyond the metropolises, of a small-town and rural India, and they are doing well commercially.
If Udaan had released in say 2015 or 2020, one can make the argument that it could have been a bigger hit, and thus opened more doors for actors like Rajat.
But it’s an argument he rejects straightaway, and approaches this question very differently.
“Yes, it’s a much better time for smaller films today. If Udaan had been released in 2005, it would have been a disaster. No one would have seen it. However, had it been released in 2015, I would not have been able to play that role because of my age. So, I believe that 2010 was the perfect year for the film to release. Hindi cinema was changing and Udaan was one of the films that catapulted that change. It was a Rs 3 crore film that went to the Cannes film festival and received such widespread love and acclaim. I was also at the right age when I played that character. Maybe in 2015, it would have been a bigger hit, but I wouldn’t have been the person to play that role. Everything happens for a reason and the timing for Udaan was perfect. I have no complaints there,” he argues.
However, he also notes that It depends on how you are launched as an actor. Getting launched by big banner production houses, he admits, helps land more roles. Having said that, Rajat is adamant that he wouldn’t change a thing. If he had to do it all over again, he would still choose to do Udaan as his debut film.
Life changing moment
Five years ago, Rajat’s life changed completely because of two reasons. The first was watching the 2007 film ‘Into The Wild,’ which is based on a book of the same name by Jon Krakauer, and narrates the story of a young graduate, who decides to renounce all his possessions and hitchhike across America.
The second was the emergence of the web series format and OTT platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar and Viu.
“Sometime in 2015-16, my entire perspective towards life changed. Before, I was heavily caught up in work and materialistic things. But that changed when I watched ‘Into The Wild’. It inspired me deeply, and got me into travelling and backpacking. At the same time, the web series scene in India started to pick up. In 2016, I starred in a Hindi web series called ‘Girl in The City’ followed by a few more projects. It was a good space for an actor like me. Those who were making films were the same people who were making web series. The quality was more or less the same, but it was just on a different medium,” he says.
Last year, he acted in a show called ‘Hey Prabhu’ directed by Shashank Ghosh, who had previously made ‘Veere Di Wedding’. In the show, he plays a social media star with a massive fan following online, who one day discovers that he has erectile dysfunction.
“With the advent of streaming and OTT platforms, I am definitely getting better projects. Besides, during the lockdown I wrote my first feature film script. I want this to be a Netflix original. Before I pitch the script, however, I will be sending it to Vikram for feedback, and we’ll see how that goes. Nonetheless, films are my first love, but I don’t want to compromise on the kind of work I do,” he says.
Working on these web series has allowed Rajat to live comfortably in Mumbai, while also allowing him to pursue his other passion, which is travelling. In the past five years alone, he has done over 50 solo trips all over India and Europe. In fact, if you visit his social media accounts, here’s what his bio states: “What do you do for a living? I Travel! So how do you make money? Aah…For that I Act.”
“Acting and solo travelling are two passions I can never let go of. These are the two things in this world that can make a night owl like me wake up at 6 AM and get excited. I try to maintain a balance between the two, but I sometimes end up doing more travelling. Acting is not merely a profession for me, but something that genuinely makes me happy. It’s more than a source of income. I wouldn’t give up either travelling or acting to do the other. Whenever I am not working or busy shooting for something, I am travelling,” he says.
Every trip, according to him, is more about the people you meet and the experiences you have rather than the country or the place. “These experiences teach you so much as an actor and a human being. As a person you grow when you travel. Once this lockdown gets over, I just want to pack up my bags and travel once again,” he admits.
I suppose it’s impossible to keep a free bird caged forever. The same spirit of freedom that drove his character in Udaan is what guides his life today.
And honestly, there is no better way to live it.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)