I am still relishing the success of Badhaai Ho: Gajraj Rao
The actor talks to us about the overwhelming reception to his film and what makes Ayushmann Khurrana a 'visionary artist'
Gajraj Rao speaks better Bengali than you would think. It comes up when I ask him about his next project — his much-awaited follow-up to the phenomenal success of Badhaai Ho — as he replies, “I have a senior friend in Delhi, Soumitra Da, who told me about a Bengali saying that goes: ‘After polishing off a delicious meal, spend some time licking your fingers’. So I am doing just that right now, relishing the happiness.”
It's the familiar swerve in his voice with which he utters ‘Da' that makes me want to probe. “How do you know such good Bengali?” I ask, to which he replies, “Because all my childhood friends were Bengali. I grew up in a railway colony in Delhi and had Bengali families as neighbours.”
In Badhaai Ho, Jitender Kaushik, Rao’s character, is a middle-aged man working in the Northern Railways. The film’s plot, as we know by now, revolves around his family — his wife Priyamvada (Neena Gupta), mother (Surekha Sikri), elder son Nakul (Ayushmann Khurrana), younger son Gullar (Shardul Rana), and yes, at the centre of it all, an expected (or shall we say, unexpected) new member.
Directed by Amit Sharma and produced by Junglee Pictures, Badhaai Ho was 2018’s top breakthrough: a mid-sized slice-of-life comedy that was unanimously adored by critics and audiences, besides making off with Rs 221 crore at the worldwide box-office. But perhaps the film’s biggest achievement lay in bringing into focus the talents of a veteran we have always admired, but never really celebrated. “Since the release, I have seen Badhaai Ho in theatres at least 15 times, in several regions. It was a great joy to see the joint family audience, with members as little as 5 years old to elders above 80, come and watch the film. I even noticed some people coming to the theatres in wheelchairs,” Rao recalls.
Beyond its perceptive writing and delicate observational humour, the script of Badhaai Ho (co-written by Shanatanu Srivastava and Akshat Ghildial) was praised for offering centre-stage to the romance between Rao and Neena Gupta. Quizzed about being deemed the film’s ‘hero’ — a loving husband who also writes playful romantic poetry — Rao says, “I am still unable to decipher the love and appreciation Mr and Mrs Kaushik have been getting. I think credit goes to the script, and also to Ayushmann and Sanya (Malhotra, who plays Nakul’s girlfriend). It's because of them, and how their relationship unfolds in the story, that I and Neena are looking so good.”
Describing Ayushmann as a visionary actor, Rao adds, “I am not saying this out of humility, but if Ayushmann Khurrana was not there, we wouldn't have received the adulation we did. Ultimately, he is the hero of Badhaai Ho, both on-screen and off. He was the one who curated this film. Before the shoot, he told me that the movie will change my life, and it did. Ayushmann is no ordinary actor. I believe in five or ten years, he will become a great director as well.”
Though he is yet to sign his next, Gajraj Rao has been busy reading scripts and prepping himself for a new innings in his career. The actor sounds confident in his assertion that audiences are hungry for good content and won't settle for anything less — not anymore.
“As a culture, we have always been a sucker for entertainment. However, in earlier times, there was limited access. Today, the digital revolution has changed everything. People are watching international shows like House of Cards and Brown Nation on their devices. It has raised their awareness and taste. I was told that during Badhaai Ho’s release, a lot of recommendations were forwarded on WhatsApp groups, which created a huge buzz. I think this is a great time for actors, writers, and creative minds to express themselves,” Rao affirms.