Many actors say they want to defy stereotypes. But Ranveer Singh is actually walking—or in his case, running—the talk. And the 29-year-old, so far, has got the risk-reward formula down right
“He is not everyone’s cup of tea,” Arjun Kapoor tells Forbes India on the phone about Ranveer Singh, a close friend and co-actor in Gunday. “Some people get tired of his energy,” points out Kapoor who is amongst those who enjoy Singh’s energiser bunny persona. But, he emphasises, Singh is also an actor who raises the bar higher for himself with every project he takes on. “He has no insecurity. His performance and ethics are never questioned,” he says.
Similar conversations with his co-stars, directors and family, as well a four-and-a-half hour interview with arguably Hindi film industry’s most energetic and exuberant denizen confirmed the dichotomy that makes Ranveer Singh intriguing, exciting, impressive, even bewildering, but never dull: A playful, light-hearted actor with no pause button on the one hand, and an intense actor who lives the characters he portrays on the other. “He is very submissive to a role or to the tone of a performance. He adapts to a zone very well and surprises his audience,” says Maneesh Sharma, who directed Singh’s debut film Band Baaja Baaraat (BBB). “He always had the spark—he is now qualifying it with every film he works in.” Sharma remembers Singh as an unassuming guy on the sets, who would always carry a pen and a diary taking down notes. “He is very structured. He has a timetable for everything… including socialising. It is in his system to have a process.”
It is this commitment to his craft that has propelled the actor, who started his career with the hugely successful BBB in December 2010, into the ranks of Bollywood’s most-sought after actors. And with two hits in 2014—Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Goliyon Ki Raasleela: Ram-Leela and Yash Raj Films’ Gunday—and association with top-notch brands, his rise has become even more noteworthy. This is also reflected in his climb in the 2014 Forbes India Celebrity 100 list, from 66 in 2013 to 37.
But no matter how mainstream his success is, don’t even try typecasting Singh. He has left no room for that. With each film, he has, almost compulsively, donned a new avatar: A fun-loving, smart-mouthed collegian in BBB, a serial flirt in Ladies vs Ricky Bahl, a reticent and brooding thief in Lootera, a power-packed, rustic Gujarati version of Romeo in …Ram-Leela, a goon in Gunday and a killer in Kill/Dil. “I like to change things, shake them up, I like to play high stakes,” says Singh. But he doesn’t pick roles just because they are risky. He takes on what appeals to him, “and they just happen to be risky”.
And risks are what have defined Singh’s movie journey so far. For his latest film Bajirao Mastani, Singh has shaved the hair off his head. Apart from the vanity factor, this means forgoing endorsements and live shows, a major source of income for actors, for at least 12 months. “I like to do things that scare the s@#$ out of me. If it is too straight, it bores me,” he shrugs.
But Singh has always relied on his instincts, despite the downside involved. Though born and brought up in Mumbai, and with friends in the film industry, he still had to struggle for nearly three years before he got his first break. However, he didn’t allow the disappointments to quell his ambition. For instance, while his portfolio was doing the rounds of various production houses, Singh turned down at least three films without any certainty of getting the kind of role he wanted. “I could have missed the bus. Chances [of getting the right role] were one in a million,” he says.
Similarly, his advertising campaign for Durex, the condom brand, is another instance of him jumping in where his colleagues might fear to tread. Few top actors have associated themselves with contraceptive ads; unlike, say, a car or a fashion label, this category won’t enhance anyone’s endorsement value. Singh admits that he knew the ad had an uncertain outcome: It could either earn him accolades or have tags such as ‘sleazy’ thrown at him. But he still had his team contact Durex and confirm his participation. He reasons that people can’t afford to beat around the bush on a topic like sex, which has both personal and social implications.
“We can have open, healthy conversations about it. We can’t keep treating it as a taboo subject,” he says. As it transpires, the feedback to the campaign has been positive so far.
Singh’s ability to take risks can be traced to his upbringing. He doesn’t select projects on the basis of remuneration, he says, adding that he has accepted minimal fees for projects that have excited him. “I am financially satiated. I don’t need much in life… I want my shoes, hats, clothes and PlayStation,” he says.
Industry insiders, who have been closely watching Singh and his career graph, say his adventurous spirit will pay off in the long run. “He is the best example of breaking stereotype in Bollywood in the last 14-15 years. You can take Ranveer and put him in one bracket and everyone else in another bracket. Other are doing a lot more of the same,” says Vikram Malhotra, founder and chief executive, Abundantia Entertainment, a production house. He, however, also points out that Singh would do far better if his movies were projected in a more ambitious style. “The presentation of his films has not been larger-than-life except for …Ram-Leela. He needs that kind of projection,” he says.
And Singh certainly has the charisma to pull it off.
Interviewing Ranveer Singh is a far cry from a conversation with a corporate honcho. Or even any other actor, perhaps. In the four-and-a-half hours we spent with him, Singh did not press the pause button on his charm offensive. Stopping mid-step to talk to people, sometimes even at washroom doors of hotels; waving to girls giggling at him or calling out his name; he is more than happy to oblige selfie requests by his fans. He also remembers the names of waiters at his favourite restaurants, such as Wasabi at the Taj Mahal Hotel, where we conducted part of our interview. And he never forgets to say ‘thank you’. We had met six days prior to the release of Kill/Dil and Singh would tell almost everyone he bumped into (for a handshake or small talk) to watch the movie.
Singh is also an inveterate entertainer: He mimics well and spouts dialogues from films like Deewaar as if they are recorded in his head. And though he doesn’t have a singer’s voice, he insists on crooning “Panchhi Nadiya Pawan Ke Jhonke, Koi Sarhad Na Inhein Roke” from the film Refugee for us. “I like being an entertainer; I don’t really enjoy being a movie star. Being in the film industry has put me in a position to spread happiness. I look upon myself as a channel to spread positivity, joy. Life is too short… smile, laugh,” he says.
This free-spiritedness is also visible in his quirky fashion sense. He is famous for showing up at events in gold-patterned blazers, cobra print suits, orange tapered shoes and Harry Potter spectacles. But Singh doesn’t find anything remarkable in his attires. “I am only me. I am unique. Should I dress as per the expectations of others? I think that would be very uncomfortable,” he says.
While being different may come naturally to Singh, this could also be perceived as a well-crafted strategy. The film industry is full of actors who have created a niche for themselves in one domain—romance, action, comedy or drama. While they try to do a bit of everything, they have their comfort zones and, with that, an element of predictability. And then, there is the impulsive Singh. “I don’t shy away from being myself. That’s how I can sustain myself. I want to forge my own path, I want a distinctive and unique identity,” he says.
His spontaneity has invited a few unpleasant tags too. But Singh laughs off such criticism, saying he is all that and more. “Life is easy to get by if you trivialise things, it’s a [good] defence mechanism,” he says.
And as his first director Maneesh Sharma, among others, points out, Singh’s casual public persona hides a startling depth. “He has an extremely focussed mind which gives him an edge as a performer,” says the director, adding that Singh’s eyes are set on being the most bankable performer. “Becoming a celeb or star is not what he is working on.” It is a happy byproduct of his commitment.
It is no surprise, then, that the likes of Aditya Chopra, who produced Singh’s debut film BBB, count among his mentors. Chopra, in fact, was the first person to approve of Singh’s performance trial at the BBB audition. Director Maneesh Sharma and co-star Anushka Sharma were not convinced initially and Singh had to go through multiple rounds of auditions to persuade them. “Adi (Aditya) made me what I am. I owe my career to him. He believed in me when no one else did. I can do anything for him,” says Singh, for whom Yash Raj Films is a “home production”.
Coteries are second nature to the Hindi film industry and though Singh says he would never be a part of a “camp”, he has won over the men that matter. Apart from Aditya Chopra, Bhansali, who rarely casts an actor in back-to-back films, with the exception of Salman Khan, wanted Singh to play the lead in Bajirao Mastani.
Singh says he has found his “cinematic soulmate” in Bhansali. “We understand each other very well and there is an amazing sync of energies,” he says. And his connection with Bhansali is self-explanatory. The actor seeks demanding roles and Bhansali’s characters tend to be larger-than-life. Enter Singh. They both take high comfort in histrionics and have a background of theatre.
Filmmakers, too, have little trouble in getting Singh to surrender himself to a role. The actor likes to get into the skin of the character and practises a routine before every shot. “Mood is everything,” he says, repeatedly. He will listen to music, seclude himself from others and, ironically, hates anyone fooling around before a serious scene. “It’s like a warm-up for him. Like an athlete... he tries to find his zone. And then he rarely holds back, always pushing himself,” says Tanmay Mohan, who worked as a first assistant director on Gunday.
To prepare for his role of Maratha warrior Peshwa Bajirao I in Bajirao Mastani, Singh apparently took time off and checked into a hotel so that he was not disturbed and could practice till he had perfected the nuances of the character he had to essay. He worked on his body language to reflect the confidence and power a warrior would exude, and a walk which depicted purpose.
For roles where which require him to go shirtless (like in Gunday and ...Ram-Leela), Singh undergoes intense physical training for weeks. Twelve hours prior to a shoot, he will stop drinking and eating to create the right visual physical effect. Intake of water tends to bring about a bloated look.
Of course, this pernickety approach can also have unforeseen fallouts. Take the making of Gunday, for instance. While preparing for an emotional shot with Priyanka Chopra, Singh got so carried away that he held her arm tighter than he anticipated and it turned blue. When Singh learnt that he had hurt his co-worker, he made her a glass of ‘sherbet’ and took it to her personally and apologised profusely.
As the baby of his own family, he clearly knows a trick or two about keeping his co-workers happy.
Enter the plush living room of his family’s sprawling house in Khar, and you find a bit of Ranveer Singh everywhere. Pictures of a younger, plump Singh, with his grandmother, parents and older sister, dot the space.
Those who know Singh say his father Jagjit Singh Bhavnani is the actor’s anchor. During the shooting of Gunday, when Singh hurt his face, he was flustered. The face is any actor’s most prized asset. It took a call from his father to pacify him. Singh admits that if it wasn’t for the confidence and encouragement from his father, he would not have been an actor. “Dad wanted to be a racing car driver but he became a businessman. He wanted me to live my dreams,” he says.
His eyes particularly gleam when he talks about his grandmother, one of the first to have spotted the performer in him. He recalls how, as a six-year-old, he would dance to Amitabh Bachchan’s iconic ‘Jumma Chumma De De’ from Hum to entertain his grandma.
The craziness of the film world is evidently offset by a curiously normal family life. Sister Ritika and mother Anju always sit with Singh when he has dinner, irrespective of what time he comes home.
Ritika keeps an eye on Singh’s diet and ensures that he doesn’t over-indulge on sweets. (But while Singh nods to Ritika’s requests to refrain from sweets, a minute later he gobbles a macaron, and two plates of ice cream a few hours on.)
“He is very accident prone. We try to keep him as safe as possible,” adds Ritika. Not all accidents are preventable though. Singh had hurt his cheek and leg during the making of Gunday and suffered a serious back injury while shooting for Lootera.
Apart from his family, friends are an integral part of his world, though Arjun Kapoor and Parineeti Chopra are the only actors he counts among his close buddies. Filmmaker Shaad Ali, casting director Shanoo Sharma and ad maker Karan Kapadia form his inner circle of friends. “The security that my family and friends give me can’t be expressed [in words],” he says.
They also have high expectations. Singh’s best is yet to be seen, they say. Parineeti Chopra, Singh’s co-star in Kill/Dil and Ladies vs Ricky Bahl, says the actor has been constantly evolving since 2010. “His biggest achievement has been the love he has been able to generate. He stands out… no one has been able to achieve so much so fast,” she says.
She believes that being a people’s person has helped Singh’s career as also the fact the he doesn’t get easily stereotyped. “Our industry is all about people management and that comes to him naturally,” she says.
Happily for the tabloids, his ease with people has added grist to the rumour mills and Singh’s name has been associated with quite a few of his leading ladies. But ask him about the ‘special one’ and the guard quickly comes up. The only thing he is willing to say is that he is not a man who drops midway out of relationships. “I am either in it or not in it,” he says. “I will marry one day, two years… three years from now… who knows.”
Not that he doesn’t have his eye on the future. A hardcore Mumbai boy, Singh knows the western parts of the city like the back of his hand. But his heart lies in Goa. That is where he wants to make a home at some point. “An artiste needs time, space and peace. Mumbai has too much hustle bustle, pollution… sometimes it’s too much. Goa is liberating, it gives you time to stop and think,” he says.
Project Goa is fully planned, he says. He will paint, learn to cook, do yoga and compose music. The goal is to be able to do one movie a year and spend the rest of the time in the coastal state.
Ranveer Singh, writer and producer, is also on the cards. Also, an adman. Singh is seriously considering the idea of getting into the advertising business. (Singh in a previous avatar dabbled in content writing and was an intern copywriter with JWT and Ogilvy & Mather.) He will also invest in a club and restaurants soon.
Singh, as we find out, can be all business too. But just when it gets too serious, he quickly shares his other big passion: Biking. Though he has been advised against riding bikes since his back injury, Singh’s inner wild child yearns for the “liberating” feeling a high-speed two-wheeler accords.
His parents have not yet approved a bike purchase. But it is just a matter of time, we suspect. It is unlikely that Singh won’t get his way.