Scene 1: Afternoon. Novotel Mumbai, Juhu Beach
Ranveer Singh doesn’t walk into a room, he makes an entry. Preferably with a portable speaker in hand. It’s a signature of sorts. On his first meeting with Maneesh Sharma, who would direct him in his debut Band Baaja Baaraat (2010), Ranveer came in dancing to ‘My Name is Lakhan‘. He was lugging it again, at 1 am, before sitting down for a roundtable with Rajkummar Rao, Ayushmann Khurrana, Vicky Kaushal and Pankaj Tripathi for a TV show in December. For the shoot with india today, Ranveer announced his arrival with ‘Aankh Marey‘, from his latest superhit, Simmba. It’s his second film to cross the Rs 200 crore mark, the first being Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s controversial Padmaavat (also 2018) in which his flamboyant Alauddin Khilji stole the show.
2018 was a remarkable year in Hindi cinema. For the first time in almost a decade, none of the three Khans-Aamir, Shah Rukh or Salman-registered the highest earning Hindi film. It was left to Ranveer, with two films collectively earning Rs 500 crore, to emerge as the most bankable actor of the year with back-to-back hits. The face of 26 brands, one half of the #DeepVeer power couple, he was also the youngest male actor in the top 10 of the 2018 Forbes India Celebrity 100 list, with earnings of Rs 84.7 crore.
And Ranveer is only getting started. His next, Gully Boy (releasing February 14), which will have its world premiere at the Berlinale, sees him play Murad, a rapper from Mumbai’s slums. Thereafter, he works in the nets to nail Kapil Dev’s bowling action for 83, a film about India’s World Cup-winning turn, and another period epic, Takht, later in the year, in which he plays Dara Shikoh, son of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan.
The 90 minutes of the shoot feel like a blur. The songs keep changing, to suit the mood… first Eminem, then Mumbai rappers Emiway Bantai, Divine & Naezy…. What doesn’t change is Ranveer’s ‘trademark energy’.
No other director so far has tapped into it with as much success as Bhansali. “This [energy] is infectious and that’s what makes him stand out,” says Bhansali of his hero in Goliyon Ki Rasleela… Ram-leela (2013) and Bajirao Mastani (2015) also. As a sign of how much Ranveer values his collaboration with Bhansali, the actor bought a house in the Mumbai suburb Goregaon, to be closer to the Padmaavat set in Film City. To get into Khilji’s skin, he’d lock himself up there for three weeks. “If I’m doing an intense role, I can’t switch on and off,” he says. “I have to carry the mood throughout.” In the film’s now iconic song, ‘Binte Dil‘, which begins with a kohl-eyed, bare-chested Ranveer swaying in a bathtub, Bhansali instructed him to channel both Jim Morrison and Zeenat Aman. “He stunned me with how he improvised and interpreted it,” says Bhansali.
For Ranveer, talent alone does not suffice, it has to be accompanied by hard work. An avid football fan, he likes to quote legendary football manager Alex Ferguson, “Hard work will always overcome natural talent when natural talent does not work hard enough.” To which Ranveer adds his own two bits: “Your ability is no good if you don’t apply yourself. I enjoy the process of creating a character with different voices, mannerisms and body language. Given the time and the bandwidth, I’d like to do it more.” It’s a work ethic that has already caught the eye of many filmmakers he aspires to work with one day.
Night: Ranveer’s Vanity Van, Mehboob Studio
Ranveer is resting. It’s a rare moment of repose for an otherwise effervescent personality. The van is minimally decorated, barring a Simmba poster and a whiteboard etched with his mantra for life: “Good vibes only. Stay blessed. Be kind. Work hard. Stay humble.” He’s shooting for Simmba’s end credits song, ‘Mera Wala Dance‘, choreographed by Ganesh Acharya, who’s also behind his other hits ‘Tattad Tattad‘ and ‘Malhari‘. “I’m conserving my energy,” Ranveer tells us. “It’s what Anil Kapoor taught me during Dil Dhadakne Do.”
Vikramaditya Motwane, who directed Ranveer in Lootera, a box-office failure but in which the actor posted his most accomplished and restrained performance as a thief who has a change of heart, calls him the love-child of Anil Kapoor and Govinda. They are the two actors Ranveer grew up idolising along with Amitabh Bachchan. Govinda, for him, continues to be “the complete performer”. “Whether it is emotion, comedy or dance, he is head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of sheer talent,” says Ranveer. He also finds inspiration in Anil Kapoor’s “intensely emotional” persona. “He goes about every movie like it’s his first film,” says Ranveer. “He isn’t blasé or jaded about it. He’s not being overconfident. He’s hungry and wanting to do better. He’s all heart. I want to be that way.”
Only he already is, according to Maneesh Sharma. “He loves to do his homework, which is any director’s delight,” says the writer-director. “He maps out the character and the pitch for a scene.” Ranveer is meticulous about his work, carrying a diary in which he makes entries in colour pens and sticky notes. For Band Baaja Baaraat, the Bandra boy took a DTC bus to get a feel of the Delhi his character, Bittoo Sharma, belonged to. On one such visit, he managed to get into a class in Kirori Mal College and later hung out with 20 guys on the lawns. “There are actors who believe in being completely spontaneous. I think my ‘keeda’ for preparation is born out of a certain nervousness,” he told India Today in an interview in 2013. “Even if the prep didn’t help, it had a placebo effect on my mind… maine kar liya hai.” Initially, the excessive preparation was also a limitation for Ranveer, especially if his interpretation was not in alignment with the director’s vision. “For him to adapt to a different tone would sometimes be difficult,” says Sharma, citing the film’s climax where he was asked to “bring it down” and “be honest” and the shoot was pushed to the next day. Ranveer credits both Sharma and Motwane as well as Bhansali’s demanding direction for making him less rigid in his approach.
Ranveer, 33, belongs to a new generation of actors that include Ranbir Kapoor, Rajkummar Rao, Ayushmann Khurrana, Varun Dhawan and Tiger Shroff. On the chat show Koffee with Karan, host Karan Johar, who directs him in Takht, asks his celebrity guests in the rapidfire round: Ranbir or Ranveer, who is the better actor? The responses so far have predominantly favoured Ranbir, but Ranveer is slowly stealing a march with his accessibility and ability to pick diverse projects. “In talent and track record, they are more or less at par,” says Prabhat Choudhary, co-founder of leading public relations firm Spice which manages some of Bollywood’s superstars. “The difference is in temperament and in the degree of hunger they possess. For someone to believe that you do your work and things will fall into place if they have to is being extremely simplistic. One has to realise that marketing and communication are part of your work. The stakes are way bigger today and the whole definition of stardom has undergone a change. Ranveer breaks the complacency and challenges the status quo.”
While Ranbir breaks out of the ‘manchild’ roles, Tiger continues to thrive on the last action hero image and Varun picks films to demonstrate that he’s more than the next Salman Khan, Ranveer hasn’t pigeonholed himself into any genre or archetype. “He can play anything from Govinda to Ryan Gosling,” says Motwane. “He is constantly challenging himself. I am excited to see what he brings to the table in every film. He also has the pull to draw the viewers to theatres.”
Cinema is what Ranveer lives for. He has grown up relishing ‘masala films’. “I was such a Bollywood keeda that I thought Scarface was a copy of Vaastav,” he said at his show-stopping performance at the India Today Conclave in 2015 in New Delhi. Simmba‘s problematic rape-revenge plotline is reminiscent of the big bad 1980s, but Ranveer sees in it a story that widens his reach. And the box office collections validate his approach. The line between actor and hero is blurred for him. “At the moment, my focus is to be a part of films that offer a ‘big screen experience’,” he says, “that encompass a broad spectrum of the audience.”
Evening. Yashraj Films Studio
Ranveer doesn’t want to sit. He suggests a walk in the studio that gave him his break after three-and-a-half years of ‘struggle’. When he would sit outside production houses for six hours to hand in a portfolio or make cold calls to numbers stolen from the phone of casting director Shanoo Sharma who had famously spotted him putting on a show at filmmaker Shaad Ali’s house party. He was 16. The rumour that he “had to pay to be in a Yashraj film” still irks him. “I’d get Facebook messages saying, I have so much money, tell me how to go about it,” he says. “It took the shine away from my achievement”-of being one of the few outsiders after Shah Rukh Khan and Akshay Kumar to make it in Bollywood.
Born to businessman Jagjit Singh Bhambani and his homemaker wife Anju, and raised in the plush Mumbai locality of Pali Hill, Ranveer was the ‘nautanki’ of his school, Learners’ Academy, where his friends included photographer Rohan Shreshtha who remembers him excelling in elocution and bagging all the lead roles in plays. “I wasn’t very good at sports, so they used to make me a mascot,” Ranveer had revealed in the 2013 india today interview. “I used to love entertaining people.” It was the same at home too. He recalled how his paternal grandmother, who fed his passion for Hindi films with VHS tapes, asked him to enliven a boring birthday party. Singh danced to ‘Jumma chumma de de‘.
But with no strong connections in Bollywood, a filmi career seemed a distant dream. After a two-year stint in HR College, Ranveer headed to the US for a degree in creative writing from Indiana University. Except that his love for cinema only grew after he put in hours at a video rental library. He was expected to stay back and work at an advertising firm. But Ranveer returned home to fulfil his childhood dream. The times were fraught for his family financially, with recession hitting his father’s business. “But I was never made to feel the pinch,” says Ranveer. He assisted Shaad Ali (Saathiya) on ad films and in the process did what every aspiring actor does-build a body, learn acting and shoot a portfolio. Only in Ranveer’s case, it had to be “one that could not be junked”, and so he conceptualised it with photographs that reflected different moods in varying situations. Soon, his audition for Band Baaja Baaraat would catch Sharma’s eye and he in turn would convince Aditya Chopra of his talent.
The first couple of years were hard, as Ranveer tried to fit in desperately. “At one point, it became too taxing,” he says. In an industry where artifice is almost a virtue, Ranveer was an anomaly. Uninhibited and perhaps too authentic. “I have never put a filter,” he says. “Like most boys, I, too, was conditioned to believe that showing your emotions was a sign of weakness. But it wouldn’t work on me. I express very freely, to a fault sometimes.” It didn’t help that he dressed like no leading man in Bollywood had dared to. If body-hugging Being Human T-shirts are Salman’s style statement, Ranveer’s is just Being Himself. He can whirl in a pink angarkha at his mehndi ceremony; wear a ghaghra to an event and carry off loud motifs and bright colours with the same confidence as Rishabh Pant sledging in Australia. Ranveer’s sartorial choices challenge the conventional notion of a Bollywood hero. “A part of my being is really feminine,” he says, “and I don’t shy away from it. I have been raised by women.” His elder sister, Ritika, he says, is like a “second mother” to him.
Ranveer the actor has so far revelled in projecting a sexuality that is at variance with the conventional hyper-masculinity of a Bollywood hero. Befikre‘s Dharam teases the woman with a glimpse of his bare bottom; in …Ram-leela, his Ram takes off his kedhiya and brandishes his greased torso for the viewing pleasure of Gujarati girls; in Simmba, for all the bravado his character displays, he’s shy about confessing his love to the woman he desires. Madhavi Menon, director, Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality at Ashoka University, notes that the “sexually compelling and fluid” roles Ranveer has played, especially in Bhansali films, “don’t make him less heterosexual. Rather, they make heterosexuality less recognisable as the opposite of homo- and bisexuality. His big achievement as an actor has been to denaturalise heterosexuality as something easily recognisable and consistent. He (and Bhansali) gives sexuality the power to break the stereotype of sexual identity as fixed and controllable. With him, it becomes a moving object, moving both as touching and as unpredictable.”
Afternoon. Back to Novotel Mumbai, Juhu Beach
Deepika Padukone is calling. On FaceTime. “Hi baby, you are looking handsome!” she says. Ranveer talks about his wife with the same passion as he does about cinema. On Sunil Grover’s TV show Kanpur ke Khuranas, he told the audience, “Bahut mehnat karni padi (I had to work a lot)”-for six years-before he married Deepika in November 2018. Six months into their relationship, which began on the sets of …Ram-leela in 2012, Ranveer knew she was the one. “I genuinely believe she is a far more evolved and wholesome person than I am,” he says. “She is more responsible, mature and independent. Duniyadaari mein woh mujhse aage hai.” Deepika, who had come off a break-up, would take time to commit fully. The couple remained rock steady even as she battled depression and then pursued a career in Hollywood. “I was never unsure about him,” she told a film magazine in her first interview after their wedding. “We’ve fought, we’ve had our ups and downs. But we stuck together through all of that. He was extremely patient with me through all my doubts, my insecurities.” Ranveer has been secure with his now wife’s fame and success. He acknowledged her role in …Ram-leela‘s success. “Deepika was killing it in 2013,” he says. “Some credit has to go to her for the opening numbers.”
One of Ranveer’s most trying times came in late 2017 when Deepika received death threats from right-wing fringe groups for defending freedom of expression in response to protests against Padmavati (before the name was changed to Padmaavat). “It was very frustrating because you are unable to express yourself and it’s just burning inside you,” says Ranveer. “I was very close to putting out a video saying what was on my mind. But I didn’t want to validate them by a responding. I had to be professional and follow the instructions of my producers. Their money was at stake.”
Bonded by their nuclear family upbringing and outsider tags in Bollywood, #DeepVeer aspire for a long and successful relationship of the kind their parents have. “I’ve grown up seeing a marriage where the attitude is to make it work regardless of anything,” says Ranveer. “A marriage is a commitment, out is not an option. So whatever you have to work through, you do.” Ranveer currently stays in the Prabhadevi apartment that has been Deepika’s home for years. “The most sensible and convenient thing was for me to move into her set-up. She is comfortable there and I don’t want to displace her,” he says. “I always try to give her priority.” That said, they’re hunting for a bigger home.
Evening. Purple haze Studio
In the midst of promoting Simmba, Ranveer takes a few hours off to dub for Zoya Akhtar’s film at a Bandra studio. Later that evening, he’ll collect his first trophy for Padmaavat. Akhtar knew Ranveer was her ‘gully boy’. “He’s obsessed with Bombay slang and speaks the lingo all the time,” she says. “He’s very influenced by hip-hop which you can see in his clothes.” Ranveer also took advise from artist Divine while preparing for the role. He has composed many of the tracks the actor sings in the film. “He’s so sharp with picking up stuff,” Akhtar recollects. “Because he has it in him, the training was a very short process.”
In Gully Boy‘s now-viral track, ‘Asli Hip Hop‘, written by Spitfire, the two lines he raps perhaps best define Ranveer: “Kalakar main, kal ko aakar doon. Yehi hai mera dharm, Meri doosri koyi jaat na (I’m an artist, I shape the future. That’s my faith, I have no other identity).” As gully boy, he says, ‘Apna time aayega‘. Ranveer’s time is now. And he’s making the most if it