The Pop Culture Phenomenon: Ranveer Singh on Bollywood, Hip-Hop and Being Judged
Acting might be his first love but this boisterous Bandra boy is on an unbridled creative mission that has only just begun
Ranveer Singh’s list of creative goals might just throw you off for a second. “I want to write film scripts, I want to try my hand at composing music, I want to be a music director and I want to direct a film. I am not a good singer, but I can rap. I want to mentor promising creative talent and I want to be a channel, a conduit and facilitator of creation. I have always wanted to start a scriptwriters’ consortium… I wish to even have a record label. I want to be a multi-faceted creative entity.” Knowing Singh and his proclivity for accomplishing all things unimaginable (Google ‘Ranveer wacky style’ at your own risk) it’s almost certain he will be ticking those ambitions off his bucket list sooner than you can expect.
We are at the launch of the Adidas Originals store on Mumbai’s Linking Road—technically Singh’s hood; he lives a stone’s throw from here—and there’s the usual chaos. An army of camerapersons is packed in like sardines waiting for the actor to arrive, a small squad of female journalists are trying to mask their excitement behind nonchalant banter and another mini brigade of bloggers/influencers are doing their thing against branded backdrops and product placements. But unlike other ‘celebrity events,’ there’s a sense of caprice hanging in the air, the kind you sense, say, before a magic show. You don’t know what trick our man has up his sleeve today, what rabbit he’s going to pull out of the hat.
Presently, Singh teases the restless mediapersons by appearing at the balcony of the first floor. There’s a commotion in the crowd, followed by a roar of wild cheers. Almost everybody on the ground floor is ready with their cameras pointing at the flight of stairs; Singh will descend any moment now. Meanwhile, the road outside the store is gathering a crowd at the speed of light. The actor teases a little more and joins everybody after a good 10 minutes. He’s dressed in a blinding neon green tracksuit, has on a pair of funky hexagonal dark glasses that match his chunky black sneakers. It’s clear that Singh the magician is his own biggest trick. And it’s only natural that he saves the juiciest of photo ops for last: Singh wades through the expanding mob to reach his SUV parked right outside the store. The next second he is standing tall on the roof of the car, cheerfully blowing kisses to a sea of people—including the line of fans balancing themselves on the divider to the ebullient torsos sticking out of the windows of a BEST bus cruising by.
“I live a very blessed life, and I don’t mean that in material terms. I mean I get to do what I love to do for a living. This is the dream, this is what I’ve always wanted,” says Singh an hour after the event. We’re sitting in a plush meeting room at Taj Land’s End and he’s wolfing down a plate of chicken kathi roll. “Subah se bhookha tha, yaar (I hadn’t eaten since morning!).”
Our conversation begins with a forthright question that Singh would immediately interpret as an accusation: It must be his stardom that gives him the ‘liberty’ to be overtly, almost famously, affectionate towards anyone that happens to be in his company at any given time—staff, stranger, journalist, what have you—with the pleasing results that range from glorious fan selfies (no awkward, deer-caught-in-the headlights looks ever) to cover stories where interviewers can’t help but plug themselves in as the objects of his affection?
“I have grown up listening to Dr. Dre, The Notorius B.I.G, Tupac, Eminem—they were a big influence.’
His eventual response is as Rastafarian as it can get. “I don’t discriminate in spreading love—[be it] men, women, and young people. It’s about spreading good vibes, you know. I am also somebody who is wired that way. I only see the good things in people; I tend to. And I enjoy making people feel good about themselves, putting a smile on someone’s face. I feel like it comes very naturally to me, so why would I not do it,” says the 32-year-old. A lot of it has to do with his family. “I grew up in a very affectionate family. My grandparents and parents were very tactful, so hugs and kisses are just very normal ways of expressing love.” Singh insists the ambit of his widespread love extends to films as well. “It’s very rare that I don’t like a film. I try and see the merit in anything and everything. In any other situation too—I always try and see the positives. That’s just me as a person.”
In a career spanning seven years, Singh has starred as a leading man in 10 very diverse feature films that range from period dramas to masala entertainers and modern romances. And although he has been lucky to work with people he calls the finest in the business—Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Zoya Akhtar, Rohit Shetty and Kabir Khan—Singh is certain that acting is just one part of his creative personality. “It is a great place to start with.”
‘Gully Boy’ and living the hip-hop life
In his next, Gully Boy, Singh is realizing another artistic aim that is closest to his heart: rapping. The film, directed by Akhtar and also starring Alia Bhatt, is pegged on the recent desi hip-hop boom in India. It’s a coming-of-age story that follows a Mumbai boy’s journey from the slums to the stage. For Singh, the hip hop bug bit him when he was in the third grade. “I have grown up listening to Dr. Dre, The Notorius B.I.G, Tupac Shakur, Nas, Eminem. Then I got into some left of center stuff. But I always had a soft spot for the mainstream, you know—Jay-Z, 50 Cent, P. Diddy were a big influence. Also, Baba Sehgal, Apache Indian.” As a teen, Singh’s passion for all things hip-hop was so pronounced that in school, they used to call him ‘Yo.’ “Back in the day Yo! was the catchphrase for hip-hop culture,” he says, laughing.
Apart from giving him the opportunity to rap, Gully Boy is extra special to Singh because it tells the story of the kind of people he grew up around as a kid—the bhantais and bhamais [homies] of Bandra. “I lived in a very affluent part of the city, but on the fringes. I grew in the border of Bandra. On one side were your educated people and on the other side, the guys I used to play with after school—waadi ke ladke (boys from the compound)… My dad is a bhantai himself; he worked himself till the border [of affluent Mumbai] but he came from very humble beginnings.”
That’s probably why Singh had goosebumps when he first heard “Mere Gully Mein” by homegrown rappers Divine and Naezy. “These guys are rapping in Bambaiyya and they’re being themselves, showcasing their lives and surroundings and their environment in a video. For me, that was a milestone, it was a landmark, it was cool as fuck because it was original.”
You could say Gully Boy is the film of his dreams. “For years, I had been waiting for a part that was true to Mumbai, to Mumbai street culture; I was waiting for an opportunity to speak this way on screen. It’s Hindi but it’s very distinct kind of Hindi and it comes very naturally to me. Here I am, presented with a golden opportunity; it is almost like two of my strong suits are coming together: rapping, which is my main side skill, and Bambaiyya language.” Singh isn’t boasting: his rapping skills on the campaign anthems for Durex and Jack&Jones are pretty decent, and during the cover shoot for this feature, he’d often break into the tricky parts of the rap from “Mere Gully Mein” and actually slam them like a pro.
Gully Boy’s pre-production is in full swing and Singh has been the apple of the paparazzi’s eyes while entering and exiting Akhtar’s residence or Bandra’s Purple Haze studio. The actor has also developed an affinity for music merch lately—he’s flaunted official tour T-shirts feat. Shakur, Outkast, David Bowie and Led Zeppelin all in one week. It seems all part of preparation; Singh calls Akhtar “a nurturer,” someone whose style is very different from other directors. “Gully Boy is a very precious script. You know Reema [Kagti, scripwriter] and Zoya are among the best writers we have. Their scripts are just so packed with moments and well etched out characters, their writing is exemplary, so I am very lucky this is my second collaboration with Zoya.”
Nervous newcomer to pop culture icon?
More than his actual contribution to his arts, it’s probably Singh’s unfettered, go-getter attitude towards anything he puts his mind to that makes him an endearing role model. If Singh’s confidence is at an all time high today, it’s because he’s done living up to people’s expectations. His ascent from being nervous newcomer finding his feet in Bollywood to becoming a sort of pop culture icon is extraordinary. There isn’t another actor from his lot who can command the kind of adulation he does or who fans have come to love and accept in whatever degree of weirdness he presents himself in. Mind you Singh continues to be accused of being a relentless attention-seeker, someone who thrives on shock value and sensationalism. The evidence is abundant: he has famously showed up at a style awards night dressed in pajamas and fluffy slippers, danced like a madcap on a busy Mumbai street as a response to a social media challenge that demanded only a “pose with fans,” and kissed an unsuspecting Karan Johan on the lips at the controversial roast AIB Knockout.
How does he manage to be all of that and yet maintain a super hero-like status? “I don’t fear being judged at all anymore. That has helped me come into my own, express myself more freely—to do what I want, say what I want, wear what I want.” Is it possible for a Bollywood actor to scale such heights of not giving a fuck? Apparently, yes. “I know that I operate from a very honest place in my heart,” says Singh. There are so many things that I have done with a certain intention that they get misread; people form a judgment based on the misconstruing and misreading. It’s happened often enough for me to know that it will keep happening. But I don’t let it bother me, because I know I am good to people, I don’t wish ill upon people, I don’t do bad or malicious things and my karma is absolutely clean.”
“Some of my peers don’t value the opportunity. They whine, they complain about the work that they do; it’s really tragic… ”
Having said that, Singh is not one to take his celebrity for granted. One of the reasons why filmmakers and brand heads love him alike is because the actor has a knack for over-delivering. Give him a film and he’ll add to it his own inimitable charm, give him an endorsement and he’ll make sure it’s worth every penny. That does make him one of a kind in Bollywood. “I have observed among some of my peers that they don’t value the opportunity as much, you know. They whine, they complain about the work that they do, they do half-assed shit; it’s really tragic. Some people are dishonest and insincere in their work and I find that appalling. Like it’s a big deal for me to be on the cover of Rolling Stone India, it’s big deal for me to be sitting here and giving this interview.”
Deepest fears and biggest treasures
Although he claims he doesn’t have any real insecurity, Singh admits his biggest fear right now is waking up one day and realizing he doesn’t have anything to offer as an artist. “Man, what if one day I go, perform and just suck, you know. What if I just forget how to act…what if I am not able to entertain?” The actor did have a few of these moments while shooting for Bhansali’s Padmavati where he plays the formidable Alauddin Khilji. “I had some really tough days where I’d leave the set ki yaar mujhse ho nahi raha hai (I was just not able to pull through.)”
Because of the frequent delays in the filming schedule, a chunk of the intense sequences had piled up for Singh and at times it was so taxing, crying provided the only catharsis. “Mr. Bhansali has always had a very hands-off approach with me in the previous two films (Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela and Bajirao Mastani); he lets me freestyle, but this time he had a clear vision of what he wanted, the way he wanted Alauddin Khilji to be. So, to take his direction and try and apply it was very challenging, sometimes. And there were times I wouldn’t get it and I’d leave the set and cry. And come back and try to finish it.” Yes, Singh is a crier. “I don’t cry very often, but I am not one of those people who don’t cry either. I cry, it’s okay, it’s healthy.”
Unfortunately, the film that Singh has literally given his blood, sweat and tears to is yet to see the light of day. It was to release on December 1st but is now shelved indefinitely thanks to a nonsensical right-wing protest. It must be really upsetting? “I am a very differently wired person, so for me, the process itself is the prize. I really feel for my director and producer, who is very special to me and I have the utmost regard for him as a creative mentor—he really helped me unleash and unlock my potential as an artist, he’s made me the actor that I am today. To see him suffer this way really troubles me, but for my part, just the fact that I went out and shot this film for one full year, is the prize itself.”
Another thing Singh claims—and you should totally not believe him—is that he isn’t ambitious. He explains, “I think when people say ambition in today’s age, it has an immediate negative connotation or connotation of material wealth. So while I have ambitions they are of a very creative nature.” Ask him what if life had panned out differently and he was still stuck in an audition queue somewhere, and he says, “I would probably be a very bitter and resentful person if I had not been blessed with an opportunity to do what I love to do as a living. I would be very angry at the world.”
Ranveer Singh photographed by Abheet Gidwani
Wardrobe in lead image: NMD T-Shirt, NMD Field Jacket, NMD D-Trackpant, Prophere sneakers, all by Adidas Originals. ‘Seamaster Planet Ocean 600M Co-Axial Chronograph’ watch by OMEGA Watches
Venue courtesy: antiSOCIAL, Mumbai
Fashion Director: Kushal Parmanand
Junior Stylist: Neelangana Vasudeva
Hair: Darshan Yewalekar
Makeup: Mahadev Naik