‘Jo Sexy Hai, Jo Smart Hai, Woh Aage Nikal Jata Hai’: Ranveer Singh on Losing and Finding Himself in Bollywood
The actor wowed the audience at the 19th Marrakech International Film Festival, opening up about a casting-couch experience and how he now listens to his inner voice
On Friday evening, as the 19th Marrakech International Film Festival kicked off at the Palais des Congres convention centre, the proceedings were formal, ceremonious.
The red carpet had been rolled out for film directors, actors and stars from Morocco and across the world. Inside, the white-marble venue was being guarded by security and festival staff in sharp black suits. Some special ones wore long satin black capes, as if they were the ushers to the land of Arabian Nights.
The auditorium’s ceiling was lit up with twinkling stars and the stage’s backdrop was a frame of concentric, psychedelic rectangles.
Following a piano recital and homage to all those who had passed away recently, the jury was introduced, beginning with the president, Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, who made The Hand of God last year and whose 2013 film, The Great Beauty, won an Academy award.
The seven-member jury included British actress Vanessa Kirby, who plays Princess Margaret in the Netflix series The Crown; German actress Diane Kruger who starred in Troy and Inglorious Basterds; Australian director Justin Kurzel whose 2011 film Snowtown, a gruesome real-life crime drama, remains his most recognized work; the stunning Lebanese director and actress Nadine Labaki; and French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim who recently played Charles Sobhraj in The Serpent.
All were in black formal ensembles except Moroccan director Laïla Marrakchi whose 2005 film, Marock, about an affair between a Muslim girl and a Jewish boy, remains one of Morocco’s most loved and most controversial films. Marrakchi wore a stunning beige caftan.
After each jury member repeated the line – “I declare the Marrakech International Film Festival open” – and sat down on a long white couch on the stage, a shiny, dizzy, red ball rolled on to the stage.
Wearing a shervani that looked like it had been carved out of a mound of maroon rhinestone, Ranveer Singh moved around on the stage, joked, talked fast and off-script, worked the crowd, and did what Bollywood does best – entertain.
It was a strange moment.
Bollywood was on the stage with some of the world’s most talented actors and directors, but it was not sitting down for a serious chat in a dignified pose. It was dancing and goofing around, at once poking at the sobriety and poise of the event, but also making the audience clap, smile and click photographs.
For Bollywood, solemnity is a sulk and an existential crisis, and Singh was not going to be dragged down by it.
“According to Hinduism, we are living in the age of Ghor Kalyug, the darkest of the darkest period… Look at the world, the environment, everyone is suffering, and my calling is to entertain… to help people forget their suffering for a while,” Singh said after receiving the Etoile d’Or trophy from Mélita Toscan du Plantier, the festival’s director.
The nine-day Marrakech International Film Festival, where 76 films from 33 nations are being screened, is a celebration of cinema as a great art form, but also as a means to entertain people. And the festival, which is now in its 19th year, treats Bollywood as the event’s highlight, inviting a star every year to honor and engage with the Moroccan crowd. This year, it’s honoring Singh with an award, royal dinner and screenings of three of his films.
Though immensely talented, Ranveer Singh is just 37 years old with 14 films to his credit (not counting cameos and song appearances). He doesn’t feel like someone who should be paid a tribute just yet, that too by a film festival that is also paying tribute to Academy award-winner Tilda Swinton.
But in a country that is madly in love with Indian cinema and its stars, Marrakech International Film Festival needs Bollywood to add some masti and sparkle.
The presence of Bollywood stars draws large crowds of frenzied, screaming fans and adds buzz to what would otherwise be an eclectic high-brow affair.
After Singh received the award, he was whisked away to Marrakech’s iconic Jemaa El Fna square for an open-air screening of Bajirao Mastani. “Hello Morocco,” he screamed, drew little heart signs for the crowd, danced to “Bajne De Dhadak Dhadak Dhol” and songs from Gully Boy.
On Saturday morning Ranveer Singh was back at the Palais des Congres for a sit-down conversation. Journalists, cinephiles and fans were in attendance.
The buttons of his animal-print shirt were undone, but the bling had receded from Singh’s body and settled on his shoes and diamond studs on his earlobes. A quieter, calmer, introspective version of him seemed to be on the stage.
Singh began the conversation by changing seats with the anchor so that he could, he said, “feel the energy of the room.”
The hour-long conversation began with a clip of his 2010 debut film, Band Bajaa Baarant, being played on the screen. As Singh watched himself on a small monitor placed in front of him, the crowd whistled, clapped and at least one “I love you” went out.
It was a longish clip of the song “Ainvayi Ainvayi” that seemed to hit a nerve. Singh seemed at once mesmerized and uncomfortable, as if meeting a long-lost friend – lots of emotions but with little to say.
“I’m not the same actor, I’m not the same person,” Singh said looking at himself play Bittoo Sharma, a role that remains his best performance to date – raw, real and touching. “He looks cute, I miss him sometimes… I feel like giving him a hug and saying, ‘It’ll all work out fine,’” Singh added.
Warm, entertaining and candid, he recalled his days of struggle in Bollywood, spoke of how someone once unleashed their dog on him for amusement, and a casting-couch experience. “I was asked, ‘Are you a hard worker or a smart worker?’” Singh said, with naughty emphasis on “hard.” “Darling, be smart, be sexy. Jo sexy hai, jo smart hai, woh aage nikal jata hai,” he was told.
Speaking of the strange things he has done in the past to prepare for a role, Singh recalled the 2013 film, Lootera, where his character had a hip wound.
To feel and convey the pain, he wore a metal clip that kept his skin pinched and in agony. And to play Alauddin Khilji in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat, he rented an apartment to explore and access his “inner darkness.”
He watched Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac I & II, a crazy art-house favorite, listened to the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and only ate red meat. “I was sweating mutton. It really made me aggressive,” he said, recalling the “harmful effects” of playing Khilji.
Singh answered all the questions put to him, but kept breaking the conversation every few minutes to engage with the audience. He did some dance moves, sang Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” spoke about his wife Deepika Padukone, and called out to a young Moroccan woman, Loubna, in the audience who has been following him for 12 years and “is a sort of pen pal.” In a melt-the-hearts-of-fans moment, he got down from the stage to hug her.
Singh, whose last two films (’83 and Jayeshbhai Jordaar) have flopped, spoke of the roles he is proud of and some “questionable” choices that he made in the past.
Aware of how much he invests in a role, Singh said that he now approaches roles with a clear understanding of his own strengths and value.
“I listen to my inner voice now,” he said, and signs on films that he feels challenge him as an actor and are worth his while.
As the conversation veered to what’s next, Singh said, “A thriller perhaps.” Or maybe “I’ll play James Bond, a spy with an Indian accent.”
Channeling Apu from The Simpsons, Singh delivered James Bond’s most famous line in a self-mocking, desi accent. But he seemed to be joking about something that he was serious about and ended the conversation with words one often hears in Bollywood circles.
“Put that energy out there in the universe and manifest it,” he smiled and told the audience, which cheered and rushed towards him for selfies and autographs.