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 Singhâ€™s list ofÂ creative goals might just throw you off for a second. â€œI 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 scriptwritersâ€™ consortiumâ€¦ I wish to even have a record label. I want to be a multi-faceted creative entity.â€Â Knowing Singh and his proclivity for accomplishing all things unimaginable (Google â€˜Ranveer wacky styleâ€™ at your own risk) itâ€™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 Mumbaiâ€™s Linking Roadâ€”technically Singhâ€™s hood; he lives a stoneâ€™s throw from hereâ€”and thereâ€™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 â€˜celebrity events,â€™ thereâ€™s a sense of caprice hanging in the air, the kind you sense, say, before a magic show. You donâ€™t know what trick our man has up his sleeve today, what rabbit heâ€™s going to pull out of the hat.
Presently, Singh teases the restless mediapersons by appearing at the balcony of the first floor. Thereâ€™s a commotion in the crowd, followed by a roar of wild cheers. AlmostÂ everybody on the ground floor is ready with their cameras pointing at the flight of stairs; Singh will descend any moment now.Â 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. Heâ€™s dressed in a blinding neon green tracksuit, has on a pair of funky hexagonal dark glasses that match his chunky black sneakers. Itâ€™s clear that Singh the magician is his own biggest trick. And itâ€™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 peopleâ€”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.
â€œI live a very blessed life, and I donâ€™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 Iâ€™ve always wanted,â€ says Singh an hour after the event. Weâ€™reÂ sitting in a plush meeting room at Taj Landâ€™s End and heâ€™s wolfing down a plate ofÂ chicken kathi roll. â€œSubah se bhookha tha, yaar (I hadnâ€™t eaten since morning!).â€
Our conversation begins with a forthright question that Singh would immediately interpret as an accusation: It must be his stardom that gives him the â€˜libertyâ€™ to be overtly, almost famously, affectionate towards anyone that happens to be in his company at any given timeâ€”staff, stranger, journalist, what have youâ€”with the pleasing results that range from glorious fan selfies (no awkward, deer-caught-in-the headlights looks ever) to cover stories where interviewers canâ€™t help but plug themselves in as the objects of his affection?
â€œI have grown up listening toÂ Dr. Dre, The Notorius B.I.G, Tupac, Eminemâ€”they were a big influence.â€™
His eventual response is as Rastafarian as it can get. â€œI donâ€™t discriminate in spreading loveâ€”[be it] men, women, and young people. Itâ€™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 someoneâ€™s face. I feel like it comes very naturally to me, so why would I not do it,â€ says the 32-year-old. A lot of it has to do with his family. â€œI 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.â€Â Singh insists the ambit of his widespread love extends to films as well. â€œItâ€™s very rare that I donâ€™t like a film. I try and see the merit in anything and everything. In any other situation tooâ€”I always try and see the positives. Thatâ€™s just me as a person.â€
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 businessâ€”Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Zoya Akhtar, Rohit Shetty and Kabir Khanâ€”Singh is certain that acting is just one part of his creative personality. â€œIt is a great place to start with.â€
â€˜Gully Boyâ€™ 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. Itâ€™s a coming-of-age storyÂ that follows a Mumbai boyâ€™s journey from the slums to the stage. For Singh, the hip hop bug bit him when he was in the third grade. â€œI 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 knowâ€”Jay-Z, 50 Cent,Â P. Diddy were a big influence. Also, Baba Sehgal, Apache Indian.â€ As a teen, Singhâ€™s passion for all things hip-hop was so pronounced that in school, they used to call him â€˜Yo.â€™ â€œBack in the day Yo! was the catchphrase for hip-hop culture,â€ he says, laughing.
Apart from giving him the opportunity to rap, Gully Boy is extra special to SinghÂ because it tells the story of the kind of people he grew up around as a kidâ€”the bhantais and bhamais [homies] of Bandra. â€œI 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 schoolâ€”waadi ke ladke (boys from the compound)â€¦ My dad is a bhantaiÂ himself; he worked himself till the borderÂ [of affluent Mumbai] but he came from veryÂ humble beginnings.â€
Thatâ€™s probably why Singh had goosebumpsÂ when he first heard â€œMere GullyÂ Meinâ€ by homegrown rappers DivineÂ and Naezy. â€œThese guys are rapping inÂ Bambaiyya and theyâ€™re being themselves,Â showcasing their lives and surroundings andÂ their environment in a video. For me, thatÂ was a milestone, it was a landmark, it wasÂ cool as fuck because it was original.â€
You could say Gully Boy is the film of hisÂ dreams. â€œFor years, I had been waiting forÂ a part that was true to Mumbai, to MumbaiÂ street culture; I was waiting for an opportunityÂ to speak this way on screen. Itâ€™sÂ Hindi but itâ€™s very distinct kind of HindiÂ and it comes very naturally to me. Here I am,Â presented with a golden opportunity; it isÂ almost like two of my strong suits are comingÂ together: rapping, which is my main sideÂ skill, and Bambaiyya language.â€ Singh isnâ€™tÂ boasting: his rapping skills on the campaignÂ anthems for Durex and Jack&Jones areÂ pretty decent, and during the cover shoot forÂ this feature, heâ€™d often break into the trickyÂ parts of the rap from â€œMere Gully Meinâ€ andÂ actually slam them like a pro.
Gully Boyâ€™s pre-production is in full swingÂ and Singh has been the apple of the paparazziâ€™sÂ eyes while entering and exiting Akhtarâ€™sÂ residence or Bandraâ€™s Purple Haze studio.Â The actor has also developed an affinity forÂ music merch latelyâ€”heâ€™s flaunted officialÂ tour T-shirts feat. Shakur, Outkast, DavidÂ Bowie and Led Zeppelin all in one week. ItÂ seems all part of preparation; Singh callsÂ Akhtar â€œa nurturer,â€ someone whose style isÂ very different from other directors. â€œGullyÂ Boy is a very precious script. You knowÂ Reema [Kagti, scripwriter] and Zoya areÂ among the best writers we have. Their scriptsÂ are just so packed with moments and well etchedÂ out characters, their writing is exemplary,Â so I am very lucky this is my secondÂ collaboration with Zoya.â€
Nervous newcomer to popÂ culture icon?
More than his actual contribution to hisÂ arts, itâ€™s probably Singhâ€™s unfettered, go-getterÂ attitude towards anything he puts hisÂ mind to that makes him an endearing roleÂ model. If Singhâ€™s confidence is at an all timeÂ high today, itâ€™s because heâ€™s done living up toÂ peopleâ€™s expectations. His ascent from beingÂ nervous newcomer finding his feet in BollywoodÂ to becoming a sort of pop culture iconÂ is extraordinary. There isnâ€™t another actorÂ from his lot who can command the kind ofÂ adulation he does or who fans have come toÂ love and accept in whatever degree of weirdnessÂ he presents himself in. Mind you SinghÂ continues to be accused of being a relentlessÂ attention-seeker, someone who thrivesÂ on shock value and sensationalism. The evidenceÂ is abundant: he has famously showedÂ up at a style awards night dressed in pajamasÂ and fluffy slippers, danced like a madcap onÂ a busy Mumbai street as a response to a socialÂ media challenge that demanded only aÂ â€œpose with fans,â€ and kissed an unsuspectingÂ Karan Johan on the lips at the controversialÂ roast AIB Knockout.
How does he manage to be all of that andÂ yet maintain a super hero-like status? â€œIÂ donâ€™t fear being judged at all anymore. ThatÂ has helped me come into my own, expressÂ myself more freelyâ€”to do what I want, sayÂ what I want, wear what I want.â€Â Is it possible for a Bollywood actor to scaleÂ such heights of not giving a fuck? Apparently,Â yes. â€œI know that I operate from a veryÂ honest place in my heart,â€ says Singh. ThereÂ are so many things that I have done with aÂ certain intention that they get misread; peopleÂ form a judgment based on the misconstruingÂ and misreading. Itâ€™s happened oftenÂ enough for me to know that it will keep happening.Â But I donâ€™t let it bother me, becauseÂ I know I am good to people, I donâ€™t wish illÂ upon people, I donâ€™t do bad or maliciousÂ things and my karma is absolutely clean.â€
â€œSome of myÂ peers donâ€™t valueÂ the opportunity.Â They whine, theyÂ complain aboutÂ the work thatÂ they do; itâ€™s reallyÂ tragic… â€
Having said that, Singh is not one to takeÂ his celebrity for granted. One of the reasonsÂ why filmmakers and brand heads loveÂ him alike is because the actor has a knackÂ for over-delivering. Give him a film and heâ€™llÂ add to it his own inimitable charm, giveÂ him an endorsement and heâ€™ll make sureÂ itâ€™s worth every penny. That does make himÂ one of a kind in Bollywood. â€œI have observedÂ among some of my peers that they donâ€™t valueÂ the opportunity as much, you know. TheyÂ whine, they complain about the work thatÂ they do, they do half-assed shit; itâ€™s reallyÂ tragic. Some people are dishonest and insincereÂ in their work and I find that appalling.Â Like itâ€™s a big deal for me to be on the coverÂ of Rolling Stone India, itâ€™s big deal for meÂ to be sitting here and giving this interview.â€
Deepest fears andÂ biggest treasures
Although he claims he doesnâ€™t have any realÂ insecurity, Singh admits his biggest fearÂ right now is waking up one day and realizingÂ he doesnâ€™t have anything to offer as an artist.Â â€œMan, what if one day I go, perform and justÂ suck, you know. What if I just forget how toÂ actâ€¦what if I am not able to entertain?â€ TheÂ actor did have a few of these moments whileÂ shooting for Bhansaliâ€™s Padmavati where heÂ plays the formidable Alauddin Khilji. â€œI hadÂ some really tough days where Iâ€™d leave the setÂ ki yaar mujhse ho nahi raha hai (I was justÂ not able to pull through.)”
Because of the frequent delays in the filmingÂ schedule, a chunk of the intense sequencesÂ had piled up for Singh and at times it wasÂ so taxing, crying provided the only catharsis.Â â€œMr. Bhansali has always had a veryÂ hands-off approach with me in the previousÂ two films (Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela and Bajirao Mastani); he lets me freestyle,Â but this time he had a clear vision ofÂ what he wanted, the way he wanted AlauddinÂ Khilji to be. So, to take his direction andÂ try and apply it was very challenging, sometimes.Â And there were times I wouldnâ€™t get itÂ and Iâ€™d leave the set and cry. And come backÂ and try to finish it.â€ Yes, Singh is a crier. â€œIÂ donâ€™t cry very often, but I am not one of thoseÂ people who donâ€™t cry either. I cry, itâ€™s okay,Â itâ€™s healthy.â€
Unfortunately, the film that Singh has literallyÂ given his blood, sweat and tears to isÂ yet to see the light of day. It was to release onÂ December 1st but is now shelved indefinitelyÂ thanks to a nonsensical right-wing protest.Â It must be really upsetting? â€œI am a very differentlyÂ wired person, so for me, the processÂ itself is the prize. I really feel for my directorÂ and producer, who is very special to me andÂ I have the utmost regard for him as a creativeÂ mentorâ€”he really helped me unleashÂ and unlock my potential as an artist, heâ€™sÂ made me the actor that I am today. To seeÂ him suffer this way really troubles me, but forÂ my part, just the fact that I went out and shotÂ this film for one full year, is the prize itself.â€
Another thing Singh claimsâ€”and youÂ should totally not believe himâ€”is that he isnâ€™tÂ ambitious. He explains, â€œI think when peopleÂ say ambition in todayâ€™s age, it has an immediateÂ negative connotation or connotationÂ of material wealth. So while I have ambitionsÂ they are of a very creative nature.â€ Ask himÂ what if life had panned out differently and heÂ was still stuck in an audition queue somewhere,Â and he says, â€œI would probably be aÂ very bitter and resentful person if I had notÂ been blessed with an opportunity to do whatÂ I love to do as a living. I would be very angryÂ at the world.â€
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. â€˜Seamaster Planet Ocean 600M Co-Axial Chronographâ€™ watch by OMEGA Watches
Venue courtesy: antiSOCIAL, Mumbai
Fashion Director: Kushal Parmanand
Junior Stylist: Neelangana Vasudeva
Hair: Darshan Yewalekar
Makeup: Mahadev Naik