Life is good for Rajeev Siddhartha. The investment banker-turned-actor has been in three shows in 2020 itself. After a supporting role in Voot’s thriller Marzi, he made an appearance as the charming and devastatingly debonair Mihir in Amazon’s Four More Shots Please!. Right now, he is sharing screen space with Lara Dutta and Rinku Rajguru on Hotstar’s Hundred, for which he is receiving rave reviews. You could say that he is the new poster boy for streaming platforms.
Doon School alumnus Rajeev graduated from the prestigious St. Stephen’s College in Delhi and then moved to Mumbai to pursue a Masters in Business Administration from Narsee Monjee Institute of Management and Higher Studies. He was in wealth management for a year before he finally took the plunge into acting full time. Since then, he’s been seen in a variety of significant roles in web shows and films (including Alt Balaji’s romcom Romil and Jugal and Netflix’s ode to startups Upstarts).
LetsOTT.com caught up with him to talk about his journey so far and what keeps him going...
Q. There was a point where you were shooting for about three shows simultaneously. Is that the kind of pace you like at work?
Ideally, I’d like to work on one show at a time, and then get about three weeks to a month’s break in between to rejuvenate, and then start again. I’m not the kind of person who feels too happy hopping between sets. It’s not easy to maintain characters with those schedules. I love to be productive and I like being busy, and that has happened before when I’ve done up to two shows or one show and one film simultaneously. But it really has to be quality over quantity.
Q. You come from a banking background and that’s a very fast-paced life. Is that why you’re looking to work with ease now?
Haha! I wouldn’t say either is easier than the other. As you know, getting even one acting gig is an uphill task as well. I am a very reserved person and I used to work in a bank… I wasn’t surrounded by aspiring actors or people from the industry. All I had was the faith in my ability to work hard at this job. Initially, it was exceptionally difficult here as well. I’ve had so many auditions where I’ve waited for hours and when the casting assistant got to me, they’d tell me I’m not fit for the role before I could even audition. Just looking at my face! These moments were really crippling and demoralising. If you compare to the corporate world, there is the knowledge of what direction your career is headed… when you’ll probably get promoted if you work hard enough. That’s not the case here.
Q. You have a sense of security now when it comes to your acting career. But there was a time when you had to make the difficult decision of leaving a job with financial security and stability. I’d love to know the thought process behind that decision.
Well… you can call my reason almost spiritual. While at my job, I would often find myself staring outside the window and wondering what I was doing there. I was a confident worker, my bosses were happy, but I wasn’t. I used to think, ‘this is not my life. This isn’t what I am supposed to do.’ There was no roadmap in front of me but my inner voice kept pushing me towards acting. The decision to quit wasn’t difficult at all because I made it with my heart. If I had thought with my head, I’d have been trepidatious. My gut feeling was too strong to not take that leap. People around me, close to me, were shocked and angry but I knew what I had to do.
I started with Mohan Agashe’s play Halfway House with Lilette Dubey at Prithvi theatre in Mumbai, and then a national tour. I went abroad with that play. It just seems that whenever I really need it, some work has always come my way and provided the right guidance. Naseer Saab (Naseeruddin Shah) has said that only if you can breathe without acting should you stop doing it, and I completely live by that thought.
Q. This is a cliche question, but many actors who have worked in theatre and film prefer the former as a medium to go back to when they are feeling a bit rusty. Which do you prefer?
Theatre helps because as the saying goes ‘theatre has no retakes,’ and I think those nerves help me going as an actor. If you forget your lines or something, you still have to keep going. And it also helps you acknowledge what process suits you best - whether that’s observation or workshops or reading etc. I still do a couple of plays regularly. In fact, I was doing one before we went into lockdown as well.
I can’t say I prefer one over the other, but a set always puts me at peace. Usually, sets are so loud and chaotic. You have to protect yourself enough to get swept away. I feel so at home and happy on a set in that sense, but I feel equally comfortable while on stage as well.
At the end of the day, no matter what medium you’re working in, you have to do it with honesty. There’s only so much a camera can hide.
Q. I was speaking to another actor and he told me that his methodology is only observing other people. For someone else, it’d be workshops. For some, it would be watching other people’s work. What’s your method to prepare for a role?
Just going on set and picking up a script is not enough. There is a process but it usually differs from project to project, depending on how close I am to the character in reality. I did a cine play (where a theatre performance is shot like a film) on Zee5, for which I was cast at the very last minute - just two days prior because the original actor backed out. In a moment of inspiration, I thought I’ll give my character a voice quirk. So for that role, it was working on mannerism. In Four More Shots Please, Mihir is very endearing and sweet. He’s been rejected by the same girl twice but he is unfazed about it. In that show, I channelled a part of my personality which I didn’t know I had.
Q. The shows you’ve picked are both edgy and diverse. Nowadays, web series in India are exploring varied genres and Romil and Jugal, Bekaboo etc. have pushed the envelope…
… It’s not really been a conscious decision. I just say yes to anything where I like the story and the people attached to the show. I haven’t really given a thought to what image I’d like to project. I just want to act, and make the best of the opportunities that come my way. With both Mihir and Shantanu (his character in Hundred), these are misunderstood guys with a heart of gold. They are similar but still different. It’s only about playing them the way I know is best.
Q. Yes, but somehow most of your recent shows have really been big on diversity and representation, whether it be about showing minority groups or being LGBTQ positive, two of your shows are female-centric with the men only serving as supporting characters. Is this a cause that is important to you?
Of course, I feel strongly about representation. I’ve been fortunate though to do roles which genuinely exploit my capabilities and also make a larger social impact, if possible. There are so many shows and films about male bonding but Four More Shots Please, for instance, is about four women. And by chance, Mihir, who on the surface seems charming and easy, is also deep and meaningful. Nupur Asthana (director, Four More Shots Please) has a lovely sensibility for presenting her characters like that.
Q. Tell us about your role in Hundred on Hotstar.
In Hundred, I play someone who has seen life being more giving to those who are less worthy and he has eventually become jaded which is why he is indulging in illicit activities. He says at one point that if everyone is making it, why am I being left behind? So even if he takes shortcuts, he does it his own way. It is by chance that Nethra comes into his life and changes it completely. Shantanu (my character) had never expected to fall in love. He has no life beyond work and that too getting it done in any way possible. My character is deeply affected by Nethra’s outlook in life.
Q. Is there anything specific that will make you say ‘yes’ to a script immediately?
The character’s arc is of the most importance. Whether the role is small or big, if the character is going through a journey and growing as a human being, I’d probably be more impressed.
Having said that, in my heart of hearts, I’d love to do something which has sports as its central theme. I’ve been an athlete in my youth and that is something I’m passionate about.
Q. Do you think OTT platforms have given more people the opportunity to enter into the entertainment industry?
Definitely. It’s due to OTT platforms that so many filmmakers, technicians and actors (including myself) are getting the chance to showcase their talent. And as more such platforms are entering the market, the competition is also stiff. This means that more people are ready to invest in better storytelling so that the quality of web content goes up.
Right now too, I’m very grateful that online content is available to provide entertainment to the general public, otherwise, we’d all be so bored!
Q. Do you think that the quarantine period has been advantageous for actors to not just gain more exposure with the audience but also remain in their memory?
If I have to look at the positive side of things, then definitely this is a good thing. Four More Shots Please has been released via Amazon, which is a huge platform. Hundred is on Hotstar, also a huge platform with so many subscribers. My previous show Marzi was aired on Voot Select just before the lockdown began. I’m very grateful that I’m gaining exposure to different audiences.
We’re all stuck at home and can’t get on with our regular lives. At such a time, people have the opportunity to not just watch new content but really think about what they’ve liked and disliked. This time will determine what kind of shows get made in the future and if actors like me will keep having a job or not. Hard work pays off eventually, I feel. Lots of people have been writing about and praising my work.
Q. How are you spending your free time during the lockdown?
On some days, I do absolutely nothing (laughs), while on others I try to catch up on all the films and shows that I’ve been meaning to watch. There are certain actors and filmmakers that I really admire and I’d like to be most familiar with their work. I’m reading the books that have been sitting on my shelves for months.
There was a point until recently where I was shooting for many months at a stretch. This forced break has really given me perspective. I have so much free time on my hands, I think a lot. I’ve been introspecting on life and what I see myself doing once all of this is over.
Q. Is there anything you’ve seen recently which has had a profound effect on you?
I was completely blown away by Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Super Deluxe on Netflix. It’s probably one of the best films I’ve seen in the last decade. It’s one of those films that reminded me of why I do what I do. I hope to start shooting for my next project the moment it’s safe to do so and this film really inspired me to work on my own craft as an actor.
Q. You had given an interview a few years ago where you had singled out Irrfan Khan as one of your inspirations. It is very unfortunate that the actor passed away recently. Is there a specific performance of his that has affected you?
It felt like such a personal loss because I’ve been following his work for so long. He raised the standard of acting in this country with each character he played… so real and such a great command on his craft. He was a true artist. So many of his films are inspiring. I think people should watch as many of his performances as possible.
Q. You and I have something in common, where you both come from a background and upbringing where films aren’t part of your social or familiar fabric. Any wisdom that you can share with similar people who are aspiring to join the industry?
I remember seeing this interview of an actor or an acting coach many years ago, and he was addressing students at an acting school. He was asked to give advice to aspiring actors. He said ‘quit!’ and everyone looked at him dumbfounded. Then he continued to clarify - ‘if you’ve ignored my advice, you’re already halfway there.’ That’s it. You’ll keep hearing ‘no’ everywhere you go. The advice is to have conviction in your talent and keep going.
Q. We’re living in a time where the uncertainty of the future is giving everyone a lot of anxiety. Do you ever have moments of insecurity about what lies ahead?
Actors are insecure all the time (laughs)! Our entire lives are crippled with anxiety about what we’ll end up doing after what we’re up to now. We only have this moment to give it our everything, because our whole careers are from project to project basis. I believe in destiny. I feel that this time is upon us to guide us to let go of our control issues. Let’s stop trying to control what happens in the future. I can have a plan, I can build a story in my head, but it rarely goes according to that plan. I’ve had that chance to introspect and this is what I’ve learned. Byron Katie, the author, has said, “life is never in our control. We only think it is when things are going our way.” Let things go the way they’re supposed to, by the will of God. Everything will work out.