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The very talented Ranveer Singh

He has a quirky dress sense, boundless energy and a very intelligent mind. But above all else, Ranveer Singh is immersed in his craft and constantly yearning to excel himself. And he realises that he is at that stage when the possibilities before him are, in one word, limitless.

Sourav Majumdar
Published: Jan 4, 2017 07:31:55 AM IST
Updated: Jan 6, 2017 04:01:18 PM IST

Forbes India Celebrity Rank 100 No. 12
Image: Abhay Singh
Styling By: Nitasha Gaurav; Make-Up: Mahadev Naik; Hair: Darshan Yewalekar; (Opening & This Page) Suit & Shirt: Raisson D’Etre by Govinda Mehta; Pocket square: Bro Code; Watch: Omega; Shoes: Dune London

It’s December 9, and Befikre, the comeback directorial vehicle of Yash Raj Films (YRF) boss Aditya Chopra—who directed the Shah Rukh Khan monster hit Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge—has released.

The film, a romantic comedy, stars Ranveer Singh and Vaani Kapoor and has been the topic of much discussion since it marks Chopra’s return to direction after many years.

There’s a lot of activity at the YRF studio premises in Mumbai’s Andheri suburb. Shah Rukh Khan is in the building, delivering a TED talk, and an episode of Koffee With Karan, the chat show hosted by producer-director Karan Johar, with Anushka Sharma and Katrina Kaif as guests, is also being shot.

Amidst all this, Ranveer Singh makes an appearance in the building’s lounge. Singh is dressed in something that, to an ordinary person, would defy description: There’s a cape equivalent and a kind of a bandana to go with the ensemble. Sporting a wide smile and the beard he has grown for his latest film Padmavati, Singh greets me effervescently with a hug.

“This is an outfit by Hungarian designer Demobaza I am wearing, sir,” says Singh, 31, sensing my curiosity. “I researched him for many months and found him online. These are the most difficult clothes to find and I am wearing it from head to toe. I am obsessed with it now. I am in a phase where I only want to wear Demobaza.”

Singh goes on about his outfit with an impish smile: “It’s like something post-apocalyptic, as if the world has come to an end and these are the only clothes left. It looks like I am from The Hunger Games!

This is quintessential Ranveer Singh: Passionate and immersed in the present, yet articulate and clear about the image he is projecting. But beneath the casual veneer, he admits to being nervous about the release of his latest film, the first in which his mentor Chopra, who gave him his initial break in acting through YRF production Band Baaja Baaraat (BBB, 2010), is directing him.

Admittedly, Befikre is a big deal for Singh. “The film has very special significance. It’s a collaboration with a man who means the world to me, someone who had conviction in my talent and picked me up from pretty much nowhere, gave me a chance of a lifetime and made my childhood dream of becoming an actor in mainstream Hindi films come true.”

And Singh is indeed living his dream. Since he burst onto the scene with the sleeper hit BBB, Singh has done a variety of parts—a flirty conman in Ladies vs Ricky Bahl (2011), an intense lover in Lootera (2013), the don with a swagger in Gunday (2014), and, more recently, the confused urbane kid in Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) and Peshwa Bajirao in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s lavishly mounted megahit Bajirao Mastani the same year. With Bajirao, Singh has now broken into the top rung of actors in Hindi films, and many believe he is within kissing distance of being the next big superstar in Bollywood. Evidence of his meteoric rise: Singh has shot up from No 66 in the 2013 Forbes India Celebrity 100 List to No 37 in 2014, making it to No 30 in 2015 and finishing at No 12 in the 2016 Forbes India Celebrity 100 List.  

Despite his current status and the attention he is getting, Singh remains fiercely loyal to Chopra. “I will be loyal to him till my last breath. A lot of people say ‘you’ve paid your dues to Adi, you should move on, you’ve grown out of Yash Raj’. That’s not how I view it at all. It’s really not about the first break. His support, his contribution to my career is invaluable and immense. Everything I do in my life is to make him proud.”

And in many ways, Singh still remains the boy YRF launched six years ago, comfortable and very much at home in the YRF premises as he waves and winks at people passing us by, or cuddles a baby whose mother is visiting the studio. An attendant at the coffee shop in the YRF lounge comes up as we speak and Singh gives him a hug. “I want to wish you all the best for the new release,” the man says. “My wife has also wished you luck.”

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In his growing-up years Singh saw his businessman father Jugjeet Singh Bhavnani go through huge highs and difficult lows but keep his family—his mother, sister and him—insulated from the vagaries he faced in his business.

Image: Abhay Singh
Styling By: Nitasha Gaurav; Make-Up: Mahadev Naik; Hair: Darshan Yewalekar; (Opening & This Page) Suit & Shirt: Raisson D’Etre by Govinda Mehta; Pocket square: Bro Code; Watch: Omega; Shoes: Dune London
Image: Abhay Singh

“As a businessman, things weren’t always rosy for him and there were many factors which affected his business which he wasn’t responsible for,” recalls Singh, adding that his father was the sole breadwinner till Singh started working at the age of 25. “In passing he would tell me things which have stuck with me from a very tender age. He would say there are so many things that aren’t in your control. The only thing is what you put in, your hard work. That’s all you have and that’s what you should concern yourself with.”

That lesson stuck with Singh who says he still feels happiest when people compliment him for the hard work he puts into his parts. “Acting is a talent and talent I believe is God-given. I cannot take any credit for it. So when people compliment me on something tangible, my hard work, that really resonates with me. I really love what I do so it doesn’t feel like hard work. But I have seen my father work round the clock, not sleep for days, and have understood work ethics and values. I’ve understood from him that doggedness, persistence and resilience are the main things.”

The freedom his parents gave him to choose his career also helped Singh find his groove. “The reason I was ever able to pursue my dream of being an actor is because my parents supported it. When I called my father at the age of 19 from [Indiana] University saying I don’t want to continue with media studies and want to try and become an actor, it didn’t take him a minute to say ‘do what your heart says’,” he says.

In the early years, after signing up to study commerce in junior college, a decision he now says was wrong since he was always inclined towards the arts, Singh thought he would become a copywriter. He also did internships with advertising agencies like O&M and J Walter Thompson. But he soon realised that acting was where his heart was and decided to give it a serious shot.

Once he got the go-ahead from his parents, Singh, who credits his grandmother and her love of films as another influence which egged him towards the performing arts, decided to get some formal training in acting. He opted for it as a minor in university and enrolled in the acting department. Back home, he signed up at Kishore Namit Kapoor’s acting school and also joined Theatre Professionals Pvt Ltd. “I undertook training because I wanted to stay in the groove and needed that validation to keep me going. If I was topping every class then I knew I could do it. I didn’t want to be on some deluded chase,” he says. He recalls that his father also did some “side checks” with people to understand whether his son had what it took. “He got good feedback,” Singh says with a smile.

He says he understands only too well that getting the support of his parents and being raised in Mumbai gave him a huge advantage. “Though my dad was in a phase where he was struggling in his business, he was like a rock for me. He got me the best photographer [Abhay Singh, who also did the photoshoot for this story] to shoot my portfolio. He used some contacts to get me the best printing facility for my portfolio. He got me the best trainer. Whatever he could contribute he did, not knowing whether it would pay off at all.”

The other big advantage was being a Mumbai boy, and not an outsider. “I used to meet strugglers at the acting institute. I also meet them now and I realise I had a huge advantage being born and raised in Mumbai. The big bad city can eat you up in a matter of time. The rent, the difficulties… it’s a difficult city to come from outside and make your career in and I understand that all too well.”

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Cut to 2016. Despite the success he’s enjoying, Singh says he’s far from satisfied. “Yes, it’s been a stupendous year with Dil Dhadakne Do and Bajirao, but for me it’s a very fine line between satisfaction and complacency. So I am not satisfied. I have a ravenous appetite. You’d think after successful films and some milestones you’d be satisfied but for me the opposite has happened. I have become hungrier. Bajirao was a landmark but I feel like the same guy who was doing BBB.”    

Image: Abhay Singh
Suit & Shirt: Raisson D’Etre by Govinda Mehta; Overcoat: Canali; Tie: Jack & Jones; Watch: Omega (This Page) Suit: Hugo Boss at The Collective; Sweater: Ermenegildo Zegna; Pocket square: Hackett London

Singh says he realises how fortunate he is to be in his current position. “Over a period of time I have grown and matured a bit. But I will give myself some credit that I put myself in a position where I could get lucky. And that I worked very hard for. Now I want to see where this can go. For me now the possibilities are limitless. So I want to keep my focus on the craft, I want to let the rest follow.”

He says he wants to follow in the footsteps of his two big influences, Michael Jackson and Sachin Tendulkar, who focussed on what they needed to do and “the rest just followed”.

“This whole gamut is limitless,” Singh says of acting as a craft. “If I work on something hard enough there’s no telling what I can transform into. I feel after six years, even after movies like Lootera and Bajirao, I have not even scratched the surface.”

This constant yearning to do more, do better, is evident through our conversation. Ranveer Singh is fidgety, restless as he sits on the sofa, his eyes constantly scanning the surroundings, his eyes sparkling and his mind ticking away as he speaks. This boundless energy that he embodies, and the ability to transform himself for the part he plays, has earned him high praise from some of Hindi cinema’s biggest names.

Says Bhansali, who is now directing Singh for the third time in a row, after Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela (2013) and Bajirao: “I find in him a certain understanding of my slightly abstract and slightly zonal performances, which are a little stylised; sometimes over-the-top, sometimes very measured. He understands all that, then translates it beautifully, and he works very hard. In him I have found a friend and a great actor.”

Adds mentor Chopra: “From the very first day that I directed Ranveer, he was Shah Rukh for me. The same energy, the same brilliance, the same intellect. I knew I was in safe hands… I know that for Ranveer it’s a very big deal to be directed by me but honestly, I would not have made Befikre if an actor called Ranveer Singh did not exist.”

Singh, who admits to being extremely nervous earlier, to the point where he would even hyperventilate out of nervousness, says he now has learnt to keep it under control. But there is a constant effort to do different things and test his own abilities. With Bhansali’s period film Padmavati, Singh has come up with a fresh new challenge for himself: Playing Alauddin Khilji, a dark, negative character. “I want to do different things every single time. I have been very fortunate, but I understand that I make very risky choices. In Padmavati I am playing a negative character, an anti-hero. It’s possibly the riskiest decision I’ve ever taken. But it’s an opportunity.”

Singh says playing the anti-hero will also have another effect. “I can let all the darkness that has built up over the years inside me out on the big screen. I feel playing this character will be a catharsis. I will come out of it a better person.”

A lot of this risk-taking has come from Bhansali, Singh says. A high-stakes player who makes bold choices in his movies, Bhansali has taught him to be “daring”. “I am doing my third film with him and he still surprises me every day on the set. He surprises me, I surprise him, we surprise each other and that is the beauty of our collaboration,” he says.

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Singh’s “daring” nature also translates to his quirky dress sense: He is comfortable being seen in Dali-esque moustaches and printed suits and is unapologetic about it. While his critics speculate that this could be a part of an intelligently crafted persona which distinguishes himself from the rest of the pack, Singh laughs off the notion.

Image: Abhay Singh
Suit & Shirt: Raisson D’Etre by Govinda Mehta; Overcoat: Canali; Tie: Jack & Jones; Watch: Omega (This Page) Suit: Hugo Boss at The Collective; Sweater: Ermenegildo Zegna; Pocket square: Hackett London

“First of all, thanks to everyone who believes this because you agree that I stand out. But in my line things that are calculated and then done don’t last very long. It would be giving me too much credit because to do something like this by design and calculation with conviction would need superhuman effort,” he says. “I assure you it is me being me. Me having removed the filter. Me having been liberated from the fear of judgment.”

Singh says this “liberation” happened around the time he started getting validation for his work. That came in the form of critical acclaim for Lootera and Ram-Leela.

“With that validation I became more comfortable with myself, wearing what I want, not bothering about whether people will like it. Regardless of what I wear some will like it and some not. I may as well wear what I like. I am doing it for my own amusement. You may like it, others may think it’s bizarre but I don’t care because I am very happy wearing it. #Nofilter and #Nofear! You do you, as they say,” he says with a laugh.

Under his devil-may-care exterior, however, resides a sharp business side which understands that he is at that stage where a Brand Ranveer is also taking shape and needs to be nurtured. Singh currently endorses about 14 top brands, including Maruti Suzuki’s Ciaz, Kellogg’s, Adidas, Colgate, Royal Stag, MakeMyTrip and Jack & Jones.

He says he has created a system where, despite the fact that he often needs to get into a “rabbit hole” to play some intense parts, he knows there’s also the enterprise called Brand Ranveer that’s constantly at work. “So from morning till evening I can do my creative work. Then I devote a certain amount of time to the enterprise because there are so many endorsements. That requires my attention and like a good professional I give it time during the day. If I know a difficult scene is coming up, I give my people a heads-up so they know I am not available for two or three days,” he says.

The only time Singh lets a little anger show is when I ask him about a newspaper article which said that he endorses too many brands. “I completely disagree. Certain celebrities have 20, 25, 35 [brands]. Some of my peers have 17 or 18. I am very selective. Not a single campaign of mine looks like the other.”

But those whose brands he endorses couldn’t be happier with Singh. Says RS Kalsi, executive director (marketing and sales), Maruti Suzuki India Ltd, who deals with Singh for the endorsement of the successful car brand Ciaz: “We are very happy with our association with him. Ciaz came in as a challenger when it was launched. That’s why we came up with the tagline ‘Make Way’. When we selected Ranveer for Ciaz two years ago, he was also a challenger with no roots in the industry. He is also versatile and multifaceted, which is also what we wanted to convey as brand attributes.”

Maruti Suzuki, typically, does not opt for celebrity endorsements and Singh is an exception. Kalsi adds that the car maker, which signed on Ranveer when it launched Ciaz in October 2014, has just renewed his contract for another two years. He says unlike other celebrities who charge extra for additional work, Singh happily goes the extra mile without seeking extra payment. In just two years, Ciaz has achieved market leadership and is selling over 5,000 units every month. “I often tell Ranveer he is our lucky mascot,” Kalsi adds.

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A keen observer of Hollywood cinema (Singh has just turned down what he says was an exciting Hollywood offer to do Padmavati), Singh is influenced by the works of Woody Allen, Daniel Day-Lewis, Robert DeNiro, Martin Scorcese, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, among others and music directors like Hans Zimmer. “When I watch them, the only word that comes to my mind is disbelief. Their work is so incredible,” he says.

But even as he absorbs the finest in cinema from the world over, Singh has his eye firmly on the prize at home: Superstardom.

“I think the next few years are important. I am not 25, I am 31. In the next few years I hope to achieve superstardom. My definition of that is that a mass audience will come on the first day to fill all the seats in the theatre to watch a film if my face is on it, regardless of the title, packaging, and the trailer. If it’s my movie, they’re coming. It’s simple,” says Singh. He says while he would love to be a writer-director like Allen, who he thinks is a “true auteur”, at this point he is not ready to put a part of his soul out there for public scrutiny and judgment. He says he wants to focus on mass entertainers, movies that do not alienate any section of the audience.

How does he react to the highs and lows in the unpredictable world of Hindi cinema?  

“I have a simple philosophy, a Buddhist way of being. I don’t get too carried away with success and don’t get too bogged down by failure. Just like the success is not just because of you, you also can’t beat yourself up if a film fails. You did your best. I do feel disappointed on behalf of the entire team. I feel bad, but I don’t wallow in it.”

For now, wallowing should be farthest from Ranveer Singh’s mind. The script just got a great deal more interesting. 

(This story appears in the 06 January, 2017 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)