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How Ranveer Singh made it

In late 2015, Singh spent a gruelling five weeks on promotional work for Bajirao Mastani. Following him on the road is an education in the massive promotional apparatus that drives fame in modern Bollywood. BCCL
In late 2015, Singh spent a gruelling five weeks on promotional work for Bajirao Mastani. Following him on the road is an education in the massive promotional apparatus that drives fame in modern Bollywood. BCCL
01 February, 2016

IN A CORRIDOR HUMMING WITH VOICES at the Courtyard by Marriott hotel in Bhopal, I stood outside Ranveer Singh’s door with about a dozen others. It was nearly ten on a morning in late November, and the actor had landed just a few hours ago on the earliest flight from Mumbai, which had taken off before dawn. I had seen him on board, dressed in a tracksuit and with a flight pillow around his neck. The previous night, Singh’s manager had told me that “he isn’t a morning person at all.”

The star’s presence created a frisson of excitement in the aircraft. Two young women went into a fever of delight, and tried to get his autograph through his bodyguard. Watching them, a middle-aged man seated next to me asked if there was an actor on board. I mentioned Singh’s name, and pointed to a photograph in the newspaper, of him in a military-style blue cap and jacket, with colourful medals and epaulettes, plus giant aviator sunglasses. The man glared at the image, and handed the paper back to me.

When we landed in Bhopal, Singh went rapidly through the motions of a welcome ceremony at the airport, his sunglasses on in the early morning light. He was dogged by fans, and trailed by a camera crew that had flown in with us to shoot a behind-the-scenes look at the day. Singh walked out of the terminal, got behind the wheel of a waiting car, and drove off—which in itself caused a minor sensation. In his wake, people scrolled through their phones, checking the photographs they had managed to grab. Singh’s personal staff waited to collect his baggage. They were dressed for the mild Mumbai winter, and shivered in the cold.

I drove to the hotel with Singh’s valet and his make-up man, and, about two hours later, joined the crowd milling outside his room: event managers, marketing people, sundry reporters, and his own entourage, all component parts of the Bollywood promotional machine. At the heart of the bustle, and calling the shots, was a small group of organisers—young men and women with plastic badges around their necks, working with absorbed detachment on their smartphones and laptops.

I was handed a copy of a rundown sheet. Singh was in Bhopal to promote Bajirao Mastani, an opulent swords-and-dhotis historical saga due for release in a few weeks. The film tells the story of a much-fabled romance between Singh’s character, Bajirao—an eighteenth-century peshwa, or prime minister, of the Maratha Empire—and Mastani, a half-Muslim princess from Bundelkhand, played by Deepika Padukone. The actor’s schedule was packed. First, Singh was to give one-on-one interviews to various media groups and “partners.” Later, he would hold a press conference, and appear at a meet-and-greet with winners of a local contest. The highlight of the day was the launch of a song titled ‘Malhari,’ described in publicity materials as a victory anthem, which was to be preceded by a “victory parade” at an adjoining mall. Singh was not expected to venture anywhere beyond the mall and hotel, and at 4 pm he was due on a flight back to Mumbai.

A select few walked in and out of the star’s room, and at the door his bodyguard chatted with the valet and the make-up man. Every so often, the corridor became crowded, and the organisers swept people out into a restaurant area behind a key-carded glass door a few metres away. Each time that door opened, voices cascaded in. “The edition will close… Boss, everything is important to me… Let him be completely ready…” As time passed, these became more strident, their demands more urgent. Amid the crescendo, I heard an exasperated “Arre naha raha hai na.” (He’s bathing.)

Finally, Singh’s manager held his door open and signalled for a few of us to enter. I walked in to a swelling wave of music, with frenetic beats pounding out from a portable speaker hooked up to a laptop. Singh stood framed against large windows, resplendent in an embroidered dark-blue and brown frock coat worn over a printed white kurta and blue churidars. His sunglasses were on, his hair was cropped short except for a sprig arranged into a ponytail just behind the crown of his head, and his moustache was waxed at a jaunty angle. He danced as we entered, pumping his hands to the music and punching the air. “Woooh,” he said, edging in close to the camera crew as it recorded every moment. “Yeaaah!”

The music died down, allowing the assembled reporters to exclaim over Singh’s “incredible energy” and how good he looked. A team from a radio channel approached him and switched on their recorders. “Shall we start the interview?” a young man asked tentatively. “You must!” came Singh’s ringing reply.

After questions on Bajirao Mastani and how Singh liked Bhopal, the reporter asked, “What would be the first line of your biography?” “He was a good man,” Singh replied, after a moment’s thought. “Wow,” the reporter said, in an awed tone, then briskly added, “Ok, we’ll need some endorsements.”

I watched as Singh zipped through a series of such interviews, spewing out endorsements for each new radio channel: “Hi, main hoon Ranveer Singh, and you’re listening to me on...” He answered questions on his clothes, and in particular on shaving his head for his role in Bajirao. “Tell us how you felt at the exact moment the razor touched your hair,” one journalist said. Through much of this, Singh spoke while looking out the windows—“It’s so green here!”—and not making eye contact with his interviewers. Several reporters gave him gifts, ranging from jars of Nutella to batuas—small cloth purses that Bhopal is noted for. “Wow, awesome,” Singh said, examining the purses. And then, “What are these?” All the while, he sipped black coffee, and, on request, mimicked the distinctive, musical Bhopali accent as he invited people to his “victory parade” later in the day—“Aadaab Bhopal, salaam Bhopal, aake milio.”

The interviews ended, and Singh turned again to the camera crew. “Aren’t you rolling?” he asked the young woman behind the camera. “Triple speed, baby, trip-ple speed,“ he said, snapping his fingers. “You have to work at triple speed with me.”

As he left the room, about 20 minutes later, Singh found himself next to yet another journalist waiting for an interview. He couldn’t talk to her then, so he put an arm around her shoulder and marched down the packed corridor, scattering people left and right and leaving his team to try and keep pace. “Tez tez,” he said. “That’s how we do it.”

AS 2015 WOUND DOWN, Ranveer Singh was at a pivotal moment. His Bollywood career was five years old, he had recently turned 30, and his record over his seven starring roles so far had been erratic, both in commercial and critical terms. In an industry where young talent often fails to make the leap to established clout, he was striving to cement his place.

Singh rose from anonymity with his 2010 debut, Band Baaja Baaraat, where he starred opposite the already famous Anushka Sharma. It wasn’t an expensive film—costing Rs 10 crore, or roughly $2 million at the time—but it was produced by the behemoth studio Yash Raj Films. It did well at the box office, but its success went beyond just numbers. The heart-warming romantic comedy, featuring Singh as a small-town boy striving to make it in the big city, struck a chord with critics and audiences, and is remembered as a defining portrait of its era. With the momentum from that dream start, in 2011 Singh starred in the moderately successful Ladies vs Ricky Bahl, another romantic comedy. His next project, Lootera, came out in July 2013, and allowed him to display his dramatic range as he appeared in a more intense and understated avatar. The tragic romance, set in 1950s Bengal, received critical praise, but disappointed financially. Singh was building a reputation as a good actor in relatively modest productions, but had yet to be tested in anything on a grander scale.

That changed later the same year, with the November release of Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela. An elaborate and expensive production, it cast Singh opposite Deepika Padukone, a female lead from the top echelons of star power. Despite protests and court proceedings over allegations that it offended communal sentiments, the film was a hit—the first major one of Singh’s career. It made over Rs 100 crore, won numerous awards, and earned Singh and Padukone plaudits for their on-screen chemistry. Now, there was talk of Singh becoming that rare thing: not just a strong actor, but a consistently bankable, blockbusting star.

Over the next two years, though, that buzz cooled. Singh’s two releases in 2014—Gunday and Kill Dil—were largely forgettable. In mid 2015, he appeared in Dil Dhadakne Do, a comedic drama about a dysfunctional rich family, which put in a respectable commercial showing. Singh got kudos for his portrait of the family’s young son, and held his own in a star-studded ensemble cast, but credit for the film’s success was spread between its many strong actors. Bajirao Mastani was to be his only other release for the year, and Singh needed the film to be a hit.

Bajirao Mastani was, without doubt, his biggest test yet, and his largest gamble. With a budget of Rs 120 crore, or almost $18 million, upon its premiere the film was to become the seventh most expensive Indian film released to date. Singh was cast in a role originally imagined, over a decade ago, for the superstar Salman Khan, and he was the least proven of a trio of leads that included Padukone and Priyanka Chopra, another of Bollywood’s top actors. He spent almost a year working exclusively on the film, and weathered injuries during the shoot. According to media reports, he also agreed to cut his fee, by an undisclosed amount, in return for a share of the film’s profits. The financial risk aside, if the film flopped, Bollywood’s faith in Singh’s big-star draw would be seriously dented.

When I met Singh, he was working 12-hour days to promote Bajirao Mastani, and ending most conversations with a request: “Please, watch this film, we have all worked very hard on it.” Bhopal was just the latest stop on a five-week itinerary that took him across the country from his base in Mumbai. In the corridor outside Singh’s room, I asked several organisers why they had chosen Bhopal for the day’s song launch. “Because it was a really important city for the Peshwa I believe,” a young man told me, without looking up from his phone. For him, we could have been anywhere.

Seeing Singh on the road was an education in the massive promotional apparatus that drives fame in modern Bollywood. Shortly before the release of Bajirao Mastani, the film journalist and critic Anupama Chopra wrote on Facebook, “One of the more astounding things I’ve heard this week is that the entourage cost on the promotions of Bajirao Mastani is one crore”—almost $150,000. “Which means,” she continued,

that the producers … are paying this much money for hair, make-up, security, stylists and staff of the principal cast as they promote the film. … Stardom in India has become a spectator sport. Stars are brands, which need to be on 24/7. There are cameras everywhere, pictures are circulated instantly on the net and a bad-hair day can be preserved for all posterity. Which means that artists must appear groomed permanently. “One day you aren’t perfect,” a talent manager tells me, “and the media just kills you.”

Singh’s dream debut in Band Baaja Baaraat and the critical success of Lootera helped establish him as a good actor before he was tested in more comercially ambituous projects.

In my time with him, Singh executed flawlessly the role of an always-on, affable star. Even his shortest conversations were marked with warmth, and he lavished compliments on those around him. He punctuated his sentences with whoops, high fives and fist bumps. He eschewed handshakes and air kisses for effusive hugs and real smacks on the cheek. Relentlessly and convincingly, he pitched the idea of himself as everyone’s friend, and as a great guy.

But there is also an edge to Singh’s appeal. A large part of this is due to his dress sense—he has flaunted, with equal aplomb, everything from the dandiest of suits to a Super Mario costume—which has spawned a virtual cottage industry of listicles titled along the lines of “Ranveer Singh is Bollwood’s fashion icon” or “Ranveer’s most embarrassing fashion moments.” In a star-scape of PR-monitored perfection and expensively but blandly clad contemporaries, this has given Singh an aura of riskiness and unpredictability.

So have some of his media appearances off the movie screen. In 2014, he became the first noted Bollywood actor to appear in a condom advertisement—a colourful, innuendo-laden music video. And in December that year, he volunteered to be playfully ridiculed by comedians before a live audience as part of a “roast.” After a video of the show went viral online, it landed its organisers and participants, Singh included, in legal trouble. In a sense, his career is a measured experiment in creating a new, more outré kind of Bollywood star, one who is ready to bend, if not rewrite, the rules. Clearly, he is doing something right. Towards the end of last year, he broke into the bottom ranks of the industry’s ten highest-paid men.

For people who have known Singh since his earliest forays into Bollywood, what truly sets him apart is his relentless excitement for his work. An industry insider, who asked not to be named, told me about how the young man, when starting out in Bollywood as an assistant director, “would turn up to parties with his music, and dance and keep everyone entertained. He would perform like he was auditioning for a role right there.” Today, the industry insider said, even with several successes under his belt, Singh still retains that drive. “I see him and I think, yeh abhi bhi audition de raha hai”—it’s like he’s still auditioning—“still hungry for a chance to perform, still ready to put genuine effort into being loved.”

I FIRST MET SINGH IN MID NOVEMBER, just days after he finished filming for Bajirao Mastani, at the sprawling studios of Yash Raj Films in Andheri—a Mumbai suburb, and the closest thing there is to a capital of Bollywood. When I arrived for our appointment he was deep in meetings with various teams. As I waited in the foyer next to a glass-walled cabin, he peered out from over the strategically frosted middle section of the floor-to-ceiling panes. He made fish faces at me through the glass, raised two fingers, and mouthed “two minutes.” As the meeting continued, I saw his sneakers jiggling restlessly, twisting around his chair, never still for too long. Nearby, another group of people waiting to see Singh were talking about his moustache. “The day after Bajirao releases, he will shave it,” a young man declared. “Whatever happens, the next day, he’s gonna shave it off.”

It took longer than two minutes, but eventually Singh emerged and walked towards me. At close range, he struck me as slighter and shorter than his on-screen image had led me to expect. I offered a handshake. Instead, I was folded into a effusive hug.

Within minutes, we were ushered into a different glass cabin. As I began my questions, he picked up my voice recorder and started talking into it, while walking back and forth across the room in a semi-circle. I turned my head from side to side to follow him, like I was watching a very long, very slow tennis rally.

Ranveer Singh Bhavnani grew up, with an elder sister, in an affluent family in Khar, a neighbourhood in west Mumbai that borders upmarket Bandra. His father, Jagjit Singh Bhavnani, is a businessman who dealt mostly in automotive retail. “But it was never one thing,” Singh told me. “He had an interest in leather, hospitality, medical business. He’s always hustling, which is something he teaches me. You can’t have just one thing, you gotta have a few things going on.”

As a child, Singh said, he was “the plump kid in front of the TV, a filmi keeda. I was basically an entertainment junkie, a huge consumer of anything mainstream.” He spent his days watching hit films of the era, from Shahenshah, Hum and Ram Lakhan to Rambo. But “I watched even the unsuccessful ones,” he recalled. “My maternal grandmother’s neighbours had just one VHS tape of the film Andar Baahar that we watched so many times I lost count.”

When he wasn’t watching movies, Singh was reading about Bollywood actors in magazines such as Filmfare and Cine Blitz, or play-acting scenes from movies he admired. “I would be Tiger from Hum, or tie a blanket around my arm and be Shahenshah. I fell in love with the actors who played these characters.” Somewhere in this period, cable television arrived in India, and, he said, “changed my life.” It exposed Singh to a world beyond his home and city, and particularly to American shows, with their accents and mannerisms. He imbibed them just as willingly as he did Hindi films.

Singh realised early on that he wanted to be a part of Bollywood. One memory in particular stood out. When he was “four or five or six years old,” Singh said, he was at a birthday party with his dadi, or paternal grandmother, and she “was getting really bored.” The song ‘Jumma chumma de de,’ from Hum, had recently stormed across the country,and at some point it started to play. Singh, encouraged by his dadi, began to dance. “It was just us two, she was clapping, and someone saw this fat kid dancing to ‘Jumma chumma’ and called someone else, who called someone else. They turned the music up, and suddenly everyone’s there, clapping and whistling.” It was Singh’s first experience of applause. “I was like, ‘Shit! This is a real trip!’ That’s when I knew I wanted to be a performer. Though I couldn’t articulate it, and I didn’t understand it. But I felt it.”

For all his affability, Singh is strictly guarded about certain parts of his life—including his relationship with Deepika Padukone, who first worked with him in Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram- Leela.

Singh honed his performance skills through his years at school, emerging as the centre of attention at annual-day functions. “That would be my day to shine,” he said. “I would be the lead in most plays, and dance in most of the sequences.” As he recalled it, he was good at sports and in his studies—“except maths, that I failed every year”—but “I was outstandingly good at performing.”

But while he dreamed of a career as a film star, Singh was aware of the hurdles before him. “When I was in school, it was a staunchly nepotistic scene,” he said. “I looked around, and the only people becoming heroes were sons of producers or directors or actors. People like Hrithik Roshan, Abhishek Bachchan, Zayed Khan—everyone who had some kind of lineage. And it was a given that the best opportunities would be reserved for them.”

Singh does have a peripheral family connection to Bollywood, through the actor Anil Kapoor, whose wife is related to Singh’s mother. While Singh was growing up, Kapoor was at the peak of his stardom. “We would see him at parties and be like, ‘Daaamn, Anil Kapoor,’” Singh told me. “I was totally star-struck.” With that, and being brought up in Mumbai, he said, “you naturally knew people. But no one who could guarantee a foot in the door. And I understood this, at age 15. So I let the dream go.”

Exploring his options after finishing school, Singh hit upon copywriting. In 2003, at the age of 18, he left home to pursue an undergraduate degree at Indiana University in the United States, on track for a career in advertising. He described his years there as a time of discovery, part of which was encountering different styles of cinema. “That was the first time I saw Taxi Driver, and it changed my life,” he said. “I was like, aisi bhi picture banti hai?” (Movies can be like this too?)

To feed his hunger for films, Singh managed to get a job at a lending library on campus. “Business was slow,” he said. “So I spent all day watching films like Apocalypse Now, Scarface, Kubrick’s work, and getting paid for it.”

Singh’s initial post-graduation plan was to work for advertising firms in Chicago or New York for a few years before returning to Mumbai. But in his second year, late to enrol for classes at the start of a semester, Singh found that one of the few options still available was an intro-level acting course. So he joined it.

He found himself with a “really diverse crowd—African American students, Koreans, students from rural parts of America, people studying for business majors or to become doctors.” For the first class, instead of the usual introductions, the instructor asked everyone to perform something. “Someone did a dance, someone told a joke,” Singh said. “Sabki phati hui thhi” (Everyone was terrified). He asked himself what he knew, “and it was the monologue from Deewaar.”

Singh rattled off the Hindi lines made famous by Amitabh Bachchan—Hum dono ek saathh isi footpath se uthe thhe, lekin aaj tum kahan reh gaye aur main kahan reh gayato a room full of people who did not understand the language. When he finished, “all these kids were slow-clapping. And that walk back to my chair, and people slapping my back, reminded me of that taste of applause. I was like, ‘This is it! Fuck advertising! Fuck copywriting! I want to be an actor.’”

That evening, he called his father and announced his intention. His family, while supportive, insisted that he finish his degree first. Over the next two years, Singh told me, he took all the acting courses he could, and “aced them.” He returned to Mumbai in 2007 to take his chances. “So what if my chances were one in a million?” he recalled thinking. “I’ll do it while I have time on my side.”

I FOLLOWED SINGH down several hotel corridors and into a large conference room, where a number of radio and camera crews sat waiting. A knot of photographers and cameramen converged around him, and through the blur of bodies, I watched him settle down at a table to answer questions. Some of the hotel’s staff also pushed forward to take pictures on their phones, only to be stopped by his bodyguard.

One reporter remarked that the star “always talked to the media happily.” “I like people,” Singh responded. “Are you the way you appear on screen?” another asked. “I think my predisposition is to be sombre,” he replied. Someone asked him to list his favourite books. “Ji main padhta nahin hoon,” he said winningly—I don’t read—before describing how motivational audio books helped him cope with a shoulder injury he sustained while making Bajirao Mastani.

Each crew left Singh a bag of assorted gifts, all of them bearing conspicuous logos. The actor kept his sunglasses on throughout, and at one point he walked to a window and turned his back to the crowd while his make-up man tended to his appearance. By the end of about half an hour, Singh had finished his interviews, endorsed several radio programmes and channels, and signed 18 branded mugs with variations of “With love, Ranveer.” As things wound down, he recorded messages wishing Bhopal a happy new year. And, then, a merry Christmas.

Singh was now ready for the parade. As we prepared to leave, someone from the organising team handed me a laminated pass with “Bajirao Mastani Crew” emblazoned on it. We walked into an elevator, with a chain of well-built men around us. Singh’s valet slipped in too, carrying the laptop and speakers from the star’s room. As the doors closed, Singh told one of the men with us, “I never go anywhere without my theme music.” He reached out to the keyboard. “In fact, now is a good time.”

Paced by a throbbing rhythm, Singh exited the elevator, strode through a short, dark corridor, and out of a service entrance into the cool air of a parking lot, which was rich with the smell of fresh dung. A golden chariot drawn by four horses was waiting by the door. Next to the chariot stood a dozen or so men with luxuriant moustaches and armed with cardboard spears, and about 30 others, dressed in bright yellow dhotis, beating drums. Before us stretched the brand-pocked facade of the mall, and below it a promenade running its entire length. A large crowd had gathered behind barricades set up around its perimeter, but many had slipped past the barriers and now crowded as close to Singh as they could. At the other end of the promenade was an uncovered stage.

The star mounted the chariot, and, with the weaponed men as a guard of honour and the drummers going strong, set off. He raised his arms to the crowd, and it answered with a roar. Watching him, it was clear that he revelled in the energy of the hundreds cheering for him. Gesturing expansively, and flinging kisses in every direction,he egged on those screaming out his name from behind the barricades, and those watching from further away, from roofs across the road, from billboards and trees. Hundreds of smartphones, held aloft in hundreds of hands, tracked him. From the stage, a young female anchor in an orange-and-gold lehenga and choli kept up a string of welcomes and exhortations. “Bajirao, jaldi ao, mat tadpao,” she trilled, her amplified voice rising over the noise of the crowd.

After completing its slow journey, Singh’s chariot stopped by the stage, and a chain of bodyguards ushered him onto the platform. He extravagantly complimented the anchor on her beauty, and handed her a rose. Then, he added roguishly, “Ai hai, sharma gayeen?” (Did I embarrass you?) He played the crowd unerringly, feigning confusion over the anchor’s arch questions and then addressing the gathering in the local style. “Bhopal, kya ho riyaa hai?” he yelled, before asking everyone to come and see the film.

The anchor retreated, and several dhoti-clad dancers rushed the front of the stage. With them backing him, Singh launched into a dance, to a single verse from ‘Malhari.’ There were no lights or special effects, not even the old stage-show standby of gushing smoke. Nothing besides Singh, the dancers, and the overwhelming burst of the music. Singh jumped, shook his head, and enthusiastically slashed the air with his arms in time to the rhythm.

The music stopped, and the backup dancers moved off stage. Singh settled into a few minutes of banter with the anchor and the audience. The show, it seemed, was now to wind down. But suddenly, Singh decided otherwise. He felt like dancing again. From the sidelines, I watched as the organisers, caught unawares, scrambled to get the music back, and hustled the dancers on stage again. Singh repeated the earlier routine, and the crowd yelled its appreciation of the unexpected, spontaneous encore.

And then, the event was over. The entire thing had lasted just about half an hour. Singh thanked the audience for coming, and courteously escorted the anchor to the edge of the stage, where she proceeded to have a meltdown over an audio malfunction that had cut off her mic. Singh, meanwhile, headed swiftly into the mall, where the next event was to take place, with his bodyguards fending off the crowd as it rushed after him. As Singh made his way through the mall’s back corridors, I followed some of the organisers into an elevator inside. Looking down as the glass capsule rose, I sensed Singh’s movements by sound, following his location by the roar of the pursuing mob.

Earlier in the day, I had wandered into the parking lot as preparations for the parade were under way. The moustached “guards” and dhoti-clad drummers were already there, waiting for things to begin. The moustached men, I was told, usually worked as gatemen at weddings and receptions. I asked a young man in a yellow dhoti why he was here. Hero aa raha hai,” he told me—a hero is coming. Which hero, I asked. His answer seemed both an indication of how far Singh had come, and how far he still had to go. “Salman Khan,” he said confidently, unfazed by the mocking laughter of his friends.

ONCE BACK HOME IN MUMBAI, at the age of 21, Singh plunged into what might be best described as the deluxe version of the actor’s struggle. When we spoke, he was upfront about the fact that he could go through the lengthy process of finding his feet thanks to his family’s backing. “At no time did they say, ‘Boy, its time you contributed to the family income,’” he said. Even through the leanest periods, Singh’s father provided for his aspiring-actor essentials: gym fees, trainers, diet supplements. “My parents felt the sting, I know they did, but they never let me feel it.”

Over a five hour marathon of public and media appearances in Bhopal, Singh executed flawlessly the role of an always on star. PRAVEEN BAJPAI/HINDUSTAN TIMES/GETTY IMAGES

To get on-set experience, Singh began assisting a friend, the director Shaad Ali, mostly on shooting advertisements. “We were doing three-four ads a month, and I was working hard,” he said. After about two years on the job, he had built up a good network of contacts, but, he told me, he was losing his looks. “I had dark circles and had put on weight. I told myself, ‘Boy, you’re not going to become an actor looking like this.’”

So Singh quit, and started a course with the acting coach Kishore Namit Kapoor—something of an institution for Bollywood hopefuls. His experience of this rite of passage was mixed. “Many of the classes were very Hindi-film specific,” he said, and focused on the highly melodramatic style that had dominated Bollywood over the preceding decades. “Like, the first monologue you had to perform was, ‘Ma ki chita pe rona, aur badle ka vaada karna’” (Crying over your mother’s funeral pyre, and vowing revenge), he told me. “That style of acting is redundant, in my opinion.” But still, Singh was finally performing again, and, as before, revelling in being before an audience.

Bajirao Mastani was Singh’s second film with Sanjay Leela Bhansali. “He told me to go make my character,” Singh said of the director. “The first time he met his Bajirao was on the sets.” COURTESY EROS INTL

Singh left the course shortly before it ended, and turned towards theatre. “I felt it was important to pay my dues, something like matha tekna zaroori hai,” he said. But he found that the production he set his heart on joining, helmed by the noted writer and director Makarand Deshpande, simply did not want him. After weeks of persistence, Singh snuck into a rehearsal, and set about “making myself useful to the actors, whether they wanted it or not.” For the rest of the production, he cleaned up, fetched chai and paan, and helped withcostumes. Soon, he went from “being unwanted to integral to indispensable. Because I was all over everything at a brass-tacks level, from the costume peti to loading the tempos to putting up the set.” In the end, he earned himself a two-line, walk-on part as a television cameraman. “Even in that role,” he said, he felt the thrill of performing for the public, “which was validation again.”

Meanwhile, Singh was being called to audition for movie parts, mostly by friends from his days as an assistant director. “And I would invariably land the role,” he said. But he turned them down, including parts in a few films made on “good budgets, that went on to do well.” He risked annoying producers who couldn’t fathom why he would spurn such opportunities. “I was holding out for something bigger,” Singh said, “though I didn’t know what it was or have anything planned. It was either very brave, or very stupid.”

This phase ended abruptly, Singh told me, after he had “a moment.” “One day, I was sitting with these guys who were in the same cesspool of struggling actors as me,” he told me. “And they said, ‘Picture ki shooting hai, chal ke dekhen?’” (There’s a shoot going on nearby, shall we go watch?) When they named the cast, Singh realised they were talking about a film he had turned down. “And I was like, ‘Have I totally fucked this up? I don’t want to be here! Eating vada pao! And having chai! I want to be there, acting!’” That night, he resolved to move things forward by producing a portfolio.

“It couldn’t be a run-of-the-mill portfolio, because having been an assistant director I knew where most of them ended up,” he said. “It had to have a first impact. If someone saw it, they should open the next page. And then they’d want to see the next page, and the next, until they’d be like, ‘Fuck, I can’t put this down.’”

Working as his own art director, Singh “designed every shot and every setup,” and hired a famous photographer. He couldn’t have afforded this, he told me, “but my father pulled it through.” Singh wanted the portfolio printed and bound like a coffee-table book, but, again, he found that would cost more than he could pay. Through a friend of his father who owned a print shop, he secured a discounted rate, with the condition that the printing would have to happen between midnight and 6 am. To save on manpower, Singh cut the pages himself. “Once it was made,” he told me, “it was a spanking-ass portfolio.” I asked if he still had copies, and he replied with clear pride, “Of course, I have several copies. I think my mother has one in her safe.”

Armed with this “calling card,” Singh began what he called his “struggling actor’s hustle”—getting his portfolio into the hands of people who mattered. “I would go up to people at restaurants, give it to fellow actors and assistant directors, even to people at traffic signals,” he said. Along the way, he experienced what he called the “dark side of the entertainment industry.” One leading producer, he recalled, summoned him to his office and deliberately set a large dog on him, just to amuse his watching friends. Once, he said, a casting agent invited him to a house in Andheri, and he arrived to find that the man “just wanted to get in my pants.”

One of Singh’s main allies was Shanoo Sharma, a close friend who was then making a name for herself as a casting director. They had hit it off at a party of Shanoo’s that Singh gatecrashed on a visit home from college, where they ended up dancing together to the soundtrack of the 1989 hit Ram Lakhan. Now, she was helping him rehearse scenes for auditions, and drawing on their shared love of Bollywood films to give him inspiration and support.

One evening in 2010, Singh told me, he was out on a date with “a very beautiful girl,” when his phone rang. It was Shanoo. “But I was totally into my date,” Singh said, so he ignored the call. When Shanoo kept ringing, he put his phone face-down on a table to avoid distraction. When he flipped it back around, he said, there were seven missed calls, and one text. “It was a two-word message: Adi, full stop, Chopra, full stop.”

The casting director Shanoo Sharma, here with Singh and his fellow young actor Arjun Kapoor, was a crucial ally on Singh’s path to stardom. “Now I know that my instinct when I met him was correct, that I could tell gold,” Shanoo said. COURTESY SHANOO SHARMA

Shanoo, over an informal meeting with Aditya Chopra, the elusive head of Yash Raj Films, had gotten him an audition with the famed studio.

BY NOW IT WAS LATE AFTERNOON. Singh was running late, and his itinerary had been thrown out of gear. From the mall elevator, I headed into a small hall, where Singh was to meet the winners of a contest. The actor entered the room soon after I did, and walked straight to a small stage. He spoke briefly with the contest winners, who were dressed in elaborate traditional outfits. Within minutes, he was saying his goodbyes, but before leaving he recited, over a muffled sound system, a line from Bajirao Mastani: “Bajirao ne Mastani se mohabbat ki hai, ayyashi nahin” (Mastani is Bajirao’s love, not a passing fancy). The sentiment so overwhelmed a group of young girls in the audience that they stood up and started screaming with joy. They were still screaming when Singh walked out.

Through another series of dim corridors, I followed the actor into a small movie theatre. This was where ‘Malhari’ was to be played to the media in its entirety. The place was about half full, and Singh settled into a seat in the first row. The lights dimmed, and the song’s official video came on. Singh took his sunglasses off. On the screen, as Bajirao, he danced frenetically with an army of chain-mailed and helmeted men. From where I stood in the aisle, I saw Singh mouthing the lyrics, jiggling his head, arching his eyebrows and narrowing his eyes, mirroring his movements on the screen. When the lights came back on, he grinned at the people around him. “Good shit,” he said. “Mast hai, boss.”

After the song was played for a second time, Singh climbed onto a stage in front of the screen. Here again, a female anchor took charge of ceremonies. Once again, Singh praised her lavishly—“You look so beautiful today”—and handed her a rose. Then he settled into a large chair, his sunglasses back on, and prepared for another volley of questions.

One reporter asked Singh about a controversy surrounding the film: Mastani’s descendants had complained that they were not consulted. He asked her to speak to the film’s producers, but she persisted. “Madam, I am doing my job as an actor and promoting this film,” he said with icy courtesy. “You please do your job and ask this question to the right people.” Near the end of the event, a reporter interrupted Singh in mid-flow to say, “Ranveer, film Hindi mein hai, aap Hindi mein boliye” (The film is in Hindi, you should speak in Hindi). “Theek hai, sir,” Singh said, not even looking at the man. “Itna gussa hone ki kya baat hai, pyar se bol dete” (Sure, but why get angry, you could just ask nicely).

After the press conference, Singh left the theatre and headed back to the hotel, again through a network of back corridors and exits. A thinner but still raucous crowd followed. The entire line-up of events had taken about five hours, and Singh had gone the whole time without a break. Now he would return to his room, where, according to the run-down sheet, he was to have lunch. As we walked, I drew up alongside him, and he gave me an easy smile. “How’s it going?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he said with an air of candour. “It’s kind of hard for me to tell.”

IN EARLY 2010, SINGH WAS CALLED to the Yash Raj Films offices in Andheri, to audition before Maneesh Sharma, the debutant director of what would become Band Baaja Baaraat. He had delivered a sparkling first audition, and over the next two weeks, the director invited him back several times. “Sometimes he would ask me to perform a dance,” Singh recalled, “sometimes comedy, or a scene from DDLJ”—Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, a beloved classic and one of Yash Raj’s most successful films. But, Singh told me, with each session he was getting “progressively worse.” On top of that, he always got held up at a particular traffic light on his way, and ended up late. As a result, he said, “they thought I wasn’t serious.”

After this round of auditions, Singh was called in for yet another meeting. As he sat waiting, Singh told me in his most dramatic style, “the door flies open, and with a gust of wind … Aditya Chopra walks in. And for a moment, my heart stopped moving.” The producer got right to the point. “He’s like, ‘So why are you fucking it up?’” Singh recalled. Eventually, the studio decided to give him “one last shot.” To this day, he told me, “I haven’t asked them what made them give me another chance.”

That shot was a final screen test. After it was done, Singh was called in to meet Chopra again. Sitting in his office, the mogul told Singh that he had the part. “I heard him out with a straight face,” Singh said. “And then I walked out of the cabin, and it was too overwhelming. My knees buckled, and I fell to the floor and started crying.” Chopra found him in that position a minute or two later. As Singh remembered it, “he put an arm around my shoulder, and patted my back and said, ‘Tu kar lega’”—you’ll do fine

Soon after he was signed on, Singh joined Maneesh Sharma on a reconnaissance trip to Delhi, where Band Baaja Baaraat was to be shot. “Nobody knew him then, so we could afford to do that,” Maneesh told me when we spoke in December. The director gave Singh a task every day, “like, today you have to ride a DTC bus and check out the crowd.” The actor did what was asked of him, and then some more. “He actually attended a class in a college, got thrown out, and ran,” Maneesh recalled. “He worked hard to imbibe the environment and culture.”

When Band Baaja Baaraat came out, Singh was lauded for his portrayal of Bittoo, a Delhi University student from small-town Uttar Pradesh desperate not to go back to his family’s sugarcane farm. Maneesh told me Singh pulled the character’s mannerisms and accent off so well that people often asked him if he had cast a Delhi boy for the role. To this day, the flashy but vulnerable Bittoo remains Singh’s most widely remembered character. In Bhopal, fans repeatedly asked him to recite his lines from Band Baaja Baaraat, and several journalists asked him to repeat Bittoo’s signature promise: “Bread-pakode ki kasam.”

As Maneesh discovered—and as others who went on to work with Singh discovered too—the actor approaches his work with a meticulousness and dedication that contrasts sharply with his anything-goes public image. “He was making notes all the time, when he was reading the script, or during workshops,” the director told me. “He maps out every scene, and has a graph of every character he plays.” With Singh, he said, there is something “child-like in his commitment to his craft.” The actor Parineeti Chopra, who has worked with Singh on two films, echoed this when I talked to her on the phone in January. “On our first film together”—Ladies vs Ricky Bahl—“he would do stretches just before a scene, or go into pranayama exercises just before a shot,” she said. Singh puts “everything he has into the moment, with utmost sincerity,” she continued, which can involve “doing cartwheels to get into character or working out at 4 am.”

Singh’s second landmark role, by most critics’ reckoning, came in the beautifully mounted Lootera. In it, Singh played Varun, a quiet and conflicted young con artist who cheats the family of a woman he falls in love with. The film’s director, Vikramaditya Motwane, wrote to me over email that he had purposely cast Singh, who had only appeared in romantic comedies so far, against type. With Varun, he told me, “I thought he should be a character you must trust.” Singh, he continued, “has a very open, trustworthy face, and when that person betrays you, it can be quite heartbreaking.” Much like Maneesh Sharma, Motwane was impressed with his star’s work, and with his rise. “He’s unpredictable which makes him very exciting as an actor. You want to go see his films because you don’t know what to expect. And that’s a wonderful thing.”

At the heart of Singh’s approach, Maneesh told me, is his ability to inhabit a character. “It’s not just about getting the six-pack to go with the role,” he said. “If he is preparing to play Bajirao, even how many coffees he drinks will have something of Bajirao in it.”

By his own admission, Singh’s preparations for Bajirao Mastani were his most thorough yet, as it required what he called “a different level of acting.” “I isolated myself for several weeks … cuttingoff from friends and family,” he told reporters in Bhopal. “I had to leave myself behind. I only studied, learnt diction, watched films and documentaries.” Singh said the intensity required to play Bajirao, combined with the months-long shoulder injury he had battled to overcome, “changed me, as an actor and as a person.”

Bajirao Mastani was directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who previously worked with Singh on Goliyon ki Rasleela Ram-Leela, the action-romance where the actor first staked his claim to bona fide stardom. In that film, Singh’s rustic Gujarati accent and sculpted body had won him recognition. For this second outing, Singh said in Bhopal, the director trusted him enough to take a very hands-off approach to his preparations. “He told me to go make my character,” Singh told journalists. “The first time he met his Bajirao was on the sets.”

In various interviews, Singh has acknowledged that it took him some time to find his feet during the early years of his unexpected stardom. When he spoke about this phase to me, he said, “Back then, I used to be”—and then repeated the phrase—“used to be, very arrogant about my acting abilities.” His off-screen persona and loud clothes also led some to dismiss him as a jester—a role he has acknowledged he enjoys playing.

When I met Shanoo Sharma, in December, I asked her about this aspect of Singh’s stardom. Shanoo remains one of Singh’s closest friends, and she joined Yash Raj Films as the studio’s casting director in 2010, soon after he landed his part in Band Baaja Baarat. She told me Singh’s style of dress is anything but a media strategy. “He’s really toned down,” she assured me. “He used to be worse. Or better! He’s come to my house dressed as the Crow”—an American comic book and film character—“with black stars and a painted white face, and we have gone to eat paan like that in traffic.” So when Singh wears something like a fluorescent pink top with green trackpants, she said, she doesn’t even blink. “This is everyday for him.”

Singh’s success has validated Shanoo’s early belief in him. “Now I know that my instinct when I met him was correct, that I could tell gold.” Even today, she said, when judging aspirants’ potential, she refers back to what she saw in Singh all those years ago. “I look for the same grain, in different ways.” As an actor, she told me, Singh “is like water. You can put him in a bowl, or throw him down a waterfall, or place him in the crack of a rock, he will mould himself to that role.”

For Shanoo, Singh’s appeal recalled that of Shammi Kapoor, the unconventional star of Bollywood’s giddy 1960s. Kapoor became known for his madcap style, his infectious joie de vivre and his freewheeling dancing. “Nobody can imitate him even today,” Shanoo pointed out. “And he drove women crazy.” For others in the industry, Singh’s rise is reminiscent of Shah Rukh Khan’s conquest of Bollywood in the 1990s. Anupama Chopra, the journalist and critic, told me the similarities range from “his manic energy to his incessant charm, to what are politely called ‘unconventional’ looks.”

But Singh’s most important quality, Shanoo told me, is just how wide his appeal is. “It’s not just the Instagram crowd who loves him,” she said. “Rickshaw-walas and taxi guys and beauty-parlour girls love him and feel they can connect with him. All my assistants love him. He flirts with the girls and compliments the boys.” The key, she argued, is that “he makes everyone feel as if he is theirs alone, for that moment. … A girl standing at a bar will feel like she can go and talk to him. He is apna”—your own.

AFTER SINGH DISAPPEARED INTO HIS ROOM, I did not see him emerge again. For all his affability, I realised, he has the ability to set firm boundaries. Each time I saw him in public, he was charged up, rattling with energy, but when he retreated behind a door it would remain inexorably closed  until he was prepared to be seen again. Over the course of the day, his team told me that he doesn’t talk in the mornings, doesn’t like people in the car with him, and doesn’t do any interviews until he is completely ready. Compared to his public image, Singh, I found, is a far more measured mix of very open and very private.

One instance where this comes through is his relationship with his Bajirao Mastani co-star, Deepika Padukone—which is something of an open secret, but which Singh does not discuss. He has repeatedly told interviewers that there are certain parts of his life that are too precious to go into. “That’s why it’s called a personal life na,” he told one journalist during one of the day’s many interviews. Singh is protective about his family as well, preferring to keep them out of the public eye. When I asked a friend of his if I might interview Singh’s sister for this story, I was politely refused, and told that the actor would not like it if I did.

By the evening, we were told that our flight back to Mumbai was delayed. It was 5 pm when I left the hotel for the airport. On the plane, I was seated in first class, next to an empty chair reserved for Singh. He boarded a few minutes behind me. By coincidence, across the aisle from us was Gul Panag—an actor and political activist, and a former beauty queen. Singh had never met her before, I learnt, but he sat beside her and began chatting at length, exclaiming over her flying qualifications, and feigning heartbreak over the fact that she was married.

I talked to Singh over the 90-minute flight. As the plane began its descent, he complained of a worsening earache. Panag offered a remedy, and called for a cup of hot water. As Singh held the steaming liquid under his ear on her instructions, he kept up a string of bombastic praises, laughing and grimacing in turn. “Doctor Gul,” he declared. “Neurophysicist Gul! What will you do next?”

We landed well after dark. Almost as soon as the plane touched down, Singh was on his two phones, scrolling through his Twitter feed to check the response to the events in Bhopal. It had been a long day, but he still had work to do. From the airport, he told me, Singh was heading to a mall in Andheri, where he had another promotional event to attend, with Priyanka Chopra for company. As we taxied to a stop, he put on his sunglasses and turned to face out the window. I asked him if he really enjoyed the madness, or if it was just a part of his public persona. Singh was silent for a moment, perhaps to consider his answer, perhaps simply out of fatigue. “Sometimes even I don’t know the answer to that question,” he said.

Soon after I left the airport, I saw Panag had posted on Twitter: “Met the uber charming @RanveerOfficial on the (much delayed) flight. And he totally made my evening!!”

Before we walked off the plane, Singh told me we would continue our conversation over the coming weeks. To seal the promise, I had asked him for a bread-pakode ki kasam. “Hey, that’s a very serious thing,” he replied, and gave me a fist bump. When I texted him a few days later, though, he replied, “Sorry it doesn’t look like I can do it. Hopefully you have enough maal to write it up.”

Bajirao Mastani was released worldwide on 18 December, a Friday. The following day, I watched an online video of Padukone snipping off the tips of Singh’s moustache, fulfilling the prophecy I had heard at the Yash Raj Films studios all those weeks ago. At the box office, Bajirao Mastani went head-to-head with Dilwale, another big-money production that, in Shah Rukh Khan, boasted one of Bollywood’s most popular stars. Some industry pundits had predicted that Dilwale would overwhelm the competition. But over time, Bajirao Mastani more than held its own. After its third weekend in theatres, the film’s Indian collections stood at about Rs 167 crore, or about $25 million. It was still showing in late January, and its domestic haul had crossed Rs 180 crore.

A good amount of the credit for this went to Singh, who received a wave of acclaim. As the year-end awards rolled around, the film won numerous accolades, and Singh bagged several prizes for Best Actor. He seemed to be everywhere: collecting awards, being written about in magazines, tweeting his thanks to a stream of compliments pouring in. In the eyes of many close observers of Bollywood, Bajirao Mastani had given Singh’s career the boost he had hoped for. Komal Nahta, a journalist and trade analyst, was unequivocal in calling Singh’s performance “superstar-making.” Anupama Chopra admitted to me that she had initially doubted Singh’s ability to pull the part off, “because of the kind of gravitas that a role like this demands,” and because “it required a different muscle from Band Baaja Baaraat.” But, she said, from adopting a Marathi accent to portraying Bajirao’s many conflicts, Singh had made the character his own. “Nobody knows who will or won’t be the next big star,” she told me. “But I think we should be appreciating that here’s an actor who was willing a commit a year of his life to a role that, if it hadn’t worked, would have set him back ten years.”

Meanwhile, there was already a rising buzz about Singh’s next project. In October, he had appeared in a video, self-shot on a phone camera and uploaded to YouTube, to announce that he had been cast as the male lead in Befikre, a Yash Raj Films production due to start filming in April. The movie is to be directed by Aditya Chopra, marking his return to directorial work after a seven-year hiatus. This is something of an event, as Chopra has directed only three films so far, each of which has been a major hit. For Singh, this was yet another dream fulfilled.

He said as much in the video. In it, a moustached, beaming Singh appears outside Aditya Chopra’s office—the same room where he had learnt about getting the part in Band Baaja Baaraat. Now, the actor says to the camera, “five years down the line, I go to the same office, he sits me across the couch, and he tells me, ‘Ranveer, I’m casting you in my next movie.’” Just as at that earlier meeting, Singh says, he did not show any immediate feeling. But then, he continues—moving down a corridor to the exact place where he claims to have broken down after the first meeting—“I walked out of the office, and I walked through the same corridor, and again, about here, is where I realised what just happened, that my dream of working with Adi sir is going to be realised.” With all the emotion of a Bollywood ending, Singh says he broke down again at the very same spot. “And again,” he continues, Chopra emerged to see him crying, “and he comes and he puts his arm across my shoulder, and he says, ‘Tu kar lega.’”

Many of Singh’s choices, such as agreeing to become the first major Bollywood actor to appear in a condom advertisement, have been experiments in creating a more daring kind of movie star. NAINA REDHU