The 39-year-old South African star said he is still fit enough to play at the highest level
It’s not every day that someone gets declared the ‘national crush’. But on occasions that one does get facilitated with such a term of endearment, can it make for a humbling experience? Bollywood’s new boy-next-door Rohit Saraf has been around the block for quite a while now, playing sibling and child to leading actresses like Alia Bhatt (Dear Zindagi) and Priyanka Chopra (The Sky Is Pink). But 2020 has been the year that marked Saraf’s arrival at the talkies, rather the OTT talkies. With back-to-back performances that turned heads in November 2020, in Ludo and the Netflix original Mismatched, a coming-of-age romantic drama, Saraf quickly rose to zillennial fame. In a conversation with wknd., the 24-year-old actor, who was recently seen in the Netflix anthology Feels Like Ishq as the lead in ‘Star Host’, opens up about whether the sudden outpouring of attention has changed his ground realities and how he wishes to diversify his trajectory of work.
It feels like India woke up to Rohit Saraf in November 2020, with your back-to-back releases on Netflix. Despite 2020 being a difficult year overall, it took quite a turn for you...
Yes. 2020 was a strange year because obviously, we were hit by the pandemic. But professionally, it did turn out to be one of the most rewarding years of my life. As you mentioned, Ludo and Mismatched came out and everything changed for me. I feel absolutely fantastic. It’s something that I’ve waited for a very, very long time. And now, it’s finally taking me to places where I want to be!
Both those releases were on Netflix. Do you feel like OTT platforms have made it easier for young actors, who are not from the industry, to get this kind of acknowledgement?
OTT platforms have given a massive amount of opportunities to all actors. I don’t know if it’s just for the actors who are from the industry or outside. I think it’s given a platform to every single talent, even people who are not actors, people who started out being influencers and are now doing great work on OTT. Netflix is rolling out a bunch of content, whether it’s films or series or even the sketches on YouTube, which are giving an opportunity to a lot of people. Also, everyone has become a part of the OTT ecosystem as there are no theatrical releases right now.
Following the release of Mismatched, you received a massive outpouring of love and attention. You also got declared the ‘national crush’. As a 24-year-old, how does it feel to be a ‘national crush’?
I did not see that coming at all. It started off with a couple of girls on Instagram and YouTube calling me a national crush. I thought it’s just some Internet comment, which will pass. But after some time, when I started giving more and more interviews and people started picking it up everywhere. That’s when I thought it was legitimate and I thought, wow, now there’s no turning back from this. So yeah, it feels great. Who doesn’t want to be the national crush? I think it’s very sweet of people to say that.
Not a very humbling title, though, is it?
I think keeping myself humble is not such a task because honestly, all of this only exists online. This world that has been created for me where there is so much love, for now at least, only exists online because we’re not really meeting people physically. The moment I lock my phone screen or keep it away, it’s back to reality. It’s back to who I’ve always been, there isn’t anything that has changed. My family is still the same, my friends are still the same, everything around me is still the same. That helps me keep myself grounded.
Your recent release, Feels Like Ishq, makes for a very urban premise for a love story — a ‘non-relationship’ kind of love, which is a very zillennial take on romance. What compelled you to be a part of the show?
I think what drew me was the fact that it was so real. You’re not promising people that this girl goes on a trip, falls in love with the host she meets and they live happily ever after... that somehow feels a little unreal to me. But this is something that’s extremely possible. Maybe you go on a trip, you meet somebody and find a connection there. You’ll enjoy it while you’re there but there will be no promises of keeping in touch or dating. And the conversations between the characters felt so real. Especially that part, where Aditya says, “this is not an obsession, it's an affirmation”. I fully believe in it. I believe that the universe holds power. There is a connection between me and the universe. So, I think the relatability is what really drew me to it.
The episode is about 30 minutes long yet conveys a beginning, middle and end. It’s quite a short time to tell a full story. Did that play up in your mind as an actor?
Honestly, when I started to work on it, that’s not the pressure I had. It’s a pressure that the writers or the directors may have faced because they’re the people who are creating the story and bringing it to life. We, as actors, don’t necessarily realise it so much because we’re busy trying to perform the scene in a way that looks real and convincing. And I think that doesn’t change — be it a 15-minute film or a three-hour long film. The process still remains the same. However, after watching it, I now realise that it’s a lot of pressure. It’s very important to make your audiences believe in your story in those 30 minutes. You need to establish the two characters, tell the audiences about their different worlds and let their worlds collide, all within those 30 minutes. So, actually it’s a very tough task and quite a strenuous process. Now I realise it.
The texture of ‘Star Host’ is very modern — depicting new-age holidays, technology and lingo — making it very close to real life. Is there also a part of you that wishes to embody the dreamy, larger than life stories that Bollywood has been known for?
I definitely don’t want to limit myself in terms of genre since I’m only getting started. I think the reason why I’m getting such parts right now, be it Aditya from Feels Like Ishq or Rishi from Mismatched, is because it’s very easy for casting directors to see me in that space. When you meet me or you see my photographs online, I come across as a very urban person, because that’s who I am. I was brought up in Delhi and Mumbai. So, I am a metropolitan city boy, which is why it’s most natural for people to imagine me in those characters. However, that’s not the only kind of characters I want to play. In fact, now it’s a very conscious decision to do something which is starkly different from what I’ve done before. I want to play a more heartland character. My mum is from Bihar, I’ve seen that life and I’m very easy when it comes to picking up dialect. So, I want to explore that. Also, I find it a bit hard to relate to stories that are larger than life. But I haven’t really thought about whether I want to do it or not. Maybe it will be fun, and it will be an experience. I’m not sure about that. But I think the basic criteria for me is that it needs to tell a story that moves me in some sense. I feel relatability is the most important factor.
Is there a fear of being typecast?
Honestly, I have thought about it. The reason why I want to venture out of this space I am in right now is because I want people to know that I can be more than just an urban boy. So, let’s see, hopefully, there will be more opportunities that will allow me to showcase this. And I’m going to make conscious effort to ensure this doesn’t happen.
Have you ever experienced a 'Feels Like Ishq' moment in your own life?
The kind you see in the episode? No. But more than romantic, it’s been platonic. Like the number of times I’ve ‘felt like ishq’, in my platonic relationships is absolutely fantastic. Prajakta [Kohli], my co-actor from Mismatched, also says that we’ve really lucked out in the people’s department because I’ve just had some of the most incredible people in my life! Even in my professional life, I'm absolutely obsessed with my team. I don't think I could have done anything without them. And going back to Netflix, the kind of love and support I’ve got from the entire team is unbelievable. So, there are these moments when you realise you work with such people, you have their support and you're growing together – it's these moments that truly ‘feel like ishq’.
You’ve been around in the industry for a while now but it feels like you’ve only recently started to get your due. Has it been tough at times?
I don’t think there will ever be a person who you meet in your life who will never see failure. I think failure is a very important part of everybody’s journey, as it has been of mine. I saw many failures as an actor who was just starting out, giving hundreds of auditions. Sometimes people do not understand the gravitas of what a rejected audition can feel like. At times, it doesn’t matter at all because you just move on from one audition to the other. And sometimes that one audition that you get rejected from can take such a massive toll on you that you never want to walk through that door again. But I think what’s kept me going is the fact that this is all I’ve ever wanted to do. I genuinely cannot think of anything else. This is my life.
So, the hustle has been real...
Oh yeah. There have been many tough moments. There was a time when a film that I was a part of never released. I waited for it, but it never came out. There were also times when I really wanted to be a part of a project, but I didn’t get selected. Maybe because I wasn’t good enough or maybe because of some other reason. You don’t always get to find out why you’ve been rejected. There have been many times where I’ve wanted things and it hasn’t worked out. But I’m so glad that it didn’t because the way my career is shaping up right now, I’m very happy with it. For the longest time, people used to say stuff like things happen for a reason, you just have to trust the process. And it never made any sense to me. It used to irritate me. But now, I see the sense in it. I can see how it’s panning out. And I’m very happy about it. So, I think I keep my failures a lot closer than my successes because they’ve taught me a lot more.
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