While waiting for Singh to enter a suite in a plush Berlin hotel for an interview, the only thing I’m thinking about is what he will be wearing.
Singh has a reputation for his unpredictable dress sense. He never fails to surprise the press and his fans with his outfits. This meeting is no different.
As the doors open, I see him appear in a jacket that can only be described as a cross between Sulley from Pixar’s Monsters Inc. and Big Bird from Sesame Street.
“Check out my badges,” Singh says after greeting me with a bear hug. “It’s a very special Manish Arora creation. Look at the unicorn on the back.”
A prominent Indian fashion designer, Arora has made a name for himself for his bold silhouettes and bright colour palette. Before I have time to respond, Singh gives me more details about his custom piece.
“He [Arora] doesn’t make menswear. I hassled and chased him so much to make me a jacket.” Singh’s enthusiasm is contagious. I don’t know much about fashion but I’m listening intently to every word he’s saying.
Later that day, I’m overwhelmed again by another one of his looks. “This is Tom Ford,” he tells me on the red carpet for the world premiere of his new movie Gully Boy. He is wearing a hot pink leopard print blazer with a shiny black polo neck shirt underneath. Singh has carefully crafted this look – and he wants the compliments.
“For the first three years after I made my film debut, I was still trying to confirm,” he told the BBC.
Singh first appeared on screen in the 2010 sleeper hit Band Baaja Baaraat. He received rave reviews for his performance as a young, passionate wedding planner. At the time, Singh looked like most other actors his age, often dressing in a conventional suit and tie for red carpet events. “I was still trying to mold myself like what I thought a rising Hindi film hero should be like; how he would speak, what he would do, how he would dress.”
He adds that he was very “confused” during his initial years in the industry. “I was becoming someone who I really wasn’t.” But today, Singh is known as one of the most outrageous personalities in Bollywood. His eccentric outfits and playful personality are like nothing Bollywood audiences have seen before. In 2012, he had a major back injury on the sets of his movie Lootera which left him homebound for two and a half months.
Subverting gender norms
“From there, my choices started to become more authentic. Whatever came in to my heart, I said, I did, I wore.”
By 2015, Singh was wearing skirts during movie promotions. Two years later, he turned up with kohl eye make-up to a major awards ceremony.
Singh’s wardrobe choices were a gamble. The majority of Bollywood actors before him had dressed fairly conventionally. But he is unapologetic about his attire.
Through his outfits, he has achieved something fairly unusual. He’s managed to slowly subvert or change the ideas around men’s clothes and the way they should dress – he’s opened up this space, showing men how they can get away with sporting some eyeliner or pulling off an all-pink suit.
In director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s period epic Padmaavat, Singh played the main antagonist, a character who was sexually ambiguous. The role was seen as a “huge risk” for any actor, but he was praised for his performance when the film released in January 2018.
In Singh’s latest film, Gully Boy, he plays an aspiring rapper from the slums of Mumbai, who is extremely conflicted between duty and passion, often seen breaking down into tears. It’s a display of vulnerability and softness that is fairly unusual in the way men are often portrayed in Bollywood.
He says “it’s not easy” to share so much of himself through his performances.
“It’s particularly difficult when you get brickbats for just giving. People saying ‘it’s too much, why don’t you just curb your enthusiasm?’ It hurts.”
Some critics have called his outlandish behaviour over-the-top and unnecessary. Singh ignores the criticism as long as his fans appreciate it.
“When people show that kind of love for you, I want to give that back.”