The next big star
Almost 25 years ago, Shah Rukh Khan seamlessly moved from television to cinema. A young man called Sushant Singh Rajput — one of the few TV actors to have carved out a successful career in Bollywood — seems to be following in his footsteps. Rajput, who was Dibakar Banerjee’s Byomkesh in his latest film, is emerging as a star, writes Smitha Verma
The year was 1998. A young boy, dressed in whites and carrying a cricket bat, walked into the school ground. He had one ball to prove himself and get a place in the school cricket team. A bunch of classmates, mostly girls, cheered him as he faced the bowler.
He tried to hook a bouncer, and failed.
Over 13 years later, the young man went for another test, again holding a bat. And this time around, Sushant Singh Rajput made sure that he wouldn't miss the ball.
"I was watching the ball like I have never watched it before," the 29-year-old actor says. He was auditioning for the role of a failed cricket coach in what was to be his debut film Kai Po Che!.
The saga with the bat is not over yet. His next film is a biopic on cricketer M.S. Dhoni. Cricket continues to dominate his cinema.
"Yes, you could say that," Rajput laughs. Dressed in a pair of black track pants and a grey jacket, with a three-day-old stubble and shoulder-length hair, he's started looking like Dhoni. At the office of Yash Raj Films (YRF) in Mumbai, sipping lime water, Rajput talks unhurriedly. As unhurriedly as he signs films. In three years, he has appeared in as many films, apart from a cameo in another.
Yet Rajput is Bollywood's new poster boy.
And there's good reason for that. His enviable resume puts him ahead of his contemporaries such as Arjun Kapoor and Varun Dhawan. Rajput's latest release is Dibakar Banerjee's Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (DBB!), which opened earlier this month. The Dhoni film is directed by Neeraj Pandey of A Wednesday! fame. He starred alongside Aamir Khan in Rajkumar Hirani's PK. He has worked with top production houses, including YRF and UTV Productions. He plays the lead in Shekhar Kapur's much awaited Paani.
"He stands out because of his patience and his choices. He doesn't toe the line or opt for supposedly safe, fluffy films. Unsafe choices may be a gamble but they build credibility of talent," says Finding Fanny director Homi Adajania, who has signed up Rajput for his next film.
Rajput says it is his "instinct" that drives his choices. "I don't sign 'different' films just for the sake of it. If I can't get a script out of my mind, then I read it again the same day. Then I am convinced that I have to do it," he says. "Only after the film's release do I worry about audience expectations."
The instinct, clearly, is on the right track. All his films have been box office successes. His first two films Kai Po Che! and Shudh Desi Romance were among the most profitable films of 2013, based on return on investment. Abhishek Kapoor's film, with three newcomers, raked in Rs 66 crore; the broadcasting rights for his second film went for Rs 15 core, which was nearly half the production cost of the film.
Rajput's own bank balance has been getting rosier by the day. The actor who started with a pay check of Rs 20 lakh now charges between Rs 3 crore and Rs 4 crore per project.
His is also a popular face with many brands, including PepsiCo, Nissan, Garnier and Nestle. Ashish Patil, vice-president, YRF Brand Partnership, believes that his USP is a mix of "youthful energy, style and authenticity". On a par with the top young actors in the industry, he earns Rs 40-50 lakh a day for a commercial and the deals usually demand three to four days a year.
But Rajput doesn't like talking about money. "I am not here for the fame or money. Of course, I love them but that is not why I chose this industry," he explains. "As an actor, you make people believe you are someone else and they respond to it. That is magical and addictive."
The director of Shuddh Desi Romance, Maneesh Sharma, stresses that it is rare to find an actor who is so "detached" from the commercial aspects of a film. "I can't think of anyone who has been so experimental at the beginning of his career."
But, then, Rajput is an avid risk taker. He was in his third year in an engineering college in Delhi when he decided to drop out and become an actor. He started with television series, but just when he was at the peak of his career he quit it for a filmmaking course abroad.
He didn't take that up because of a chance encounter with casting director Mukesh Chhabra at a tea stall in Mumbai. He got his debut film role, leading critic Rajeev Masand to say of him: "The actor has an indescribable presence, and it's clear from his confidence and distinct likability that a star is born."
Forget a star - in his old Patna home, Singh's family would have been surprised if anybody had told them that their lanky boy would one day be an actor. Born after four daughters, it was assumed that Rajput would fulfill middle class dreams and become an engineer or a doctor.
His eldest sister is a doctor, another is a professional cricketer and the third a fashion designer. "Those were the days when the pressure to excel in academics was immense," says the fourth, Priyanka Singh, a Supreme Court lawyer.
He was a precocious child, mature for his years. "At one point he wanted to write a book to show a connection between the Vedas and science," Priyanka says. Rajput's reading room in his Mumbai home boasts of over 5,000 titles, ranging from those by Haruki Murakami to U.G. Krishnamurti.
Their father, who worked as a textile engineer in Patna, moved to Delhi after his retirement. Academically bright, Sushant won a gold medal in the National Olympiad in physics. He scored the seventh position in the all-India engineering exam and joined what was then called the Delhi College of Engineering. But his interests lay elsewhere. While in college he learnt dance from Shiamak Davar's school, acting from Barry John and earned a black belt in kung fu.
"I didn't wait to finish my studies because I never wanted a Plan B to fall back upon," Rajput says. That Barry John called him a "good actor" encouraged him to move to Mumbai where he joined Nadira Babbar's theatre troupe and was spotted by Balaji Telefilms. Soon, he'd become a household name in soap-loving families as Manav of Pavitra Rishta.
He recalls how, at an award function where his idol Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) took centre stage, Rajput had performed as one of the background dancers. "In my mind, I always wanted to be in the front," he says. An introvert as a young boy, Rajput believes that acting gave him an outlet to express himself.
The expression, industry wallahs believe, stands out for its "natural" style. "He has a chameleon-like quality of transformation. One moment he convinces you as Byomkesh, and the other moment he slips into being Dhoni," says Deepa Bhatia, editor of Kai Po Che!.
When Banerjee adapted Saradindu Bandyopadhyay's much loved Bengali detective in a Hindi film, he had Rajput in mind for the role. "Without him there couldn't have been my maverick representation of Byomkesh. I wanted a rookie, with a sense of vulnerability, someone who could alternate between confidence and the lack of it. I found it in Sushant," Banerjee says.
With praise pouring in from all quarters, some industry watchers have been hailing him as the next "SRK".
There are similarities. Delhi boys, they were both taught by John and were noticed as television actors. "There has been no other male actor who has had such a successful transition from television to films," Mukesh Chhabra says.
He has managed to wow his co-actors, too. "I thought he would have the Bollywood attitude. But I was pleasantly surprised to see a down-to-earth co-star," says Swastika Mukherjee who acted as Angoori Devi in DDB!.
Banerjee calls him "one of the finest hopes" of Bollywood. "He is one of the few stars who will be known as an actor," he predicts.
There is a method to his acting. During the shooting of DBB! he went incommunicado for months. He read all the books available on the subject and after shooting remained dressed in Byomkesh's attire - long shirt, dhoti et al - on most days. For M.S. Dhoni - The Untold Story, he has been taking cricket training for six hours every day. He has met the cricketer a few times, armed with over two dozen questions as part of his research.
But some critics are wary of the narrow path that he's chosen. "He is a fine actor but as a trade analyst I would want him to build a mass market," says Komal Nahata. "He has the quality to be the next big superstar but at this juncture he needs to do more films."
Rajput, however, is content. "With the sort of homework I want to do, I can't do more than three films in two years," he says. "I love this excitement of experimenting. If I don't get a film, I will open a small canteen in Film City in Mumbai, make my own short films and be equally happy."
The next two films are crucial. His portrayal of Dhoni, and Kapur's film on water wars are the gamble that has to pay off. Kapur has already described him as "one of the most inspiring young actors" to emerge out of India. And the industry is eagerly waiting for a new moniker, a change from "SRK" to "SSR".
But Rajput remains unfazed. "We should reward excellent failure and punish mediocre success," he says. The quote may not be original, but the man certainly is.
ON THE ANVIL
M.S. Dhoni — The Untold Story:
Biographical film on cricketer Dhoni
by Neeraj Pandey
Paani: A futuristic film by Shekhar Kapur on water wars
Raabta: A love story spanning two eras, directed by Homi Adajania and Dinesh Vijan
Brands: Earns around Rs 40-50 lakh per day of ad shoot
Films: Charges Rs 3-4 crore
Hits: Last three releases were box office successes