Sushant Singh Rajput: The effortless actor with the curious mind and the winning smile
The first time I spoke to Sushant Singh Rajput, his voice hardly rose above a whisper. This was in the summer of 2010, almost a year after his breakout turn in the small-screen winner Pavitra Rishta. The young actor, increasingly being hailed as one of Indian TV’s new big stars of the time, was as shy as Manav, the boy-next-door with the sweet smile that he played in the Ekta Kapoor soap that ran on TV for five years.
During that conversation, which I had to replay several times in order to catch his words, Sushant — an engineering dropout who had secured the seventh rank in the all-India entrance exam but chose to pursue acting and dance — spoke timidly but there was something very refreshing about him. He thought his words, not weighed them. His intelligence shone through even when he spoke about the regular, mundane interview-y stuff about plot and process. He felt things deeply and he expressed them, but in his time and space. This was a man, I quickly realised, who was cut out for things much bigger and better than the restrictive and regressive soapy world of Indian TV. He dropped out of Pavitra Rishta the following year.
I met Sushant for the first time in 2013 for an interview at The Park. Kai Po Che!, his Bollywood debut based on the Chetan Bhagat bestseller The 3 Mistakes Of My Life, was about to release and I was chatting with the film’s director Abhishek Kapoor when Sushant, sporting a scruffy head of hair and a day-old stubble, barged into the room, took one look at me and semi-screamed, “You have freckles! That’s so cool!” For someone who has always been subjected to curious (and that’s putting it mildly) queries about the “spots” on my face, he won me over immediately.
The next hour flew by as I chatted with the eager, excited young man — he insisted on sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor throughout — as I shot questions at him, awkwardly perched on a sofa. He took long pauses, sought permission every time he lit a cigarette (it was quite a few times) and animatedly spoke about his big dream: acting. And yet moments later, he was completely un-actorlike, not insisting on brushing his hair or changing out of his crinkled denims to pose for pictures. His smile was enough.
There was something about the SSR smile. The nervous smile as he gingerly adjusted his dhoti when I met him at Burdwan Rajbari in Alipore minutes before the announcement of Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! and asked, “Yeh theek lag raha hain?” The smile that lit up his face every time he spoke about what went into slipping into the skin of a character. The smile that made his eyes dance when he conversed on subjects that truly fascinated him — quantum physics to cognitive science, astronomy to behavioural economics. It was Sushant’s “full happy smile” that Shah Rukh Khan chose to remember him by in a tweet on Sunday.
He may have wanted to pose in an Iron Man suit with Robert Downey Jr and discuss films with Christopher Nolan (part of his “Wishlist 50” that he jotted down and shared on social media last year), but it was SRK that SSR always idolised. The two had a similar career trajectory, making a seamless and successful transition from screen small to big in a business where dreams are choked and crushed every day. They had both studied acting under theatre guru Barry John. They were both outsiders in a largely nepotism-driven Bollywood. Like Shah Rukh, Sushant had risen the ranks, transitioning from being a background dancer in Shiamak Davar’s troupe to a TV actor to a film star. “There’s something about him that goes beyond just being an actor,” Sushant had told me about Shah Rukh in an interview. It’s something that one could easily say about him too.
More than just an actor
Whether it was peering at the stars from the telescope that occupied pride of place in his living room or famously carrying books on math and physics to his outdoor shoots, quoting Rumi and Nietzsche in his tweets or jumping like a kid in a candy shop after putting in a trip to CERN, Sushant derived as much joy from exploring the world and its different dimensions as he did from making a character his own.
The man was a study in contrasts, as excited about learning coding as he was at the prospect of visiting Disneyland. “An old wise soul in a young restless body,” is how film-maker Shekhar Kapur — who once wanted to cast Sushant in his passion project Paani — described him on Sunday.
A chameleon on screen
It was Sushant’s ability to wholeheartedly embrace his contrasting personalities that made him a delight on screen. He could at once be the “thinking” sleuth Byomkesh and the flamboyant-on-field Mahendra Singh Dhoni. “He’s an internal actor and is a much more reticent person than many others in the industry. He uses that to his advantage in his performances,” Dibakar Banerjee, who picked Sushant out of a bunch of far more established names to play Saradindu Bandopadhyay’s much-loved hero in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, had told me on a rainy Sunday evening in 2014.
Team Byomkesh was in town for a few weeks shooting the film and I had fixed up a meeting with Dibakar and Sushant at Kenilworth Hotel. Dibakar, as expected, did most of the talking (the legend of Byomkesh had self-confessedly been “simmering” inside the film-maker for years), with Sushant murmuring a line or two. But his eyes lit up when asked to speak about shooting in the lanes and bylanes of old Calcutta. “So much heritage... the history buff in me is always so happy when I come to Calcutta,” he had smiled, the visor of his cap covering almost half his face. Again, no face touch-up, no insistence on the best angle, no peering into the photographer’s lens to check his shots. This was an actor who was always more interested in the conversation than the camera.
Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! came and went, a film that perhaps didn’t get its due, but there was never any doubt that Sushant “became” the character, right down to “walking like a Bengali man of 1942 Calcutta”, as he had laughingly told us at Kenilworth. He looked the part of the quintessential Bangali bhadralok of yore, pulling off the dhoti with elan.
And then came Dhoni. His biggest success and the biggest showcase for Sushant Singh Rajput the actor. For someone who hadn’t ever picked up a cricket bat (save for a few scenes in Kai Po Che!), Sushant winningly brought alive the inspirational tale of Captain Cool in M.S. Dhoni — The Untold Story. There were stories of how he would practise Dhoni’s now-iconic “helicopter shot” from dawn to dusk for months and YouTube is full of BTS footage of him tirelessly trying to perfect the former skipper’s swagger. It was while prepping for Dhoni that he caught the eye of a certain Sachin Tendulkar who had told former cricketer Kiran More, entrusted with the task of training Sushant, “This boy is good enough to play professional cricket”.
“Understanding. Intelligence. Persistence”, is what Sushant had said in an interview before the Neeraj Pandey-directed film’s release when quizzed on what had gone into playing the indomitable MSD. Qualities that could well have described Sushant himself.
M.S. Dhoni — The Untold Story earned Sushant both box-office credence and a couple of awards, but didn’t really translate into the big projects that should have come his way after the film. Paani fell through, a rumoured film with Imtiaz Ali went into cold storage, John Abraham replaced him in the spy caper Romeo Akbar Walter and what insiders insist was a body blow to him — the ambitious Chandamama Door Ke, a space film that the man self-funded a trip to NASA for — ran into production hassles. But soon after, he sponsored a field trip for two teenagers to NASA and in 2017, he reportedly “bought” a piece of lunar land on the far side of the moon.
Walking the talk
Sushant was an actor who had his heart in the right place, quietly contributing crores for Kerala flood relief and personally putting in a trip to Nagaland after the state battled floods and landslides. When the Karni Sena launched a vicious attack on Deepika Padukone in the
run-up to the release of Padmaavat, he registered his protest by removing his surname from his social media platforms for a day. He spoke freely, often uninhibitedly, on issues that his Bollywood peers wouldn’t even consider touching with a bargepole.
We last met in the summer of 2017 when he dropped into The Telegraph office, accompanied by his Raabta co-star Kriti Sanon, to promote the reincarnation love story. Sushant was far more restless than I had ever seen him before, gesturing wildly and eating up half his words, but he still spoke with the same excitement about the subjects that he had a passion for. “Nothing is absolute, everything is an approximation,” he said at one point during our interaction, his eyes glazing over, his thoughts left half unsaid. But the next moment, he was excitedly cutting the Raabta-themed cake we got them, stubbornly insisting on feeding Kriti even after she had had her fill. There was something childlike about him that hadn’t dimmed with the years. Wearing a sweatshirt that read ‘The truth will set you free’, he spent a few hours with us, laughed a few laughs and with a hug and a wink, he was gone.
Raabta was a huge failure, but Sushant bounced back soon enough with praiseworthy performances in Kedarnath and Sonchiriya, the latter, in which he was cast as a world-weary dacoit battling an existential crisis and looking for inner peace and redemption, once again showing us what a consummate actor he was.
He then had Chhichhore. Released in September last year, the Nitesh Tiwari film that focused on friendship and insisted on the need to devise a plan-B to deal with failure and not to give up on life in the face of setback, was not only a bonafide box-office hit, but also reinforced how endearing and enigmatic Sushant could be on screen.
Sushant may have bucked the image of a “typical Bollywood hero”, apart from flaunting those droolworthy abs with abandon in the Raabta chartbuster Main tera boyfriend (“Even I can’t take my eyes off myself!” he had laughed and told us), but he did enjoy the finer things of life off and on — from a hush-hush Vogue cover shoot with supermodel Kendall Jenner to bringing home his prized purple Maserati. I will never forget the glee that lit up his face when he spotted the “purple car” and the “telescope” on the themed cupcakes we had specially got for him at the The Telegraph office. He bit into one. And then smiled the ‘Sushant smile’.
Rest in peace, SSR. Keep smiling your smile among the stars you loved so much.
HIS TOP 8
Kai Po Che!
The 2013 film that marked Sushant’s Bolly debut, was essentially a story of friendship set against the backdrop of the 2002 Gujarat riots. Rock On!! man Abhishek Kapoor made Kai Po Che! much more than Chetan Bhagat’s The 3 Mistakes of My Life, on which it was based, with Sushant’s impulsive and endearing Ishaan stealing the show from his co-stars, including the hugely talented Rajkummar Rao.
Shuddh Desi Romance
Kai Po Che!’s success resulted in a flurry of offers from big banners, among them Shuddh Desi Romance, produced by Yash Raj Films and directed by Band Baaja Baaraat man Maneesh Sharma. The unconventional romance, co-starring Parineeti Chopra and debutant Vaani Kapoor, had Sushant ace the part of the commitment-phobic Raghu. Shuddh Desi Romance may have elicited mixed reactions but Sushant’s act met with all-round praise.
Aamir Khan and Anushka Sharma may have been the central stars, but who can forget Sushant’s cameo as the endearing and ever-smiling Sarfaraz in the Rajkumar Hirani blockbuster? We loved the quiet magic he brought to the soulful Chaar kadam, Anushka for company, filmed in picturesque Bruges. He had the ability to leave a mark even in small parts.
Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!
Dibakar Banerjee plucked Sushant out of Bandra and placed him in Bowbazar — specifically, the Calcutta of 1942 — to play Saradindu Bandopadhyay’s much-loved sleuth. Purists were wary about entrusting Sushant with the character but the man flew with it (even in parts where the film didn’t), slipping easily into the role (dhoti-kurta to walk and talk), giving us a Byomkesh we couldn’t really fault.
M.S. Dhoni — The Untold Story
Sushant’s most memorable role was also his most challenging. He spent months wielding the willow with former cricketer Kiran More, chatting with Dhoni, sharing notes with director Neeraj Pandey and completely internalising the struggle and success of Captain Cool. Not a beat was out of place as he ‘became’ Dhoni, holding our attention and making us marvel at the metamorphosis throughout the biopic’s almost four-hour runtime.
After a lull, Sushant came back with Kedarnath that reunited him with Abhishek Kapoor and marked Sara Ali Khan’s debut. A doomed love story set against the backdrop of the Uttarakhand floods of 2013, Kedarnath gained from a quiet but impactful act from SSR. His Mansoor being swallowed up by the water and never resurfacing in the film’s penultimate moments is an image that still haunts.
Sushant’s career, though short, was distinguished by the fact that he worked with some of Bollywood’s biggest and best contemporary film-makers. In Udta Punjab man Abhishek Chaubey’s Sonchiriya, he was the rebel no longer with a cause in 1970s Chambal, looking for both rest and redemption. He brought in grit and vulnerability to a tough part.
The film that made us chuckle and cheer — and then some more — ironically started a conversation about suicide brought on by failure and frustration. Sushant seamlessly shifted between his young and middle-aged parts, bringing youthful exuberance to “Anni” and a quiet strength to Aniruddh.
My favourite Sushant Singh act is…Tell firstname.lastname@example.org