On 2nd April, 2011, on perhaps the best day of Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s life, there wasn’t a man in India who didn’t want to be him. Four-and-a-bit years later, I’m looking at the man who will ‘be’ him in an upcoming biopic. Sushant Singh Rajput is a sober, unassuming presence. Even at our shoot, the only reason I notice him is because he’s the best-dressed person on set. Can Rajput portray the masculinity, the rooted charm, the man’s man quality, the troubled and celebrated life of Dhoni? Can he make us believe, for three brief hours, that he has crystal in his veins and embers in his heart?
Rajput’s hair, which he’d grown to reach his shoulders (thanks to the unflattering hairstyle Dhoni once had), is short when we meet. He has a couple of bruises on his face, left untouched by make-up. With velvet brown eyes and a shy, toothy smile, he makes no commotion around himself. While most actors employ charisma and swagger when talking to journalists, he relies on seriousness. “Before I did theatre, I was very, very quiet, completely into books,” he admits. “For 17-18 years I was in a happy space, and I would have remained like that. I was not aware that this is something I wanted — to communicate. I still have that problem. I cannot be very expressive. I think about something, and I express it in words, and there’s an inherent loss of meaning.”
While attending an engineering college in Delhi, which he dropped out of in his third year, Rajput enrolled in Shiamak Davar’s dance class because someone told him “very hot girls go there”. After being included in the main company and dancing behind some of India’s beautiful, silly people, Davar advised him to try theatre. “He said, ‘Not for anything else, but you’re not the best dancer I have. Still, I think there’s something in you.’ So, I went to Barry John.” Even so many years out of John’s shadow, Rajput, who is 29, says with a peck of pride, “In my batch with Barry, I was the only one who got a B grade. Everyone else got a C.”
Soon after arriving in Mumbai, Rajput joined Nadira Babbar’s Ekjute theatre company. “He was exceptionally sincere and dedicated. Very, very obedient and one of my best students,” recalls Babbar. Rajput eventually found himself in the theatre of the absurd that is our television world. He played the lead on Balaji Telefilms’ Pavitra Rishta for two years, and left before any generational leaps could be written in. Given his later choices and abilities, Rajput is proof that even in the world of our soap operas, there are good, thinking actors. It makes you wonder what other diamonds Ekta Kapoor has been hiding in her handbag.
Film careers in India are decided by birth. One can only imagine, then, the amount of obstinacy and belief any struggling actor needs to have. Four films old, Rajput has walked a strange course. He’s liked by some of our finest directors, but the audience seems indifferent to him. He played the good penny in Abhishek Kapoor’s Kai Po Che; a man allergic to marriage in Maneesh Sharma’s Shuddh Desi Romance; a trivial love interest in Rajkumar Hirani’s PK; and a unibrowed sleuth in Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! “With all these directors, I’ve realised there’s no one right way of making a film. With Gattu [Abhishek Kapoor], it was a mix of heavy preparation and improvisation. Maneesh is lots of reading. Mr Hirani, for how many ever days I shot with him, was very open to everything I was doing. Dibakar was completely different. He’s so intelligent that he lets you think you are the one coming up with those ideas. That’s genius, I guess.”
His most challenging role, undoubtedly, was that of Bakshy. “I think I was playing the 75th Byomkesh, though it was done for the first time in Hindi films.” While talking to The Indian Express, Banerjee had said, “Sushant is a bigger obsessive than I am. On the sets, he graduated into full-fledged insomnia. He would rehearse, do workshops, write notes and work with me. He lost 12 kilos, changed his physicality, his face.” Anand Tiwari, who played Watson to Rajput’s Holmes, says, “Usually when you shoot for films, it’s a lot of fun. But, with Byomkesh, every day was a challenge. The commitment the boy [Rajput] showed was exemplary. He completely submitted to Dibakar.” Rajput says, “That is the most interesting part of what I do. To first do so much research that it gives me the authority to be the character.” With their matching intensity, Rajput found a kindred spirit in Banerjee. “Dibakar operates on some other level in life. Normally when you work with a director, they’re sure that ‘this is something you need to do; this is something I want’. But, people like Shekhar Kapur and Dibakar, they’re not sure, and in a very good way. You explore on the set together to see what works. When you do this, maybe you’ll fail, and that’s fine. But, whatever you create will be something new, something personal. That is something every actor, every artist, should strive for.” Rajput is also slated to be in Shekhar Kapur’s Paani, a film that’s been in the womb for more than a decade. “They’re still doing pre-production on Paani. It’s a big budget film; I think more than 100 crores. If you’re making that film with Shah Rukh or Aamir or Salman, as a producer, you’re at peace. But, when you’re doing it with a newcomer like me, you need to be sure about every other aspect.”
Even though his journey is like Shah Rukh Khan’s (theatre to television to film), Rajput honestly sounds more like Aamir Khan — in his belief in preparation over draamebaazi, his idealism towards the stories he wants to be a part of, his plan to do one film at a time, even his style of cracking unfunny jokes. “Anyone can be confident in front of the camera, and memorise his lines, and be an actor,” he says. “But, that should not be the case. When you’re acting, and you want to improvise, it should not be your spontaneity, but the character’s spontaneity. That is something that I always, always want to be in the space of. That even if I try to improvise, it’s the character who’s reacting and not me.” He’s also rather opinionated about how the Indian film industry needs to up its game. “People associate us with typical, escapist, masala films. When they want to see a nice, good film they choose a Hollywood film. So, it’s not a good reputation we’re going for. I’m not saying every film should be intense, but we need to have something to say. It should not be borrowed from somewhere.”
One nice thing about profiles such as this is you hear the things people might say in your eulogy. Rajput has garnered an immensely likeable reputation with the people he’s met on his way to the top. Davar, who runs into him at award shows and events, says, “He’s still as grateful as ever, and keeps thanking me.” Babbar, in her smoky voice, says, “His success has not even touched his fingers; it’s never gone to his head. Whenever we invite him for any of our play openings, he’s the first one to arrive. It’s so nice to see him.” Casting director Mukesh Chhabra, who coached him for Kai Po Che, says he’s “like my child”. In an industry where bedfellows change with each film, he’s also held on to Ankita Lokhande, his co-star on Pavitra Rishta and his live-in girlfriend of many years. Since the Indian press likes to behave like Indian grandmothers, he’s asked about his marriage plans in almost every interview. According to some reports, a date has been fixed for next year.
Right now, M.S. Dhoni is taking up all his time. Chhabra says he’s perfect to play Dhoni because “his commitment and dedication is so much. You need that much for Dhoni. Plus, he’s from Bihar, and has good control over his Hindi”. Rajput signed M.S. Dhoni while he was a stick figure for Byomkesh. Tiwari says, “When he was offered the film, he very quietly confided in me. I was so excited for him. I told him jokingly, ‘You know who should play Raina, right?’ When he started practising, he showed me a video of him playing Dhoni’s ‘helicopter’ shot, and I honestly couldn’t tell the difference.” “Dhoni is the 52nd character I’ll be playing if I consider theatre, television and film,” says Rajput. “For Kai Po Che, I never trained in cricket; those were my acting skills. For this film, I’ve been training for the last 11 months. It’s interesting that what you do normally, since you were a kid, and then to completely immerse yourself into it when you’re 28-29 — it definitely changes you when you’re training to be a top sportsman. I’ve become more focused, more disciplined now. I’ve slogged for so many hours in the sun. I’m obsessed with cricket now.” There’s a beat, and then he says, somewhat predictably, “That’s good for the character.”