Out of nowhere, one of Bollywood’s prominent leading men, Sushant Singh Rajput, passed away today. While we are still trying to comprehend this heartbreaking news, it is important to look back at Rajput’s exciting career, a meteoric rise to fame, a fabulous TV-to-film success story, some memorable performances, that devilishly handsome on-screen presence, and a man who was definitely self-made.
You’d need more than a few minutes if you were asked to list more than three A-list Bollywood actors that don’t hail from film families, or have some strong connection to them. (Seriously, practically everyone is related to a Kapoor, Chopra or Khan — our companion piece on Bollywood clans offers definitive proof of this fact).
The success of the Kangana Ranauts and Sushant Singh Rajputs of the world, then, needs to be lauded with more vigour than it is. Ranaut invited the wrath of the self-anointed centre of Bollywood’s universe, Karan Johar, a few months ago — she had the cheek to hint at his not-so-discreet tendency to cast the spawn of colleagues, irrespective of the fact that some rank outsiders might just be more deserving of plum opportunities.
Johar smiled it all off on national TV, but it wasn’t too long before a much-publicized war of words began. Quite illogically — a few months after the brouhaha died down — the film-maker inexplicably took a cheap shot at the actress again. Johar, the son of an illustrious film-maker and nephew of another one, teamed up with Saif Ali Khan — Bollywood blue blood — and Varun Dhawan — with a father and brother who are both directors. Their ‘nepotism rocks’ chant got angry reactions (obviously), and stirred up the hornet’s nest again. A regretful tweet by Dhawan, open letters exchanged between Khan and Ranaut, and an apologetic TV interview by Johar followed. Ranaut may have won this round, but the question remains — does anyone really care? More importantly, will Johar — or any other big money producer – stop hedging bets on star kids? We have a feeling they won’t. Neither does Rajput. Ask him about the raging debate of the moment and he says, “Nepotism is very much there in the industry; why is there even a debate? Someone needs to be really powerful or stupid to say that it’s not.” The actor isn’t complaining, though. He prefers to put his head down and work instead of publicly bashing the clannish tendencies of a majority of the industry — which includes people he has already worked with, or will undoubtedly someday want to work with.
Rajput doesn’t allow himself to be bothered by the fact that some meaty roles may have been wasted on debuting star kids, or that five consecutive flops later, an actor’s son could still be favoured ahead of him. “All this while, I have been working on films that I have wanted to do, and I’ve had great options, so I don’t really think about nepotism that much,” he admits candidly. Sure enough, for a rank outsider, Rajput has managed to carve quite a niche for himself. He took his time working his way up the ladder, with success on TV followed by a stellar Bollywood debut in Kai Po Che (2013). Four years later, he’s done only four more films (the fifth was a small appearance in P.K.), only tasting critical and commercial failure this year, with Raabta. Rajput isn’t fazed, though. It’s talent that has brought him so far, and that’s what he will rely on to continue bagging good projects.
Tell us a bit about where you come from and what life was like before you made it on TV, and then in films.
I was born in Patna and did my primary schooling there. My higher schooling and engineering were in Delhi. I was a good student. Being the youngest in the family, I was pampered a bit. After clearing almost all my engineering exams, I chose to stay at Delhi College of Engineering — I was interested in performing arts, and this allowed me to do some theatre with Barry John and also train as a professional dancer with Shiamak Davar. In my third year, I dropped out of college after realizing that performing arts were what I wanted to do all my life. When I mustered the courage to drop out of such a premier college to do what I loved, I was already a superstar in my mind. That has been non-negotiable ever since, irrespective of the medium I act in and the fate of the projects I am part of.
How have you changed as a person over the course of being an average guy, to a TV star, and then a Bollywood star?
I do think I have changed with experience, but nothing has shaken my fundamental beliefs. I don’t take myself too seriously. I’m passionate, and hence, I do what I do. I’ve always been a mix of contradictions, recklessness, humility and daring. If the way people look at me has changed during this time, it’s their opinion and they have to deal with it.
Do fans perceive you differently after you made the switch from TV to films?
I don’t know that; I don’t ask them. What I can tell you is that the general perception is that films are somehow a better medium than TV, and that the actors in films are better. I might be wrong, but in my opinion, that’s a very immature way of looking at things. An actor is an actor irrespective and in spite of a medium. So if we are hinting at the reach of the medium, then let me tell you that TV has a far wider reach than films. As far as content in India is concerned, some serious creativity and courage are required immediately in these mediums. Having been part of theatre, TV and films, I don’t see them differently, but I guess people do, which is why I have a fatter remuneration now.
How has your lifestyle changed over the years? We now see you wearing clothes by top designers, driving swanky cars and travelling to exotic locations. Are your expenses all calculated moves, or do you feel like since you have the spending power now, you deserve to have a little fun with the money you earn?
I’ve been a spender all my life — not that I had a lot before, but that’s the equation I have with money and fame, and I don’t think it will change. I realized the importance of money very early in my life. I knew that if you don’t have it, you’re screwed, but after a point, it stops giving you any high. When it comes to fame, I think I have a lot more of it than some people I look up to, and then there are people who are more famous than me, but I wouldn’t want to be like them. So I don’t think I have much regard for either of these things. If you give them to me, of course I will take them, but I won’t miss them otherwise. I generally spend on pursuing my passions, buying things that I don’t need, but also on providing scholarships to students who deserve them. Very soon, I intend to back scripts that I like, which are in need of financial backing.
How often does your family visit you? How do they perceive your new lifestyle?
We have an annual get-together, plus we meet on anniversaries, birthdays and sometimes around my film releases. Initially, my dad had a problem with me not getting my engineering degree, but it’s fine now and he laughs about it. My sisters are very protective of me, but they are also proud of my achievements. Seeing them happy about things that happen in my life makes me feel better too. We all miss our mother who passed away in 2002, but I’m sure that wherever she is, she would be happy that her kids are doing just fine.
You remain selective about your roles, even after 5-6 years of being in the industry. Do you plan to switch to a one-film-at-a-time format to be able to give your best to each role?
Yes, the idea is not to reach a certain goal, accumulate money or earn a certain reputation — I just want to take my time and enjoy the journey. I really like what I do, and would pay to be in such a position, so I really can’t ask for more if I’m actually being paid to do this. I’m grateful to everyone who hires me. Acting is a delicate job; there are no hard-and-fast rules to go about building a character. Every story and character require a different method and process, which an actor needs to discover along the way. So, one film at a time is an absolute necessity, at least for me.
Tell us about your interactions with your fans — are they a different audience from the one that loved seeing you on TV?
People who connect with your emotions would do that irrespective of the medium. I’ve done theatre, TV and films, and every time the story is good, and my performance is convincing, it resonates with whoever is watching it. As long as I can do this successfully, I will have people coming in and watching what I do.
Who are your closest friends in the film industry?
Mukesh Chabbra, Kriti Sanon and Rohini Iyer
How do you see Indian TV evolving since you moved on from it? Many Bollywood actors are now not only hosting reality shows, but are also doing fiction series. Is that something you are open to as well?
In the next few years, we are going to witness a massive reshuffling of mediums, and we should have to develop a lot of skills in order to adapt. But sticking to the basics won’t hurt, and the most fundamental, basic thing is to create new, original and exciting content — I will go wherever I find that.