Since his unparalleled debut in Bollywood, Sushant Singh Rajput had always tried to walk on the road less trodden with experiments, unusual narratives, and brave risks – always in the pursuit of happiness.
I remember Sushant Singh Rajput walking into his very first cover shoot for MW in 2015. We were shooting at a posh men’s salon in Mumbai’s Bandra, and the crew was busy setting up. Rajput was on time. He had finished shooting the first leg of MS Dhoni’s biopic, and I remember all of us being thankful that he had chopped off the Dhoni shoulder-length before our shoot. He was tall. He was lanky. He was unassuming. Back then, Rajput was a young gun, up for anything. We planned to lather his face up, impromptu, for a shot, and he was game. His PR and managers weren’t hovering around him. It was the fastest – and most efficient – cover shoot I have been at to date. We wrapped up in two hours. Everybody was chuffed.
I remember musing during that shoot, as I saw him go from boy-next-door to handsome-stud the moment the photographer turned the lights on for a shot, that Rajput was an anomaly in Bollywood. He was the first TV-to-film success story, had enjoyed a massive countrywide fandom during his TV days but was ready to forgo that comfort and try to reinvent himself in a different medium knowing the risks and possible ridicule, chose a “content-driven” buddy-film with political overtures for a debut (back then, content-driven films like Kai Po Che were eyebrow-raisers) – sans shirt-utaaroing, heroine-pataaoing, dance-dikhaaoing like Student Of The Year, for example, which launched three actors just a year before KPC – followed his debut with an offbeat anti-sanskaar love story like Shuddh Desi Romance, and then was about to become Dibakar Banerjee’s Byomkesh Bakshy. Back then, any industry expert would laugh at such a filmography. Many did. But, as I stared at that unassuming lanky chap back then, and when I think about it now, it must have taken immense faith in oneself to make such choices. To not sell out. To fight to be different from the herd.
The next time I shot with him was after the debacle that was Raabta. Rajput had oscillated between being the industry’s superstar with MS Dhoni in 2016, to the country’s biggest joke with Raabta in 2017. Although Raabta tanked, true to his nature, it was a wild experiment. He had come for our shoot after a night of celebrating another film’s success. I saw the superstarriness in him then. But, just like our first encounter, he seemed satisfied with his company. Rajput didn’t need a crowd around him to stay interested. He would dance by himself during shot changes, listen to music, daydream. He was unfazed by Raabta‘s failure, as he mentioned during the interview, and his self-confidence was heartening and inspiring. “I was already a superstar in my head before I even became an actor” he had said during our chat. It wasn’t arrogance though. It felt more like focus, the desired ideal-image, and a strong understanding of self-worth.
In the last two years, Rajput starred in four starkly distinctive films. From the socially-conscious drama of Kedarnath to the as-real-as-real-gets desi Western Sonchiriya to the heartwarming Chhichhore to his last film, the crime thriller, Drive. Barring Drive, which was riddled with execution errors and terrible direction due to a rushed release, Rajput shone in all of the other films. When you think about it, in his extremely short filmography, Rajput might have starred in terribly-made films, but has never delivered a bad performance. He came to film as a seasoned actor, with accolades and experience from TV. He oozed screen presence, was naturally charismatic, and knew exactly how to make that roguish-but-endearing smile work for him. He worked hard on his performances, and never looked insincere on screen. I shot with him less than a year back, last August, and he had just come back from a holiday in Ladakh. The man was tanned, messy hair, had put on a few kilos, but looked outrageously happy. Rajput, always, looked happy.
Rajput was a good looking man. We had once done a story on whether his Instagram was the hottest celebrity feed in the country. When we had bumped into each other a week or so after that story, he had cheekily mentioned it and told me to get over him. I had laughed it off. His Instagram changed over time. Rajput was always curious, always looking for new things to be obsessed with. During our cover shoot last year, he said he had had nine passions then – from obsessing over Singularity, working with the UN, tinkering with boats, to spending time with his telescope.
Sushant Singh Rajput passing away feels like a waste of talent for a film industry that has finally evolved to make space for different kinds of cinema. It is ironic that a man who led a film like Chhichhore, spending two hours of reel time trying to convince the country’s youth that suicide is not the answer to battling stress and failure, should end his life like this. However content-driven and real-life cinema tries to be, it shall forever remain a slice of fantasy, I guess. Behind those twinkling eyes and that disarming smile were sorrows that we never understood.