This can't be the end

For an artiste who passes on at 34, you don’t quite look back at their works, as much as you genuinely wonder what was in store for the future. Not what was. But what will never be. The shadow cast in front being so much longer.

The last time I met Sushant Singh Rajput, he was deeply engrossed explaining to me, over a smoke, his move to theatre. The project he was working on involved a series of performances of the same play, before live audiences, over time. But captured with multiple cameras for the screen — editing/picking best angles, shots, takes — the way it would be done for any other film! Didn’t ask him if Virtual Reality (VR) had anything to do with it, because that’s what he saw as the future of film.

This was in September last year. Right before the release of Nitesh Tiwari’s Chhichore — returns plus expectations wise, arguably, the biggest sleeper-hit in Bollywood ever! Stage would’ve been Rajput’s next big step. And he came from television. Having trained in acting under Barry John, he dropped out of a prestigious course (engineering) in a top Delhi college, before moving to Bombay.

These are the exact footsteps of the other Bollywood star, who moved from the capital — Shah Rukh Khan. Rajput’s life in many ways would be a dream, coming true — the kind of success story that inspires the middle-class, metropolitan young. He said he had also based it on the SRK line from Om Shanti Om: “Kabhi kisi cheez ko shiddat se chaho, toh saari kaynaat… (If you will it; it happens).” Can tell you one thing – it works, he said.

Sushant Singh Rajput
Sushant Singh Rajput

At a more practical level, traditionally, the transition 0f lead actors from television (small screen, as it were) to cinema has been seen as tough, to near impossible — with the former deemed as graveyard for the latter. Chiefly because people begin to identify so strongly with the characters on TV that the actor’s actual persona disappears from public imagination altogether. It’s the opposite of stardom, as it were. Rajput instantly connected with the masses, first, as Manav in Ekta Kapoor’s Zee TV soap Pavitra Rishta (2009-11).

At the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), in Goa in 2017, I witnessed a very different kind of stardom, walking through the aisle towards the stage with Rajput, with crowds on both sides chanting what sounded to me like, “Modi, Modi, Modi.” Was actually “Dhoni, Dhoni, Dhoni!” That’s the part he’d played in the Indian cricket captain’s biopic, Neeraj Pandey’s MS Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016).

He began his film career also as a cricketer, in Abhishek Kapoor’s Kai Po Che (2013). That hit film, in many ways — and this happens once in few years — became the fountainhead for multiple stars/careers. Amit Sadh became a popular actor from the same film. Rajkummar Rao’s filmography as one of Bollywood’s top lead actors kicked off from Kai Po Che.

Rajput, of course, shone over the rest. He had the dominant role in the film. What followed was a contract with Yash Raj Films — the huge-budget detective thriller, Dibakar Banerjee’s Byomkesh Bakshy (2015) and Maneesh Sharma’s rom-com Shuddh Desi Romance (2013). Both films centred on him, besides a supporting role in the Rajkumar Hirani blockbuster PK (2014).

Sushant Singh Rajput
Sushant Singh Rajput

No matter what your personal opinion on his choices may be — whether it’s Rajput as the coolie Mansoor Khan in Abhishek Kapoor’s Kedarnath (2018), or the bandit Lakhna in Abhishek Chaubey’s Sonchiriya (2019) — he was new, merit-based Bollywood.

Risen up the ranks from TV soaps, and dance reality shows (Zara Nachke Dikha and Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa). Proving his worth as a household name, and dancer, essential entries on a mainstream star’s CV. Part of Bollywood’s competitive audition culture. Attaining stardom based on the content of films, rather than the accoutrements of show-business alone.

Check that filmography again. It’s worth a retrospective already. Can’t say the same for a lot of veterans. I asked Rajput about Kai Po Che being a pleasant pivot for new talents from outside those with family businesses in films. He gave the audience in Goa gyan on how “we derive security from prediction, which is evolutionary. But preparation is only essential to know what not to do.” Okay, had to leap to connect with that bouncer!

On the idea of success, he spoke further about “impact bias — a popular, revolutionary subject in behavioural economics, because it’s counter-intuitive to how we usually think,” since it practically proves that “successes or failures actually don’t affect us in the same way that we imagine. If you enjoy a process itself though, you get so good at the skill, that it automatically places you in the top percentile of people on the (happiness) index.” Hmmm.

On script selection, he declaimed, “This is absolutely the time to encourage failure, rather than success. According to research, 65 per cent of school kids right now will eventually take up jobs that don’t currently exist. The disruptive technology to enable those jobs is yet to happen. We’re at the stage of deception, since we’re unaware.”

One-on-one with Rajput, to me, felt like engaging with an esoteric, futuristic seer — a Sadhguru for the Silicon Valley — at any rate, the most well-read among new Bombay stars. He was a rank-holder across India’s top engineering entrance exams — the other middle-class aspiration gone right. This, after having nearly flunked his Class 12 pre-boards, because his mother had just passed away.

He also held entrepreneurial ambitions, networked with the government’s think-tank NITI Aayog, and generally came across as someone trying to build his brain, besides his body, in a Bollywood gym. And, yeah, he could take a socio-political stand. Over the Karni Sena controversy over Padmaavat (2018), Rajput decided to drop his last name, ashamed of people from his caste baying for lead actor Deepika Padukone’s blood.

The first time I saw him, will admit, I did not like him at all. We were on a flight from Delhi together. He was returning from Chandigarh, where his sister lives. This was right after Dhoni’s release. The entire flight-crew had taken a picture with him. One flight-attendant had missed out. He refused to get up and pose for her.

While chatting with him, I kept bringing up Bihar, since he was a Patna-born. He kept deflecting the conversation to Delhi. We spoke about the film Dhoni and the digital technology used to merge MSD’s body with his, for a couple of hours straight. That’s when he seemed most comfortable. Maybe his work alone gave him the sanctuary to ease out, and feel at home.

He was self-admittedly an introvert, painfully shy; seeming socially awkward. This may seem ironic about a person who picks up acting, the most public profession there is. But it’s quite a common trait. Some of the best actors I’ve interviewed — Akshaye Khanna, Ranbir Kapoor, Nawazuddin Siddiqui — have seemed the hardest to break ice with. That apart, the inert personality, in fact, helps them inhabit other humans/characters/parts more easily, perhaps.

Also there is this bizarre drug called fame that comes with an actor’s success. In ways that it is so unique to the profession, that it’s impossible to tell how the psyche might respond to public love and adulation, tending towards obsession, that surrounds every move you make, every step you take. Somebody’s watching you. Don’t know, does it get lonelier then?

How do you take third-rate gossip about yourself, sold to millions of salivating voyeurs as the “blind item” — written by moralistic cowards, with not even the courage to name the person they’re maligning in public? Rajput regularly featured in this high-brow literature — often made out to be a wannabe, sex-crazy drunk. It’s hard enough to make it as an outsider. Look at that six-pack/stamina, besides the healthy body of work. I’d want to be that drunk.

By all accounts, Rajput suffered from clinical depression. The Hindi television news reporter covering his death on my screen says, “The police are going to investigate depression ka kaaran.” Exactly. Depression has no kaaran (reasons). That’s the lesson he taught us and left. Surely there must’ve been some trigger. But observe his life from the outside. Most of India would give their right arm for it. Yet, no one I know could sense the darkness that lay within.

In the first scene of his last release, Chhichhore, the young boy in the film jumps off a building to kill himself. Rajput plays the father. The entire film is about him explaining to the son the futility of suicide. And the various chances that life has on offer. Nine months later, Rajput hangs himself to death in his own Bandra apartment. This can’t be the end of that. The world is already in the middle of a pandemic. For too long, we’ve been characters in a zombie script. Whoever wrote this sub-plot, screw you boss; seriously.

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