There aren’t many actors who have trudged their way through Bollywood’s ranks and achieved mainstream stardom. Often, the journeys of such artists are quelled by the merciless metropolis that is Mumbai. This selective list suffered a major blow with the recent demise of Irrfan Khan. Cruelly, another name must be struck off in light of yesterday’s news. Sushant Singh Rajput.
The 34-year-old Patna-born actor’s death has come as a shock to all. Heartfelt tributes have rolled in from all corners of the industry, along with those of ardent fans. The appalling opportunism of some Indian media outlets (read: vultures) has unsurprisingly commenced. Sensationalizing tragedies and sending WhatsApp forwards of the body just because the individual has been active in the public domain is inexcusable and inhuman.
The ‘whys’ and the ‘hows’ are immaterial. Amidst the noise, what is imperative to not lose sight of the human being himself. Specifically, the story this industry outsider has left behind that many can learn and be inspired from. Tracing the actor’s life and career to learn about the qualities that rendered him successful, seems the most optimistic and resourceful way to remember him during this dark period.
This piece is as much about the person and the actor, as it is of the effect the actor has had on me in a personal capacity. Sushant Singh Rajput is not my favorite actor. But as an aspiring actor with no connections to Bollywood’s internal functioning, the manner in which this man navigated the industry and achieved success is remarkable. He, like Irrfan, is a product of diligence. A paragon of perseverance. There is a lot to be learned from him on a personal level, and by sharing his story in the public domain I hope to respectfully mourn the actor’s loss.
Amongst other facts, something that has come up in several tributes is Sushant’s love and aptitude for science. He was a National Olympiad winner in Physics. Securing an All India Rank (AIR) of 7 in the Delhi College of Engineering exam, he studied Mechanical Engineering for 3 of the program’s 4 years. Eventually he dropped out due to several backlogs. This primarily stemmed from his obsession with practicing theater and dance in favor of classes. Hailing from a middle-class family with 5 kids (4 elder sisters), the decision couldn’t have been an easy one.
Asked about the clarity needed to take such a decision so early on by Anupama Chopra, he replied: “We’re conditioned into thinking that ‘one day’ we will do something and then people will recognize us”, implying that the one day is always far away, and the present is all we really have access to. The romanticizing of dropouts is common, but this speaks to the determination, self-belief, and intellect that Sushant carried himself with.
A consequent student of Shiamak Davar’s and Barry John’s (acclaimed theater-director), Sushant’s initial brush with Bollywood was as a background dancer at the 51st Filmfare Awards. After coming to Mumbai to pursue his dream, he also joined Nadira Babbar’s Ekjute theater group for a couple of years. Here, he was scouted by agents, which gave birth to his small screen career.
Sushant’s story is in some ways similar to that of Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan. They both were products of theater, and worked in television before successfully traversing the shaky bridge to successful acting careers.
He loved me so much…I will miss him so much. His energy, enthusiasm and his full happy smile. May Allah bless his soul and my condolences to his near and dear ones. This is extremely sad….and so shocking!! pic.twitter.com/skIhYEQxeO— Shah Rukh Khan (@iamsrk) June 14, 2020
Keeping sight of his goal to have a career in film, he garnered popular acclaim with his debut in Kis Desh Mein Hai Meraa Dil. By 2009, he bagged his biggest television role on Pavitra Rishta, which won him several accolades. Clearly not one to rest on his laurels, the actor diversified by entering a couple of dance reality shows as well.
It is visible from this early work that his immense zeal for performance was not going to be contained. His fellow participants often praised his commitment and hard-work, a quality essential to anyone chasing stardom in Bollywood. Not only did the actor possess fortitude, but patience as well. In 2011, at the height of his television glory, Rajput decided to leave television in pursuit of film. This habit to pursue exactly what work he wanted, rather than rest in security, resulted in him always taking on interesting projects, for better or for worse.
— Abhishek Kapoor (@Abhishekapoor) June 14, 2020
His journey came to more publicly familiar territory in 2013. Rajput acted alongside Rajkummar Rao and Amit Sadh in Abhishek Kapoor’s Kai Po Che!. The film follows the narrative of three friends setting up a cricket academy, with the backdrop of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake and the 2002 communal riots. The film seemed far from an actor’s debut performance. A self-confessed introvert and avid reader, he has been on record stating how acting on stage helped him overcome his inherent struggles with communication. While re-watching Kai Po Che! last night, the arresting nature of his performance as Ishan left little room for doubt regarding his longevity in the industry. Interested readers can watch the film on Netflix.
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Sush 💔 I will miss you buds. pic.twitter.com/AgQL8vmPvQ
— Parineeti Chopra (@ParineetiChopra) June 14, 2020
Next in line was Shuddh Desi Romance with Parineeti Chopra, where his tweak in script choice and performance were duly lauded. After a small cameo in 2014’s blockbuster PK, Rajput played the eponymous character in Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015). Both the film and the performance continue to be criminally underrated. Starring alongside and holding his own against veteran Neeraj Kabi really cemented the actor’s ability amongst industry newcomers. Despite the film’s muted performance at the box office, Sushant mentioned deep admiration for the character, the process, and the experience. You can stream the film on Amazon Prime Video.
He quickly moved on to the next project in 2016 which was inarguably the biggest role of his career; he was to essay the life and character of India’s captain M.S. Dhoni. It was scheduled to be directed by Neeraj Pandey of A Wednesday! and Special 26. Rajput underwent strenuous training and preparation for the role, both on a physical and emotional front.
Being the second cricket-centric story in his filmography, the actor mentioned immense pressure (self-placed) to do justice to the character. From submitting to extreme fitness routines and mastering the famous ‘helicopter’ shot, to understanding and internalizing Dhoni’s backstory, no stone was left unturned in ensuring a fine performance.
Despite the film’s extraordinarily lengthy run-time, the performance and commitment to perfectly representing the character’s growth was remarkable. He earned his first nomination for the Filmfare Award for Best Actor. Also, the film ended up becoming one of the highest-grossing in 2016. The acting and direction was praised by the cricketer himself, in the film’s press-run. M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story is available for streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.
In the following year, Sushant Singh Rajput worked with actress Kriti Sanon in the film Raabta, which was a very forgettable film. In 2018, he starred alongside Sara Ali Khan in Kedarnath, set against the backdrop of the 2013 Uttarakhand floods.
2019’s most memorable performance, cited as one of the finest of his career, was Nitesh Tiwari’s coming-of-age comedy, drama film titled Chhichhore. It garnered massive praise for the subject matter and its treatment and was also a sleeper hit at the box office. Not only this, but Rajput worked in the tremendous Abhishek Chaubey’s Sonchiriya. Sushant gave a brilliant performance, holding his own alongside a talented cast including Manoj Bajpai, Bhumi Pednekar, and Ranvir Shorey. The film expertly deals with important subject matters, such as those of caste and gender, through the story of a group of dacoits. Sonchiriya even obtained a Filmfare Critics Award for Best Film.
Posthumously, his swansong Dil Bechara, a remake of Fault In Our Stars, is set to release on Disney+ Hotstar, due to previous conflicts and the eventual pandemic affecting release dates.
It is important to note that Sushant was also a philanthropist, who consistently tried to give back to society. Beginning in 2017, he launched a programme called Sushant4Education, which aimed at providing young students with knowledge of the various fields available to them, before they decide on a final career option. In the early part of 2018, the actor joined forces with think-tank NITI Aayog to buttress the state of women entrepreneurship in the country. In September of the same year he had donated a sum of Rs. 1.25 crores to help the people of Nagaland due to extreme floods. He had also donated Rs. 1 crore to Kerala, due to the massive issues that they faced with flooding as well. These initiatives are not common in an entertainment industry that is always focused primarily on the self. They display the man’s entrenched moral fiber.
Despite the obvious fact that Sushant Singh Rajput had demons of his own to face in his personal life, he was an outsider with the vital quality of perseverance. He proved that industry can make one’s dreams accessible. That is something he must always be remembered for.
We would do well as a society to keep the best parts of this man alive.
By Abhay Budki
A professional writer, I was selected to compete in the 'India Story' category at MAMI 2020. Assisted National Award-winning filmmaker Kireet Khurana for a feature film script and worked as an associate writer for the feature film 'Janhit Mein Jaari'.