Sushant Singh Rajput is a restless man. Even when he is seated and chatting with you, he appears fidgety – he shakes his leg constantly and his eyes keep darting across the room as though expecting someone to pop in through the door unannounced at any time.
He admits this with a smile. ‘Maybe it’s because I’m excited for nothing.’
But that may not be true. The 30-year-old sure has good reason to be excited.
His movie MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, is a huge box-office hit, with pundits predicting it’ll break records, just like the man on whom it is based, India’s one-day international cricket captain MS Dhoni.
Mention his success with the movie, though, and the dancer-turned-actor gets a tad modest.
‘I was a background dancer in films and to take a step forward to become a hero who dances took a lot of effort,’ admits the Chetan Bhagat novel-based Kai Po Che! star. ‘I feel happy about the leap, but that’s just about it. I don’t take myself seriously.’
So how was it preparing for his role as Dhoni?
‘I didn’t really look at it as a role but as playing a sport that’s a childhood passion,’ he says.
Cricket, incidentally, runs in his family – one of his sisters played professional cricket. ‘I too enjoy the sport and used to watch it as often as I could,’ Sushant says. But taking on the role of portraying Dhoni was another ball game – and it proved to be a major step forward in the actor’s career.
Sushant is animated when he begins talking about the film. ‘It could not have my interpretation of MS Dhoni because people know him too well – his cricketing style, mannerisms, body language and diction. The issue was how to play MS Dhoni without making it look like an imitation,’ says Sushant, who studied the Indian captain for weeks to perfect his mannerisms, gait and playing style.
Was it difficult to replicate the cricketer on screen?
The actor says he indulged in a quiz contest with MS Dhoni. ‘I asked him so many questions – how he thinks about himself, how he looks back, his dreams, his aspirations, what he thinks, what he considers right, rules he lives by…
‘I asked him 250 questions, to which Dhoni was supposed to give instant spontaneous answers. These were situational questions and he was not allowed to think. He was very patient.’
It was only after he was convinced that he had prepped and perfected the role did shooting begin.
‘One of the things I realised that we both shared is the ability to live in the now. Both of us are interested in what we are doing right now… we don’t sit and think about the future or ruminate too much about the past. What is now commands your attention because you love it so much. Your experience is not distorted by your fear or desire to attain something.’
The star’s ability to live in the now is perhaps what helped him spend several months with film-maker Shekhar Kapur on his prestigious project Paani, though it never saw the light of day. ‘I had a seven-month masterclass with Shekhar but I do not regret the hard work. I learnt a lot with him.’
It appears learning has always been a constant for Sushant.
The youngest child, with four sisters, Sushant, who hails from Bihar in eastern India, says his parents wanted him to concentrate on his studies. ‘My mum, who passed on when I was young, was keen that I become an engineer,’ he says.
Sushant was a bright student and after his schooling, enrolled in engineering college ‘but I was shy and an introvert. So to get over that I joined Shiamak Davar’s dance classes and Barry John’s drama classes.’
Once he started doing shows on stage, he ‘found the experience liberating.
‘I realised I could communicate with the audience. I knew this was what I wanted to do forever. Barry John felt I had it in me to be an actor. That gave me a lot of hope,’ he says. ‘His classes taught me how to express myself.’
The lessons in theatre were a game-changer for Sushant.
‘Although I was doing well in studies, I wanted to be in showbiz,’ he says.
With that goal firmly in mind, he packed his bags, left Bihar’s capital Patna, where he was doing his engineering course, and arrived in Mumbai. At the time no one in his family knew he was taking dance and acting classes.
‘Only when I had to apply for a passport to perform in the Commonwealth Games in Australia did my dad come to know what I was up to,’ he says. ‘Indeed, my dad asked me whether I was heading for an Olympiad in physics because I was good in that subject.’
His family and friends tried to dissuade him, telling him he was making the biggest mistake of his life. ‘They felt I was wasting my time. But I just knew I had to be here,’ he says.
Sushant joined Nadira Babbar’s Ekjute theatre company and the first few years all he did was put up props on stage, or serve tea to the actors. It was while he was performing on stage that Balaji Telefilms spotted him, and offered him a role in a soap.
‘I hadn’t faced the camera ever; it was a great opportunity for me to learn something new,’ he says. ‘So I did Pavitra Rishta in 2011. And it was great while it lasted.
‘But after two years, I felt I was stagnating. I knew exactly what my character was up to each day. There were no surprises left. I was doing the same thing day in and out. So I left TV.’
After garnering critical and commercial plaudits for his brooding portrayal of protagonist Manav in Pavitra Rishta, Sushant was soon a regular on dancer reality shows, and was all set to go to Stanford, US, for a film-making course. That was when casting director Mukesh Chhabra spotted him and asked him to audition for a film.
‘My first audition ever,’ he says. Sushant auditioned for Abhishek Kapoor’s Kai Po Che! and was selected to play one of the three leads, along with Rajkummar Rao and Amit Sadh. Based on Chetan Bhagat’s third book The 3 Mistakes of my Life, the film went on to become a critical and commercial success, and Sushant’s portrayal of Ishaan Bhatt, a former district-level cricketer who is a victim of politics in the cricketing selection fraternity, came in for much praise.
With his confidence and distinct likeability, a star was born, and for his role and dynamic debut in this film, Sushant won three awards for Best Male Debut, and received as many as five award nominations.
Sushant’s unpretentious and spontaneous acting quickly landed him a role in romantic comedy Shuddh Desi Romance, alongside Parineeti Chopra and Vaani Kapoor.
Then came PK, in which although Sushant had a relatively small role, he had the opportunity to work with Rajkumar Hirani and Aamir Khan. The film emerged as the highest-grossing Indian film of all time.
His next release, Dibakar Banerjee’s period film Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! tanked at the box office. But that was followed by MS Dhoni: The Story Untold – and he hit a six.
Sushant is happy with his film innings so far. ‘For the first 18 or 19 years of my life I couldn’t speak [well], I couldn’t communicate and articulate well and I didn’t know how to deal with people. But things changed when I stepped on to the stage for the first time. I realised I could reach out to people, and they were listening,’ says the actor.
‘All my dreams have come true.
‘There was never an iota of doubt that it won’t happen. Everybody used to laugh at me when I told them about my goals back then because my dreams seemed unrealistic to them. But I would respond to their ridicule with a smile,’ says the star, leaning back in his chair.
So how does he cope with the fame of being a bankable star in Bollywood? He’s not known to party hard so as to forget all the pressures of stardom. He agrees. ‘I’m a shy person. I don’t have many friends. I do party sometimes but people find me boring.
‘However, fame in itself does not drive me; but if I am not famous I won’t be hired for the next film. It is a want,’ he says. ‘While I was with Shekhar, I was only thinking about whether I would be hired for my next film as there was a lull in my career after doing three films in my first year, and then Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! had flopped even as I had worked very hard for it.
What kind of films would he be willing to try from now on?
‘I don’t mind trying an out-and-out masala film,’ he says, sipping a strong black coffee. ‘But it has to make some sense to me. Is there a story to tell? If it’s there, is my director sure of it or does he just want to make money? If he’s sure of the film, he’s doing the right thing.
‘I also want to earn money, become more famous. It’s not that I’m deliberately not doing a 1-2 billion (about Dh55 million) film. If it happens, great. I will party all night!’
Until then, Sushant is happy to revel in being one of the most sought-after actors in Bollywood today.