The word “earnest” often comes up in conversations about Sushant Singh Rajput; it is used to describe his on-screen performances or to explain his strengths. Perhaps, it’s the actor’s earnestness that has landed him roles in coveted movies such as Rajkumar Hirani’s Peekay and Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, in which he plays the titular role.
That earnestness comes through when we meet him at the YRF office. In a display of courtesy that is rare in the industry, Rajput refuses a snack offered to him, as the guest seated across the table has declined one. “I am, anyway, supposed to lose weight for my next film. You’re helping me in that,” says the soft-spoken actor.
The other opinion, says a prominent industry member, is that the 27-year-old is “too young to be interesting”. The actor, in fact, admits to being “boring” and “predictable”. But his journey from Delhi College of Engineering to Bollywood is nevertheless intriguing.
Born into a middle-class household in Delhi, Rajput was fascinated by Bollywood, but never aspired to be a part of it. With four elder sisters, he was over-protected and grew up to be a shy and introvert boy, with very few friends. Influenced by his academically-inclined siblings, he chose to study engineering. “But there are so few girls in engineering colleges that I thought Shiamak Davar’s dance classes would give me an opportunity to interact with some,” says Rajput in jest, only to add on a serious (or earnest) note, “Dancing made me realise that I need not speak to express myself.”
Rajput then began exploring the performing arts. He joined the Barry John Acting Studio, even as he continued to dance as part of Davar’s company. But he also skipped most of the lectures, he tells us — choosing instead to devour paranthas at Delhi’s famous Moolchand paranthawala or at the dhabhas in Murthal, a small town in Haryana.
The days he spent in college, Rajput says, also inspired his performance in Abhishek Kapoor’s Kai Po Che, his debut film. His Ishaan, an amateur cricketer in Ahmedabad, refuses to follow a calculated path to success and instead chooses to coach a Muslim cricketing prodigy even at the height of communal tension in Gujarat. “The bond Ishaan shares with his friends somewhere drew from my equation with friends. I could connect with the character who is driven by selfless passion for the game and his friends,” Rajput says.
In 2005, Rajput dropped out of college and moved to Mumbai, where he joined Nadira Babbar’s theatre production company, Ekjute. “I had to start somewhere and theatre felt like a good place to do so,” he says.
Television followed theatre soon enough. A Balaji Telefilms employee, impressed by his performance in a play titled Pukar, invited him to audition for the role of Manav, a self-respecting mechanic in Pavitra Rishta on Zee TV.
His stint in television not only trained him to act before the camera, it also whetted his appetite for more. “After four years of playing Manav, I wasn’t learning anything new in terms of acting. I quit at a time the show was about to take a leap, and decided to wait till something good came my way,” he says.
The opportunity presented itself sooner than he had thought, in the form of an audition for Kai Po Che. “When I had signed on Kai Po Che, I was called to audition for Peekay. It’s all fallen into place on its own,” he says. Not one to attribute much to luck, Rajput believes hard work always pays off. While thousands of others who are still struggling for a break in Bollywood may disagree, Rajput says he was equally happy and satisfied when he was doing theatre. “Yes, I was travelling in a rickshaw back then and I have a fancy SUV now, which is great, but I get as excited to play an interesting character in a film as I used to when I would prepare for a theatre performance,” he says.
The actor credits his stint in theatre for learning the techniques of acting. “One may believe that theatre needs spontaneity but in truth, it demands that an actor perform a scene repeatedly with the same intensity and freshness each time. As jaded as I may sound, it taught me the importance of researching the character, so that I can look for the stimulus when I need it,” he says.
Jaded or not, Rajput is currently being viewed as a rising star in Bollywood. His moving and honest performance in Kai Po Che proved that he can carry a film on his shoulders, becoming Banerjee’s choice for playing the iconic character from Bengali literature, detective Byomkesh Bakshi.
“We needed a young star with a growing following, but who is not yet overexposed,” says Banerjee, explaining his choice of Rajput for the role. “Sushant has that very exciting mix of vulnerability and intensity which I think will add a lot to my Byomkesh —who is fresh out of college and on his first case — and fighting all the issues that a man of 23 faces when he comes out in the world.”
Currently being managed by YRF’s talent management arm, Rajput has also been ensured of being “projected right”. “Sushant is someone who appeals to a cross-section of people. The youth love him for his dance skills that he displayed on reality show Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa, and housewives took to him back in his Pavitra Rishta days,” says Ashish Patil, vice president (business & creative), YRF.
Although his dancing skills — which Rajput is confident of — are not being used in any of his current projects, his versatility, Patil believes, is on display in his new release, Maneesh Sharma-directed Shuddh Desi Romance. “I play a confused but earnest Raghu who is trying to differentiate between love and infatuation, the signs of which are often interchangeable,” he explains. The film, he says, explores the modern Indian youth’s take on relationships and the confusion between attraction and love.
While Rajput knows that it may not strike a chord with his fans from his television stint, who saw him as the aspirational hero, he isn’t willing to choose projects based on box-office returns. “I am supposed to lose up to eight kilos for my role as Byomkesh, apart from trying to understand the character — a thought that has me excited. If I have to lose out on this excitement, there’s nothing left to being an actor for me. I could have continued to play Manav and earned good money anyway.”