Days before the release of Kedarnath, I asked Sushant Singh Rajput whether he had a spiritual awakening while shooting for the film at the pilgrimage spot. "Of course! I never felt so close to the stars. I'd end up gazing at the sky every night. It was the same case in Chambal when we shot for Sonchiriya," he said, his wide eyes probably reimagining the spread of stars while looking up at the ceiling of JW Marriott Mumbai.
A sky full of stars is an accurate term to describe Rajput's performances. Most of them were as serene and imbued with stillness, yet appropriately dazzling. Most of his performances were steeped in quietude that was extremely uncharacteristic of a leading star. This statement does not suggest his performances were, by any stretch, homogeneous. They all had a bit of him in them, but also marked pleasant detours from how a leading star would perform any of those characters.
Within the 10 films across his seven-year-long film career, he covered a lot of ground: From a failed district-level cricket player (Kai Po Che!) to the Indian cricket team captain (MS Dhoni: The Untold Story); from a commitment-phobic disoriented Jaipur tour guide (Shuddh Desi Romance) to a pithoo who guides devotees through the pilgrimage (Kedarnath); from a Bengali detective (Detective Byomkesh Bakshi) to a Chambal dacoit (Sonchiriya); from a short role in Rajkumar Hirani's 2014 blockbuster PK to carrying a Rs 100-film on his shoulders in Nitesh Tiwari's 2019 film Chhichhore.
His Chhichhore co-star Tahir Raj Bhasin told this writer in an interview from last year about a sound suggestion Rajput offered him during his prep to play former Indian cricketer Sunil Gavaskar in Kabir Khan's period sports drama 83. "He reminded me I had to play good cricket as Gavaskar, not as Tahir. So apart from the cricket training we all got, I kept watching a lot of Gavaskar's videos on the field. I studied his body language to incorporate it into my performance. But I was also mindful I didn't have to ape a cricket legend. So it was a fine balance to bring a lot of Gavaskar and a little bit of Tahir to my game."
That is exactly what Rajput did when he played Dhoni. He was a carbon copy of the cricketer, yet never reduced his acting to a caricature. He was the Dhoni who knew every ball that goes up eventually comes down. He would act more through his shoulders, less through the perennially stoic face. Even though Rajput brought a lot of himself to his performance, he infused it into Dhoni so smoothly that one could never tell "that's Dhoni" and "that's Sushant" across his performance, unlike say a Ranbir Kapoor in Sanju. As ironical as it sounds, he seemed more Dhoni than Dhoni himself, only by bringing a lot of Sushant to his performance.
Sushant Singh Rajput in a still from MS Dhoni: The Untold Story
"Whenever I take up a role, I try to be that person. Some of me would naturally seep into. I don't do that intentionally but I don't stop it either. I just prep so hard that I'm confident my conscious will overpower the subconscious," Rajput told me ahead of Kedarnath. He was reminiscing his journey as an actor while talking about reuniting with director Abhishek Kapoor, who introduced him through Kai Po Che!.
Sushant seems from the school of actors who prep extensively only to push it to the back of their minds when they perform on set. Between action and cut, they are somewhere in the sweet spot between spontaneity and method acting.
Preparedness in any form and to any extent could not have accounted for the several times Rajput was sheer magic on screen. 'Besabriyan' from MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, for example, is my go-to song when I am running late for work. The visuals of Rajput running desperately to catch a train that takes him to the training ground always help me rush to work with the same childlike excitement, that is infectious but never overbearing.
It is the same innocence that can be traced in certain flashes of his deeply meditative performance as Mansoor in Kedarnath. Writer Kanika Dhillon told this writer in an interview earlier this year that the performance posed the same challenge as when she wrote the character. "He (Mansoor) has a clean heart, and is untouched by the corruption of religion and greed. He represents purity in every way. To write that was very difficult because as a writer, one has to be corrupt in every way. You have to be aware of all notions, get into all kinds of entrapment, and go down really dark alleys emotionally."
Similarly, as an actor, Rajput could not have helped but fallen prey to his past roles. How he could cleanse himself to play a man as unadulterated as the snow-peaked hills around him in Kedarnath remains a mystery. "I was well-prepared but was anxious of loopholes in my performance. But when I reached on location, I realised it wouldn't be so difficult," he said, invoking Amitabh Bhattacharya's lyrics from the song 'Qaafirana': "Dil na lagaya hum ne kisi se. Kisse sune hain yun toh kayi."
Music was a key tool in his preparation for every role. He would maintain that no matter how much he reads up or talks to people, the execution would always be aided by an auditory incentive. He had a song for every role/situation, but refused to divulge details. His past experience as a member of Shiamak Davar's troupe explains the keen understanding of his body language. Watch out for the bits when he purses his lips in the song 'Ik Vaari' in Dinesh Vijan's Raabta or holds the cigarette between two fingers in the 'V' victory sign in Dibakar Banerjee's Detective Byomkesh Bakshi or punches into the air aggressively after scoring in a basketball match in Nitesh Tiwari's Chhichhore.
Any young star would have relied on overstating in order to hold his own amidst the talented likes of Manoj Bajpayee, Ranvir Shorey, Ashutosh Rana, and Bhumi Pednekar in Sonchiriya. But Sushant held the audience captive only through the liberal use of restraint in his performance. He played a dacoit with a bleeding heart. Even in the singular author-backed superstar-moment he got in the climax, Rajput ensured the actor within him did not get the better of the star on the surface.
One criminally underrated performance of Rajput is Raghu in Maneesh Sharma's 2013 romantic comedy Shuddh Desi Romance. His character navigated the grey area between the perception of a conventional man from a tier-2 city and the modern mindset of his generation infamous for evading commitment. The stammering in his voice and the self-awareness about his inability to lie convincingly were signs of Raghu's elusive nature.
When I reminded him of the film, Rajput revealed it was his trickiest performance. "I'm very clear-headed and confrontational. Not with people but my own fears. I worked harder for Dhoni and Byomkesh Bakshy but with Raghu, the deal was to stay committed to playing a commitment-phobic guy. I related to him but also realised if I throw myself into that deep end, I'd never come back. It challenged my process as I had to invest equal hard work in a completely different direction."
Notwithstanding his boundless talent, Rajput was one of the most hardworking actors of his generation. And that shows in the silences of his performances. He worked the hardest to unlearn because he believed in limitless opportunities. His stellar filmography is proof that like the stars Rajput so greatly admired, he did not go gentle into that good night.
All images from YouTube.
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