On Sushant Singh Rajput birth anniversary, remembering his ability to find perfection in an incurably imperfect world

Crazy about music, indifferent to money and a method actor in the true sense, Sushant Singh Rajput always held forth on his ideological commitment to staying true to your beliefs.

Subhash K Jha January 21, 2022 12:20:22 IST
On Sushant Singh Rajput birth anniversary, remembering his ability to find perfection in an incurably imperfect world

Had Sushant lived he would be 35 today, and raring to go.

Recalls his dear friend writer-director Rumi Jaffrey, “Would you believe, I still continue to read his messages on the phone. Usska number delete karne ka mann nahin karta. I still feel he’s alive. His enthusiasm, his excitement about life was so infectious. He wanted to do so many things. He wanted to act, direct films, write, do organic farming…. I am reminded of singer Noor jehan’s song 'Jo na mil sake wohi bewafa, Ye badi ajeeb si baat hain Jo chala gaya mujhe chodkar, Wohi aaj tak mere saath hai'. ”

Eerily, Sushant Singh Rajput died in 5 out of the 12 films he completed before his sudden shocking and untimely death on 14 June, 2020. In his big-screen debut film Kai Po Che (2013), Sushant’s character dies, as does the protagonists of Raabta, Kedarnath, Sonchiriya, and Dil Bechara. In Chhichhore, Sushant’s character didn’t die but got close to it.

This is quite a lot of dying in a brief career of 7 years. The only screen hero who died more than Sushant on screen was Rajesh Khanna. Rajesh Khanna repeatedly played characters who went bravely and defiantly to their death. His death in Aradhana made him a superstar. In another of his celebrated roles in Safar, he sang in his playback Kishore Kumar’s voice, 'Zindagi se bahot pyar humnein kiya maut se be bhi mohabbat nibhayenge hum/Rote-rote zamanein mein aaye magar hanste hanste zamanein se jayenge hum'

He virtually relished the moments when his character gasped his last. During the same year as Safar he again smiled his way through cancer into death in Anand, immortalising his career by taking on death headlong. After the trilogy of great tragic roles, Rajesh Khanna did the spectacularly successful guest appearance in Ramesh Sippy’s Andaz where he dies singing 'Zindagi ek safar hai suhana yahan kal kya ho kissne jaana'.

Interestingly, most of Rajesh Khanna’s death-stricken characters were played early during his phase of superstardom. Sushant too would have probably outgrown the tragic phase in his career if life itself hadn’t decided to draw a curtain on him.

On Sushant Singh Rajput birth anniversary remembering his ability to find perfection in an incurably imperfect world

Sushant Singh Rajput, Abhishek Kapoor during Kedarnath shoot

In Kedarnath, Sushant played a pithoo whose mother loved Lata Mangeshkar’s 'Lag ja gale se' (Woh Kaun Thi) and she would sing that timeless number to her son. Sushant even sang the immortal melody in his own voice. Sushant admitted the reference to his mother and to that beloved song by Lata Mangeshkar had echoes from his own life.“I love to hear and sing the melodies from the golden era, specially Lataji. When I got to sing her song 'Lag jaa gale se' in Kedernath I was over the moon. It was a dream come true. And now I play the guitar. Being on the strings is the biggest bliss of my life,” said Sushant.

He began to learning the guitar for a proposed film Takadum to be directed by Homi Adjania. Sushant confessed he liked nothing better than playing the guitar. “I’ve always wanted to learn to play the guitar. Now for Takadum, I got a chance to do so. It’s like a blessing from the Gods to be able to learn a new skill.” Sushant got himself a guitar guru to teach him the strings. But the method actor who prepared for every character he played, a skill that his contemporaries know nothing about, laughed and told me his guitar guru was not happy with Sushant.

“He thinks I am learning too fast, that I need to slow down. Apparently, I’ve picked up the seven basic chords in record time. My teacher keeps calling to express concern over my speed in learning the guitar. He wants me to slow down.” But Sushant could not stop on his urge to imbibe new knowledge. “I’ve always been restless. Even when I was in a relationship I would find time to be doing my own thing. Basically, I am a loner. I enjoy my company more than anyone else’s. But I am consumed by one passion at a time. Right now it’s the guitar. Even now as I talk to you I am looking longingly at the new love of my life.”

Sushant always loved to get into the method-actor mould. He actually learnt to carry pilgrims as a pithoo before playing one in Kedarnath. After the back-breaking task, his back was ready to give up. His determination was not affected, though. This is not the first time Sushant played a Muslim in love with a Hindu girl. In his rather memorable guest appearance in Raj Kumar Hirani’s PK, he played a Pakistani who falls in love with an Indian girl.

Crazy about music, indifferent to money, worshipped his mother who passed away when he was 16, proud that his name S-usha-nt contained his mother’s name, Sushant’s voice melted each time he spoke about his mom.

Obsessed with his guitar till his last day on earth, Sushant began guitar lessons for a role that never happened. The film never took off. But the guitar stayed. He was fanatical about his guitar lessons. There came a period when any interruption of his guitar practice was seen as an intrusion. “Sir, as soon we finish this conversation I will go back to my guitar,” Sushant once told me. I didn’t take the hint.

On Sushant Singh Rajput birth anniversary remembering his ability to find perfection in an incurably imperfect world

Still from Sonchiriya

During the making of Sonchiriya, Sushant remained unbathed, unwashed wearing the same clothes and sneakers throughout the shooting because the character was shown to be moving through the Chambal Valley without basic amenities. Sushant once told me he would do “anything” to remain true to his character. “And if I am not convinced, then I won’t do it,” he said.

Sushant gave up Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Ram Leela for Shekhar Kapoor’s Paani. He trained for it for two years. But nothing happened. There were no regrets. “I learnt so much from Shekhar Sir. He is an entire institution of filmmaking. Sometimes the journey is far more important than the destination.”

Sushant played Anushka Sharma’s Pakistani boyfriend in Raj Kumar Hirani’s PK. The role had been turned down by other superstars for obvious reasons. Apparently, Sushant had been promised Hirani’s Sanju which eventually went to Ranbir Kapoor. Broken promises were a part of the deal dealt by life for Sushant.

In my opinion and in his own, Sushant’s best performance and film were Abhishek Choubey’s Sonechiriya. Some actors are so inured in brilliance we’re persuaded to notice their power. Sushant is one of them. He just blends into the bleeding colours of brilliancy in this exceptional film set in the dark desperate world of dacoits in the confounding ravines of the Chambal valley. By singling out Sushant’s brilliance I don’t mean to undermine the other performers, most of whom, especially Ranvir Shorey and Manoj Bajpai are so skillfully effective, they seem to have been born in the hungering shadows of their ever-renewable excellence.

In this world of apocalyptic despair, Sushant Singh Rajput’s Lakhna decides to rid his guilty conscience of its inexorable burden by helping a woman to protect and heal a brutally raped girl-child. I wish the relationship between Lakhna and the ravaged girl was given more space to grow. But then where is the room for relationships to breathe when men are constantly on the run, and not just from the law? I wished for Lakhna and Indumati’s bonding over the child to end in some semblance of joy.

But wishes cannot be horses. Not in a dacoit drama without a single horse in sight. In fact, there is a joke in the film about how Hindi films show dacoits galloping away when in fact there are no horses in the Chambal Valley.

There are no heroes either. Only victims posing manfully with guns that kill not just human beings. But also hope. I came away with two heroes in Sonchiriya. The little brutalised girl from whom the film gets its title, and cinematographer Anuj Rakesh Dhawan whose lenses render bleakness into myriad shades of a life lived on the edge. Raw, gritty and compelling, Sonechiriya conveys a clandestine narrative style that never impinges on the violent disarray of the characters’ brutal unpredictable lives.

On Sushant Singh Rajput birth anniversary remembering his ability to find perfection in an incurably imperfect world

Still from Sonchiriya

“I’d like Sonchirya to be appreciated for all the hard work that our director Abhishek Choubey has put in…In fact all of us actors and technicians slogged in the Chambal Heat . It feels nice when the reviews appreciate one’s efforts. I’ve never sought fame or fortune. Never been enamoured of the 100-crore club,” said Sushant to me without the arrogant vanity of the so-called avant-garde actors who revel in their failure to connect with audiences.

Not that Sushant was a stranger to success. His large-screen debut Kai Po Che was a hit and the Dhoni bio-pic was a blockbuster. Reasoned the self-confessed famished actor, “I’d say the success of those films was a happy accident. It’s not as if I set out to make these films a success. Humein isse blockbuster banana hai…nothing of that sort! I work entirely for my job satisfaction. Otherwise, I could have made money in any other profession. I am here to make a difference, firstly to myself. When I look back on my body of work I want to feel a sense of pride. Whether it is Kai Po Che, Byomkesh Bakshi, Dhoni, Kedarnath or Sonchiriya, I am happy and proud to be associated with these films.”

Sushant admitted he liked to surrender completely to his characters. “I wouldn’t be able to sleep peacefully if I didn’t give all of myself to every character I accept. Agar main apne kirdaar ko theek se pehchan na paaon usski antar-aatma ko choo na loon toh yeh toh beimaani hogi (if I don’t get to know my character well and touch its essence it would be a betrayal). Either I don’t accept a film. Or if I do, I surrender to it completely.”

On Sushant Singh Rajput birth anniversary remembering his ability to find perfection in an incurably imperfect world

Sushant Singh Rajput | Image from AFP

Is the perennial determination to do out-of-box characters constantly a big cross to carry?

Sushant averred, “Not at all! It isn’t as if I have set out to do out-of-box characters from the beginning of my film career. These are the roles that have appealed to me. I am open to doing the massy type of films, provided the script appeals to me. I would love to do a full-on masala film. And I am not the only contemporary actor doing out-of-box films. Rajkummar Rao, Vicky Kaushal, Ayushmann Khurrana are also doing films that are removed from conventional entertainment, and doing very well for themselves.”

Did the lack of box office success not bother Sushant at all? “Like I said, I feel there is appreciation for all the hard work being put in my films. Maybe in my case, it doesn’t show in box office figures. But as long as I have the freedom and power to do the kind of films I want to I am in a comfortable place.”

As the debate on Sushant Singh Rajput’s death rages on, the one thing that needs to be very clearly stated in loud and uncertain terms is, the actor was not short of cash at any given time. He lived life kingsize and spent generously. Sushant didn’t care about money at all. On more than one occasion he had made his disdain for wealth and luxury very clear to me. He had repeatedly turned down formula films from big banners in favour of films that offered him a chance to explore the actor in him.

“If I wanted to make money there are so many other things that I could have done. I am not in cinema for the money,” he told me.

How can Sushant be gone? I am still trying to process the information hoping it is untrue. Flashes of our conversation play in my mind. Those long conversations where he held forth on his ideological commitment to staying true to your beliefs.

“I will never sell myself to commercial success,” Sushant said to me more than once with grating righteousness which at that time I thought was overdone.

Sushant was always close to me. Proud to be the Patna boy forever. I remember the first time he promised to come to Patna to visit family and friends was after the success of Kai Po Che. That visit to his hometown with his then-girlfriend Ankita never materialised.

Sushant told me Ankita was his wedded wife even though they were not legally wedded. “Sir, koi farq nahin padta saat pheron se.”

Then suddenly the two split. Sushant never told me why. He never spoke a word against her, although I knew what the truth behind the split was.

He didn’t want anyone to touch his anguish. I tried reaching out. But his number had changed. I mailed. There was no response. Sushant had locked yourself away from all communication.

Like Karen Carpenter who also died very young, you were looking for perfection in an incurably imperfect world.

Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at SubhashK_Jha.

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