If you lived in an ideal world, your debut film as a lead star would be a significant milestone in your life. But Sanjana Sanghi — who makes her Bollywood splash with Sushant Singh Rajput’s spirited romance ‘Dil Bechara’ — hasn’t been afforded that luxury.
Sanghi, 23, is still struggling to find closure after Rajput’s tragic suicide at his Mumbai residence on June 14.
“I am still stuck in this middle ground of being numb and in shock,” said Sanghi in an exclusive interview with Gulf News.
“I haven’t even come close to coming to terms with losing him. I don’t know how to deal with all that grief. I am too young to know what losing a friend feels like especially through such a tragedy,” added Sanghi.
The 23-year-old described her first lead hero as one of the “kindest and most generous human beings”.
Rajput’s impish charm was infectious and unique to him, recalled Sanghi.
“Bittersweet is the only way to put it. ‘Dil Bechara’ is a labour of our love, sweat and tears. There could be no better tribute to Sushant than this film,” said Sanghi.
‘Dil Bechara’, directed by casting expert Mukesh Chhabra, is the Hindi adaptation of the Hollywood teenage romance ‘A Fault In Our Stars’, a stirring tale of star-crossed lovers grappling with cancer. As the film releases in India on July 24, here are excerpts from our interview with Sanghi …
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Q: What did you observe about Sushant Singh Rajput?
A: We were on this heartfelt journey right from the start and I have built memories worth a lifetime in such a short period of time with him. But the most important thing that I learnt and observed about him was his immense control over his craft.
He was humble, despite being a superstar, and he gave me so much room to do my bit. He told me: ‘This is my side of the football field and that’s yours. So you dribble and score your goal. I will score mine and that’s how we can make this match an interesting one.’
It was a constant partnership between us, but there was this healthy competition, which was very important to better ourselves as actors. He always had the best intentions in his mind for me. Bettering each other can only happen if we genuinely adore the other person and we had that.
If I felt, he did not give a particular scene his all, I would tell him even though he is the biggest superstar I knew. But I could tell him because that was the comfort between us. In turn, he would tell me to conserve my energy and to not keep giving every scene my all and to give it my all during a close shot. He had learnt these tricks after years of working, but he just used to dole them out to me so generously.
Q: It looks like you had a democratic relationship…
A: Absolutely. Our script is one such story that is told from Kizie’s eyes [Sanghi’s character] and it’s her story about how she meets Manny [Rajput]. Sushant knew that. It is very unique in Hindi films because usually we have stories driven by the man gaze and the male perspective. But our film is different. There was complete acceptance of that from Sushant and there was no arrogance about anything.
Q: There’s a lot of surround noise and conspiracy theories about Rajput’s death. How do you perceive it?
A: I am disturbed on so many different levels. On one hand, I am his biggest fan, so I understand what his fans are going through. Even before he became my friend and my colleague, I was his biggest fan. All that has happened to him is very personal for me in every sense of the word. But honestly I haven’t engaged with the outside narratives as much because I am grappling with my own emotions here.
I am still trying to make sense of the tragedy. Is it all real? I keep picking my phone up thinking he will call or I still keep looking for his texts on my phone. Death is a very unsettling thing and I don’t engage in the public narratives because I don’t care as this is too personal for me.
Q: Do you believe the stakes are too high for you?
A: We have this film to release right? On my young light shoulders, I have all this burden to carry and I want to do it to my best abilities for him. I want him to look down and be proud and be happy with what we are doing. I want him to be proud of the love that he is getting.
Q: Sushant Singh Rajput was known for his impish charm. What was his energy like?
A: His charm was infectious. It’s so contagious that you love it, but it was unique to him. His charm is what made him unique and it’s his to keep. All I could do was just be around it and to revel in his positive energies. And, that’s what I did, loving being around him because he was just such a blast.
There was so much to him. He had so much depth. I am an academically-inclined just like him and I love studying and dancing too. So we had so much in common that our relationship as colleague and friend was far deeper than just simply doing this film together.
Q: When I saw the trailer of ‘Dil Bechara’, I couldn’t take my eyes off Sushant Singh Rajput knowing that it’s his last film. As an actress and artist, did you ever feel that you are not getting your moment in the sun?
A: Of course not. I would want to make this movie the biggest tribute that I can to Sushant. I am his partner in this project. The fact that we have this gift to give to crores [millions] of people who love him is a blessing in itself.
I know that they will love me eventually I know that they will love my work eventually and I am happy with that. I am already happy to be honest. I am already grateful. This is not about my moment in the sun… it never was and it never will be for me because we don’t make art to get our piece of the pie.
At least that is not why I am in the world of films. I am here to tell stories and this is a story that Kizie and Manny are telling together shoulder to shoulder and when the film releases, you will see that.
Q: What do you want the viewers to take away from this film keeping in mind that this is Rajput’s swan song?
A: His fans were frustrated that this film was not reaching the theatres, but COVID-19 is a reality and theatres are shut. So let’s just embrace this gift as our biggest tribute to him.
His fans should just feel so blessed and lucky that they have this gem to cherish. This is one of the finest stories that I have seen in a long time. Consider this a gift. Let’s just sit back and relish it. They should celebrate his life and work through ‘Dil Bechara’.
Q: His death has re-ignited the nepotism debate in Bollywood. But you are an outsider who made it as a lead actor after a string of cameos and on your own merit. How do you look back on your journey?
A: On many days I feel like the luckiest girl in the world and on many days I feel like I am just like any other young Indian girl fighting her own battle and who is hustling every day.
Being a part of a movie like ‘Dil Bechara’ is a dream that I didn’t even have the guts to dream. But my dream is backed by those 500 auditions that I didn’t get cast in. I an very proud of all my ups and downs because that’s what make me unique. I am all about proving myself and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Q: Have you seen the original ‘A Fault In Our Stars’ and did you ever think that you will be playing Hansel Grace in the Hindi adaptation?
A: I didn’t just watch the original, I was actually that 16-year-old obsessive teenager who bunked school to go watch that film. I have read the novel multiple times. In my eyes, this is literally a modern classic. So when Mukesh told me: ‘Hey I want to audition you and that he was making the Hindi adaptation of ‘A Fault In Our Stars’, I thought he was pulling my leg and it was some sort of joke.
Mukesh knew me since I was a child. He cast me in ‘Rockstar’ when I was 13 as Nargis Fakhri’s sister. He knew very well that I was obsessed with that film. But he wasn’t pulling my leg. It still feels surreal that this is my first film and that I am the Indian Hazel Grace.
Q: What was Chhabra’s brief to you to play a cancer-stricken young woman?
A: The briefs were quite a few because it is a very new nuanced narrative and it’s a very sensitive portrayal. There is a lot going on in terms of performance. ‘Dil Bechara’ is purely a performance-based film. There’s no fluff, there is no glamour, there is no action, and there is no big song to distract you.
Mukesh was particular that he wanted this to be a story of two young people suffering from an illness, but an no point did he want our cancer to be our defining traits. There is a lot more to Kizie. First you will see life in her, you will see that spunk in her and then you will remember that — ‘Oh there is an oxygen cylinder that she is also carrying’. And that took work as an actor.
Usually, an actor does not have a permanent prop on them and so I had to integrate that into my mannerisms as if I have grown up with it. It may seem effortless, which is where my effort comes in. The work went into making it seem like she has grown up with this.
So after watching the trailer I remember Imtiaz sir [Ali, director of ‘Rockstar’] called me up and said it was only in the third time that he watched the trailer that he noticed there was a pipe on my face and that was the biggest compliment for me as that was my entire goal. The second challenge was that I am playing a Bengali, but I am a North Indian girl. I am half-Punjabi and half-Gujarati. I had to put in 6-8 months of work to understand the Bengali culture, language and tradition. Mukesh wanted me to learn Bengali from its grammatical roots.
‘Dil Bechara’ will stream on Disney HotStar+ in India on July 24, but the movie isn’t available for UAE viewers as yet.