Sushant Singh Rajput’s public image was that of a man living the high life, while staying true to his roots. Despite the bright lights of showbiz disillusioning even the most innocent soul, there was an almost boyish appeal to the late actor that endeared him to his army of fans from the moment he stepped up to the screen as the lovable Manav Deshmukh in ‘Pavitra Rishta’.
His impish charm and traditional middle-class values made half of India fall in love with him a little, celebrating his victories and weeping over his heartaches when the show beamed into the homes of urban devotees and village dwellers between 2009 and 2011, before he quit the gig for something bigger.
An entry into Bollywood was almost a given for this talented powerhouse, who was discovered by casting director Mukesh Chabbra in a coffee shop and was instrumental in getting Rajput his first big break in ‘Kai Po Che!’ (2013).
The irony that Chabbra will also present Rajput in his final Bollywood swansong ‘Dil Bechara’ is not lost on anyone.
As Bollywood mourns and celebrates the life of Rajput with equal measure, one year after his death by hanging on June 14, fans hold on to the memories of an outsider who dared to make it big in showbiz.
For his family and friends in Patna, Bihar, Rajput’s growing fame was a true blue rags-to-riches success story in an industry where star kids are ‘launched’ while ‘outsiders’ spend years knocking on the doors of producers and casting directors before slipping a foot into that world.
Rajput was often touted as the next Shah Rukh Khan, or perhaps an Ayushmann Khurrana, both of whom started their careers on television and struggled their way up the ladder of success to find fame and fortune in the big bad world of Bollywood.
Studying to be an engineer and following in the footsteps of his father, Rajput’s dream took him well beyond the parameters that Patna offered him. Following his mother’s death in 2002, one that many say he never truly recovered from, the family — including his father and four sisters — moved to Delhi where Rajput enrolled in engineering college. However, he dropped out to pursue his passion for acting.
In his early interviews, the actor often confessed the road to stardom was not an easy one for him but he looked back upon his struggles as an inevitable journey to get him just that bit closer to his final goal — breaking into Bollywood. “I was already a superstar in my mind,” the actor told Man’s World in an interview once.
Entering the entertainment industry came with its share of odd jobs — Rajput joined ace choreographer Shiamak Davar’s troupe and even grooved as a back-up dancer to Hrithik Roshan in ‘Dhoom 2’. Acting was the next big thing for Rajput and the actor soon enrolled into Nadira Babbar’s Ekjute theatre group before breaking into television with ‘Kis Desh Mein Hai Meraa Dil’. Small-screen stardom was still a while away before television Tsarina Ekta Kapoor plucked him out of obscurity and made him a star overnight when she cast him in ‘Pavitra Rishta’.
His natural flair for dancing also landed Rajput as a star performer on several reality shows, including ‘Zara Nachke Dikha’ season 2 in 2010, followed by the fourth season of ‘Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa’. In October 2011, Rajput decided to quit ‘Pavitra Rishta’ to study filmmaking, only to be discovered by Chabbra.
Some may call it fate, while others may single out Lady Luck, but for Rajput, the call of Bollywood was a golden opportunity that few would pass up. Yet, his journey wouldn’t be without some hurdles.
In 2010, a certain Ranveer Singh had arrived on the scene and had just tasted success with ‘Band Baaja Baaraat’, along with bagging a deal with Yash Raj Films, while Varun Dhawan was waiting in the wings to be launched by Bollywood filmmaker Karan Johar in ‘Student of the Year’ in two short years. For Rajput to find his footing without the backing of a large production house or a godfather would require a cracking script.
He would find that in Abhishek Kapoor’s ‘Kai Po Che!’ (2013), based on novelist Chetan Bhagat’s book, ‘The 3 Mistakes of My Life’. The film proved to be a critical and commercial success and Rajput emerged as its breakout star with an earnestness that few could match.
Suddenly Bollywood was writing his own Cinderella story, with Rajput’s career trajectory following that of Shah Rukh Khan — he caught the attention of production powerhouse Yash Raj Films. It is said a three-film deal was soon drawn up and Rajput’s innocent charm was launched under their banner with ‘Shuddh Desi Romance’.
Bollywood critic Taran Adarsh described Rajput’s performance, saying: “After leaving a tremendous impression in his first Hindi outing, Sushant Singh Rajput... brings a lot of freshness with his unpretentious and spontaneous act.”
Filmmaker Rajkumar Hirani soon snapped him up for a cameo in his 2014 hit ‘PK’, a role that reportedly many rejected as it involved playing a Pakistani.
Many supposedly chided Rajput as well on playing the role, but in an interview with film critic Anupama Chopra, the actor clearly stated that no role was big or small to him and he wasn’t going to miss out on an opportunity to work with Hirani or the film’s lead stars, Aamir Khan and Anushka Sharma.
A year later Dibakar Banerjee’s mystery thriller ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!’ earned Rajput critical praise, despite the film not performing well at the box office. It was also around this time that the first murmurings began to erupt that all was not well between Rajput and Yash Raj Films. It wasn’t long before the duo went their separate ways, with both calling it an amicable parting.
Few know the real story behind the fallout, but there were murmurings that Rajput was finding himself playing second fiddle to Singh and Arjun Kapoor, with the late actor losing out ‘Befikre’ to the former star. However, this was a story that Rajput himself denied during a 2017 interview with HT Cafe.
“I was never offered ‘Befikre’. But had I been offered, I wouldn’t have done it,” Rajput said in the interview. “If the same production house is offering me a niche film like ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!’, I would do it because Dibakar Banerjee [director] has a different interpretation of the old classic; and I would do a ‘Paani’ where Shekhar Kapur will be raising a very important and immediate issue.”
He further added, “If ‘Befikre’ was representing the new-age youth of India and romance as what it was claiming, it would have been great irrespective of the box-office numbers. But unfortunately, it didn’t do that and hence I would not be interested.”
‘Paani’ also remained a sore point with Rajput, with filmmaker Kapur admitting in a recent Instagram Live with actor Manoj Bajpayee that the late actor was heart-broken when the film was shelved by the same production house.
“He would lose all weight and come back as a skinny man in one week. For three months, he prepared to get into the character. I kind of fell in love with him. He gives so much, which director wouldn’t want to work with him?” Kapur said of Rajput. “When the film shut down, he cried and even I cried along with him.”
The following year, Rajput would soon taste success again in perhaps the biggest film of his short-lived career as Neeraj Pandey’s biographical sports film ‘M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story’ hit the marquee with the actor essaying the role of cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
Former Indian wicketkeeper Kiran More, who trained Rajput for the role, told Outlook India that the actor immersed himself into training for Dhoni’s character, even sustaining a hairline fracture in his rib cage, fractured fingers and sustaining body blows.
“I told him that he was the second person, after Dhoni, who I had seen play the best helicopter shot. He got excited. It took one-and-a-half months to master the helicopter shot. Once he got the shot right, he would play about 100 helicopter shots daily to master it,” More said in the interview.
The training bore fruit when the film released, going on to become a critical and commercial success and earning Rajput his first nomination for the Filmfare Award for Best Actor in 2017; he lost to Aamir Khan for ‘Dangal’.
Despite the film entering Bollywood’s prestigious Rs1 billion (Dh48.62 million) film club, success was yet fleeting for Rajput. One would expect him to the be the toast of tinsel town, but what the actor received were mentions in barely-concealed blind items in gossip magazines that talked of an alleged drinking problem and mood swings.
In the midst of it all, Rajput maintained a dignified silence, refusing some may say, to get his hands dirty in the mud-slinging.
Sadly, it would only be after his death that former co-star and one-time rumoured girlfriend Kriti Sanon would call out such blind items in an emotional outburst on Twitter.
The actor’s career trajectory would take him through two unsuccessful ventures, with ‘Raabta’ and ‘Kedarnath’, the latter being star kid Sara Ali Khan’s launch vehicle as well. The bias against Rajput would be visible with the latter, with several media outlets complaining on social media that during the disaster film’s promotion, there were never offered interviews with the lead star, only just the debutant.
Following Rajput’s death, ‘Kedarnath’ director Abhishek Kapoor called the situation distressing. “It’s not really visible, but there was a systematic dismantling of a fragile mind,” the director said of Rajput on the web show ‘Enquiry’. “I kept telling Sushant, you’re already a star, don’t expect others to validate that for you. It’s really unfortunate, he kept seeking a validation he could not get.”
Kapoor further said: “…I remember when ‘Kedarnath’ was coming out, the media had just slammed it. I don’t know what happened, he could see that he was not getting the kind of love because everything was centred around Sara [Ali Khan] that time. He was just kind of lost.”
In 2019, Rajput had three releases, namely Abhishek Chaubey’s ‘Sonchiriya’, Nitesh Tiwari’s ‘Chhichhore’ and the Netflix release, ‘Drive’. While the last film drew harsh criticism from one and all, the actor was lauded for his role as a dacoit in ‘Sonchiriya’ and a desperate father trying to convince his son why suicide was not the answer in ‘Chhichhore’.
Bajpayee spoke fondly of Rajput during the shoot of the former film in the Instagram Live with Kapur. “He touched my feet, told me, ‘Sir, I am also from Bihar’. He talked about his village and the fact that we were shooting at the location of ‘Bandit Queen’. He used to prepare for scenes to get it perfect each time. Also on the sets, I spotted two books on Quantum Physics by his side. He used to carry a telescope with him, and like a child he used to flaunt it to people, asking them to join him in gazing at the galaxy.”
A few weeks ahead of the release of ‘Drive’ and days after ‘Chhichhore’ was deemed a box office success, Rajput took to his social media to share his 50-wish bucket with his legion of fans, talking of his aspirations to take himself to dizzying heights, not just with his career, but by honing his own skills to go beyond the glittering lights of showbiz.
Spare a cursory glance over this list and you piece together the story of a man who had a thirst for knowledge and the desire to share his teachings with the world. How else does one describe a bucket list that pens down objectives to master the Morse code, visit the Hadron Collider in CERN, Switzerland, enrol in flying lessons and finding time to embrace his inner child at the ‘happiest place on Earth’, namely Disneyland?
This was Rajput less than 10 months ago, with his future mapped out before him in a list that painted the picture of a man with a positive outlook on life. A Karan Johar-backed film was weeks away from releasing, while the remake of ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ was several months from being rolled out to the masses.
In his personal life, a romance with girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty seemed to be heading in the right direction, with the actor’s own father K.K Singh confirming with entertainment portal Bollywood Tadka that his son had spoken to him about it and was looking at setting a date for February or March of 2021, hopefully months after the coronavirus pandemic and the release of his upcoming film ‘Dil Bechara’.
As stories of a hopeful young man continue to emerge from Rajput’s family and friends, it is perhaps difficult for many to piece together the puzzle of the actor’s suicide on June 14 in Mumbai. While the Mumbai Police, which is investigating the death, has confirmed the actor died by suicide, many are still attempting to unravel the mystery that led the 34-year-old down a path of depression and the decision to end his life.
Four successful films in a seven-year career have turned lesser actors into overnight stars, yet few of those are industry outsiders. Rajput, somehow, could never truly earn the stardom he so desperately craved, according to his friends and industry insiders.
“It takes double the talent, energy and hard work for an outsider to convince the audience and the industry that he or she is as safe a box-office bet as a mediocre, unmotivated and entitled establishment elite,” Banerjee told PTI in the wake of Rajput’s death. “This leads to deep anger and frustration. Those who can let this slide survive. Those who can’t — those who hurt a little more or are vulnerable and impressionable — they are at risk.”
As calls of a CBI probe into his death have yet to be answered, Rajput’s last year was reportedly not without personal struggles. Validation was yet a distant dream in Bollywood, while his personal life involved a string of broken relationships — first with TV and film star Ankita Lokhande, followed by rumoured affairs with Sanon and Chakraborty.
Fans of the late actor continue with their online tirade that it was inevitably Bollywood and its nepotistic ways that laid the foundation for his suicide. While industry insiders are choosing to be more tactful, celebrities such as Kangana Ranaut are open about the Bollywood camps that make no room for outsiders over second-generation actors such as Sonam Kapoor and Ananya Panday.
A STAR REMEMBERED
As ‘Dil Bechara’, Rajput’s final ode to Bollywood, heads for a digital release on July 24, nuggets of his intelligence continue to leave behind a lasting legacy.
His love for a life beyond the stars, a Rs5.5 million telescope at his home in Mumbai that invited guests to admire Saturn’s rings, his little plot on the surface of the moon that he purchased a few years ago and his ability to discuss anything from astrophysics to Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophical teachings, Rajput’s legacy is much more than mere moviemaking to his family and friends.
In a post from last April, Rajput wrote he was learning coding because he loves computer gaming and “wanted to learn the language behind it”.
For some in Bollywood, Rajput may have remained an enigma, but to his loved ones, he was nothing but a dreamer with his head in the stars, who unfortunately paid too high a price for fame.