For actors, interviews are an occupational hazard. Most of them detest speaking to journalists who are digging for headlines, throwing intrusive questions at them, dissecting their love lives and forever misquoting them. The longer they are in the industry, the better they become at churning out manufactured responses to the never-ending, repetitive questions. Some are diplomatic, some brash and some others don’t give interviews at all. But actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s take on interviews is interesting. He is terrified by them.
The actor, who had been widely appreciated for his “earnest and uninhibited” performances in both his films Kai Po Che and Shudh Desi Romance, panics at the thought of having to speak to yet another journalist. “I feel very weird,” says Rajput, on the number of events he has to attend to promote his films. “I have given about 250 interviews till now, and after half a dozen of them, there is nothing much to talk about myself. How can I go on and on in a different way each time?” As we wrap up our chat for this story, Rajput paces up and down the conference room in Yash Raj Studio. He blames me for making him speak a lot and leaving him with nothing to tell the journalist waiting next. “It is a very simple thing. As much as I want to excel in a role I play, I want to be interested in an interview, too,” he says. “To be interested, the least you can do is be authentic. And to be authentic, you have to have your own opinions, some experience and knowledge. Arrey, I have just started out, maybe with time I will open up. But right now, I haven’t formed many opinions and I haven’t had that many experiences also.”
This comes from the actor who is touted to be “the next big thing” with the most impressive list of projects in hand. Be it Rajkumar Hirani’s Peekay, which he just finished shooting for, or Dibakar Banerjee’s Byomkesh Bakshi, in which he recreates the iconic Bengali detective, or Shekhar Kapur’s Paani, for which he has to lose oodles of weight–he has a dream line-up for 2014. But once you start talking to him, you realise that it he is neither arrogant nor is he a snob. He is just shy. Period.
He fidgets throughout the conversation. Sometimes he plays with the lid of his tall styrofoam cup of black coffee and at others he tries to roll up the sleeve of his grey tee with his index finger. When he sets his hair right, you can see that it is not for vanity sake. He has to keep himself occupied and “interested”. “Why do people find it difficult to accept that an actor can be shy?” he asks. Probably because the characters he has played, be it Ishaan in KPC or Raghu in SDR, were both outspoken and extroverted, I try to help. “I have always been like this. I have kept to myself and I find it really difficult to express myself. That is the reason why I took to performing. So that I can hide behind all these interesting characters,” he says, flashing his boyish smile.
Born in Patna and raised in Delhi in a “normal middle-class family”, Rajput was the youngest among five siblings. Right from his childhood, he had no choice than to do well at school as all his four sisters were academically bright. All through school he scored straight 90 per cents and learnt a lesson or two from his sister, Mitu, who played cricket at the state-level. “I lost my mother at an early age so I was pampered and grew up in a very secure atmosphere,” recalls Rajput. “I never interacted with anyone outside of my family until very late and had very few friends.”
This changed when he went to Delhi College of Engineering, armed with a seventh rank in AIEEE and a government of India scholarship, to pursue his engineering degree. But on reaching campus, he was disappointed. “There were hardly any girls in our class,” he exclaims. He joined Shiamak Davar’s institute to learn dance. What started out as just another outing to ogle a few girls and have fun soon turned into a life-altering obsession. On Davar’s insistence, Rajput went on to take classes from theatre director Barry John, who has trained actors like Shah Rukh Khan and Manoj Bajpayee. “When I did theatre, I saw the kind of effect my performance was having on audiences,” he says. “It was for the first time in my life that I was able to hold someone’s attention. I felt powerful and I instantly knew this was what I had to do in life.”
His only regret in life, says Rajput, who discontinued his studies in his sixth semester, is having taken up the engineering seat. “I still feel that I could have saved that seat for someone who really wanted to become an engineer,” he says. His studies, however, came in handy during his theatre days in Delhi, when he started giving classes to students appearing for board exams to add to the money his sister used to give him every month. “It has also instilled in me a sort of discipline which helps me in whatever I do,” says Rajput, who prefers to take a two-month prep break before starting every project.
Rajput says that this is “the only method he can think of” for getting under the skin of the characters he plays. “I don’t know whether there is any other method to it,” he says. “To play a character you have to understand him and that is a process. You do a lot of research, you read the script again and again to find clues, and you figure out the similarities and dissimilarities between you and the character.” What is most important, he says, is to break your pattern of thinking and come back to a clean slate after every project. “I call it a binary state,” says Rajput. “You are somewhere between yourself and the characters you are playing. So I try to transform myself into the character. When that happens, then it is not acting anymore. Be it in KPC or SDR, I was just being. I think that is the honest approach. I can’t fake it in front of the camera, it shows.” Agrees his co-star Parineeti Chopra, who thinks he is quite paradoxical as an actor. “He is so well-rehearsed, yet so spontaneous,” she says. “Working with him is so easy because he is always fully prepared for the scene.”
Although it has worked wonders for him performance-wise, this approach of his has been quite a nightmare for his live-in girlfriend, television actor Ankita Lokhande, says the 27-year-old. “She would call me up when I am shooting and would be surprised by the way I talk to her,” he says. “For instance, when I was shooting for SDR, she would constantly ask me, ‘why are you talking like this?’. Then, I would realise that I was talking like Raghu and not myself. So I deliberately try and bring back my so-called real self.” Not surprising at all, considering that Rajput idolises British actor Daniel Day Lewis, who takes a break of five to six years between two films and is known for his crazy method acting quirks. “I am not that extreme,” admits Rajput, with a laugh. “But when you are working with directors like Dibakar, who once told me, ‘Please don’t act like Byomkesh in my film, just be him’, it is important that you match up to their expectations.”
But has the line between him and his characters ever blurred? “Everytime, yaar, everytime. So much so that it is scary,” he says. “Maanav [in the Balaji soap Pavitra Rishta] is my longest running character. When I now sit back and think, I do not know whether I was Sushant or Maanav then.” All of us have a certain set idea about his/her own personality and about each one of us react to things, he says. “I have got confused so many times whether its me or the character. Am I playing the character or is the character living through me?”
But that is what keeps him going, he says. The sheer excitement of being able to live the lives of different people every six months. “That is why I quit television,” says Rajput, who walked out of his popular TV show at its peak. “After a certain point, I fet stagnated. I wasn’t learning anything from it. I don’t think acting in films are superior to acting in TV or plays. I am equally passionate about every project as I was when I did my first play.”
Even while critics like Rajeev Masand appreciate his “indescribable screen presence”, directors like Dibakar Banerjee call him the “actor among stars” and Shekhar Kapur says he is the most “inspiring” young actors of today, Rajput makes sure that his feet is firmly on the ground. “I have worked really hard to get where I am today,” says Rajput, who says this is the most exciting phase of his career. “Be it KPC, SDR, Peekay, Byomkesh or Paani, I have bagged all these roles through auditions. If Shekhar Kapur, who last worked with Heath Ledger, has seen something in me, then shouldn’t I at least have half that faith in myself and put in my best?”
During our conversation, Rajput keeps going back to the fact that he is happy that he is now been taken seriously as an actor and has at least tried to bust the myth that “TV actors can’t act”. But aren’t the audiences more attached to TV actors, whom they watch on a daily basis? “No, they are more attached to the character you play on TV,” he is quick to correct me. “They love Maanav and they don’t see the person playing him. But here [in films] you are playing different characters. You are known as Sushant Singh Rajput; you are a personality.” This comes with its own set of highs and lows. “Once you are an actor here, you are expected to behave in a certain way, whether you want it or not,” he says, visibly uncomfortable and angered by these expectations. “Like people expect me to dress up, walk in a certain way, speak in a certain way. They scrutinise me not as an actor but according to the clothes I wear, which is sad.” Despite all the appreciation and good work he is getting, no amount of prep and research has made Rajput able to play the most difficult character, “that of a Bollywood star,” he says. “Living the life of an actor here requires a lot of acting.”