MUMBAI: Sushant Singh Rajput may be a very familiar face for those bred on Indian television. His character Manav in ‘Pavitra Rishta’ was an extremely likable one. But in Bollywood, he’s just one film old. But that single role too has been a pathbreaking one and films with Rajkumar Hirani and Dibakar Banerjee have lined up in his kitty as well.
Currently though, Sushant Singh Rajput is busy promoting ‘Shuddh Desi Romance’, directed by Maneesh Sharma. As he munches on a sandwich on a cool weekday afternoon, the almost-engineer-turned-actor talks with BusinessOfCinema about his career path, the taste of audiences and going from romancing no one in ‘Kai Po Che’ to romancing two women in ‘Shuddh Desi Romance’.
BusinessOfCinema (BOC): Your role in the TV serial ‘Pavitra Rishta’ was of an ideal person. To some extent that continued in ‘Kai Po Che’. But your character in ‘Shuddh Desi Romance’ seems different. Can you talk about that?
Sushant Singh Rajput: You can’t see my character as ideal, because we need to first understand that we are hypocrites. No matter how much we say we have a rich Indian culture, there are problems in it and we also get tempted by Western practices. And anyone who doesn’t follow social norms is branded in a negative manner by us. All these problems are within us. There are no problems with the character. The conflicts that my character has, everyone has to face them. I am talking about the situation where you know this is the person with whom I want to spend the rest of my life with, but there are still conflicts that arise within the person.
So we are usually not vocal about these conflicts. We say, “What will they think?” So our film is talking about these conflicts that arise within the human psychology. Generally our love stories tend to fantasise a lot. Once the hero says “I love you”, after that he only loves her. Then the villain comes, but he’s defeated and they live happily ever after. It feels good watching this, but in real life, that doesn’t happen. My character isn’t aspirational, but relatable. But ‘Shuddh Desi Romance’ is still a very entertaining film.
BOC: Second films are always scary. First films can be a happy accident, but now onwards you have to be on your toes. Keeping that in mind, why did you choose this character?
Sushant: ‘Kai Po Che’ wasn’t an accident. I said no to 6-7 scripts before that, which were more conventional Bollywood films. So I deliberately said no to all of them. ‘Kai Po Che’ was a film that I instantly connected with. So I said yes to that film. It’s not a deliberate attempt on my part to do such characters like Raghu (in ‘Shuddh Desi Romance’) or Byomkesh Bakshi (in director Dibakar Banerjee’s ‘Byomkesh Bakshi’) just to be different. But I can only connect with these scripts right now. My first step as an actor is to convince myself that I can be this character. Only then can I convince you!
There are two types of actors: one who do films after films and if something interesting comes along, they’ll do it. For me, it isn’t like that. I have a lot of offers, but I always taken a two-and-a-half to three months break between my films just to understand the character. Maybe I’m not so skilled or confident to leave Raghu’s character and get into Byomkesh Bakshi’s character which is set in the 1940s Calcutta. At that time, everyone wanted to do a government job, but he wanted to be a detective. So I don’t understand him easily, Hence, I need the time.
Also, I don’t understand box-office, and I don’t intend to. So I don’t make my decisions based on that. The factors that help me decide are the script and the director’s vision.
BOC: You spoke about hypocrisy and culture earlier. Was the film necessary to be set in Jaipur, or could it have been set in a city like Mumbai?
Sushant: Not at all. It can be set anywhere: be it Kolkata or Kashmir or Jaipur. Wherever you go, people have a set mentality. The film caters to all Indians. So almost all of us who don’t fall under the umbrella of the typical stereotype persona adhering to social protocols, we’re being judged against. India has its own flavour of discrimination, be it gender issues, or male chauvinism, marriage issues, live-in issues – we’ve all set our rules regarding these things. And when something does not follow these rules, we get confused. Should we hold on to culture, or give in to Western culture, which we sometimes feel is right? Then we ultimately listen to the heart itself. The way our India is, it is. And the way we are, we are. And because these two cause friction all the time, the story that comes out of it is ‘Shuddh Desi Romance’.
BOC: What was the biggest high for you in this film? That it was written by Jaideep Sahni, directed by Maneesh Sharma or that you are romancing two women?
Sushant: Or maybe you can say it’s Yashraj Films (YRF)? Because I remember when I was a kid, I used to watch the opening credits of Yashraj Films and dream that the YRF banner would come up, then the ‘starring’ comes up and I could see my name there. I have had such thoughts even when I was an engineer. Later when I used to perform for Shiamak Davar, we used to come to YRF. So I do feel good about myself.
Then there’s Maneesh Sharma who’s made ‘Band Baaja Baaraat’. Then there’s Jaideep, who’s a brilliant writer. When I read the script the first time, it had a great impact on me. Everything else, even the two women, come later. I think the most important is the script, then the director’s vision, then the production house.
BOC: You did engineering, then theatre, before jumping ship to a TV serial and then leaving that for films. So it has not been a smooth path, but you have been quite lucky with your risks. What do you have to say about that?
Sushant: Most of us think that we are actors because we think that we want to be famous and rich. But I think we are actors because of many other complicated reasons. And I have my own set of complicated reasons. I was in a prestigious engineering college, but I was very shy. And I was unable to express myself in front of strangers. So when I started with performing arts, with no set agenda, the first thing I was asked to do was to bring my privacy, my vulnerable side and show it to complete strangers – and that felt very powerful. As I continued with it, the release I got was extraordinary. And it’s addictive. And if you’re boring in your normal life and get to hide behind these exciting characters, then it’s fun. And then if you can make people believe that you are someone else, then that is a powerful feeling. That’s when I thought this is the way for me. Maybe I won’t earn much, but I do want to hone this skill. That’s why I dropped out of engineering college.
While doing theatre, I was offered a role on TV. I was like, let’s see how it feels like acting in front of a camera. And I did it, but after one-and-a-half to two years, I was stuck, repeating myself, although it was a very comfortable zone to be in. So it was a conscious decision to quit, not TV, but that particular project I was working on. I thought I could maybe do a filmmaking course.
That’s when I got offers to audition for films. My first audition was for ‘Kai Po Che’. Second one was for ‘Peekay’. And third was ‘Shuddh Desi Romance’. So now that I’m getting to work with such superb filmmakers, and these kind of wonderful scripts, it’s a wonderful feeling. If, next year, I don’t get such work, then I’ll go back to TV or theatre. The process is the same. My motivation is to improve the skill for which I had changed my career.
BOC: So you have no qualms at all to go back to TV or stage?
Sushant: Not at all.
BOC: With recent heroes being very real-life and grounded, do you think it’s curtains for the larger-than-life heroes?
Sushant: I think, earlier, films were designed in such a way to help us escape our daily, monotonous, boring lives. Mainstream audience were wary about less-escapist fare. That will always remain so. If a film follows John Nash’s Game Theory, everyone is happy. You have a hero, a villain, larger-than-life action, heighten every emotion – in those two hours, you leave your boring life behind. Filmmakers are making money, stars are maintaining their stardom and the audience are getting entertained. Such win-win situation films will always remain.
At the same time, we also have to see that the number of screens we have, they increase every year. And another thing is our middle class is a slightly prosperous one. And they patronise multiplexes. So these people want to watch films that are less fantasy-oriented. The scope has broadened for these guys too. One more sector where we weren’t putting too much effort into earlier, was the marketing sector. Hollywood films have 50-60% of their investment into marketing, we are still at 10%. Because of all these factors, I think there will be room for each and every kind of cinema and there will be an audience for it too. We talk about 100 crore films, but I feel in the next 3-5 years, such low budget films that are high on content and marketed well can go on to make 150-200 crores.
Now it depends on an actor to choose what kind of film he wants to do, because there is an audience for everything.
BOC: Both your films opened at film festivals: ‘Kai Po Che’ at Berlin, and now ‘Shuddh Desi Romance’ at Toronto. What do you have to say about that? Will you be going there?
Sushant: I couldn’t go to Berlin. I was promoting ‘Kai Po Che’ in India at that time. But because the ‘Shuddh Desi Romance’ screening at Toronto is after the release here, we’ll be going to Toronto. I’m looking forward to it.