If you type the name Sushant Singh Rajput followed by the verb ‘learn’ on Google, the search results will throw up links to several of his recent interviews in which he has spoken of the ‘need to learn’. If Rajput had wished, he could have been an engineer. But he dropped out, convinced that he wasn’t engineer ‘material’. When he was at the top of his game on small screen, he quit the popular show Pavitra Rishta that made him TV’s equivalent of Shah Rukh Khan. “I was doing the same things,” he says, “Every day in the morning I knew what I was supposed to do. There was nothing challenging.” Earlier, he had pulled out of theatre for similar reasons. Elsewhere on Google, an article or two tells you that he is keen to learn from Aamir Khan, his co-star in Raju Hirani’s upcoming P.K., and a few stray ones declare his admiration for Irrfan Khan, from whom he has got “plenty to learn”. In interview after interview, Rajput has claimed how much he was learning just by being on the sets of Kai Po Che, his debut film for which it later turned out he had renounced a successful career on television.
Learn, learn, learn. At times, you may find that term issued from the mouth of an annoying newly-minted movie star, but for Rajput, who looks very much like a college student in his favoured jeans-and-T-shirt look, learning is vital to his existence. “I am not here for money or fame. If that were the case, I wouldn’t have quit TV. Tomorrow, if I don’t learn anything from cinema, I will do something else,” says Rajput whose Plan B includes running a canteen in Film City, Mumbai. “I am the kind of guy,” he says, “for whom the journey is more important than the destination.”
But the truth is, his journey has only just begun. By all means, Kai Po Che is the sort of film any wet-behind-the-ears actor would give his, well, right ear for. A portrait of friendship set against the backdrop of 2002’s Gujarat riots, the film at first didn’t speak to Rajput. Also, it was a project fraught with risk, “in the sense, it wasn’t a conventional Bollywood film where the hero is larger-than-life and flawless. I was offered five to six films before Kai Po Che, commercial films where the hero wouldn’t die, but I didn’t find them interesting enough”. In fact, when Rajput, already a successful soap star with Pavitra Rishta, was spotted at a tea stall in Adarsh Nagar for Kai Po Che, he was busy making plans of heading to UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television in Los Angeles to pursue a filmmaking course.
Kai Po Che director Abhishek Kapoor had no clue about Rajput’s craze among tube-watchers or his previous experience in acting. “Abhishek Kapoor had never seen me on TV. I was selected on the basis of my audition tapes—purely on my talent.” Though Rajput knew instinctively that the film would be greeted well upon release, he hadn’t expected such a resounding reception. “I was sure that people would like it but that was that. Honestly, I wasn’t thinking of the box office. I don’t understand how a film becomes a blockbuster, what are the parameters that decide it or why a film flops and what are the reasons for it.”
The movie trade pronounced it a runaway hit within weeks of its release this year. Its success, coupled with Rajput’s universally-acknowledged performance, instantly had him being compared to the likes of Ranbir Kapoor, Ranveer Singh and Shahid Kapoor. Does he think his success makes them antsy, like Hrithik Roshan’s sensational stardom did Shah Rukh Khan? “It may sound boring,” he says, “but I never came to this industry to be the number one star. I wanted to be a number one actor.” If competition exists, it does so in an actor’s mind, he says. “If I am going to sit and worry that, ‘Achcha, he has got that endorsement, I should sign up with a bigger brand’, or that, ‘Okay, so his film has made Rs 100 crore and mine has only made Rs 60 crore’, then that means I am competing with someone. But for someone like me who is struggling to become a better actor and who is only interested in his craft, where is the competition?”
When prodded further, he concedes that he had admired Ranbir Kapoor’s performance in Barfi! but quickly switches to Irrfan Khan, an actor he says he would like to emulate. “There is something special about Irrfan Khan. Paan Singh Tomar was out of this world. I don’t know how he keeps delivering one great performance after another.” Recently, the two met briefly at a party. “Although I have never used the word ‘fan’ in my life,” he says, “at that particular moment when I met Irrfan, I shook his hand and said, ‘Sir, I am a big fan’. It came from the heart. I couldn’t control it.”
That was one of the rare dos that Rajput attended. It is something of a surprise to hear that he is a painful introvert. While many critics and viewers have complimented him for his screen presence (a remark he cherishes the most came from Irrfan Khan: “Irrfan said in some interview, ‘Sushant is a unique mix of charm and talent.’ That meant a lot.”), Rajput reveals that deep down he is vulnerable and has always had confidence issues. “I am not very good at expressing myself. I can’t instantly connect with anybody. When I meet a new person, I take my time to open up. It’s not because of the other person. It’s something to do with me. It’s my nature.”
“Shy and not very expressive—it’s a risky combination in this industry,” he adds. Which is why when he was first narrated Kai Po Che, he found it difficult to identify with Ishaan, the protagonist brimming with idealism and confidence (“sometimes, over-confidence,” says Rajput) who is committed to opening a cricket academy. While Ishaan is tempestuous, impulsive and a bundle of contradictions, Rajput is the very opposite, sharing nothing in common with him—except the go-getter attitude. “It took me two months of workshop to be 100 per cent sure that I could be Ishaan,” he says. Later at a trial, his girlfriend, actress Ankita Lokhande, said in between tears: “I have been with you for four years and have worked with you for two years. Never in one frame of the film did I see you. I only saw Ishaan.”
“Ankita is closest to me and understands me inside out. I thought if she could connect to Ishaan, other people would do so easily,” he says.
Rajput suspects his upbringing—as the youngest in a household of four sisters—could have something to do with his low self-esteem. For every little thing, he remembers turning to his sisters, making him dependant on them. “I was a protected and pampered child. Whenever I wanted a second opinion, I went to my sisters and my mother. For some reason, I wanted their confirmation again and again whether what I was doing was correct or not,” he says of his childhood in Patna and Delhi. “Not that my parents or sisters wanted me to be this way. They did everything with good intentions. I was not allowed to go out that much because they thought I would fall into bad company. I was so protected that I didn’t have any friends. In fact, I didn’t make any friends. I was so much into my family that I never saw different characters from life. I used to go to school and come back home quietly and be with my family. That was the life I had.”
He lists his stints in theatre and his dance outings with Shiamak Davar for helping him overcome his inhibitions. Some years ago, he recalls being on stage in front of a huge audience and suddenly discovering that the best way to deal with this problem was to demolish the fear and insecurities that came with it. “I was on stage, standing alone and dancing, saying nothing. There were lots of people in front of me and lots of butterflies in my stomach. I thought for a moment, ‘Let me be in my own world and not think about what people think of me.’ I was so happy in that space that only when the performance got over did I realise I was performing.” Acting boosted his self-confidence further. “The process of making people believe something that you are not is very powerful, and magical. With acting, I feel empowered,” he says.
Post Kai Po Che, life has changed in more ways than one, but he insists, “Inside me nothing has changed. Just that the hunger to learn has increased and the hunger for doing good work has also increased.” Aware of what is riding on him, he says, “I don’t want to end up doing too many films at the same time. But the problem is I am bad at saying ‘no’.”
He will be seen next in Raju Hirani’s P.K. with Aamir Khan, followed by a Yash Raj film. Working with Hirani was a dream come true. Rajput is such an ardent Hirani fan that he has framed a Rs 20 note that the filmmaker gave him during an audition. “Raju Hirani is a very humble man. I think he is a little embarrassed by [my gesture],” he laughs.
Like Hirani, Rajput sees himself as a misfit in the film industry. “I am not social. I can’t be fake and most of the times, I am either honest or silent. And that’s not a good quality in this industry. The best thing is to do your work and go back home.”
In his observation, the industry is an oxymoron—kindly cruel. “It can be the most pleasurable and at the same time the meanest industry in the whole world. It depends on how you look at it.” He is reminded of Swimming with Sharks, a 1994 satire about Hollywood. “In that film,” he says, “the protagonist asks another why he wants to join films. He thinks for a moment but is still clueless about it. Maybe he wants to be an actor for fame, stardom, money, or maybe for art. It can be any of those things and you can still be correct.”
As far as Rajput is concerned, he is clear why he is here. “To learn,” he says, without any doubt in his voice. “Of course, along the way, nobody minds a bit of money, a big house or a fancy car. But if there were ever a scheme where you could invest a crore in the bank and be a better actor, I would take that scheme.”