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Opinion | Six chapters of Sushant Singh Rajput

Sushant Singh Rajput's filmography is too unforgivably short for an actor this talented and committed to the craft. Here are six performances he left behind, and where you can watch them

Sushant Singh Rajput’s performance as Byomkesh Bakshy was characterised by élan.
Sushant Singh Rajput’s performance as Byomkesh Bakshy was characterised by élan.

I am staring at a book Sushant Singh Rajput loaned me. It is a red book containing scientific concepts, and as I flip through it now, there are selected ideas underlined meticulously—some in pencil, some in different-coloured pens—and a few scribbles in the margin, in a neat, compact hand. It is the hand, clearly, of a man who consumed information carefully, a man I first met outside a book store because he wanted to discuss his process as a performer. We stood around Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre (with girls interrupting him for selfies) as he introduced me to a Philip Roth novella called The Breast.

Reading this satire about a man turning into a breast, Rajput wondered how on earth an actor could approach a role like that: free of physical form, a role where he couldn’t affect a body language or mannerisms, and just lie there unable to speak or move—and yet communicate. This was a hungry young man. A man who devoured books, certainly, from philosophy to physics, but also one who wanted constantly to exceed his own grasp. He wanted to immerse himself so thoroughly in his characters that he could reach a “fugue state" during his performances, blurring the line in order for the character to take over.

Rajput never got to play a breast, and that’s a shame. An entirely self-propelled star, he found his own trajectory: from engineering college to television dance contests to prime-time soaps to the movies. Seven years, one dozen films. That filmography is too unforgivably short for an actor this talented and committed to the craft. The possibilities were unbounded. As a performer, he was impressive from the start but getting even better, at once even more exact and even blurrier. He was still finding his stride. Thirty-four years. Now we mourn not only the artist but the films he never made.

His final film is yet to release (Dil Bechara, an adaptation of The Fault In Our Stars, will come soon to Disney+ Hotstar, it was announced last week). Here are the films he left behind, and where you can watch them.

KAI PO CHE!, 2013 (Netflix)

Rajput’s first feature film appearance began with his back to the audience, wearing a Tendulkar-esque No.10 cricket jersey as he watched a match intently. He played Ishaan Bhatt, an impassioned district-level cricketer, an earnest, swaggering fellow whose nostrils would flare up when discussing field placement. A dashing young man, both strapping and charming, he came to us a hero fully formed.

SHUDDH DESI ROMANCE, 2013 (Amazon Prime Video)

Months later, he took those heroic expectations apart. His Raghuram Sitaram is a Jaipur tour guide, a dishevelled grimy fellow who lacks a spine—but is smitten by strong-willed women. He’s eager to be ordered around by those who know better. It is a delightfully, absurdly unheroic part, and so good was Rajput that his female fanbase suffered. In my review then, I had marvelled over a hero so willing to let go of his vanity that he flashed “an Asrani grin". I marvel still.

DETECTIVE BYOMKESH BAKSHY, 2015 (Amazon Prime Video)

Playing a seeker of truth who doesn’t want to be called a detective, Rajput’s performance as Byomkesh Bakshy was characterised by élan. Looking at him in that film is like watching a chess-player two moves from checkmate: alert to ideas invisible to the rest of us. The natural flair with which he carries off a dhuti as he strides purposefully to a place of investigation is matched by his reaction when an errant football bobs into his path. Fluidly he sees the ball, dribbles it, sends it soaring—his eyes lighting up the way they do when scrutinising clues or carrom counters.

MS DHONI: THE UNTOLD STORY, 2016 (Disney + Hotstar)

Rajput looks nothing at all like Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Yet when he crouches behind the stumps or strategically points to fielders, or ambles over to brief the bowler, the line blurs. So exquisite is his impression of the cricketer’s body language that a non-existent resemblance feels oddly uncanny. It is a precise masterclass in physicality and Rajput dazzles as much as that helicopter shot.

SONCHIRIYA, 2019 (Zee5)

There is something so magnetic, so visceral about the way Rajput bites down on his lip when he fires bullets in this film, almost as if he needs to tear his lower lip off, or as if tearing pins from invisible grenades only he can see. As Lakhna, a dacoit in the Chambal valley, he plays just one guy in a crew of more colourful characters but—like the philosophical actor himself—he begins to consider his life existentially. And he does this questioning of the self while sporting a flawless Bundelkhandi accent.

CHHICHHORE, 2019 (Disney + Hotstar)

The irony is crushing. The last time we saw Rajput was in this rollicking hit cautioning—even sermonizing—against taking one’s own life. Playing an older man telling tales of his madcap engineering college days to a hospitalized son, Rajput shines in the flashbacks as a loveable, defiant student striving for a sporting trophy, making for some wonderfully textured and authentic humour. More impressive, however, was the way the actor braved bad prosthetics and bad lines to make even his older character affecting, allowing us to feel his helplessness.

These performances stand as indicators of the way that a thinking actor let us in, more than we knew to expect or demand, as audiences or creators. Even with a mere handful of films, he gave us moments of bona-fide brilliance. As we rue the performances we will never get to see, we are left with the scant consolation that we saw him at his best, never dulled. He shone through. He carried his bat.

Thank you, Sushant, for coming to us as fierily, as incandescently, as fleetingly. You lit us up. The films you made remain ours—much like a book I will never be able to return.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

Twitter @rajasen

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