Sushant Singh Rajput: The outsider
In the aftermath of the actor’s death by suicide, the discussion has turned to how Bollywood’s insular culture multiplies the pressures of stardom on atypical outsiders
Hours after news of his death broke, scenes from Sushant Singh Rajput’s last big screen release were being posted on Twitter. In Chhichhore (2019), the actor plays the father of a troubled boy about to give the national engineering entrance exam. He doesn’t succeed and, mortified at the thought of disappointing his parents, both of whom were at the National Institution of Technology (a stand-in for IIT), he throws himself off the roof. The rest of the film is Rajput relating the story of his college days to his critically injured son to get him to realize that suicide isn’t a solution. Chhichhore saw middling reviews and huge commercial success when it opened in September last year. For the worst reasons, it’s unbearably poignant now.
Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide on the morning of 14 June, at his home in Bandra, Mumbai. He was 34—the same age as Ranveer Singh, a year older than Varun Dhawan. The police investigation is still on but that didn’t stop media outlets from speculating, with unfeeling sensationalism, on the possible causes. Photographs of the body turned up on TV and WhatsApp. Actor Ankita Lokhande, his former partner, trended on Twitter as people gossiped about how the end of their six-year relationship had affected the actor. The scavenging media coverage was exacerbated by the film industry using the death as an excuse to point fingers and settle scores.
Amid all the ugliness, my thoughts kept straying to a time before the fame, when everything lay ahead of Rajput. It was just over eight years ago that he decided to leave TV for film: a young man with a soft voice and a bright future. There’s a video from around then on YouTube, of him being interviewed on the sets of Pavitra Rishta, the show that made him a soap star. “They say everything must end—this too is ending," he tells the reporter. “Whatever I do next, I am going to do it well, put my heart into it."
How intimidating must Bollywood have looked to Rajput then? He grew up in Patna, Bihar, in a middle-class family. His father was an engineer; he too studied engineering. He had no godfathers in the film industry. He was famous—but TV famous, which counts for little in Bollywood. He was, in industry parlance, an outsider.
In Hindi cinema, the actor sons and daughters of famous film folk are “launched" (and relaunched if they don’t take off at first). Everyone else must count on being “discovered", whether through modelling, commercials, theatre, dance or TV. Shah Rukh Khan is the Cinderella story that launched a million unreasonable dreams, a nobody from Delhi who parlayed his popularity on TV into movie stardom. Yet, of the many actors who have crossed over from TV, only Rajput and Ayushmann Khurrana, who began his career as a reality show participant and host, achieved something close to Khan’s level of stardom.
Rajput did a bit of everything in the beginning: He was a dancer in Shiamak Davar’s troupe, a student of acting with Barry John, part of Nadira Babbar’s Ekjute theatre group. He began his TV career on Kis Desh Mein Hai Meraa Dil and became a star when Ekta Kapoor batted for him to play the lead in another show she was producing, Pavitra Rishta. When he left the safety of TV in 2011, he was looking at a decidedly uncertain future. Then, as now, there was no shortage in Bollywood of young actors with industry connections—Ranveer Singh had burst on to the scene with Band Baaja Baaraat (2010), Ranbir Kapoor had been around for a few years, Varun Dhawan had been signed by Karan Johar for Student Of The Year (2013).
Despite the odds, Rajput’s entry into film couldn’t have been smoother. He was spotted by casting director Mukesh Chhabra in a coffee shop and brought in to read for Abhishek Kapoor’s 2013 film Kai Po Che!. He was cast, alongside Rajkummar Rao and Amit Sadh,both fairly new to the business, in the part of Ishaan, a carefree jock who finds purpose in coaching a young cricketer. The film was a huge success, with Rajput its breakout star. There was an ease to his performance, a non-threatening manly charm, as well as a quality that would seem old-fashioned in most actors but which Rajput made his own: sincerity. He wasn’t the most complicated performer but you believed him because he seemed so earnest.
His charmed run continued. Maneesh Sharma’s sharp comedy Shuddh Desi Romance (2013), in which he played a commitment-averse man in love with Parineeti Chopra’s equally commitment-averse manic pixie, came next. He cameoed in Rajkumar Hirani’s smash hit PK (2014) as Sarfaraz, a Pakistani national in love with an Indian girl; that brief appearance, and the line “Sarfaraz dhoka nahi diya tha (Sarfaraz didn’t betray you)", became popular across the border. With Yash Raj Films’ (YRF’s) Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!—a big film by a major studio, planned as a franchise—and Shekhar Kapur’s ambitious Paani under his belt, the future seemed very bright.
In Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, Dibakar Banerjee’s adaptation of the Bengali detective series, he was a delightful Byomkesh—energetic, brilliant, visibly pleased with himself (unlike your typical inscrutable sleuth, this satyanweshi smiles a lot). But the 2015 film, immaculately designed but inchoately plotted, was a commercial failure. Rajput followed that up with a big hit, playing the former Indian cricket captain in M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016). Then came the lean period—a box-office failure in Raabta (2017), an average earner in Kedarnath (2018). He left YRF Talent amid rumours of a rift with Aditya Chopra over preferential treatment to Ranveer Singh. There was also the long grind of waiting for Paani to materialize (it never did), and the projects turned down in that period.
It’s not so much that he had two middling films in two years. Actors with far worse career graphs are working in Hindi cinema today. It’s more that Rajput, even at the height of his fame, was never spoken of as a truly big star. That seems incredible on the face of it: In his seven-year career, he was the lead in three big successes and cameoed in a monster fourth one. But box-office popularity isn’t always a guarantor of stardom in a town suspicious of talented strangers.
“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 after 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."
In a discussion taped a few months after the release of M.S. Dhoni, critic Anupama Chopra asked Rajput how he had navigated Bollywood’s nepotistic waters. “I can’t complain because I got the films I wanted to do," he replied. “But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there…. When you are successful as an outsider you will be discussed, but in a hushed tone. And people are willing to forget about it." Asked whether stardom is important to him, he says, “If you give it to me I will keep it…. But at the same time if you don’t give it to me, I don’t miss it."
It’s tough to imagine a second- or third-generation Bollywood actor voicing a similar sentiment. You get the sense they would miss stardom terribly if it slipped away. But Rajput probably wasn’t as detached from ambition as his response made him seem. When he dropped out of the Delhi College of Engineering to try his hand at acting, “I was already a superstar in my mind", he told Man’s World. Instead, his response to Chopra reads more like a careful covering of bases by someone who had been a star in Bollywood long enough to know that he couldn’t take success for granted the way some of his peers could.
Film-maker Abhishek Kapoor spoke with feeling of the difference between the newcomer he directed in Kai Po Che! and the media-hounded star he worked with in Kedarnath. “I used to tell him, you are already a star, you don’t need other people to validate that for you," he told Shoma Chaudhury in an interview on 16 June. Kapoor said Rajput was ostracized by the industry for not being a typical star. “It’s like, if you don’t fit in our box, we have no use for you. It was the systematic dismantling of a fragile mind."
In the last three years, there has been increased criticism of Bollywood’s clique-ish workings. Kangana Ranaut created a stir in 2017 when she described Karan Johar, on his own talk show, as the “flag-bearer of nepotism" in the industry. More recently, in a newcomers roundtable hosted by Rajeev Masand, Gully Boy’s Siddhant Chaturvedi wryly responded to Ananya Panday’s assertion that star children also had to struggle, with “where our dreams come true, that’s where their struggle begins". Yet, in a country that has had film families almost from the time it has had films, this is a criticism easily shaken off. At the 2017 IIFA Awards, Johar, Saif Ali Khan and Varun Dhawan—second-generation celebrities all—performed a skit aimed at an absent Ranaut that ended with them chanting “nepotism rocks".
After Rajput’s death, Johar, his producer on Drive, shared a post mourning him on Instagram (“I have felt at times like you may have needed people to share your life with...but somehow I never followed up on that feeling"). By late evening, Johar’s name was trending on Twitter. Most of the mentions were angry reminders of occasions when he was seen to have slighted Rajput—in particular the time on his show when Alia Bhatt, asked who she'd kill/ marry/ hookup with between Ranveer Singh, Ranbir Kapoor and Rajput, opted for "kill Sushant". It was a typically catty and vapid Koffee With Karan moment, featuring a star child launched by Johar, a friend of Aditya Chopra—all the concentric circles of insider-dom from which Rajput was excluded. Nevertheless, to link this, as many did, to the actor’s death is unfair and irresponsible. The same goes for the “blind items" that painted Rajput as difficult and brash over the years. But these slights do serve as an indicator of where power in Bollywood lies and who wields it.
By the evening of 14 June, the conversation about the death had turned into a shouting match over nepotism in Bollywood. Ranaut’s team posted a video in which she suggested Rajput was driven to suicide by a nepotistic industry’s lack of recognition of his talents (she also said the same forces wanted her to die by suicide and it was Rajput’s “mistake" that he listened to them). Sonakshi Sinha and Sonam K. Ahuja tweeted, without naming Ranaut, about people using Rajput’s death for their own battles. Abhinav Kashyap, director of Dabangg, wrote a long Facebook post alleging that Salman Khan and his family members had tried to ruin his career. Lost in all this were the voices calling for more open discussions on mental health, and the ones who just wanted to remember Rajput without speculating about his death.
HEAD IN THE STARS
In story after story about Rajput, there’s one constant: He always had a book around. Most of the time it was a science book; the actor was particularly interested in astronomy and had wanted to be an astronaut when he was young (he attended a Nasa workshop in 2017 and later sponsored two students to visit the US space agency). His Instagram was unlike any other Hindi film star’s, a mix of philosophical musings and pictures of telescopes, starry skies and scientific instruments. In a post from April, he writes that he’s learning coding because he loves computer gaming and “wanted to learn the language behind it".
Anand Gandhi, director of Ship Of Theseus, recalled on email how the actor came up to him outside a hotel in Goa during IFFI 2017 and introduced himself. “He started quoting me from my talks and interviews, which he seemed to have gone through many of. We shared many of our heroes—(author Richard) Dawkins, (philosopher Daniel) Dennett, (neuroscientist) V.S. Ramachandran. We must have stood on those steps for hours talking." The two became friends and planned to collaborate on a film about a worldwide pandemic called Emergence. “Over the years, Sushant would bring up Emergence often," Gandhi said. “In the last few months, he would bring it up every week or so. I felt certain that I could cast him in a part that amplifies who he was...an artist of life, a seeker, relentless in his inquiry."
Director Abhishek Chaubey told me that while they were shooting Sonchiriya (2019) in Dhaulpur, Rajasthan, the actor would spend his free time reading tomes on quantum physics. “He wasn’t bullshitting either. He knew what he was talking about." He even lugged a 100kg telescope to the shoot because there were astronomical events taking place then. Rajput tended to converse about everything other than cinema, Chaubey said, quite unlike other stars, whose interests rarely extend beyond the movie business. “He was unique in that sense. You don’t get many geeks in Versova."
The revisionist Western Sonchiriya is Rajput’s best film, and his most intense performance. He plays a Chambal valley dacoit, a man who begins to question his purpose in life and eventually sacrifices himself helping a runaway woman and a little girl make it out of the ravines. Surrounded by expert growlers and grunters like Manoj Bajpayee, Ranvir Shorey and Ashutosh Rana, Rajput roughens up convincingly. “There’s something desi about him," Chaubey said when asked why he cast Rajput. “He doesn’t have that Bandra-Juhu image which most of our male actors have."
One crucial piece of the character fell into place by accident. Chaubey had planned to ask the actor to incorporate the dacoit’s contemplative nature in his performance. He realized he didn’t need to—Rajput’s slightly faraway demeanour was a ready-made fit.
By all accounts, Rajput was a hard worker, pressing directors for notes, going to lengths to enter the mind of the character. Screenwriter Kanika Dhillon recalled how her 100-page script for Kedarnath became a 300-page document after Rajput was done adding his own notes. He didn’t disappear behind make-up or accents, preferring to make changes in body language. His Mahendra Singh Dhoni looks nothing like the cricketer but he moves exactly like him on the field. He wisely avoided speaking Hindi with a Bengali accent in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, instead inventing a lithe, slightly comic physicality to match the detective’s mental agility. With attentive directors, he could slip a lot into a scene without doing much on the surface. The scene in Shuddh Desi Romance when he wakes up after sleeping over at Parineeti Chopra’s flat for the first time is a marvel of unarticulated emotions—giddy joy and sexual pride giving way to confusion and emotional vulnerability and finding its way back to joy.
Chaubey said Rajput was a loner, though also a regular guy with few airs and a “college canteen vibe". “I had heard he would be difficult, that he would have all these demands, but none of that happened." This image of Rajput as a tantrum-thrower is derived largely from blind items and unattributed quotes—testament to the power of the Bollywood gossip vine. The biggest controversy involving the actor was an unsubstantiated rumour that he had harassed co-star Sanjana Sanghi while shooting Dil Bechara, an as-yet-unreleased remake of The Fault In Our Stars (DNA quoted an unnamed source as saying: “Sushant was trying to be ‘extra-friendly’ towards newbie Sanjana Sanghi. On one occasion, she seemed to have got uncomfortable."). The actor denied the claims. Sanghi later tweeted that the story was “baseless and unfounded".
Over the past couple of days, everything from the death of Rajput’s former manager on 8 June (police are investigating if it’s a suicide or accidental death) to his final Instagram post have assumed an eerie air of significance. As of now, there are only unconfirmed reports that he was depressed and undergoing treatment. The only references he appears to have made to mental health were oblique. There was a remark in an interview to Hindustan Times in 2017 (“Who says actors are maintaining their mental health?"). And last year, he tweeted a Gillette ad about not bottling up your feelings with the words, “It’s okay to let it out and not hold it inside. It’s not a weakness but a sign of strength."
Even as clues to Rajput’s state of mind emerge in the accounts of those who knew him, there’s an urgent need for public discussion about fame and mental health. Already, there have been two deaths by suicide, reportedly triggered by Rajput’s demise, of teenagers in Bareilly and Patna. Deepika Padukone, a rare actor to discuss her struggles with mental illness, tweeted on the evening of 14 June about the importance of reaching out, as did Zoya Akhtar, Anil Kapoor, Richa Chadha and Shabana Azmi. That several celebrities were framing depression as a matter of willpower instead of an illness tells you how much work is yet to be done. Still, the best way to honour Rajput might be to work towards creating a kinder, more understanding film industry.
In mourning the recent deaths of Irrfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor, fans could draw upon their decades of screen work. Rajput left us just 10 films from which to create a mental reel: memories of young men like Ishaan, Sarfaraz, Lakhna, who stood up for what they believed in, and an actor who smiled often and made his job look easy. I find myself returning to a brief moment in Sonchiriya. Lakhna, tired, dishevelled, possibly sensing the end of the road, sees a vision of himself in clean clothes, well-groomed and riding a camel. Is it a glimpse of a happier future? Or a road never taken? That’s the image of Rajput I will take with me: at peace, unhurriedly exiting the screen, a hint of a smile on his face.
Apart from qualified professionals, there are helplines operating across India that you can reach out to if you are struggling with mental health. Here is a list of five that offer their services free of cost.
Sahai: +91-80-25497777 (Monday- Saturday, 10am-8pm)
Sneha: +91-44-24640050 and +91-44-24640060 (all days and hours)
iCall: +91-22-25521111 (Monday-Saturday, 8am-10pm)
Parivarthan Counselling Helpline: +91-7676602602 (Monday-Friday, 4-10pm)
Aasra: +91-22-27546669 (all days and hours).