It’s not easy to play a legend, especially when the person in question is MS Dhoni. Film-maker Neeraj Pandey’s next, MS Dhoni — The Untold Story, is being looked at as a probable box-office winner. Sushant Singh Rajput is playing the sportsman in the movie, and both the director and lead actor seem confident. “I am just waiting for the film to release. I have had a great experience [working on it], and you feel good when you share it with people,” says Sushant. In an exclusive chat with HT Café, the duo talks about their experience of working on the film.
Sushant, going by the trailer, it seems you have mastered Dhoni’s persona. Was it tough?
There are three things to it. First, we are supposed to take our job seriously. So, if that’s not happening, we need to wake up and take it seriously. Second, we prepared for 12-13 months. During that time, cultivating the required cricket skills was important. Third, Neeraj sir and I used to read a lot about Dhoni, including the script. I needed to understand what Neeraj sir wanted to convey.
Neeraj, was it tricky to make a biopic on somebody who is constantly in the media glare?
Since 2003, Dhoni’s life has been chronicled in the media. Nobody knows what happened to him before that; before he made it to the Indian cricket team. So, it was relatively easy to revisit that life. That’s where the story for the film came from.
Sushant, are you jittery about people’s reaction to the film?
I was aware that people would have a reference point when it comes to the character. They know Dhoni’s mannerisms, and his batting and wicket-keeping styles. I didn’t just want to imitate him. I watched his videos for hours, to a point that I subconsciously started picking up some of his traits. It all happened organically.
Sushant, one of your sisters has been a cricketer. What was her reaction to the film’s trailer?
I was very bad at cricket when I was growing up. When she would bowl at me, three out of five times, I would get clean bowled. Before she watched the trailer — since I wanted to flaunt — I also sent her all my practise videos. She told me, “This guy doesn’t look like you.” She is really proud of me.
Sushant, you have always spoken openly about your personal life. But now, ever since your break-up with Ankita Lokhande, your personal life has constantly been in the limelight. Do you regret being so open?
Every time I am asked about my personal life, I answer the questions. When I choose a film, I only think about myself and the kind of experience I will have. But when I endorse a film, I only think about the audience. So, I should ideally be selling my film, instead of talking about my personal life. After my movie’s release, if they (the media) ask me about my personal life, then I am answerable.
But are you still going to be open about your personal life?
Sushant, you come from a television background. Do you plan to revisit the medium?
I come from both theatre and television. Of course, I can revisit TV. It’s a medium that is taken lightly, probably because of the content that we are coming up with these days. But television is a powerful medium. My show (Pavitra Rishta) was aired in 163 countries. I’m thinking of coming up with a few projects for television, and also for the digital medium.
So, do you think the content on TV is regressive?
It is regressive. We have to pull ourselves up.
Sushant, you worked hard to prepare for your role in the film. Would you like to do a role that requires you to be more spontaneous?
People often get confused between actors who are prepared and those who are spontaneous. But the whole point of preparation is that we need to be able to transform ourselves into the character we are playing. So, one needs to be spontaneous while playing the character.
Neeraj, you have not seen any of Sushant’s films. So, what made you cast him for this role?
I mostly go by my intuition when it comes to these decisions. I had not seen too many of Akshay’s (Kumar) films when we started working on Special 26 (2013). I remember I was watching one of his movies on TV with my sister-in-law. She said, “Ab kya dekh raha hai, ab toh cast kar liya (What’s the point of watching his film; now you have already cast him).” With Sushant, I got to know that he hails from Patna, Bihar, within our 15-minute conversation. So, I knew that the accent, the setting and the milieu we needed to capture will not be a problem.
Neeraj, most of your films have male protagonists…
I wanted my first film to be a love story. But, it did not get funded. Nobody wanted to put money in it. When you are working on your first film, it happens. However, other stories found me. I was not looking for them.
Neeraj, since people expect quality work from you, do you feel pressurised to deliver?
There is no point in feeling pressurised. Once the film is out, it is out. Everyone is going to have an opinion. At the end of the day, as a storyteller, doing your best is the only thing that is in your hands.
Neeraj, have you cracked Dhoni’s ‘Captain Cool’ psyche?
Whatever goes on in Dhoni’s mind, he doesn’t show it. The ‘Captain Cool’ psyche is a great thing because if your captain is flustered, then it will have an effect on the 10 other people on the field. If you look at his journey, you will realise that he is a survivor. Also, the swiftness with which he takes his decisions makes him what he is.
Sushant, does Dhoni get angry?
He feels all kinds of emotions that all of us are capable of feeling. It is about how you conduct yourself.
Sushant, before this film, you worked on Detective Byomkesh Bakshy (2015), which wasn’t an easy movie to do. Was it mentally tiring for you?
In between, I was also working with Shekhar Kapur (director). I was preparing for Paani. Doing these three movies, including MS Dhoni — The Untold Story, have made me feel like I have acted for 10 years. But that is what keeps you excited. You may not figure out how to go about it, or comprehend it, but that’s what keeps you excited. If I am excited, I am happy.