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How a background dancer (like me) became a movie star... by Sushant Singh Rajput

He is the ‘outsider’ in Bollywood. He dropped out of his engineering course and gave up a scholarship to go to Stanford University to become an actor. From sharing a one room kitchen with six other guys, to becoming a player in the big league, Sushant Singh Rajput has been there and done that. Now, to inspire other aspiring actors, he revisits his road to success:

brunch Updated: Aug 06, 2017 14:18 IST
As told to Ananya Ghosh
As told to Ananya Ghosh
Hindustan Times
SSR,Sushant Singh Rajput,recipe for success
Sushant wears a suit by Canali, shirt by Selected Homme and shoes by O’Keeffe. Stlyling by Vainglorious, make-up by Vicky Salvi and hair by Milan Thapa(Subi Samuel)

The college compound was huge, just as Bollywood movies promise you. I was a wide-eyed boy from Patna in Delhi, befitting the typical hero. It was the first day of college. The stage was set for me to bump into the heroine. But where was she?

There were hardly any girls around! Here I was, thinking I will finally meet some nice girls when I go to college, but it turns out not too many girls take up engineering, or did, back in the day when I joined Delhi College of Engineering…

Engineering wasn’t my choice. I wanted to be an astronaut, and later, an Air Force pilot. I remember tearing up my Top Gun poster when my parents told me that was not going to happen. Apparently, I was going to be an engineer. Maybe the drama I did that day should’ve given everyone a clue! But truly, I was gutted.

In a family of doctors and lawyers, I guess there was little room for anything else. My three elder sisters and a brother were all great in academics, and so the expectation was already set high. Not doing well was not an option. As you can imagine, being an actor was not even on the horizon.

Shah Rukh helped me sort out my confusion about who I should be. (Jacket from Hackett London, shirt from Red Fleece, pants from Selected Homme and shoes from Bally) (Subi Samuel)

Bit by the Bollywood bug

It wasn’t like I was unaffected by Bollywood, no. I was a huge fan of Shah Rukh Khan. I remember watching Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ) and thinking now here’s a cool dude. He is a great performer, but that’s not what impacted me most: Shah Rukh helped me sort out my confusion about who I should be. This was in the early ’90s and the economy was just opening up – we were seeing Coke cans for the first time, international brands were coming in, and I was fascinated…yet confused. I didn’t know whether to embrace the West or be loyal to our culture. At this point came DDLJ, I was in Class VI, and Raj showed me that it was cool to have a beer, but then he also waited for Simran’s dad’s approval. There was a balance. It was the perfect marriage of an aspiring India and an India trying to hold on to its culture.

Shah Rukh helped me sort out my confusion about who I should be. This was in the early ’90s and the economy was just opening up…I was fascinated, yet confused. I didn’t know whether to embrace the West or be loyal to our culture. At this point came DDLJ....Raj showed me that it was cool to have a beer, but then he also waited for Simran’s dad’s approval. There was a balance.

I was good at studies. To my parent’s great joy, in Class VII, I’d already finished the Physics and Math syllabus of Class X. I excelled in the board exams, cleared 11 engineering entrance tests, won the National Olympiad in Physics and landed in the Delhi College of Engineering.

So here I was, and here were the lack of girls. After being a nerd so far, I was hoping to change my luck in college but that looked doubtful now. Then, one day a friend suggested that if I really wanted to meet girls, I should join dancing classes. Apparently all the cool girls of Delhi were into dancing at that time. I was doing well in my course so I could afford to take the time out. This was the key turning point of my life…

I’d sometimes take a break and stand in front of the mirror and lip-sync to Suraj Hua Maddham. (Suit from Canali, shirt from Brooks Brothers and shoes from Bally) (Subi Samuel)
Honestly, even if I would’ve been offered a role back then, I would’ve refused because I was a complete introvert. The lip-syncing and posing would happen only in front of the mirror, with just me in the audience.

Thinking back, I now see that the tell-tale signs were always there. While preparing for engineering entrance exams, I’d sometimes take a break and stand in front of the mirror and lip-sync to Suraj Hua Maddham. I used to do these things but not with the ambition of becoming an actor. It was just for fun. Honestly, even if I would’ve been offered a role back then, I would’ve refused because I was a complete introvert. The lip-syncing and posing would happen only in front of the mirror, with just me in the audience. I wanted to be the head boy in my school but, when I had to give a speech, I didn’t go to school that day. I didn’t want any attention. Of course, we all need some kind of acknowledgement, but I was getting that with my grades. I had just two or three close friends but that was it. Life was perfect! Or so I thought.

Turning point

Many would call the years before I hit Bollywood the struggling period but not me. I was not struggling. I was already doing what I loved. (Suit by Selected Homme, shirt by Canali and shoes from O’keeffe) (Subi Samuel)

Then, I felt the need to meet a girl, and that led me to Shiamak Davar’s group. My life went into a spin from that point on. Instead of heading to Stanford University from where I had a scholarship offer, I dropped out of college and landed in Versova, in a 1RK (room kitchen) that I shared with six others. You can imagine the reaction at home.

t was 2006, my final year in college, when I dropped this bomb at home. They were shocked! So shocked that they couldn’t say anything and I took their silence as their approval!

It was 2006, my final year in college, when I dropped this bomb at home. They were shocked! So shocked that they couldn’t say anything and I took their silence as their approval…. It was hard at that time but now it’s different. My dad loves it when, on his walks, people call out to him, show him some recent clipping on me…he is really proud of me. But even today, almost all our conversations end with “beta, degree le leta…”

The stage unleashed me, liberated me. (Sushant wears a suit, shirt and pocket square from Brooks Brothers and shoes from O’Keeffe) (Subi Samuel)

I may have gone to dancing classes looking for girls but I really liked it! I got selected for Shiamak’s ‘special potentials’ batch. One day he said: “You are not one of my best dancers but there is something about the way you express that makes me pick you for my first row…why don’t you try theatre?”

After all these years of being shy, I could now say and do things I wanted to, behind the garb of the character. The stage unleashed me, liberated me.

I had never thought about it. But taking his advice, I joined Barry John’s acting class and, to my surprise, while everyone else got a C, I got a B at the end of that three-month diploma course. This is when I started seriously thinking of acting as a potential career. My nerd instinct kicked in and I started reading up everything I could find on acting, including Stanislavski. The grades at Barry’s assured me that I can be trained as an actor and by this time I had also started enjoying being on stage. After all these years of being shy, I could now say and do things I wanted to, behind the garb of the character. The stage unleashed me, liberated me. I could engage the audience; the people were connecting with what I was doing on stage. I could make them laugh or cry. For the first 20 years of my life, it was difficult to get people to understand me, but now I could do it easily. That gave me a real high.

Making a mark

I am not here for money or fame, I am here because I love to act (Subi Samuel)

Many would call the years before I hit Bollywood the struggling period but not me. I was not struggling. I was already doing what I loved! I was doing theatre, going for castings, training in martial arts, working as a background dancer, watching and discussing films with my roomies who were also actors. Yes, in between, I’d have to cook (we just had one pressure cooker and dal, chawal, vegetables, all would go in it together), do my dishes and laundry and other household chores, which were exhausting, but I took it all as part of the game. Even today, when I have money, fame, films, I have the same level of excitement for my job that I had back then. My career is not an upward graph from theatre to television to movies; I was and am equally excited about what I am doing at the moment.

It is important that the role excites me. While reading the script, I like to find my way to play the character. If I already know how to go about with the character, for me the charm is lost.

Being a trained dancer and a martial arts performer, it would’ve been easier for me to do an action film or some dance numbers. Those movies make money but that’s not my interest. I am not here for money or fame, I am here because I love to act. It is important that the role excites me. While reading the script, I like to find my way to play the character. If I already know how to go about with the character, for me the charm is lost.

Career Graph
  • 2009: Pavitra Rishta (TV series)
  • 2010: Zara Nachke Dikha (Dance reality show)
  • 2010: Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa 4 (Dance reality show)
  • 2013: Kai Po Che!
  • 2013: Shuddh Desi Romance
  • 2014: PK
  • 2015: Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!
  • 2016: M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story
  • 2017: Raabta

Even if I play a complex part to perfection, the film might not work at the box office. That does not affect me. For one Friday I can’t put my life on hold – either to celebrate or to sulk. Friday depends on the audience and the critics, but the Monday is mine to decide the course of the week!

I’m not saying success is not important. It changes things; mostly people’s perception of you. After Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015), media found me to be honest and endearing. The same people found me arrogant after the success of the Dhoni biopic. I understand sensationalism sells – if Sushant was nice and humble before, and he is the same now then there is no news! I will not claim that these things don’t affect me. In fact, I want to be affected by these. I want some vulnerability to remain; that’s what makes me human.

My advice to aspiring actors:

Don’t be over analytical: People will tell you that making it big requires hard work, perseverance, dedication, and skill development but all you need is the love for it. It is like playing a video game – when you are totally into it, focusing on one level at a time and loving it, that’s when you’ll do your best.

Don’t do it for fame or money: Ask yourself why you want to do it. I really, absolutely love what I do. If your answer is fame or money, it is not going to work. I come from a middle-class family and there are things I couldn’t afford earlier. I thought it is the money that is keeping me from being happy, but that is not the case. In this profession, if you make it to a certain level, you will have money and fame. But if that is your motivation, then what will you do next? You can’t get more famous after a point and then it becomes a flat graph. It will then fail to make you happy.

Enjoy the journey: Don’t concentrate on ‘how to get there’, instead enjoy the getting there. Realise where you are today and enjoy that. I don’t believe in cause and effect. I think whatever happens, happens first and then we manufacture the cause to justify it. I didn’t plan my career and I don’t think that now that I have a sea-facing house in Bandra, I am in a more secure position than I was in the 1 RK apartment. There are too many variables in the working. I don’t extend my time to future: it is the present, the now, that I am enjoying.

Don’t use luck as an excuse: People often ask why after Shah Rukh Khan, I am the only actor who could successfully make the transition from television to movies. Let me recount an incident from the sports history. In 1954, Roger Bannister was the first man ever to run a mile in less than four minutes, till then it was an unheard of feat. But the very next year 27 other people achieved the same feat. This was because they thought that if he can do it, so can we. But here, most people think that oh this guy just got lucky, and they don’t put in the effort. Luck is a factor, definitely, but don’t make it your excuse.

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From HT Brunch, August 6, 2017

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First Published: Aug 05, 2017 23:44 IST