Dec 022017

In an in-depth chat, held before a live audience at IFFI, Goa, Sushant Singh Rajput dives deep to reveal his fundas, on life and films

As we entered the Bioscope Village, a tent-pole cinema, temporarily created for the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa, the collective chants across the venue made it seem like we were at a political rally. If you heard closely, the audiences weren’t screaming, “Modi, Modi, Modi.” They were in fact yelling something sounding similar — “Dhoni, Dhoni, Dhoni” — looking at actor Sushant Singh Rajput, whose performance as India’s top cricketer MS Dhoni on screen, remains his best known work yet. Also the crowd, a lot of them kids, had returned from a show of Neeraj Pandey’s MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, held right before.

Sushant Singh Rajput
Sushant Singh Rajput

Rajput calmed the audience down a bit, repeating his favourite moment/line from the film, which is Dhoni’s mother telling herself that her son won’t be satisfied with little — he’ll always aim for more. That sort of set the tone for this interview, which appeared as much a psychologist’s take on life/films, as a motivational speech for the young.

Excerpts from the conversation

Here’s what you often confess in your conversations — that you’re an introvert, not much of a talker, suffer from stage fright (or at least did). Now, these are exactly the reasons why someone may not turn into an actor. In your case, you’ve mentioned, that was exactly why you did. What does that mean?
Genuinely, this is essentially the problem I have with the education system globally. We’re taught that there is one right, definite answer to a question. As a result, we are increasingly become good at thinking, and convincing ourselves, about the only one correct answer.

Normally, what’s missing is the skill of asking questions. And that can come with the understanding of the fact that no matter how good or passionate you are about a job, you can create something new, only when you’re aware that you’re standing on an assumption. You have to question that assumption. If that question is engaging enough, you don’t think about results, or acknowledgements. Of course, you’ll like it if there is acknowledgement for your work. But that is not why you do it. Having a personal question, and moving in that direction, is important enough.

There is a thought I’d read once, which I didn’t understand then, is about how experts have the most informed answers. But they’re not experts at asking questions. The kids have the best questions. The pattern one notices about creative people, who do something new, is they’re a combination of someone who asks questions like a child, and attempts to answer employing the method of an expert.

Now to answer your question, we are all story-tellers, and we’re acting all the time. The issue I always had was over how I should pretend to not show what I’m feeling. This went on for many years. And then I learnt a little about acting. Since I had learnt some acting, then I thought I may as well become an actor, and earn from it. But that shyness, and the hunger to find a great way to tell a story, hasn’t left me yet.

You’ve in fact said that since you were shy, it seemed easier to hide behind other people, or characters.
Exactly. When you know you’re standing on assumptions, you don’t take yourself seriously. And when that happens, it becomes dramatically easier to play other people.

Your first brush with performance art was actually through dance; is that how you began to feel most comfortable, expressing yourself publicly?
Absolutely, I was never good at expressing myself. I would think something, but when I would say it, it would seem like there’s something amiss. And I didn’t think of it as an issue, because I was happy being a science student, studying engineering. Around the time I joined dance school, and when I was on stage, performing, I felt that I could actually communicate, even without words. I could see the audience getting affected by what I was doing on stage. That was a start for sure; and then I thought, let’s use the help of words also. I began doing theatre.

Let’s look at your journey: you were academically bright, worked with (theatre director) Barry John, moved from theatre, television, to films, and also moved from Delhi to Mumbai. That’s totally Shah Rukh Khan, isn’t it?
There’s also a line in Shah Rukh Khan’s film (Om Shanti Om), “Kabhi kisi cheez ko shiddat se chaho, toh saari kaynaat… (If you will it; it happens).” I was a little stupid, and so I took it rather seriously. But I can tell you one thing — that it works. Of course, we may all love the fame and the riches, but importantly, if something interests you a whole lot, it’s fine to aim for it, and dream big.

There’s a term in psychology that you quote often: Impact bias. By which you mean that when you actually achieve what you dream for, it doesn’t seem all that significant after all.
It’s a popular subject in behavioural economics, and it’s revolutionary, because it’s counter-intuitive to how we usually think. There was an experiment done with two groups. One had an extremely bright set of CEOs in their early 20s and 30s. The other group comprised people below the poverty line. Now the first group, for some reason, had become disabled — paraplegics. The second group had just won a million dollar lottery. There was a downward mental spike recorded in the case of the first group, and equally upward, in the second.

Now, I’m not talking about months or years, but after just 10 to 12 weeks, when the same two groups were tested, their mental spikes had stabilised to exactly the same levels already. This tells you something — successes or failures actually don’t affect us in the same way that we imagine they would. If you enjoy a process itself though, you get so good at the skill, that it automatically places you in the top percentile of people on the (happiness) index.

This ‘impact bias’ realisation, I’m told, happened to you once when you’d begun hanging out at malls. You’d become famous, thanks to television. You loved being recognised. Soon enough you stopped enjoying the attention. Is that true?
No, what I’m trying to say is that public acknowledgement is a good feeling, and one can’t be immune to it. But when we are actually at work — there is no one around, the pay cheque isn’t staring at you, neither is there fear or exhilaration at how people will perceive your work.

The work being good is all you care about. Sunil Gavaskar once said that if God gave him a super power, he would really want to get inside MS Dhoni’s head, and examine how and what he thinks. And Dhoni told me just this: As much as he loves this nation, and his team, when he’s actually there in the middle (in a match), he doesn’t think about those things. He can only see the ball. It’s the same in the Mahabharat, with Arjun only being able to see the fish’s eye.

Back to movies. Every few years, there’s often one film, quite out of the blue, that spawns a mini-industry of talents. Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), with an almost all-new cast and crew (Sudhir Mishra as a young writer, Satish Kaushik as writer-actor, Vidhu Vinod Chopra as production controller) was one. Or Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya (1998, with Anurag Kashyap as writer, Saurabh Shukla as actor-writer, Vishal Bharadwaj as music composer, among others) was another. Of late, do you think Kai Po Che (2013) falls into that category? You debuted with it. Rajkumar Rao had his first big role in it. He’s had a great run. Amit Sadh’s popular, the film picked up top screenwriting awards…
Again, here I’d like to highlight that we have a tendency to sense a design, when something works out well. And I’m not just speaking about Kai Po Che. The same sense of design isn’t as strong, when we have to predict the future. Often, it happens, that we put together all the diggaj (veteran) talents with a great story to tell, and it doesn’t work out. There is a reason for that.
When Rajkummar, Amit and I were working on Kai Po Che, with (director) Abhishek Kapoor, we were absolutely certain on what we must not do, given a strong understanding of the script. But none of us were sure on exactly what we must do, including the director, who was flexible enough to trust us, and let us be. It’s not that something great came out of every shot. We tried various ways. And this is important to understand — we derive security from prediction, which is evolutionary. But preparation is only essential to know what not to do. No one can be in control, when you’re creating something new — you have to cut yourself loose.

Looking ahead, now that you’re a star, what’s becoming far more essential for that job, unlike as much back in the day, is an incredible script sense. How are you honing that craft?
I just have to able to personally react to a script — without looking at other factors, like its possible resonance among the public, or its commercially viability. If there is something I want to understand about a character and I’m unable to, I know that would be engaging enough for me to spend five to six months on it. It’s like, when I was studying for engineering, I would get an hour and half of play-time. I would wait for that moment, and when I’d go out, I would be so engaged — that time would seemingly get over in five minutes!

Now my instincts are very likely to go wrong. But this is absolutely the time to encourage failure, rather than success. To give you an example, according to research, 65 per cent of the school kids right now will eventually take up jobs that don’t currently exist. The disruptive technology to enable those jobs is yet to happen. We’re at the stage of deception, since we’re unaware. What can you teach those kids then? That it’s okay to fail, because the rate of change is such. Bearing that in mind, it’s important to stress on emotional intelligence, and lack of stress.

Sushant Singh Rajput
Sushant Singh Rajput

Don’t want to take names, still, if you do a film like Raabta, do you sense a disconnect between what was the script, and what became the film?
Absolutely, I’ve never done a play, TV show, or film, where what I’d thought in my head is exactly how it turned out to be — for better or worse. Because you have no idea the choices the director, the music composer, or the editor, will take. It’s too collaborative a process for anyone to know, no matter what our intentions, which are inevitably good. I’m absolutely fine with the idea of knowing that I’m wrong, nine out of ten times.

Speaking of the three media you’ve been part of, how important is the size of the screen for you as an actor anymore, given that theatrical footfalls are dropping, and the web is probably where the best of the world’s stories are being told?
There is in fact an even bigger thing on its way, on which I’d like to take a chance, while it’s foolish to predict. Let’s go back in time, for instance, and look at when the talkies came in, and all the actors (who were part of silent cinema) assumed nothing would happen. A whole lot did.

The most important aspect of a visual medium is to create an illusion, and convince you, that what’s happening is for real. Along with visuals, sound took it to another level. But the one thing that’ll change everything, virtual reality (VR), is already here, and it’s not a small transition.

Within five to six seconds in VR, you lose your objectivity on the fact that you’re viewing something. You become part of an actual experience. This is going to disrupt cinema, like how! I’m not saying story-telling will die. But films, as we know them, will drastically change. Everyone should think about it.

Surely you’re looking at virtual reality closely, but your next big step apart from films, I’m told, is going back to theatre!
Well I’ve been planning a play for a year now. I have to look at too many small things on that front. Unless we are totally enjoying ourselves with every aspect, we won’t step out with it. When we learn acting — or think that we’re learning — we’re taught about the fourth wall, which can be a live audience, or a TV camera, or a film camera, depending on the medium. In every case, you’re taught to forget the fourth wall anyway. So the idea of theatre to TV to film, as natural progression or graduation, is wrong. It doesn’t matter.

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