Sushant Singh Rajput was a wide-eyed teen in Delhi when he first harboured dreams of working in a Yash Raj film. For someone growing up in the ’90s—when Yash Raj Films (YRF) was giving Hindi cinema a new look replete with mustard fields, Swiss Alps and homeward-bound NRIs—that wasn’t an inexplicable desire. A little more than a decade later, Rajput not only has a three-film deal with the production house, but is also handled by YRF’s talent management division.
The 27-year-old Rajput had another dream while he was taking baby steps in the film industry. He wished to be featured in Forbes India
! “It was my dream ever since I saw Shah Rukh Khan on the cover,” he says.
The actor, who is self-confessedly reticent, is refreshingly excited as he speaks to Forbes India from Kolkata, where he is currently shooting for Dibakar Banerjee’s period film Detective Byomkesh Bakshi
. He is in a cocoon, what his publicist calls “the movie zone”; he has shed his rippling muscles and transformed himself into a mild-mannered Bengali sleuth from the 1940s. He has detached himself from the outside world, declining media appearances, completely surrendering himself to the character—and his director.
“I go on sets, shoot, and return to the hotel. The only Calcutta I’ve seen was when I’d come for recce with the unit,” says Rajput, who is happy operating that way. “This is what I want… find more layers to the character, build it up and totally give in to the director.”
He was an unconventional choice for Byomkesh, a character played to near perfection by Rajit Kapur in a Doordarshan series in the ’90s. Rajput admits to being both “excited and nervous” when he was offered the role. It came at a time when the television-turned-film actor’s sparkling debut in Kai Po Che!
had caught the eye of the film fraternity. A critic wrote of his performance: “The actor has an indescribable presence, and it’s clear from his confidence and distinct likeability that a star is born.”
By then he had already been signed by filmmaker Raj Kumar Hirani for an appearance in the Aamir Khan-starrer Peekay. It is reported that Rajput did the film for free. That was followed by the YRF deal starting with the solo hero film Shuddh Desi Romance
. And then, Dibakar Banerjee, who’d bought the rights to all Byomkesh stories, found his protagonist in Rajput.
“I think it’s a tough filter when you transit from the small screen to the big screen,” Banerjee tells Forbes India in an email. “Sushant’s personal account of moving from the box to the plex is little known. He actually quit TV at the height of his fame on Pavitra Rishta
[a Zee TV show where he played the lead], took a sabbatical, reconsidered his options, and plunged into the unknown. It was a huge risk. We only see the move in hindsight after he was picked up by YRF. At that time, it wasn’t so easy.”
For Rajput, though, acting was more than just a profession. It was an outlet to his suppressed emotions, desires and anxieties. “I’m painfully shy. I can’t talk. I just can’t express myself. And that is one of the reasons I became an actor. To be all these people that I play and go through all the emotions that they go through,” he says.
He’d set out to be an engineer. Academically bright, he enrolled in the Delhi College of Engineering but dropped out to pursue his passion. He joined Shiamak Davar’s dance classes and went on to perform at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. “That’s where it all started. It was such a powerful experience that I thought this is what I want to do all my life. Be a performer,” says Rajput.
He would later join Barry John’s theatre classes and do shows that “were liberating”. After moving to Mumbai in 2007, he joined Nadira Babbar’s Ekjute theatre company. During one of the performances at Prithvi theatre, he was spotted by the casting team of Balaji Telefilms who called him for an audition. And television happened.
He bagged a role in the Star Plus soap Kis Desh Mein Hai Meraa Dil
and then went on to play the lead role in Zee TV’s top-rated show Pavitra Rishta
, which made him a household name. Rajput says, “I’ve never planned my career. I had nothing when I started out. And getting fame and attention was never a criterion for me.”
Films happened by accident too. Rajput was headed for a filmmaking course at Stanford University when he met casting director Mukesh Chhabra one afternoon at a tea stall in Mumbai’s upmarket Lokhandwala. He was asked to audition for a UTV film directed by Abhishek Kapoor (who’d made the successful Rock On!
). The actor who’d started to feel “stagnated” in TV “doing the same thing day in and day out” accepted readily.
Barely two films old, but with plenty of interesting projects in the kitty, Rajput is arguably Bollywood’s new poster boy. He’s been hailed as “the next SRK” by some industry watchers. Veteran filmmaker Shekhar Kapur called him “one of the most inspiring young actors to emerge out of India” and roped him in for his much-awaited film Paani.
Filmmaker and critic Pratim D Gupta says, “Despite Kai Po Che!
being a three-hero film, Sushant exhibited a starry flair. There was an aura about him which could translate into a big star. And the big opening of Shuddh Desi Romance
reaffirmed his star appeal. People came to believe that he can pull audiences and give a film a good opening.”
The journey has just started for Rajput. “I’ve an undying hunger to learn, to explore. That is why I am an actor. I am living my dream,” he says.Our 30 Under 30 list and methodology
(This story appears in the 21 February, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)