The Man Who Brought Small-Town Charm to Bollywood – a Tribute to Sushant Singh Rajput
It seems like just yesterday that I was writing my previous tribute to one of Bollywood’s finest, Irrfan Khan. I remember hoping that I would not have to write such a tribute again anytime soon. However, as fate would have it, here I am again.
On 14 June 2020, I was wrapping up a day of work when my phone beeped with a message – an alert that Sushant Singh Rajput had died by suicide. The news shook me to my core. I scrambled to check if it was true. Having followed Rajput since the very start of his journey (much before Bollywood), the news broke my heart. The actor succumbed after a long history with depression.
Rajput came from very humble beginnings, starting his journey as a back-up dancer in 2005. Almost three years later, he was scouted to audition for Kis Desh Mein Hain Meraa Dil – a popular soap opera. However, it was not until he starred in his second soap opera, Pavitra Rishta, that he gained widespread appreciation. It was finally in 2013 that he made his debut in Bollywood.
Over the span of seven years, Rajput starred in 11 movies, with his 12th film’s release delayed because of COVID-19. Dil Bechara is a remake of popular film and book The Fault In Our Stars, and was set to be released on 8 May 2020. Tragically, Rajput will never see the success of what is touted to be the film of his career.
As I await, albeit bittersweetly, to watch Dil Bechara and see the heartthrob on the big screen one last time, here are my top three Rajput films to remember his life on screen.
Kai Po Che (2013)
Based on the 2008 novel The Three Mistakes of My Life by popular Indian author Chetan Baghat, Kai Po Che was Rajput’s debut Bollywood film. He plays the lead along with Rajkummar Rao and Amit Sadh.
The film revolves around three friends who aspire to set up a cricket academy in humble Gujarat. However, an earthquake and a religious riot puts their camaraderie to the test. The film was both a success amongst critics and a commercial hit. Despite tackling some difficult subjects such as friendship in the face of religious tension, the film is heartwarming and keeps viewers gripped until the last minute.
Since this was Rajput’s first film, his raw talent was on full display. Surprisingly, his unpolished performance was exactly what the film needed for its exploration of a boisterous friendship. With this film, it was clear from the outset that Rajput was here to stay.
Kai Po Che was interesting for me to watch because I was curious how Rajput was going to break out of his soap opera mould – a character that I had watched him in for years prior to the film. I was nervous because I was afraid that he would fail, having developed an attachment to his success over the years. However, I remember smiling to myself at the end of the film, with a sense of quiet pride; Rajput owned his debut.
M.S. Dhoni – The Untold Story (2016)
Imagine how daunting it would be to play the role of one of India’s favourite cricketers who also happens to be the captain of India’s national cricket team. Rajput rose to the challenge and made his performance in M.S. Dhoni – The Untold Story arguably the best of his career.
The biographical sports film follows the life of Dhoni through different phases of his life, starting with his youth. It showcases the behind-the-scenes struggles of a young man with a passion and god-given talent for cricket who went on to become the nation’s hero.
In a film where the hero is a real-life legend, the expectations on Rajput were extremely high. Many were surprised that he was cast in the film but Dhoni and Rajput built a creative partnership to bring an authentic portrayal to screen.
Unlike his performance in Kai Po Che, Rajput’s performance had much more finesse – as required for this role. He did not simply copy Dhoni’s persona – he internalised Dhoni’s motivations and portrayed it without getting lost in the process. In an interview, Rajput mentioned that he watched Dhoni’s winning sixer moment over a hundred times to perfect that iconic scene. His hardwork and dedication was successfully translated on screen, with performances full of confidence and conviction.
When I watched this film, there were instances that I did not recognise Rajput. His character in Kai Po Che was similar to his soap character so it felt like I was watching an improved variation of the latter. However, with Dhoni, Rajput blew me away with his restrained and subtle remodelling of the cricket star. I truly felt like it was here that he made his place in Bollywood, amongst the big guns.
Based on the 2013 North India Floods that devastated Uttarakhand, Kedarnath is an interfaith romance film revolving around the natural disaster. It follows the romance between a poor Muslim porter and a rich Hindu girl who is the daughter of a priest.
Kedarnath is a town in the state of Uttarakhand that houses the venerated Kedarnath Temple which pilgrims flock to every year. The film explores the delicate Hindu and Muslim sentiments prevalent throughout India and the face of religion when a flood threatens to ravage the entire state. At the center of it all is a contentious romance that propels the story forward.
From Kai Po Che to Kedarnath, Rajput had a knack of portraying the poorer Indian demographic. Perhaps because he was once in their shoes, there is a sincerity in his performance. That quality shines in this film. Rajput capitalises on his small-town charm and steals the show.
As I was watching the film, it became apparent to me that Rajput was carrying the film. His co-star, Sara Ali Khan, debuted with this film and her lack of experience was palpable. However, Rajput saved the film by putting up a performance that was enough to make up for that. His character in almost every film is so likeable – a trait that has more to do with Rajput’s heart than writing or directing.
Losing Rajput is a tremendous loss for the industry. I believe that his best work was still ahead of him. It will take me a long time to come to terms with his demise as I grapple with the thought that his journey has come to an abrupt end. However, I take solace in the fact that he is immortalised through his films.
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