THE YEAR IS 2016. The sun is setting outside the hotel room. It’s been over an hour and Sushant Singh Rajput, who died by suicide on 14th June 2020, is curled up on a chair, still talking animatedly about his plans, which include making a film about an astronaut and another on Murlikant Petkar, a soldier who sustained bullet injuries during the India-Pakistan war of 1965 only to overcome them and become India’s first Paralympic gold medal-winning swimmer. In between his conversation ranges from setting up a telescope and staying overnight in a tent in the middle of the Australian desert to observe stars to sponsoring the education of impoverished children through a special programme. He comes across as bright, full of ideas and ambitions.
There is also, however, as with a younger Ranveer Singh and a Kartik Aryan now, an element of hyper-kinetic auditioning. Trying hard to please is an occupational hazard in the Mumbai film industry and becomes second nature to anyone who is heralded as the ‘next big thing’. It’s a place where Ranveer Singh has been, the life of the party, the last person to leave the dance floor, the first person to give quotable quotes to the media and long rumoured half of a celebrity couple. It’s a place Kartik Aryan is now, courted by A-list filmmakers, sometime boyfriend of star daughter, and much-sought-after by Bollywood’s established gatekeepers.
It’s a heady place to be. It can also be short-lived. Bollywood’s red carpet is strewn with invisible corpses of those who’ve walked it to cheers and champagne, who’ve been pampered with first-class travel and fast cars, and who’ve basked in the afterglow of success only to be cast out firmly, sometimes without explanation. Abhishek Bachchan has talked about how he travelled to a film shoot in first class, only to be downgraded to economy on his way back because his film had flopped in the interim. Ayushmann Khurrana has written about how when he was a mere TV host and called Karan Johar’s number, he was told by Dharma Productions’ staff that they only cast stars. Vidya Balan has spoken about three years of constant rejection and tearful nights when she initially tried to break into films in the South.
Even star families do not offer immunity from dejection. Consider this. Dharmendra’s nephew Abhay Deol was in Dev D, by Anurag Kashyap, which redefined love for a new generation in 2009. His filmography is studded with A-list directors such as Dibakar Banerjee and cult hits such as Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008) and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011). He has reappeared, as producer and star of streaming movies, but is not close to what he could have been. Anurag Kashyap offered a rather public diagnosis recently when he said Abhay expected artistic appreciation at commercial terms, demanding star treatment on movies with shoestring budgets.
Or consider Imran Khan. Aamir Khan’s nephew had a dream debut in the college romance Jaane Tu…YaJaane Na (2008), and did other successful films such as Delhi Belly (2011) and Mere Brother Ki Dulhan (2011), before his career collapsed. Or consider even Vivek Oberoi, son of actor Suresh Oberoi, the great hope of the industry immediately after Company (2002) and Saathiya (2002), who once boasted of the beautiful Aishwarya Rai as his girlfriend. Oberoi’s career went south about the same time, 2003, when he challenged Salman Khan at a press conference for threatening and drunk calling him 41 times, and suggesting, quite rightly, that the actor should seek psychological help.
Sushant Singh Rajput, a great fan of Shah Rukh Khan, and a student of his phenomenal rise, knew that Bollywood is unforgiving of two things: ‘too much attitude’ and commercial failure. To be accused of one is unfortunate. To be charged with both is a tragedy. He had charted a long journey to get to Mumbai. The young man who dropped out of Delhi College of Engineering with a year to go, to sign up as a dancer in Shiamak Davar’s dance troupe, became a beloved TV star when Ekta Kapoor noticed him in one of her serials Kis Desh Mein Hai Meraa Dil and cast him as the lead in Pavitra Rishta as Manav. He broke out as the cricket-loving Ishaan in Abhishek Kapoor’s brilliant Kai Po Che! (2013), along with Rajkumar Rao and Amit Sadh. Since then Rao has gone on to become the favourite star of every independent fiilmmaker in Mumbai and Sadh has a steady career in streaming series.
PICKED UP BY YashRaj Films for a three-film contract, Sushant had also seemingly arrived, ready to follow in the footsteps of Ranveer Singh and Anushka Sharma. So far, so good. Maneesh Sharma, who directed the movie that made Ranveer Singh a star, Band BaajaBaarat (2013), did the honours for Sushant in Shuddh Desi Romance (2013), a love triangle for the new millennium, in which marriage is something to escape rather than strive for. The movie was well liked and his next, with Dibakar Banerjee, was the highly anticipated Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015). Recalls Banerjee; “He was vulnerable. and intense. I wanted a vulnerable and intense Byomkesh. What I remember most about his energy was that he used to work himself into a pitch of anxiety before the shot. And the fact that he prepared the scene endlessly—with his notes and by reading and re-reading the lines overnight.’’
The third film in his contract with Yash Raj Films got shelved. Paani, which was to be directed by Shekhar Kapur, was nixed because of its budget. The year-long preparation for the film brought the actor close to the globally-acclaimed director but cost him a part in Abhishek Kapoor’s 2016 film, Fitoor (the role eventually went to Aditya Roy Kapoor). Sushant spoke movingly of the lessons from that association—of once spending seven hours talking to a cobbler outside ISKCON Temple in Mumbai—but felt enormously let down by Aditya Chopra, who runs Yash Raj Films. Though he acted in MS Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016), winning hearts with an almost pitch perfect performance as the star cricketer from Ranchi, and went on to do other commercially successful movies, among them Kedarnath (2018) and Chhichhore (2019), he was perhaps always haunted by what might-have-been. With TarunMansukhani’s Drive (2019), produced by Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions, co-starring Jacqueline Fernandez going straight to streaming without much noise around it, and Mukesh Chhabra’s Dil Bechara (2020) headed the same way this year, he may well have fallen short of his own expectations.
As if that was not enough, he also had to walk out of Ekta Kapoor’s successful Half-Girlfriend because the schedule clashed with Dinesh Vijan’s ambitious but flawed Raabta (2017).
Despite missing out on many movies, in a seven-year career, Sushant acted in 11 movies, some of them memorable. His acting was methodical, meticulous and minutely detailed. His style, according to Kapur, was that of a spring that can bounce back anytime. And that’s what he needed in Paani’s hero Gaura. If there was any arrogance, his co-star in the gritty Sonchiriya (2019), Manoj Bajpayee has said, he didn’t see any of it. Just a man who loved his work, respected his older contemporaries enough to touch their feet, and knew his character inside out.
What made him stand out among the muscled masculinity of Bollywood was a certain earthiness, a certain beauty that has not travelled merely from Bandra to Juhu, but from Patna to Mumbai. Abhishek Chaubey, the director of Sonchiriya, where Sushant played Lakhna, a dacoit, said it well in an interview: “Most Bollywood male actors actually look like different versions of the same guy. But Sushant was different. There was also something very desi about him, perhaps because of his heritage as he didn’t come from Bandra and Juhu.” Add to that his nerd-level interest in science and love for inspirational quotes, however much it was mocked in chat shows.Here was a young actor who was not cookie-cutter material, whose birthdays had not been marked by paternal gifts of BMWs, and whose experience of life went beyond lessons in acting, dancing, and fighting from Bollywood’s resident experts.
Satisfaction is relative. And sometimes the emptiness is so vast that even a flat in Hill Road, Mumbai; a house in Goa; and a Maserati in the garage, as Sushant did, is not enough. He was financially in a good place, he had work (he was planning something visionary filmmaker Anand Gandhi) and he had incorporated two companies six months ago, one dealing with artificial reality and another a non-profit to work on eradication of hunger, poverty and malnutrition. Both had girlfriend, actor Rhea Chakraborty as partner. A National Physics Olympiad winner, Sushant had even bought a piece of land on the moon, in a region called Sea of Muscovy, from the International Lunar Lands Registry. He set high standards for himself. As he once said in an interview: ‘‘I want to fail but it should not be a mediocre failure. It should be massive. Ek ahsaas karne ke liye it is important to fail badly and destroy me as an individual. At the same time, I don’t want mediocre success either.”
Vanity, pride, insecurities and limitless ambition exist everywhere. But, as Dibakar Banerjee says, some aspects of the Mumbai film industry are more corrosive than usual. Insults, take-downs, sniping, social boycotting, supercilious comments and a collusion with the media to limit access to visibility for those who do not conform—this is par for the course. “Actors want to be liked and admired by everyone, an impossibility leading to permanent frustration. and Bollywood encourages that thirst—and keeps you hooked so that you’re always vulnerable and insecure, hence manipulatable,” he says. Those outsiders who make it despite this do so through sheer talent, a tough mental constitution, an innate patience and not giving a damn. He believes somewhere Sushant let others’ narrative of him override the one that he was scripting so successfully for himself. ‘‘The pity is that all those conversations, addas, parties, binge drinking or smoking up sessions do not spend ten seconds on bettering acting techniques, scripts, methods of taking, dialogue timing, better Hindi diction, physical action or just the plain fun of making a film. They’re usually about the star system and its adjuncts, which over time depress you with their repetitive shallowness and emptiness. This is the permanent downer that all struggling film professionals, mainly actors, have to run the gauntlet of,” he says.
DEPRESSION IS NOT unusual among the beautiful people of Bollywood. Even someone as established as Shah Rukh Khan is deemed schizophrenic, with jabs such as ‘Shah Rukh Khan One’ and ‘Shah Rukh Khan Two’. The star himself jests about it, calling himself the employee of the Myth of Shah Rukh Khan. Even someone as mentally tough as Aamir Khan has had his share of depression, immediately after his divorce in 2003, when he would, by his own admission, consumer one bottle of vodka a day. He recovered, in large part with help from his cousin, psychotherapist Nuzhat Khan. The late Rishi Kapoor and Karan Johar both admitted to suffering from depression in their autobiographies. Deepika Padukone has been the flagbearer of speaking about mental illness, and has institutionalised it through her 2015 non-profit, Live Love Laugh Foundation.
In the end Sushant’s death has become all about competing narratives. Filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt sees in it a repeat of former girlfriend Parveen Babi’s last days when she was declared a paranoid schizophrenic who thought Amitabh Bachchan was trying to destroy her. Actor Kangana Ranaut sees in Sushant’s suicide yet another instance of Bollywood’s cruel nepotism that did not allow them to recognise his fine work. Filmmaker Karan Johar lamented that he had not talked to Sushant for a year, instantly triggering a social media backlash, with several people accusing him of a double standard, in encouraging jokes on Sushant on his TV chat show. Lesser mortals also jumped into the fray, accusing powerful figures of trying to vanquish their careers, with the most notable among them being Abhinav Kashyap, director of Dabangg. The suicide is already being seen through the prism of politics, with the evil, liberal gatekeepers of Bollywood who keep the barbarians out so to speak, and the hardworking, small town, mofussil men and women who are never allowed in.
Varkha Chulani, psychologist, says the facade of positivity cloaks real emotions. In the superficial world of makebelieve, where everyone has to look and feel their best, there is a confusion between the authentic self and pretentious self. Keep dismissing and submerging how you feel, and it explodes in your face, she says. This is the new depression—the effort to constantly feel and behave positively.
Indeed, even for Sushant, those who knew him say when they relaxed with him on a few occasions—usually a hotel room, where they’d order in chicken tikka and a whisky—he would reminisce about his student days in Delhi. He liked talking about how he and his buddies literally looked for baraat processions to gate-crash, dance like mad and reach the marriage hall to raid the buffet. Sweet and authentic, he was not on guard on those occasions—rather he was self-deprecating and nostalgic.
But when you’re in the business of fakeness, authenticity is the equivalence of vulnerability. And that is the very definition of weakness in a shallow world.