Many a television heartthrob has tried to make the transition to the big screen only to fail spectacularly. No one has been able to decode why a megastar on the small screen cannot become a superstar on the the big one. Shah Rukh Khan proved it was possible, but that was 20-odd years ago. And now there is Sushant Singh Rajput. Not quite in the same league of stardom, but popular enough to make Bollywood notice him and put good work his way. With the days of mindless masala movies more or less on the wane, and given the abysmal flops of some of the biggies recently, THE MAN tries to figure out what works.Excerpts from an exclusive interview:
You’ve done a coming-of-age film with Kai Po Che!, a typical romance in Shuddh Desi Romance, an action-thriller in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, and a biopic with M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story. Your next film is science fiction. Is this variety accidental or planned?
There are two things that are important when I say yes to a project. First, I should like listening to the story so I can contribute to the narrative. Second, I should not understand completely how to play my character. If I already know how to play the part, there’s no point in it. Right now, I’d be playing the 58thcharacter in the last 11 years of doing theatre, TV and films. All these characters had something that I didn’t understand completely.
I always thought actors wanted to know the character well before they committed to playing it.
All the research and preparation are to figure out what not to do. This is something I learned when studying theatre; it prepares you to set the perimeter—‘these are the things I’m not supposed to do’. I like unpredictability, I like not knowing, not being careful at times and trying out different things so that, once in a while, you stumble onto something that is absolutely new. That is yours. Otherwise, you’re just a very good repetition of something that has already been done.
You’ve been with Nadira Babbar’s Ekjute theatre group and then made your mark on television in Pavitra Rishta before making your Hindi cinema debut in Kai Po Che! Acting is the common thread. What’s the difference being an actor in each of these different mediums?
The process doesn’t change at all. All you need to do is pretend to the level of belief and pretend to the level of your own belief. It’s not about the live audience or the TV camera or the film camera. When you’re really acting, they’re just not there.
Are you not even aware of the technique of it? Because each one has a different craft…
People talk about method acting and Stanislavski, but that was when people didn’t know about cognitive science. Acting techniques now are about letting go, not analysing or embracing a technical tool. Every time you let go and are unsure… that is what is required, so that you’re prepared, you slip into action and just let go.
I’m close to one or two friends. They’re very old friends and I call them every week to confirm they’re still my friends!
I read somewhere that you went for acting classes and got so interested that you found science boring…
I find science very interesting. I still read quantum physics. In science, we get fidgety in finding the patterns (while) in art, it’s surrender to chaos. These are completely different ways of reaching the same thing. When I started performing for Shiamak Davar in my college days, I realised I could communicate without saying a word. That is what everybody wants—to be understood. I would hide behind the character and say what was personal to me, what I wanted everybody to understand. It was a convenient way of saying -‘Don’t judge me. I’m not me, I’m the character! And I felt I could do this for the rest of my life even if I’m not paid for it!
Talking about being paid for it. You’re doing a nude scene in your upcoming film and a headline quoted you saying ‘I’m doing it because I’m paid for it’.
(The reporter) asked me whether I’m doing it, and I said, ‘No, I’m not’. Then it was, ‘Will you do it?’ I said, ‘Of course, if you pay me and if that will make you believe that I’m a character, I would. I have no inhibitions…
You said your next film is action. But isn’t Drive a comedy?
No, Drive isn’t a comedy. More a caper film like The Italian Job.
I like unpredictability, I like not knowing, not being careful at times and trying out different things so that, once in a while, you stumble onto something that is absolutely new. That is yours. Otherwise, you’re just a very good repetition of something that has already been done.
When we’re talking about receiving acclaim and the audience responding to you as an actor, how important is it for you to be a star? Do you aspire to superstardom and its trappings?
Honestly, that was the driving force when I started out. I was an introvert. This was a big differentiator in my life as I understood the importance of money. I was told: ‘If you become really rich, and you get the right acknowledgement, that is success. When I became famous, strangers would come up and talk to me; I earned so much that I stopped thinking about money; I got used to it very quickly. Now I needed another high. Thankfully, I was doing something that I actually liked doing. Also, this deliberate choice of characters, which I don’t completely understand, is what keeps me going.
Do you still remember the first moment when you realised you were famous? Any crazy fan stories?
I would go to malls and other crowded places just to see if people recognised me. That was a high—the first autograph I signed, the first picture someone took with me, I wasn’t sure whether to smile or not. Then there was a gap because it stopped giving me a high. When I was a kid, I remember getting this blue Maserati (toy) in a packet of noodles. I still have it. Since then, I’ve wanted to buy a blue Maserati. Finally, when I could, they didn’t have a blue; I’d have to wait for seven months. I waited for seven months and got myself a blue Maserati only to realise two days later—not even a week—I was okay with the idea of owning a blue Maserati. It was like, ‘I stayed with you for 20 years and you conveniently stayed with me for just two days!’ That was really disappointing.
If you do something you actually like doing, then it’s fine. Then I can assure you that you will get a lot more fame and money rather than doing something you don’t like and aiming for these things.
Who are the people that are important to you?
I’m close to my sisters, my dad and one or two friends. They’re very old friends and I call them every week to confirm they’re still my friends! Mostly, I’m so into what I’m doing that I lose track of time. And when I can’t think of myself, I can’t think of anything else. I bought myself a telescope so I star gaze. I read books. I’ve got myself this amazing virtual reality setup and I’m learning to play guitar.
These are all solo pursuits. What do you share with others?
With those who have similar interests there are long conversations (it doesn’t matter if they’re friends or not). Shekhar Kapur is a very close friend. There’s a very senior theatre actor, he’s 56, but doesn’t like me to mention his name. We can talk about philosophy and quantum physics to behavioural economics… anything.
So is that your ideal evening? Talking about these esoteric subjects?
Yeah. And maybe listening to nice music. Probably Cohen (Leonard). Drinking wine, having a great conversation where, if you don’t want to say anything, you say nothing.
Would you say you’re mature beyond your years?
Yeah. Just thinking about the number of friends I have (realising I don’t have many!), probably yes. I like this space of not taking myself seriously, of dabbling in fascinating things that I don’t understand completely. This space of being in the moment. Like right now I’m talking to you, you’re the most important person. Right now I’m not thinking of anything else but this.
You didn’t sign a lot of films when you became a star. How do you fill your time during that gap?
This is very time consuming because you’re never sure that you’ve completely understood the character. I have a team. I called two of my seniors who were in the same college (they finished their engineering and went to the best business schools) that I dropped out of to make a team. We plan different strategies for a character. We did that for Dhoni, and it worked. But we’ll do something else for the next film. Right now we’ve figured out this great MBTA test based on 150 questions that identifies your personality from 16 psychological types. So, I read a script like Sherlock, and note down certain points, then take the test (we all do) as that person to refine my character type for that role. If they get the same personality, then we know we have hit upon something specific. This is what we are trying for the next film. This is the sort of thing that keeps us engaged.
I was told: ‘If you become really rich, and get the right acknowledgement, that is success.’ When I became famous, strangers would come up and talk to me and I earned so much that I stopped thinking about money; I got used to it very quickly. Now I need another high!
That sounds like the beginning of a business venture.
Absolutely. If we can monetise it, I don’t mind it, but that’s not the point; that’s what startups do. I don’t make plans for a better bank statement. So if we can monetise it, great. But it has to be engaging, and then if we can make money out of it, then that’s fine.
Which was the last international film that inspired/engaged you?
I think Dunkirk. Not just because it was made by Nolan. I was discussing it with my friend and was surprised that he missed the most fundamental thing that Nolan was trying to do. He used the subjectivity of time to tell the story. In the first few frames you see one week, one day and one hour, and how the experience you’re having actually dictates the mental construct of time. So time is not objective, but subjective. If you can use the subjectivity of time as a tool in a narrative, you can connect events in different time frames. That’s what he was trying to do. I was writing a similar short story, but then I saw Dunkirk and I realised… wow… thank you.
Do you often write short stories?
I’ve been reading a lot on behavioural economics. It’s a subject that talks about many things—what we do and why we do what we do; the ways in which we fool ourselves. We’re so delusional! It’s not philosophy… it is science. Nobody is making a film on these things. I’m thinking of writing a story, or to hire a writer to do a script. These things keep me going.
Inception, for example, was about the fact that when you’re awake you know that you’re not sleeping, but when you’re sleeping, you cannot say you’re awake. That’s the first thing you’d study in behavioural economics, and he has made a film out of it. It resonates with the right kind of people. There are many such things in behavioural economics and evolutionary psychology that you could use to tell a very good story.
Do you think an Indian director would be able to portray this well if you came up with a story like this?
Comprehension may be a problem as not many people are aware of such things. In Interstellar, the director has used black holes, time warp and time dilation to tell the story of a relationship between a father and daughter. To understand these things is difficult; to tell it in a simple story requires great skill. So, yes, comprehension is a problem. Also, we lack courage. Even if we understand, we are not sure whether people would get it or not, so we don’t make the film.
It’s too much of an investment to risk…
Yes. People abroad genuinely believe they do things they don’t know how to do. Our way of working is different. We have to know before doing something.
Tell us a little more about your science-fiction film…
It will be India’s first space film. I play an astronaut. I’m India’s Neil Armstrong! I’m the one landing on the moon. I bought this amazing VR, where you can actually fly Apollo 11, and land that lunar module on the moon. It is so real! I’m sure it will dictate the way we tell the story in the immediate future. Because after you do that and you watch Gravity, the experience is not the same, even if you watch it in 3D. You feel something is missing after that complete immersion of looking at the moon, looking at the earth, being in space.
Are you superstitious?
No. Absolutely not. I don’t hold on to these things. Not that I should not, but they have disappointed me so much that I don’t care now. After I did theatre with Barry John in Delhi and came to Mumbai, I was with Nadira Babbar’s Ekjute and staying with six guys in a very cramped single room and kitchen. It was exciting time—giving tuitions, doing theatre and doing background dance. At the worst, I’d have to live with six guys again, but I’m fearless now. After Dhoni did well, the film I wanted to start post the release got put off for a few weeks. I got good, well-paying offers, but they were not interesting enough. Instead, I did a play! I didn’t make any money out of it. It was so engaging that I was hardly sleeping in those days. If nothing else, I can do plays or make my own short film. What’s the point of (turning) 50 and obsessing about the future?
If you decide to give it up… what else would you do?
It could be anything. It would have to be very exciting; it might not get me anywhere from the others’ point of view. I gave up engineering in the third year (of college), six months from my degree, and a TV show that was doing really, really well. People said it was only Shah Rukh who made a successful transition to films 20 years ago, that I should make more money and do it after a year. But, I did it when I felt like doing it. As long as I enjoy the process, and have different methods to try, I will keep doing it.
What’s your typical day like?
I don’t sleep much. On a good night, I’d sleep for three hours. I saw a sleep doctor and she said she can’t do anything because I’m excited for nothing!
PHOTOS ARJUN MARK ❖ STYLING MOHIT RAI ❖ ASSISTANTS TO THE STYLIST CHANDANI MEHTA & VEDHIKA GHOTGE ❖ HAIR MILAN ❖ MAKE-UP VICKY SALVI ❖ TEXT PRIYA PATHIYAN & K. SUNIL THOMAS