This preoccupation with making sense of a senseless world, Sushant Singh Rajput says, stems from a very specific disappointment: getting exactly what you want. His is the classic case of a Bollywood aspirant — except he got the rare happy ending. After abandoning his engineering degree, the Patna native moved to a choked Mumbai apartment, braved snaking audition queues and caught glimpses of Bollywood A-listers as a background dancer for Shiamak Davar. Two years later, he was prime time’s reigning heart-throb and the star of Ekta Kapoor’s well-loved TV soap Pavitra Rishta. To test the early draft of fame, Rajput made splashy purchases and popped into malls just to be pursued by adoring fans. Then came the sobering realisation that the thrill of driving a luxury sports car lasts about as long as finding your iced latte perfectly chilled. “I felt cheated. I thought fame and money would change everything, but I didn’t know you get used to both pretty quickly. It started to get really boring and I thought: now what?”
His answer is probably what differentiates Rajput from the rest of Bollywood’s new guard. An almost reckless single-mindedness leaps out of his trajectory. At the peak of his TV stardom, Rajput slipped out to join a film-making course at UCLA. That was interrupted by his breakout debut, Kai Po Che (2013), with a less-than-ideal three-hero setup. Then, instead of securing his position as leading man after Shuddh Desi Romance (2013), Rajput opted for a cameo in Rajkumar Hirani’s PK (2014), for a rumoured fee of Rs 20. During a three-month lull after MS Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016), Rajput turned down lacklustre scripts to adapt Alberto Moravia’s novel The Two Of Us (HarperCollins, 1974), about a screenwriter’s relationship with his penis, for the stage. “I don’t discriminate between mediums. I don’t think you graduate from theatre to TV to films. I can do a nukkad natak and be just as excited. Or do a short film that never goes to a festival. I don’t care.”
Rajput says that being a Bollywood outsider is no longer shadowed by anxieties — to be better networked, to fear the unforgivable box-office dud, to be permanently disarming off-camera. If anything, he reckons it’s the effort of a small pack of outsiders, paddling hard to stay afloat, that rids the industry of lazy, complacent cinema. “Us outsiders are upping our game, and now [good work] is out there for everyone to see. As a result, insiders have to up their game too,” he says.