MAJOR SPOILERS FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVEN’T WATCHED ‘DIL BECHARA’
Towards the end of Dil Bechara, in perhaps one of the most unaffected scenes in the film, Sushant Singh Rajput — teary eyed, his arms wound tightly around himself — asks, “Jee lenge na hum aise (we will live like this, right?)”. The line — whispered by Rajput between sobs — rang like a scream in our small bedroom.
My mother and I had been glued to my laptop over the past hour, through director Mukesh Chhabra’s slightly trite storytelling, yet devouring every line that Rajput speaks in Dil Bechara. As the film began and I scrolled Twitter occasionally while watching it, I was slightly annoyed at what I felt was a sort of fetishization of his death — tweets about his T-shirt with the words “HELP” printed on it, screenshots of lines he speaks about life, and death. However, I couldn’t put a finger on the root of my discomfort.
Till Dil Bechara ended that is. My mother — still shaking her head about the loss of a young man with a bright smile — concluded, who can really tell what’s going on behind a smile, so what it’s as elevating, and infectious as Rajput’s on screen.
A few days ago, a friend my mother had known since school had told her, how nearly thirty years ago — when both of them were new mothers — she had spent nights in the bathroom of her house, holding a sharp new blade to her left wrist, desperate to end it all. “End what?” my mother had asked, stunned. “Everything,” she told my mother, adding she couldn’t still articulate why. However, the conversation and misgivings around Rajput’s death, had often made her shudder at her past in the past weeks. And made her want her want to talk about it, thirty years later. So they talked.
The brief, brutal conversation before we called it a day, helped me unpack some of my angst at the social media manifestations of the experience of watching Rajput’s film after his death — it felt like this was happening to someone you knew. Someone you struggled to distance yourself from despite knowing nothing about his life. Except a few people who turned Rajput’s death into some sort of a mud-slinging circus, or just another excuse to threaten women with death and rape, Rajput’s tragedy felt close to home because he felt close to home. That’s a quality he brought to almost all of the handful of movies he did in the past seven years. It’s also a quality that drags Chhabra’s Dil Bechara up from completely sinking into synthetic melodrama.
THE PLU ‘HERO’
I’ve never come very close to fangirling over Bollywood heroes — the sticking posters, and screaming names in the theatre type of fangirling. But as a child, I loved reading about Shah Rukh Khan. Especially how Pujo editions of Bengali magazines, with rich, almost cinematic drama, recollected Khan’s journey from an ordinary boy with big dreams from Delhi to Bombay and stardom. Don’t remember where I read it, or if it is true at all, but my favourite anecdote about Khan even today was how he once slept on a bench in Bombay, clutching a camera to his chest when he first came to the city. A part of SRK’s lore is rooted in this almost filmi story of a nobody from nowhere being cherished and celebrated by millions — it’s also this Shah Rukh Khan, fans like us often fall back upon while watching his films, or reading about his life.
Rajput’s story, in the collective consciousness of people like us, follows a similar trajectory of someone like us making it big in Bollywood. Manny — the character Singh plays in Dil Bechara — is a cancer survivor who has lost one leg to bone cancer. However, he tries to live every day, and is a foil to the character of Kizie (played by Sanjana Sanghi) who is often consumed by the unfairness of living with thyroid cancer. Sushant brings to his character his trademark vulnerability, that I have spoken about in an earlier piece.
It especially shines in one scene where he is attending a cancer support group. Manny is disruptive, almost theatrically flamboyant among a group of mostly quiet youngsters. Which is when the doctor asks if there is anything that he is scared of: Manny smiles widely in defiance, shakes his head and says ‘no’. Only, you can tell Manny is scared.
Rajput’s primary job in Dil Bechara is that of a traditional Bollywood hero — to ‘save’ the girl from the weight of her own disappointment with life. But as is typical of Rajput, he doesn’t do it with the flourish of a typical macho Bollywood man, but with the tenderness of a man fighting his own fears and hiding it under humour and false bravado.
In the later half of the film, when Manny’s cancer relapses, Singh perhaps had the most difficult part of the role to grapple with. Manny is a young man torn between the fear of losing his life, his courage and motivation running out fast, yet, trying to cling on to the core of his existence ― an urge to live a full life, however short it is. Rajput’s vulnerability, unfortunately, is difficult to divorce from the knowledge of his death for a viewer and therefore, is all consuming.
Dil Bechara is one of those films where Rajput plays a ‘rich’ guy — a Bollywood stereotype populated by men zipping around in expensive cars, flexing their bronzed muscles and holidaying on yachts. Yet, in Jamshedpur, a ‘rich’ Manny is not buried under the superfluity of Bollywood’s preferred definition of a ‘hero’. Even in Paris, Manny is a wide-eyed tourist, not a jaded ‘traveller’ with a been there-done that air about his personality.
In fact, in his best films, Sushant Singh Rajput mostly played a middle-class or working class man. Beginning with Kai Po Che, his debut film where he played Ishaan, a district-level cricketer to Shuddh Desi Romance where he played a small-town tour guide, Rajput slipped into the character of an awkward, yet ambitious man with a confidence of having lived a similar life. In Dhoni and Chicchhore, Rajput is at his best when he plays an unassuming small-town guy devoid of affectations or machismo.
NOT OVERSHADOWING THE WOMEN CO-STARS
Except for Dhoni and Byomkesh Bakshi, where his female co-stars did not have much to do, most of Rajput’s films had strong women lead characters. In Shuddh Desi Romance, Parineeti Chopra and Vaani Kapoor have significant well-written roles, Chopra character at times exceeding the screen space and time Rajput took.
The way Bollywood films are still written, a ‘romance’ must have a man who is larger than life. But in the ‘romances’ that Rajput starred in, the women weren’t props made to dance around him.
In Kedarnath, Mukku played by Sarah Ali Khan, was a feisty character who chose to pursue Mansoor, a porter played by Khan. In the interactions between Khan and Rajput, the latter is the shy, awkward, slightly unsure young man, smitten by a headstrong woman. In Shuddh Desi Romance as well, the women — Gayatri and Tara — are not pretty nobodies, they are women with ambitions and convictions and Raghu (played by Sushant), is taken in by their zest for life. Rajput, as a hero, didn’t seem uncomfortable playing a non-macho, almost docile, flawed man opposite a flamboyant woman. In Sonchiriya, Rajput, again plays a man who is trying to save a woman Indu (played by a brilliant Bhumi Pednekar), but he doesn’t bathe his character in toxic ‘heroism’. He comes across as a human looking out for another. In Chhichhore, some of my favourite scenes involved a tongue-tied Rajput trying to strike a conversation with Shraddha Kapoor, but freezing when she is in front of him. They are comical and affable.
In Dil Bechara, which is Sanjana Sanghi’s debut film, Rajput and Sanghi share equal screen space. Though the narration indicates the story is focused on Rajput’s conflicted, exuberant Manny, Rajput doesn’t engulf the scene with annoying machismo typical of male leads. Though his character is written, what in millennial language is called as an ‘extra’ of sorts, Rajput keeps Manny bungling, and funny, not cocky.
If there was ever to be an expression called ‘hero-next-door’, Dil Bechara proves Rajput would be the poster-boy for it.