Sushant Singh Rajput is on our television screen, biting his lip, gulping and looking nervous. Off screen, my mother and I are deeply debating why he was put in that outfit — it’s a sheer blue figure hugging shirt with a heavily sequinned neckline — wondering if it made him difficult to stretch his arms. The year is 2010, and we are watching the opening episode of a season of Jhalak Dikhlaa Jaa, a dance reality show Rajput features in.
Judge Remo D’Souza had just complained that Rajput’s arms movements needed some work to actually look like that of a jazz dancer. “It is that top,” my mother concluded, shaking her head vehemently. “It does look a little tight,” I concur, though deep in my heart I know, the logic doesn’t hold.
Rajput gets a mix of 6 (out of 10) and 7 from the judges Remo D’Souza, Madhuri Dixit and Malaika Arora. He smiles and says he will work harder. We, however, are not okay… no sir! “Six, that’s not even remotely fair. He danced so well, did not miss a step. All of these shows are manipulated, won’t watch it only,” my mother said, enraged at the ‘average marks’ Rajput got.
But we continue watching Jhalak Dikhla Jaa, through its overwrought melodrama, its scripted heartbreaks, plastic smiles, annoying drum rolls to suggest suspense. We want Sushant Singh Rajput to win.
Rajput, long before he became a quirky, poetry-quoting phenomenon on social media, and a Bollywood actor, he made a splash into acting with a television serial. It was 2009, and though it was slightly embarrassing to admit, I was hooked to the multiple jump-cuts, melodramatic Pavitra Rishta. Manav, played by Rajput, lives in a chawl in Mumbai and is in love with Archana, who lives in the same chawl. Pavitra Rishta went through all the ‘together and then not and back together’ twists and turns of K-serials and I watched it with my mother with hungry fascination. We were team ‘Manav must get the girl’.
“It was 2009, and though it was slightly embarrassing to admit, I was hooked to the multiple jump-cuts, melodramatic Pavitra Rishta.”
When I look back, Rajput in 2009 was not a great actor, but a confident one. But what hooked us, was a vulnerability which shone in his personality. As women watching popular media, unknowingly even, toxic masculinity tires us. Rajput’s Manav in the early days — always somehow on the brink of failing and embracing that failure — was a welcome change.
I barely remember Pavitra Rishta, but I remember coming back from work at a news organisation, dumping my bag and with it my carefully built ‘taste’ in popular culture and catching up on ‘Manav ki korlo (what did Manav do)’ from my mother, as I toyed with my dinner. Rajput, is his own, sweet — in want of a better word — way, wanted to make you root for him. As a person who has grown up feeding on popular Hindi cinema, and sometimes, unfortunately, its unhealthy stereotypes, a ‘hero’ was a person you wanted to root for. And Sushant Singh Rajput’s television stint in a melodramatic, occasionally even absurd TV show, made me want to root for him.
So when Jhalak Dikhlaa Jaa roped in Sushant Singh Rajput and his then partner Ankita Lokhande as a casting coup, we know who we would be rooting for.
People who have survived on popular culture like I did — my father was a music salesman and my grandfather sang satirical parodies of popular Hindi songs for a living — the relationship with cinema is unnervingly consuming. You want to believe the stars you love ‘are just like us’, but only successful and shinier and cooler. Rajput scored high on the ‘just like us’ meter.
“You want to believe the stars you love, ‘are just like us’, but only successful and shinier and cooler. Rajput scored high on the ‘just like us’ meter.”
In that opening episode of Jhalak Dikhla Jaa, the AV introducing him shows him struggling to exercise, pinching a roll of fat on his stomach and pouting unhappily, then immediately breaking into laughter. “When you are a dancer, your ultimate dream is to wear a transparent shirt, dance and at the end of the performance, just take it off,” he said, dreamily. Anyone who has watched and loved Bollywood cannot miss the Shah Rukh Khan dreams in those words. And all of us, had had their own SRK dreams, didn’t we?
Rajput’s transformation into a Bollywood ‘hero’, fortunately, did not come with an obvious toxification of his personality. Throughout the films of his I liked the most, his characters had failed. At times ‘heroically’, but still, he was less of an all-biceps saviour of the woman and more of a person who could be flawed, who could be in awe of a woman or a man, a person who could fail. While a lot of that credit also rests on the directors and the writers of the films he acted in, the fact that he chose those films and made these characters endearing and completely engrossing was his talent.
I watched Shuddh Desi Romance on a first date, with a boy I really liked. As the film progressed, I watched in fascination how the personality Rajput brought on screen did not overwhelm the women he shared screen with. They were equals in a relationship, all sorts of goofy, flawed and screwed up equals. Yet he did all the motions of a Bollywood ‘hero’ ― lip synced to carefully choreographed songs, danced, spread his arms in air like he was some ‘star’, yet there was something achingly relatable about him. Like I said before, you wanted to root for him. Like I wanted to root for us.
In Kedarnath, a film I really liked despite all his flaws, Rajput’s quietness, and vulnerability was just the perfect foil to Sara Ali Khan’s exuberant character. He plays the typical sacrificial hero, but his acting was restrained, not straying into hyperboles and again, made you want him to win. “Just climb on to the helicopter dammit,” I muttered in my head, as floods engulfed him on screen. It was as dramatic as dramatic gets, but Rajput made it almost likable.
His ‘success’ story, written with opulent metaphors in tabloids, is one you gobble up breathlessly because somewhere, inside you — a younger, dreamier, rebellious you — it makes you happy that there was a guy who followed his dreams. While the older you even baulks at the cheesiness of phrases like ‘following dreams’, it makes you happy that it worked for someone. You were him at some fleeting moment of your fanciful youth maybe.
My brother, while we were watching Sonchiriya on a streaming platform, shook his head and grumbled, “Bollywood sucks. Why doesn’t this guy get more films, bigger films?” It’s not easy to get a random person who knows your on screen characters to be invested in your success, very few people manage to do so. Rajput was one of them. In a film that I always felt did not get its due, Rajput was breathtaking among a brilliant cast that comprised Manoj Bajpayee, Bhumi Pednekar, Ranvir Shorey and Ashustosh Rana. He was the young idealist, a ‘baaghi’, a man with a cause. I may have overused the word by now, but you ‘rooted’ for his fight. Let him win, we prayed as we watched the film in our Calcutta home.
He won. A lifetime of remembering. A lifetime of reaffirming our love for the cinemas.