'In my head, I was always MS Dhoni, never myself'
Riding high on the grand success of M.S. Dhoni – The Untold Story and with a ‘100-crore hit in his kitty, the leading man of the film, Sushant Singh Rajput, in conversation with Team Box Office India
BOI: Congratulations on crossing Rs.100 crore in collections. What was more satisfying – playing the character or grossing more than Rs 100 crore?
Playing the character, of course. Numbers never cross my mind while doing a film, while deciding whether I should or should not do a film, while prepping for it and shooting for it. Certainly, numbers are important as they give you a sense of how many people have watched the film and they also give the producer the courage to work with you again, even on a risky topic. When choosing a film, I am aware that I will be investing six to eight months of my life in it. You cannot be obsessed with numbers for eight months. Instead, you have to focus on the content and how you will go about the film. Numbers come to mind on, say, Tuesday, Wednesday or Friday, on releasing day, that’s it.
BOI: What was more important to you – playing the character of Dhoni or carrying the film on your shoulders?
Playing Dhoni. In 2004 or 2005, my first year in college, I bunked my semester exams to watch an India-Pakistan match. I suddenly saw this guy with long hair and a swagger and I learnt that he was from Ranchi. He hits 140-odd runs with such confidence that it was clear that he had nothing to lose. Usually, a guy from a small city would tread carefully so that he wouldn’t lose his position.
Then there was another incident in 2007, during an India-Pakistan match in Mohali. My brother-in-law is in the police force there, so after the match, I managed to get the chance to click a selfie with Dhoni. I followed his career for a good ten years but I still could not understand how he operated and how he used to think. I was fascinated by that and wanted to get hold of him. Knowing that Neeraj Pandey was directing the film, I just went for it.
BOI:With a biopic like Pan Singh Tomar, who no one knew, an actor is free to do anything but everyone is familiar with MS Dhoni, right from his hairstyle to his body language.
I think it was easy, in that respect. With Byomkesh… not many people had a reference for it. People may have had a vague notion about the movie, and that Rajit Kapoor acted in the TV series, but nothing more.
With Dhoni, people were familiar with how he speaks, how he plays cricket and his body language. It’s not that I didn’t take care of the details with Byomkesh… I did but people had no reference. Here, it was easier in the sense that if I matched all those elements, people would think I was Dhoni. I did the same thing I had done in my first three films. I convinced myself that I was the character and I did all kinds of research. So before the first shot, on the first day of the shoot, in your head you are the character.
This time, I had the advantage as I knew that that I had taken care of all these things. From the moment the audience steps into the cinema hall, they know I am not Dhoni but they are paying and saying ‘show us what you can do.’ In that way, it was easier than all the fictional characters I have done.
BOI:What was your first meeting with Dhoni like?
I first met Dhoni in 2006 or 2007 and I showed him the selfie I had taken with him. He is not much of a talker and neither am I. He was sitting and playing games and every 10 minutes I would say something but the conversation would end in 30 seconds.
I met him three times in that one year of preparation, whenever he was free between cricket series. During our first meeting, I asked him to tell me what he likes and dislikes. He talked and I listened. During our second meeting, I asked him questions from an actor’s perspective, like, the things that define him as a person and his personality, like his beliefs, his fears and his take on religion etc. I came up with 250 multiple-choice, hypothetical questions.
He was not allowed to think and his answers had to be instinctive. This gave me an idea of what he was like on the inside. The third meeting happened before the shoot started. On that occasion, I asked him very precise questions, like, what went through his mind during the various points in his life mentioned in the script.
For example, ‘In final World Cup 2007 match, you gave the ball to Jogendar Sharma. What were you thinking?’ Everybody knows what happened but only he knew exactly what happened. It was due to research like this, on the first day of the shoot, in my head, I was Dhoni. I knew that if I did something that was not in the script, it would have to be something Dhoni would have done or said, not me. You need that kind of confidence while going about the scene. Sometimes, it works and sometimes it doesn’t but this is what we strive for.
BOI: How physically demanding was the film for you?
I genuinely like what I do and I cannot sleep because of the excitement. The second thing is I was asked to play cricket. We are all fond of this sport but I never had the ability. My second sister was a professional cricketer. She used to bowl at me and I used to always get out. Also, I tried to get into my school team but was not selected.
Here, when I was given Mahi’s cricket kit, it was an Indian captain’s kit, Spartan bag, and Kiran More came to train me. I was being trained at the MCA, where all the Ranji and Indian players play. But it was ten months of slogging, all my fingers were broken, my ribs were fractured and my thigh was black and blue. During those ten months, I played six hours of cricket every day.
BOI: Apart from playing cricket, it’s also about getting the body language right. You have had to change from being a Ranchi boy, to landing your first job, to suddenly playing Dhoni as a cricketer. Can you comment on that?
So I tried this thing for the first time. Obviously, as sir was saying, it was a fixed visual reference, like these are the things you need to tick. The way he speaks, his body language, the way he plays cricket… I had to check all those boxes. I decided very early in my preparation that this time let me not think of all these insinuations. During the scene when I am there and I suddenly think that let me do this because people will like it and Dhoni does this, I consciously said I should not be doing all these things. I should be alive in the scene talking to somebody.
So I was thinking how do we pick up a language or any kind of skill? You get interested and do it for a period of time and one day you suddenly realise that you are speaking a new language or riding a bicycle and, you look back and realise that there is nobody behind!
Before I used a pen to write a character sketch or a bat to start playing cricket, I watched videos of him for hours and hours on YouTube, replaying the same videos again and again. Then I heard six hours of his interviews on audio tape. I just watched and listened to him again and again. I kept at it till people began to tell me that there were similarities, and I was, like, ‘Yes, this is working!’
BOI: Now do you miss not being Dhoni?
Yes I do. But it happens with all the characters I do. It happened with Ishaan and Byomkesh too except that this time, it’s slightly more intense as I watch him on TV now.
BOI:What did Dhoni tell you when he watched the film?
During the preparations itself, I was, like, okay let me show him the cricket videos, my training videos. He just looked at them and he isn’t expressive. He doesn’t say things just to make you feel good. Then he smiled and said, ‘This is like magic because I don’t think I am there, so who is he?’ That was a big thing.
After watching the film, he was quiet for a good 20 to 30 minutes. He was completely moved by it and that says a lot. The other guy who doesn’t mince words and is so upfront that you feel scared to ask for feedback is Neeraj Pandey. During the entire shooting of the film, he never once said ‘good shot’. His attitude was, ‘I hired you as an actor and I assume that you are a good actor.
So there is no point in me telling you that you are good because you are supposed to be good.’ For him, ‘okay’ means ‘superb’.
After the film was done, he said, ‘Let me give you my word, if you continue to have this passion, you will survive in this industry as long as you want to.’ That was a big thing for me.
BOI: Sushant, you’re being modest. Sure, you had Dhoni, cricket and everything else. But Azhar released only a few months ago. That film too was a biopic on a famous Indian cricket team captain but it didn’t do well. So you had all the reasons but at the end the film delivered?
Yes, that’s exactly what I was saying. I read the script and I have this knack of judging scripts. So I knew the script, I knew Neeraj Pandey was going to direct it, I knew that MS Dhoni was still the Indian captain. And you could see the graph starting from Ranchi, going to Kharagpur and him becoming a ticket collector, watching the World Cup match in 2003 in a small room, and then winning the World Cup in the next four years. It’s a big story and he is still playing and is hugely popular.: And also Sushant Singh Rajput playing Dhoni?
(Laughs) I did the same in Byomksh Bakshi! but nobody turned up. That’s exactly what I am saying. Let me be very honest, in all the films I have done, nobody has said ‘you have done a bad job’. So after watching the film, mazaa aaya nahi aaya is a different story but you have done what you were supposed to do. I know for a fact that if I am interested, I will slog, not to prove a point but because there is no other way to go.
I have mentioned this in many interviews, that when I was in school, I was asked to be an engineer, I knew that was the only way to go and it was not negotiable. I was allowed to go out and play from 4 pm to 5.30 pm. And when the time came, it felt like just five minutes. Today, I am living that 4–5.30 pm. I have no idea what date it is, I sleep for just three hours and I work for 12 hours.
BOI: Three years, five movies… what’s the journey been like?
Now that you put it like that, it doesn’t look very good and it seems like I should have done more films. Actually, make that four and a half, not five, because in PK, I was not there totally. Anyway, I have never stopped working. Some of those films were made while others weren’t.
BOI: Sushant, you are not from a film family, and in that sense, you’re an ‘outsider’. Do you feel like you’re part of the industry now?
No. I think it is now more evident than before that I am an outsider. But I don’t complain. There are many filmmakers who will work with you if you are passionate about your work.
If I am passionate about my work, if I am constantly looking for script, I will get hired again and again. So I have no problem with nepotism, being an outsider or an insider, because in the long run, I will get good work. Of course, when an outsider fails, their failure is magnified and when their film does well, it is talked about in hushed tones. So obviously there’s discrimination. But if you have skills and you’re passionate, you will survive, as Neeraj Pandey told me.
BOI: You have received positive reviews from the critics as well as from the audience. How has the industry reacted to your performance?
I have received many calls from several people and some are saying it because they just have to say it. But there are some who discussed scenes with me for 20-30 minutes, telling me which scene they liked most.
That’s when you know they mean it. So, yes, I got many surprise calls from many people, telling me they really enjoyed my performance. I haven’t received many tweets but, yes, personal calls and messages. Not many endorsements on public platforms. box office india