'You are not going to find success all the time and you will feel insecure when your film fails at the box office, but that's a part of the game.'
'You just deal with it and move on.'
'Maybe the problem was something else and not so much about his career.'
Sushant Singh Rajput's death on June 14, 2020, sent shock waves through Bollywood and shook everyone who knew him.
Why would a successful actor die by suicide, everyone wondered.
A year later, the question remains unanswered.
Abhishek Chaubey, who directed Sushant in the brilliant Sonchiriya, looks back at the actor he was once close to.
"I knew that he had a lot to deal with and there was a lot going on there. There was a lot beneath the surface, which was visible only to people who were very, very close to him. But I could not imagine the intensity or the depth of the problem at that time," Abhishek tells Rediff.com Contributor Sameena Razzaq.
You had a close friendship with Sushant during Sonchiriya.
I was quite close to him for about two years while he was filming Sonchiriya. After that, we kept in touch intermittently.
I had this exceptionally warm relationship with Sushant, not only as an actor, but he would also talk about other things.
He was an extremely inquiring, curious, mind.
He had achieved so much in little time and at a very young age. But you know, the problem I see in young people when they achieve success early in life, I did not see that in him.
What I felt about Sushant was that he was really looking for something else in life.
For most people finding material success and fame is the end goal, but that wasn't so for Sushant.
He was an extremely intelligent man and there was a child-like curiosity in him.
As it is known commonly now, he was really into science.
He would read a lot.
Were you intrigued by his interest in science?
He had studied engineering in college.
He was really fascinated with the cosmos.
He had a big telescope which he would look through quite obsessively. To make the effort of carrying that giant telescope all the way from Mumbai to the back and beyond of Chambal, where we were shooting, was quite an effort.
Luckily, we were staying at a lovely place in Dholpur which had a huge lawn, where he set up the telescope. I would see him observing stars and making notes.
The kind of books he would read! He was into serious s***!
Even I am curious about science a little but I read the popular science books.
He would read very, very, tough books.
They would not make any sense to me, it was very complicated stuff.
He would love to talk about them too.
In between shots, when you are sitting and taking a break, nobody really talks about this. They talk about whats happening on set, who's having an affair with whom and generally, fun talk.
But he would be excitedly talking about stuff you haven't even heard of.
He was supposed to do Chhichhore after Sonchiriya, so I told him that he would make an excellent engineering student in the film because that's who he really was.
Sushant was a risk-taker and that showed in the choices he made and the directors he worked with. Do you think that made him stand out in the crowd?
The tragic thing about his passing is not just the loss of a wonderful life, but it's also a loss to the industry.
We are losing stars who experimented.
Most actors, who achieve a star status in our industry, try to play it safe after protecting their position. Not messing with audience's expectations remains on top of their agenda.
That's why our stars do not take risks with the material they choose.
But Sushant would love to take risks.
Like I said, achieving a star status or fame or wealth was not his ultimate goal in life.
He was interested in working with new directors.
He was interested in working with concepts that were difficult to execute in commercial space.
He would love to work with Dibakar Banerjee or he would give me an opportunity to work with him.
He was a great dancer.
He wouldn't mind going out there and doing a love story or an action film but he would also want to balance it out by doing stuff that was contemporary and new.
Did you have him in mind while casting for Sonchiriya?
At the writing stage, he was one of our top choices because he was not fully integrated into the Bollywood system.
He was something of a... I wouldn't say 'outsider' but he was something unique, so that was very interesting about him.
He came from Patna although he lived a lot of his life in Delhi. But because of that, I could feel there was something desi about him.
How often would you guys discuss the roller coaster ride that Bollywood offers to small town actors guys and the dynasty politics?
We spoke about it every now and then.
I remember telling him that there are lot of dynasties in Bollywood, but nobody can steal your destiny from you.
If you manage to keep your head on your shoulders, then success will come if you are good enough.
The road is the same for a dynasty kid or for somebody who has come from a different background, just that it might be a little harder or it might take a little longer.
He understood it very well.
Sonchiriya released in 2019. While filming, did you feel that something was troubling him deep down?
No, not at all. People are always dealing with something or the other.
I knew that he had a lot to deal with and there was a lot going on there.
There was a lot beneath the surface, which was visible only to people who were very, verym=, close to him.
But I could not imagine the intensity or the depth of the problem at that time.
We had a lot of fun while making the film although it's a very hard film to make, but there was a very positive atmosphere on set. He was having fun too.
He was cheerful generally and he had a good bunch of people around him.
He made so many friends; he was very friendly with Ranvir Shorey and Bhumi Pednekar as well as some of my crew. He would hang out with one of the unit members and chill.
Film-makers and artistes are complex people. There is a lot going on, but I could not see that something bothering him.
Sonchiriya was not able to set the box office on fire though it received critical acclaim. How did Sushant take it?
He was sorely disappointed with the box office response to the film.
He was even more upset me because he had a lot of expectations from the film.
I remember he watched the film on the premiere night and he came and gave me probably one of the longest hugs of my life.
He was absolutely in love with the film.
After the film released, for the first few months, we lost touch with each other.
But I remember once, late at night, he sent me an emotional message, saying he will always think of Sonchiriya as one of his most precious films.
How would he approach a scene? Did you have to work hard on getting the best out of him or would he would effortlessly flow into it?
Even before we shot, we would spend a lot of time prepping for the film.
He gave me that time and space.
There were many things that had to be learnt for him to play Lakhna. Like, how to walk like a daku, how to hold a gun, how to speak like a daku...
He also spent a lot of time understanding this person, so it really started from understanding the history of Baaghis in Chambal then coming specifically to Lakhna.
I remember I wrote a six-seven-page history of Lakhna and sent it to him just to understand where he is coming from. None of that was in the film but he needed to know.
He was well prepared when he came to set.
I did not have to spend a lot of time with him trying to direct him, but yes, we would have discussions and chats.
Another thing is that Sonchiriya was an ensemble.
I noticed that Sushant was very careful. He knew that if his scene was with a stalwart like Manoj Bajpayee, he would have to raise his game to be in sync with this guy and he worked at it.
It was very easy working together, but the elements were against us.
We were shooting in very difficult conditions.
It was hot, but the nights would be extremely cold. The locations were very tough to reach.
But those difficulties just vanished when we were trying to do the scenes. He was completely on the ball.
Would he share his inputs?
Yes, all the time.
I would break the scene before we would shoot it and there would be a lot of exchange.
He would come up with suggestions and tell Ranvir, this is what I want to do, should I come from here...
He made a lot of contribution to his character and to the scene like any actor should.
Which scenes in Sonchiriya do you think brought out the best in him?
There were two or three scenes which were very difficult for him and I remember he was very edgy and nervous about how they would happen.
There is this scene after the character Natthi dies.
It's night time and they are walking and Lakhna has sort of a breakdown because it stops making sense to him... what they are doing and where this would lead.
Before the shot, Sushant was completely shaken.
He came out of the vanity van and talked to me about it.
He was very edgy and nervous about it but he pulled the scene extremely well.
There's another scene which was Manoj's scene in the beginning of the film, where Manoj comes and says that tomorrow, they would go to this village to loot. That was Sushant's first scene with Manoj.
I was also struggling about how Lakhna would behave with the character of Dadda, setting their equation right.
It is a scene where he is contradicting what Manoj's character is saying. He can sense that something is wrong... obviously, it is revealed much later in the film.
Dadda Maan Singh is supposed to be this undisputed leader. You don't question him, you just do what he says. So I was really confused about how he would play it and I told him so. Sushant thought about it and said let me do something and he did it bang on.
He got it perfectly right.
Any other anecdotes from the sets of Sonchiriya?
I remember the climax. We shot in extremely difficult conditions.
It was hot and dusty, plus a painfully, slow shoot.
We had about 40/50 fighters shooting at each other and every time a bullet went off, there was so much dust. We were literally eating dust!
It was in 44 degrees at 9 am.
Every shot was taking 45 minutes to set up.
What happens is when the pace of the shoot is very slow and the conditions are difficult, actors tend to get cranky.
We have the benefit of wearing big hats, but actors cannot as they are in make-up.
Still, Sushant was cheerful and joking and chilling on set. He was not sitting under a shade or under an umbrella.
When I would ask him, Sushant, are you ready, he would pick up some dust from the ground and throw it on his face and say, I am ready.
It's incredible to see actors who are very kind and do not throw tantrums.
He did a lot of good films, but he never got his due as an actor.
His films like Shuddh Desi Romance and Kedarnath were reasonable successes.
You are not going to find success all the time and you will feel insecure when your film fails at the box office, but that's a part of the game. You just deal with it and move on.
Maybe the problem was something else and not so much about his career.