Sushant Singh Rajput has been living, sleeping and waking up to the life of Captain Cool, MS Dhoni for the last couple of years. He quips, "If acting doesn’t happen next year, I could be a professional cricketer."
Was transforming yourself into someone who exists in real life tougher than any other fictional character you have portrayed till now?
Just like in every film, what we are supposed to do as actors is to convince ourselves that we are the characters that we are playing. When you do a fictional character, you don’t have a reference point. But while playing Dhoni, I had a reference point. Be it his playing style, mannerism, body language, diction. I had to make sure that I take care of that.
Very quickly I realised that I could be very good in the film as an actor or a cricketer, but I won’t be convincing if I don’t remind you of Dhoni. We took care of these things and worked hard towards understanding the guy and becoming him in the head.
Was that all? Come on, spill the beans.
It was not hard, because if you like what you do then your frame of reference is not hard work. People around would say that he is working so hard but this is what you chose and your interest lies in it. We have structured the preparation in three different ways.
First, we did a lot of readings with director Neeraj Pandey, knowing the intent of the film and the bottom line of each and every scene. Doing my research to get the facts right and then understanding what exactly we are punctuating in each and every scene, while talking about the man.
Second, we had to get the mannerisms right. From the way he plays to getting the diction right, I wanted to make sure that once the shoot begins, I shouldn’t be worrying about those things, as I should be alive in the scene, listening to my co-actors. I was not jotting down things, but would watch him (Dhoni) for hours. A few months down the line people started telling me that there is some resemblance between him and me. Then I thought to myself, ‘Yes I am going in the right direction.’
The third thing was that I had to learn a completely new skill — cricket. I had to convince myself that I was Dhoni and I need to remind you of his style on-screen. Kiran More, who is a former wicket keeper, was training me. The first four months was just learning cricket, so I had to look and feel like a cricketer. Then we moved to the Mumbai Cricket Association, where a team of analysts and physiotherapists were working together. The analyst would break down each and every shot in different frames, carefully etching out the shift of the balance, and we would play the same shot for three to four days.
You are a big fan of Dhoni, so on any level did it feel surreal playing him?
Yes, I am a big fan of his. From watching him play to now, where I can sit next to him to ask questions… more importantly, he answers all my questions! I mean, MS Dhoni is telling you how to hold a bat. It is surreal! There were things that I didn’t know and there were things that I knew, but didn’t understand why he is the way he is. Every time I was very surprised.
I feel, there are films that you do with great directors and great scripts, and you end up being a better actor in the process. But, there are very few films, which make you a better person and this is one of those.
While you are in awe of Dhoni, Pandey is not. Does that balance the narrative so that it remains unbiased?
Absolutely! It got difficult for me because I am his fan. If you are following him for 12 years and he is one of the people you look up to, then to convince yourself that you are him is all the more difficult. But it is always good to not get swayed by the personality. Even in the film, we don’t glorify anything, or hide anything. So that keeps your objectivity in place.
According to Pandey, Dhoni’s biggest strength is his mental strength. Were you inspired by his ability to absorb absolutely anything?
I became a better human being. He (Dhoni) is someone who is extremely patient and doesn’t take himself seriously. He is someone who lives in the present. These are the things, which completely surprise you. I felt these things for the first time and they will stay with me forever.
Do the rigorous demands of your profession get to you at times?
I remember when I was in school, I would be told to do my homework, and only then I could go out to play from 4 to 5:30 pm. Every day, I would just wait for the clock to strike four and that one and a half hours felt like 10 minutes. Today, I am living those one and a half hours. I don’t realise that I am working hard. In my opinion, I am having the time of my life.