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Home >Mint-lounge >Features >How Sushant Singh Rajput became M.S. Dhoni

Sushant Singh Rajput has had only four releases until now, but it feels like he has been around longer. It could be because he was a TV soap and dance reality show star before he became a film star. Or it could be his careful selection of films, playing characters with heft. Rajput, who made a successful transition from TV to film with Kai Po Che(2013), followed up with Shuddh Desi Romance (2013), PK (2014) and Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!(2015).

MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, his latest film, is a biopic of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the Indian cricket captain. In an interview before the film’s release, the 30-year-old actor speaks about internalizing Dhoni’s attitude and learning his shots, playing four versions of him and how a song defines every character he plays. Edited excerpts:

You’ve said that you approach the characters you play by first finding out what you have in common with them. Did you manage to do that with ‘MS Dhoni’?

I will give you an example. When I was young, I was supposed to study in the afternoon, and 4-5.30pm was playtime. The entire day would revolve around that time. We would play anything—kabaddi, cricket. Those one and half hours would feel like 5 minutes.

Both Dhoni and I pursued our 4pm-5.30pm lives. I felt an identification with him. I too grew up in a small city (Patna), so I know what that accent sounds like.

Also read | Film review: M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story

How did you begin the process of becoming Dhoni?

Before I started working on cricketing skills, I watched him for hours and hours. My intention was to pick up things, and not have to think about them while shooting—small things, mannerisms, the way he talks. You need to practise these so much that they get wired into you.

These things were in place even before we started working on the film. It’s like just listening for the first three years after you are born, and then, suddenly, one day you start speaking. Or being able to ride a bicycle, look back and nobody is holding.

You also got a chance to spend time with him. What questions did you have for him?

We had three sets of meetings during 12 months of prep. In our first meeting, I just asked him to narrate his story. In the second, I came up with 250 hypothetical multiple-choice questions for him. Since we already have a definition of ourselves in our head, when we answer normal questions, it comes from that. But when you do it on the basis of instinct, it’s a different story. In the third set of meetings, I asked him specific questions about script, things like “What were you thinking in that moment?", just to be sure that I was going in the right direction.

Was he ever uncomfortable during the conversations?

No. Since the day he said yes to this biopic, there was no pretence, just complete honesty. Neeraj (Pandey) and I were separately asking him questions.

The fact that Dhoni’s company is a producer has led some to assume that the film will be a hagiography.

He didn’t tell us what to make. He was just answering questions. The only thing he wanted to do was to listen to the script once. He never came to the sets. There are points in the film where we aren’t telling you what to think. It is up to you to decide if he is right or wrong. We haven’t diluted those things. I won’t claim we have shown everything that happened in his life till the 2011 World Cup, but whatever we have shown is true.

Dhoni’s calmness on the cricket field is legendary. You seem to be more expressive in the trailers.

The calmness you are talking about is there. The parts shown in the trailers are during his Ranji phase. He learnt a few things there and became calmer. In the film, you’ll see a few traits disappearing and others coming in. I play him from age 16-30, so you will see three or four different Dhonis.

How did you go about learning how to play like Dhoni?

I trained for 13 months with Kiran More (former India wicketkeeper) and a video analyst. The analyst would break down his shots into frames, explaining the transfer of weight and bat angle. We’d analyse, say, a helicopter shot in six frames, and then I’d try to do it. He would fix the bowling machine at one point and I would play the shot 300 times every day till the time we got it right.

You’ve said that your history as a dancer helps you bring rhythm to your performances.

I have songs that define characters from each film of mine. It can be a song from that particular film, or something that just goes with the wavelength of the film; you listen to it and it gives you that rhythm. I can’t articulate how it helps, but it somehow gives you an understanding of the character. That’s the first thing I do to get into character. For Byomkesh, there was Orbital, by Dualist Inquiry. And for Kai Po Che, it was Iktara from Wake Up Sid.

A few years ago, Shekhar Kapoor announced that he was making ‘Paani’ with you in the lead. Has the film been shelved?

Yes. We spent eight months on the film. Probably because one party was putting its money into it and the other was putting in passion. You can’t make two films at the same time. But if Shekhar ever makes it, he has promised that the first person he is going to approach is me.

You’ve signed five films after ‘MS Dhoni’. That’s quite a lot compared to your normal workload.

I always had these many films, but there was always some production house backing out. I was offered 10-12 films during the time that we were working on Paani. After ‘S Dhoni’ is Raabta and Homi Adajania’s Takadum, which is based on a fictional work. I have been watching a lot of documentaries on different rock stars and musicians to prepare for it.

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A still from ‘Lagaan’, one of the very few worthwhile films on cricket
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A still from ‘Lagaan’, one of the very few worthwhile films on cricket

Sticky wickets

Cricket on the big screen has mostly been mediocre

Awwal Number, 1990

Watching Dev Anand’s Awwal Number is enough to turn anyone off both cricket and movies forever. The sporting bits are bad enough, but even worse is the inane musical number Yeh Hai Cricket, the chorus of which has shouted interjections of “LBW!" and “Century!"

Victory, 2009

Victory is one of those tiresome cricket films in which every shot played is broken down into: “Close-up of batsman’s eyes. Cut. Wide shot of bowler running in. Cut. Batsman plays stroke. Cut. Ball beats diving fielder, crosses boundary. Cut to crowd." No amount of cutting can make Harman Baweja a convincing actor. When he’s shown depositing Harbhajan Singh into the stands, Bhajji looks genuinely disgusted.

Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, 1994

This obviously isn’t a sports movie, but no film ever did more damage to visor hats, Indian Spitzes and cricket in one fell swoop. The cricket match staged in the backyard is a monument to bad taste, whether it’s Tuffy the dog as umpire or the hats worn by players and spectators that read “boy" and “girl".

Azhar, 2016

By releasing earlier this year and generally being terrible, Azhar has done M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story a huge favour; it’ll almost be impossible to make a worse cricket biopic than this in 2016. Tacky and fawning, this is hagiography at its most shameless, and a warning for biopics in which the subject is invited to dictate the content.

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