First of Many: Sushant Singh revisits Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar
Sushant Singh plays characters in shades of gray with such conviction that her performance in films like Satya, Jungle and Kaun manages to give us chills even today. The leading actor, who has proven his versatility in films such as December 16, The Legend of Bhagat Singh, Matrubhoomi and Rakhta Charitra as well, has a solid body of work spanning nearly two decades.
From imitating Amitabh Bachchan’s “angry young man” to discovering his own feats, Sushant’s journey is worth counting. His experiences with the small screen were also remarkable, with Savdhaan India holding a bright spot.
Sushant has more recently started to select web projects. His A Simple Murder and Jeet Ki Zid received a lot of appreciation. The actor, who thinks it’s the right time for artists like him, continues to add impressive performances to his kitty.
Here’s how it started for him from the stage in the late 90s.
What was your first acting project? How did you come up with the project?
The first time I faced a camera was for Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. It was directed by Jabbar Patel. Although it came out much later. It must have been in 1997, and I was about 25 years old.
We belonged to the theater scene and hung out with Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani. This is how we learned that Jabbar Patel was doing Ambedkar and that he was hiring theater actors. He had his office in the Nehru center where we met him. He politely told me that they were doing a casting based on facial resemblance. And there was no character in his movie that would suit my face. He showed me how they had made the lawsuit with Mammootty, who looked like Ambedkar. I continued with my life and started to struggle again.
Then one day, I received a call from Mr. Jabbar who wanted to see me. I wondered if a miracle had happened because there was no role for me. They said there was only one character whose photo they couldn’t find. It was Asnodkar, Babasaheb Ambedkar’s roommate when he was studying in London. He said that since I wanted to be chosen, he could take me without feeling guilty. Jabbar Patel said I didn’t need an audition because he trusted me as an actor. This is how I landed the movie.
What memories do you have of your first day of filming?
The first day we were on set at 9 a.m. and shooting started at 4 p.m. due to some delay. It was a little scene that happened in one of the Versova bungalows. They had created a London setting there.
The scene had Ambedkar (Mammootty) and Asnodkar, both law students, living as paying guests in London. A foreigner was chosen for our landlady and I had to learn my lines in Marathi. Our first scene was an icebreaker scene about how Indians were treated there. Our second scene was discussing how things are going wrong in our country and Asnodkar telling Ambedkar to focus on his practice. I think we finished the scene in one day. As the facility was in London I thought they were going to take us there, but it was an indoor scene so they managed it here only, and I missed the opportunity to visit London ( laughs).
Were you nervous?
I’ve never been nervous about the camera or who my co-star is. I don’t know if it’s because of my training or because I’m a Jaat. The theater is a bit of a stretch as you always play for the person in the back row. But, my teacher Ebrahim Alkazi has always chosen realistic plays. It was in 1992. He had the vision that television is the medium of tomorrow where you will have extreme close-ups so as not to lie, your eyes will tell the truth. He said he’s training us for this. Therefore, I have never been afraid of the camera. For me, only Amitabh Bachchan is the star. Everyone is an actor. I was actually more nervous about saying lines in Marathi.
How was the relationship with your co-stars when you met them or worked with them again later?
I have been a shy and reserved person, which is often mistaken for arrogance. I don’t keep in touch with people professionally. Being a typical middle class person, I saw my dad as a public servant and how common sense they have to be. I never wanted to do this in my life. So once I’ve collaborated with a director, I don’t really call or meet him. I work and I move forward. The filmmakers have seen my game, so if they think I am a match for their project, they will contact me themselves. Therefore, I never got close to anyone.
I remember the ace cameraman Ashok Mehta who was working on the film. Everyone on the set called him ‘chachu’. Once, instead of waiting for the lightman to install the light, he quickly pulled up a stand and did it on his own. I always admire people who do things with their own hands. I showed him my theatrical album on set and he asked me to meet someone, I don’t know who, but it’s such a sweet memory.
If you had the chance to reprise your lead role, what would you like to change or improve?
I haven’t seen Ambedkar for a long time. But I have grown a lot of maturity as an actor since then. If I look at it today, I am sure that I will find flaws, and therefore I refrain from looking at it. When you are new you are not free because there is a great setup, a great director, a reel camera, so the footage counts. If you are not a single take actor memorizing your lines is the priority, then in the midst of it all, even if you are thinking about improvising, you don’t and just follow the directions. It hits you after you’ve given the blow that you could have done it better or done it a certain way. But at that point, you don’t have the courage to ask for a recovery. About 90 percent of the actors go through there. Today, with experience, I have more confidence to try a scene in different ways.
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A movie or a role that inspired you to become an actor?
I realized much later, that my father’s generation and I were so in love with the character of Vijay of Amitabh Bachchan, the angry young man. I was a walking Bachchan clone. But, I found the right teacher who made me unlearn all mimicry. I didn’t know what the dream role meant because I can’t improve on something an actor has already done. But one day I realized that Sunil Dutt’s character, Suraj in Mother India, was so borderline that he must have looked innocent, but a rebel turned dacoit. His death should seem justified to you and also make you cry. He was a very difficult character, and if given the opportunity, I would like to recreate him because it will be a challenge. Sunil Dutt did very well, and I think he was underrated.
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