When artists are with us, we try to locate ourselves in their art. They become about us, and the versions of us we have lost and found. They become both our escape and our reckoning. We bestow upon them the responsibility to elevate and disappoint us. We place upon them the burden of teaching us that there is more to life than just living. But when artists leave us, we try to understand them through their art. We try to tell the world that it was always about them and never about us. We lose our mediums but gain grief. It's invariably too late. It's often too futile.
On Sunday, June 14, 2020, 34-year-old Sushant Singh Rajput died of suicide. And so, many of us turned to his art – acting – to understand him better. We poured over his career in television and films. We scanned through his interviews for meaning. We identified scenes of foreboding. We mourned the loss of promise. We searched, discovered, acknowledged things. I, too, looked for the person in the legacy.
I can tell you what I knew. I can tell you that Sushant Singh Rajput showed great resilience, making it in a ruthless industry as a rank outsider. I can tell you that I didn't know his name when an aunt in 2009 marked him out as a television star too talented to be confined by the small screen. I can tell you that he was famous even before he chose to be interesting. I can tell you that no young Hindi film actor started with five titles as intriguing as they were versatile: Abhishek Kapoor's Kai Po Che!, Maneesh Sharma's Shuddh Desi Romance, Rajkumar Hirani's PK, Dibakar Bannerjee's Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! and Neeraj Pandey's MS Dhoni: The Untold Story. I can tell you that the best in the business worked with him. I can tell you that I dwelled on his blips (Raabta, Kedarnath, Drive) more than his risks. I can tell you that I thought of him only during "undecided" debates rather than "the best in India" debates; for me he was treading the uncomfortable ground between actor and star.
I can tell you that 2019 – a year in which his credits included the finest Hindi film of the year as well as the most successful – felt like a new beginning. I can tell you that his most satisfying turns came in movies where he blended in as a tragedy by standing out as a beacon: He symbolized the future in Kai Po Che! and redemption in Sonchiriya. I can tell you that I now find it unnerving that one of his final characters was a father who narrates the essence of hope to a suicidal son. I can tell you that I was still waiting for that one definitive performance.
I can tell you a lot. But I couldn't tell you anything when Sushant Singh Rajput was around. That would have meant looking for him instead of looking at him. It would have meant looking away from myself. After all, we rarely pause to think about a film while it's still in progress. When moving pictures flash on the big screen, their sounds – of joy, anguish, indifference, love – fall upon our ears a split second after the light. We hear after we see. But in some cases, as today, the echoes are likely to endure long after the light is extinguished.
Yet, cinema isn't always the answer. I chanced upon Sushant Singh Rajput's Instagram feed sometime last year. The first thing that struck me was how different it looked from what we've come to expect of Bollywood stars. It resembled a visual diary of thoughts. It featured several photographs of celestial bodies – the moon, the planets, the stars, the entire solar system. It featured quotes and ponderings about space, time, energy, divinity, science and the great beyond. It featured memories and lyrical words. It featured images, not image management. One of the posts shows him coding computer games; another reveals a golden sunset lining the clouds from the cockpit of the plane he is flying. He flew. He looked up. He looked within.
It's pointless to psychoanalyze public figures from social media patterns. But at times, one tends to hear the mind behind the spotlight. Put together, his feed plays out like an eye-catching stream of consciousness. There was, is, a depth to it that no amount of storytelling can capture. And contain. It features a sense of inquisitiveness and restlessness and philosophy and learning. It features more questions than answers. It features so much to do with such little time. It features, in many ways, the spirit of a creator. The ten movies he did might, at this moment, feel small in comparison to the moments he created. They might have only made us look up and wonder what lay beyond. Maybe it's no coincidence that the terms "Kai Po Che" and "Sonchiriya" allude to the skies: One's a kite-flying phrase, the other's a bird.
It's too late now. But I can tell you that perhaps Sushant Singh Rajput is the rare artist who, when he was with us, urged us to locate ourselves in his life. Its highs and lows, its dreams and desires. Because all things considered, living was his art. And life, his definitive performance.