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A captain’s knock

twofold task: The challenge for Sushant Singh Rajput was to first act like a cricketer, and then like Mahendra Singh Dhoni himself. — photo: special arrangement

twofold task: The challenge for Sushant Singh Rajput was to first act like a cricketer, and then like Mahendra Singh Dhoni himself. — photo: special arrangement  

Actor Sushant Singh Rajput shares his behind-the-scenes journey and the challenges of stepping into cricketer M.S. Dhoni’s shoes

It’s impossible to discuss actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s performance in his latest film, M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, without drawing parallels to contemporary cricketing legend Mahendra Singh Dhoni (fondly known as Mahi) himself. And the actor is aware of that.

When Rajput met Dhoni for the first time, he was not just an actor researching his role, but also a starry-eyed fan. He let the cricketer do all the talking while he took down copious mental notes. Six months of practice later, the actor showed Dhoni a video of him practising cricket. A usually stoic Dhoni broke into a smile. “He said ‘It feels like magic’,” recalls Rajput. The 30-year-old heaved a sigh of relief, now sure that he could take on this task.

The former television star, who has acted in films like Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, Kai Po Che! and PK, says he has played 53 characters overall in his career across theatre, television and films. He counts Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013) as one of his favourite sports-centred movies to come out of Bollywood. Internationally, Rajput looks up to the 2013 biographical sports drama Rush, which tracks the rivalry between Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 1976 Formula One motor-racing season.

Stepping into character

Rajput has never felt the need to do such in-depth research for a role. The challenge in portraying Dhoni in the biopic was twofold for him. He had to first act like a cricketer, and then like Dhoni. Under the training of former wicketkeeper Kiran More, Rajput practised wicket-keeping and batting for four months. An analyst was then called onboard, who helped the actor break down a shot according to different frames, and more importantly — imitate the way Dhoni would do it. “In a couple of months, people started noticing similarities. That’s when I thought it was working,” says Rajput.

Once comfortable with Dhoni’s mannerisms, the mammoth task awaiting Rajput was to get the look right. The actor plays Mahi from the age of 15 to 30, when he led Team India to victory at the ICC Cricket World Cup. Throughout the filming process, Rajput’s weight gain and loss stretched to around 16 kg. At some point, he either lost weight to look like a teen, or gained some to play a 30-year-old team captain.

“Technology helped me shrink to look like a 15-year-old onscreen, but there’s only so much technology can do,” says Rajput, who also had to alter his voice as he grew older in the film.

After months of training, Rajput had internalised Dhoni’s every move. “Since I spent so much time practising and being him, I never had to do it consciously while filming,” says the actor, claiming to have never looked at the monitor while shooting. “Later, when I was dubbing, I saw myself and was impressed.”

Combating comparisons

But Rajput is aware that constant comparison with Dhoni is inevitable once the film hits the screen. Having a strong living visual reference left him with little room to be organic. “You’re trying to be spontaneous, but that spontaneity is not your spontaneity; [it’s] what he would do from your perspective.”

To play Dhoni compellingly, Rajput met the cricketer thrice before shooting. The actor recalls being stunned and completely silent during their first meet. “The second time, I was a bit more prepared, so I came with 50 multiple-choice questions that had nothing to do with the film. These were hypothetical questions.” Rajput says he noted down Dhoni’s reactions to these situations and used them to breathe life into his role.

Sports film or biopic?

Despite the film being a biopic on the current captain of the Indian limited-overs cricket team, Rajput refuses to call it a sports film. “It’s about Dhoni as a person,” says the Patna-born actor.

“With films like these,” he says, “events are set, so you can’t go too wrong”. But on the downside, with a biopic there is an added onus of lending your character the much-needed verisimilitude without going overboard, a task Rajput was extensively trained for. And he’s happy that he got the approval that mattered to him the most: that of M.S. Dhoni himself.

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 10:14:56 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/A-captain%E2%80%99s-knock/article14648536.ece

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