tv & movies

First of Many: Sushant Singh revisits Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar

This week's First of Many features Sushant Singh. In the 90th edition of our series, the actor talks about his first acting project, film Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar (2000).

Sushant Singh plays characters with gray shades with such conviction that his performance in films like Satya, Jungle and Kaun manages to give us chills even to this day. The ace actor, who’s proved his versatility in movies including 16 December, The Legend of Bhagat Singh, Matrubhoomi and Rakhta Charitra too, has a solid body of work, spanning nearly two decades.

From imitating Amitabh Bachchan’s ‘angry young man’ to finding his own prowess, Sushant’s journey is worth reckoning. His experiments with the small screen were equally noteworthy, with Savdhaan India holding a bright spot.

Sushant has more recently started picking web projects. His A Simple Murder and Jeet Ki Zid have received much appraise. The actor, who feels it is a good time for artistes like him, continues to add impressive performances to his kitty.

Here’s how it started for him from the stage, way back in late 90s.

What was your first acting project? How did the project come to you?

The first time I faced a movie camera was for Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. It was directed by Jabbar Patel. Though it released much later. It must be 1997, and I was around 25.

We belonged to the theatre background and used to hang around Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani. That’s how we got to know that Jabbar Patel is making Ambedkar, and he’s casting actors from theatre. He had his office in Nehru Centre where we met him. He politely told me that they were casting based on facial resemblance. And there was no character in his film that would suit my face. He showed me how they had done trial with Mammootty, who looked like Ambedkar. I moved on with my life and went back to struggling.

Then one day, I got a call from Jabbar sir who wanted to see me. I wondered if any miracle happened as there was no role for me. They said there’s just one character whose photograph they weren’t able to find. That was Asnodkar, Babasaheb Ambedkar’s roommate when he was studying in London. He said since I was keen on getting cast, he can take me without feeling guilty. Jabbar Patel said I don’t need any audition as he trusts me as an actor. That’s how I landed the film.

What do you remember of your first day on set?

On the first day, we were on set at 9 am and shoot started at 4 pm due to some delay. It was a small scene and happened at one of the bungalows in Versova. They had created a London set there.

The scene had Ambedkar (Mammootty) and Asnodkar, both law students, living as paying guests in London. A foreigner was cast as our landlady and I had to learn my lines in Marathi. Our first scene was an ice-breaker scene about how Indians were treated there. Our second scene was us discussing how things are going wrong in our country and Asnodkar telling Ambedkar to concentrate on his practice. I think we finished the scene in one day. Since the setup was of London, I thought they’ll take us there, but it was an interior scene so they managed it here only, and I missed the chance for visiting 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. Theatre is bit exaggerated because you are always acting for the person sitting in the last row. But, my teacher Ebrahim Alkazi always picked plays that had realistic acting. This was in 1992. He had the vision that television is tomorrow’s medium where you’ll be having extreme close-ups so you cannot lie, your eyes will tell the truth. He said he’s training us for that. Hence, I was never nervous of camera. For me, only Amitabh Bachchan is the star. Everyone else is an actor. In fact, I was more nervous about speaking Marathi lines.

How was the rapport with your co-stars when you got to meet or work with them again later?

I’ve 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’ve seen my father as a government servant and how much yesmanship they need to do. I never wanted to do that in my life. So, once I’ve collaborated with a director, I don’t really call him or meet him. I work and move on. Filmmakers have seen my acting, so if they think I suit their project, they’ll get in touch on their own. Hence, I never got close to anyone.

I do remember 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 setup the light, he quickly pulled a stood and did that on his own. I always admire people who do things with their own hands. I showed him my theatre album on the set and he asked me to meet some person, I don’t remember who, but it’s such a sweet memory.

If given a chance to go back to your debut role, what would you like to change or do better?

I haven’t seen Ambedkar in a long time. But I’ve gained a lot of maturity as an actor since then. If I watch it today, I’m sure I’ll find faults, and hence I refrain from watching it. When you are new, you aren’t free, because there is a big setup, big director, reel camera so footage matters. If you aren’t a one take actor, memorising your lines is the priority, so amidst all this even if you think of improvisation, you don’t do it and just follow the instructions. It strikes you after you’ve given the shot that you could’ve done it better or done it in a certain way. But at that time, you don’t have the courage to ask for a retake. Around 90 per cent actors go through this. Today, with experience, I have more confidence to try a scene in different ways.

One film or role that inspired you to become an actor?

I realised it much later, that me and my father’s generation was so enamoured by the persona of Amitabh Bachchan’s Vijay, the angry young man. I was a walking-talking Bachchan clone. But, I found the right teacher who made me unlearn all the mimicry. I didn’t know what dream role means as I can’t better something an actor has already done. But one day, I realised Sunil Dutt’s character Suraj in Mother India was so on the edge where he had to look innocent, yet a rebel who became a dacoit. His death should look justified to you and also make you cry. It was a very difficult character, and if given a chance I’d like to recreate that because it’ll be challenging. Sunil Dutt pulled it off beautifully, and I think he was under appreciated.

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