Sushant Singh Rajput leafs restlessly through an issue of GQ. His Dil Bechara character doesn’t care for the magazine and neither may the filmmakers have paid much attention to the prop, but as he flips pages and drops the magazine dismissively, we see Tiger Shroff on the cover, airbrushed and silhouetted and to the industry born. The weeks following Rajput’s heartbreaking demise ignited a brutal insider-outsider debate about the film industry. It appears, therefore, fitting that in this finale, a star-kid is on the cover of a discarded magazine while Rajput plays a young man committed to stealing the spotlight on his own terms.

In this adaptation of John Green’s mawkish novel The Fault In Our Stars, Rajput plays a boy obsessed with Rajinikanth who wants to play hero in a home-made movie. Directed by casting ace Mukesh Chhabra the film stars Sanjana Sanghi — who Chhabra ‘discovered’ as a teenager and cast in Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar — as a reluctant, doomed heroine. Set in Jamshedpur, this film has little room for stars per se. One is mentioned in passing, but not by his own name (“David Dhawan ka beta”), and a stardom-inheriting Khan shows up in a thanklessly odd role.

Sanghi is lovely. Her Kizie Basu feels candid, fresh and sixteen-y. Her wide-eyed incredulity at Rajput’s filmi overtures feels special: she can’t believe anyone would actually say something as cheesy as “Chal, jhoothi,” repeating it to herself as she grins from behind respirator pipes, tickled pink by the unlikelihood of it all. Here she is, suffering from thyroid cancer and biding her time, and the chances not just of a suitor but of a studly, popular, excessively demonstrative suitor are too slim to count. Dare she dream?

Aided by a winsome AR Rahman soundtrack, this is a tearjerker aiming too overtly for our kerchiefs. While it hews closely to the source material about doomed young lovers, writers Shashank Khaitan and Suprotim Sengupta borrow also from films like Juliet, Naked and Me And Earl And The Dying Girl. We know this won’t end well. We know the filmmakers are trying too hard to make us hurt. And yet… Watching this actor give everything he has to this role — this often maudlin role — feels profoundly shattering. It hurts that we won’t see Rajput bring a new character to life again. 

Immanuel Rajkumar Junior is irrepressible, and Rajput plays him with a cockiness bordering on arrogance. We don’t get to see what draws “Manny” to this calm girl, but we see her presence soften him, this loud boy whose personality is built on overpowering gestures. Rajput commits to the part, but he may have outgrown it. Sanghi is so achingly naive and unschooled — so strikingly young — that this film could really have done with a littler boy. It is ironic that Chhabra, of all makers, picks a better known hero instead of a bright new bachcha. The fault in casting our stars.

Rajput quivers with a jumpy energy that makes it hard to look away. This isn’t his finest performance — playing a boy with a prosthetic leg, his limp has little consistency  — but he conjures moments that linger. In one scene where he shares a beer with the heroine’s father (a marvellous Saswata Chatterjee), Rajput calmly bares his heart, with minimal fuss. His best doesn’t need a flourish. 

The part demands overreach, and the actor ladles on the filmi charm generously to show us another side to himself as a performer, yet another ability. It’s haunting to watch Rajput playing Manny playing Rajinikanth — a boy so wilfully larger than life that he leaves it behind. 

Rajput lives. It’s not about a last film. It’s about films that last.

~

(Dil Bechara is streaming on Disney + Hotstar)

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