SSR: I first met Dhoni in 2006 or 2007 and I showed him the selfie I had taken with him. He is not much of a talker and neither am I. He was sitting and playing games and every 10 minutes I would say something but the conversation would end in 30 seconds.
I met him three times in that one year of preparation, whenever he was free between cricket series. During our first meeting, I asked him to tell me what he likes and dislikes. He talked and I listened. During our second meeting, I asked him questions from an actor’s perspective, like, the things that define him as a person and his personality, like his beliefs, his fears and his take on religion etc.
I came up with 250 multiple-choice, hypothetical questions. He was not allowed to think and his answers had to be instinctive. This gave me an idea of what he was like on the inside. The third meeting happened before the shoot started. On that occasion, I asked him very precise questions, like, what went through his mind during the various points in his life mentioned in the script.
For example, ‘In final World Cup 2007 match, you gave the ball to Jogendar Sharma. What were you thinking?’ Everybody knows what happened but only he knew exactly what happened. It was due to research like this, on the first day of the shoot, in my head, I was Dhoni. I knew that if I did something that was not in the script, it would have to be something Dhoni would have done or said, not me. You need that kind of confidence while going about the scene. Sometimes, it works and sometimes it doesn’t but this is what we strive for.
BOI: What was the first day of the shoot like?
SSR: All the three scenes I did were from different parts of the film. I was talking on the phone with some of the characters, so there were no characters to bounce off. I have no idea what I was doing. First, I was talking to Santosh and then to Priyanka, and then I was talking to Mr Ganguly on the phone.
The first time I actually acted with all the actors was on the second day. This gave me confidence because I knew during the reading itself that Neeraj Pandey was so sure about what he wanted in the film that I could spontaneously improvise. I knew that if something was off, he would point it out. He did not say anything to me. He would walk up to me and say, ‘Isko dus paisa upar karo aur dus paisa niche karo, just dus paisa not pachas paisa.’ So I knew we were on the right track, from the very first day.
SSR: I genuinely like what I do and I cannot sleep because of the excitement. The second thing is I was asked to play cricket. We are all fond of this sport but I never had the ability. My second sister was a professional cricketer. She used to bowl at me and I used to always get out. Also, I tried to get into my school team but was not selected.
Here, when I was given Mahi’s cricket kit, it was an Indian captain’s kit, Spartan bag, and Kiran More came to train me. I was being trained at the MCA, where all the Ranji and Indian players play. But it was ten months of slogging, all my fingers were broken, my ribs were fractured and my thigh was black and blue. During those ten months, I played six hours of cricket every day.
BOI: Apart from playing cricket, it’s also about getting the body language right. You have had to change from being a Ranchi boy, to landing your first job, to suddenly playing Dhoni as a cricketer. Can you comment on that?
SSR: So I tried this thing for the first time. Obviously, as sir was saying, it was a fixed visual reference, like these are the things you need to tick. The way he speaks, his body language, the way he plays cricket… I had to check all those boxes. I decided very early in my preparation that this time let me not think of all these insinuations. During the scene when I am there and I suddenly think that let me do this because people will like it and Dhoni does this, I consciously said I should not be doing all these things. I should be alive in the scene talking to somebody.
So I was thinking how do we pick up a language or any kind of skill? You get interested and do it for a period of time and one day you suddenly realise that you are speaking a new language or riding a bicycle and, you look back and realise that there is nobody behind!
Before I used a pen to write a character sketch or a bat to start playing cricket, I watched videos of him for hours and hours on YouTube, replaying the same videos again and again. Then I heard six hours of his interviews on audio tape. I just watched and listened to him again and again. I kept at it till people began to tell me that there were similarities, and I was, like, ‘Yes, this is working!’
BOI: So you lived Dhoni…
SSR: As I said before, during the very first shot, in my head I was 100-per cent Dhoni. I didn’t have to watch a video of him again or listen to another interview or go back to the script. I was so sure that this was what he would do.
SSR: Yes I do. But it happens with all the characters I do. It happened with Ishaan and Byomkesh too except that this time, it’s slightly more intense as I watch him on TV now.
BOI: What did Dhoni tell you when he watched the film?
SSR: During the preparations itself, I was, like, okay let me show him the cricket videos, my training videos. He just looked at them and he isn’t expressive. He doesn’t say things just to make you feel good. Then he smiled and said, ‘This is like magic because I don’t think I am there, so who is he?’ That was a big thing. After watching the film, he was quiet for a good 20 to 30 minutes. He was completely moved by it and that says a lot.
The other guy who doesn’t mince words and is so upfront that you feel scared to ask for feedback is Neeraj Pandey. During the entire shooting of the film, he never once said ‘good shot’. His attitude was, ‘I hired you as an actor and I assume that you are a good actor. So there is no point in me telling you that you are good because you are supposed to be good.’ For him, ’okay’ means ‘superb’.
After the film was done, he said, ‘Let me give you my word, if you continue to have this passion, you will survive in this industry as long as you want to.’ That was a big thing for me.
BOI: Sushant, you’re being modest. Sure, you had Dhoni, cricket and everything else. But Azhar released only a few months ago. That film too was a biopic on a famous Indian cricket team captain but it didn’t do well. So you had all the reasons but at the end the film delivered?
SSR: Yes, that’s exactly what I was saying. I read the script and I have this knack of judging scripts. So I knew the script, I knew Neeraj Pandey was going to direct it, I knew that M S Dhoni was still the Indian captain. And you could see the graph starting from Ranchi, going to Kharagpur and him becoming a ticket collector, watching the World Cup match in 2003 in a small room, and then winning the World Cup in the next four years. It’s a big story and he is still playing and is hugely popular.