Why promoting Sushant Singh Rajput's 'Dil Bechara' is a bittersweet experience for director Mukesh Chhabra

Dil Bechara, Sushant Singh rajput, Mukesh Chhabra, Sanjana, Disney, UAE, Bollywood, film, OTT, suicide, depression

The actor's last release is out this Friday

By Anamika Chatterji

Published: Tue 21 Jul 2020, 6:17 PM

Last updated: Wed 22 Jul 2020, 7:46 PM

The prospect of promoting one's directorial debut should be a joyous occasion. Today, as casting director Mukesh Chhabra sets out to do the same for Dil Bechara, an adaptation of the bestselling novel and Hollywood blockbuster The Fault In Our Stars, he finds himself dealing with the contrasting emotions of happiness and a sense of loss, following his lead actor and friend Sushant Singh Rajput's tragic death.
Known to be cheerful and jovial himself, Chhabra is measured in his responses as he speaks to City Times from Mumbai, partly in an effort to not pander to conspiracy theorists and trolls on social media, and partly to let the focus be on the film. Dil Bechara is set to release on July 24 on Disney + Hotstar. He speaks about the moments on the sets with Sushant Singh Rajput that will now become memories of a lifetime. Excerpts from the interview:
Sushant Singh Rajput, apart from being your lead actor, was also a friend. How does it feel to promote the film in his absence?
I seriously don't know because it's very difficult to process the feelings. When you start a film, especially your first film, you want to promote it with the team. Today, Sushant is not there. When I see people showering their love on the trailer, I don't know how to react. I am quite jolly, but when I speak to people about the film, I am still trying to figure out what frame of mind I am in. It's my first film as a director and ideally, I should have been jumping around. On the other hand, it's also a big loss. So, it's all bittersweet. When I reached out to Sushant (after Fox Star approached me in 2018), he agreed to do the film without even reading the script. He showed immense love and trust, and it's hard to come to terms with the fact that he is not there today.

You have launched many actors. What about Sushant Singh Rajput stood out when you first met him?
Shobha Sant introduced me to him. At that time, I wasn't casting for Kai Po Che. I met him how I'd meet so many others. We exchanged pleasantries. Then a few days later, I saw him again somewhere, and this time, told him that I was looking to cast three young boys for a film and asked him to come for a screen test. He was so good and charming in those auditions. I felt I should invest in him and spent more time with him during the auditions. Later, after I shortlisted Amit Sadh, Rajkummar Rao and Sushant, we re-auditioned them. Sheer magic happened when they performed together.
How did you discover Sanjana Sanghi?
I was working on Imtiaz Ali's Rockstar and was looking for a young girl to be cast as Nargis Fakhri's younger sister. I went to Delhi's Modern School on Barakhamba Road. Through my theatre contacts, I had managed to spread the word that I was looking for a younger actress. She was an active 13-year-old girl then, and didn't really want to act. I spoke to her mother and sent a brief audition clip to Imtiaz. She got cast in the film. Her face is fragile and vulnerable, which is apt for the role she has in Dil Bechara.
What about the subject of Dil Bechara appealed to you?
I have not seen the original film. I am a hardcore Bollywood buff and have been a casting director for those films. When I read the script, I realised it was a simple, emotional love story. I could really connect to it.
When I was an assistant director, I had been involved in the casting. During those days, I was learning even though I was only handling one aspect of a film. I began enjoying the process of conducting workshops with actors. While auditioning, I would screen the actors and in a way, was directing them before even the directors started the process. That's how an interest began to develop.
You once said that it's important to maintain relationships in Bollywood. Isn't talent enough?
If your work is good, you will keep building relationships. The day you stop working, your relationships will go away. You have to keep working hard to sustain these relationships.

What were some of your own challenges once you decided you want to direct a film?
When you're casting, the director guides you about what they want because you're only helping them in their vision. When you're directing a film, everyone is looking at you for validation. Every department is asking for your take on things. It was difficult to get everyone on the same page; you're no longer restricted to just one department. So, you have to find your own voice. It is an interesting and creatively challenging process.
What are the things you had to unlearn and relearn after moving to Mumbai from Delhi?
What I realised upon coming here is that one tends to become over-sensitive and over-possessive because you're constantly dealing with people's insecurities and various range of emotions. Imagine leaving a relatively secure middle-class family, where your monthly salary is assured, to come to this industry and starting from the scratch. It's a very different world.
Sushant's untimely death has meant that people are looking forward to Dil Bechara as a last remembrance of sorts. Do you feel the pressure?
Yes, there is a lot of pressure. The amount of love the film's trailer has been receiving has been overwhelming.
What was the impression you had of Sushant when you worked?
We spent years together on the sets. Because Dil Bechara has been such an emotional ride and we were so invested in the film, we would often take a break to unwind. We would play cricket, eat together, go out often. We had a bike, and would drive around.
You last spoke to Sushant on your birthday on May 27...
It was a good, memorable phone call. He sounded absolutely normal. We often celebrated each other's birthdays. Even if he was out of town he'd make it a point to wish me.

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