You could make a whole new movie from late Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s real-life story.
Everyone appears to be focused on his success in Bollywood as an outsider who didn’t have a godfather or a close relative to offer him a foot in the door. And while the tale of his struggles and ultimate success in the cutthroat Hindi film industry is a compelling chronicle, it has eclipsed a story about the late actor’s passion for astronomy.
For an industry hopelessly hung up on physical attributes, networking skills and box office appeal, Rajput’s somewhat incongruent love of space was an oddity, making him a bright light among giant stars, if you will.
As an amateur astronomer, he loved all things space. He frequently posted a slew of cosmic observations and images on his social media accounts.
He also shared, over time, his bucket list of 50 dreams. Attending another Nasa workshope was one of his 50 bucket list items (#19, to be precise), another was exploring the Andromeda galaxy through a powerful telescope (#30).
The avid stargazer got to train at Nasa to prepare for the role of an astronaut for a Bollywood Sci-Fi Chanda Mama Door Ke (a reference from a popular Hindi nursery rhyme cryptically alluding to the distant moon as an embodiment of the maternal uncle).
While the film about a fictional lunar mission was later shelved, that didn't stop Rajput from wanting to go back to Nasa and complete the certificate of instructor training, hoping, somewhat over-optimistically, to be picked for Nasa's upcoming manned mission to the moon, the Artemis program, in 2024.
A video he posted from his time at NASA:
Unlike many of his Bollywood peers, Rajput was deeply invested in astrophysics. He was a national Olympiad winner in Physics and studied engineering before moving on to pursue an acting career. Fascinating factoids about planets, distant galaxies and farther reaches of the universe filled Rajput’s social media feeds, including his Instagram account with more than 11 million followers and his Twitter account that boasts nearly 2 million followers.
Rather than embellishing his Twitter and Insta bios with the customary showbiz buzzwords, Rajput chose to write “Photon in a double-slit”, referring to the famous double-slit experiment first performed by the noted English physicist Thomas Young, which showed that light is both particle and wave.
Some media reports hyperbolically claimed the 34-year-old film star bought a piece of land on the far side of the moon. Rajput himself laughed it off in one of his tweets for he knew this was an absurd claim to make given that the provisions in the Outer Space Treaty clearly prevents humans from buying any piece of the earth’s only natural satellite. However, ridiculous rumours don’t detract from Rajput’s genuine obsession with celestial mechanics.
So consumed was he with the mysteries of the universe that he owned an advanced telescope called the Meade 14″ LX600 for his stargazing pleasure. He would often bring that telescope along while travelling for work or pleasure.
"I have always been fascinated by outer space. As a kid too, I was interested in stars, constellations, and galaxies. I always wanted to know what life in space would be like," Rajput told The Hindustan Times in 2017.
Evidently, Rajput’s infectious enthusiasm for space touched those he interacted with. In her Twitter tribute, global film celebrity Priyanka Chopra reminisced her cosmic connection with the late colleague: “I'll never forget our conversations about astrophysics at sunrise,” she posted.
How the loss of Rajput will reverberate beyond Bollywood
Acclaimed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson once said: “Space exploration is a force of nature unto itself, with the power to inspire generations of future scientists and engineers.”
Rajput's passion for space too was a force unto itself: it held the promise of igniting a love of space and science in an entire generation of his fans in India and around the world. This isn't just a leap of logic, but it was one of his own goals. Rajput's wish list included such altruistic goals as "help kids learn about space" (#5) and "send 100 kids for workshops in ISRO/NASA" (#13).
Arguably, his charisma combined with his penchant for cosmic phenomena could have brought space into the Indian mainstream as his acting star rose, making it a commercially viable theme for Bollywood.
This could also have significantly boosted the cause of India’s space agency, Isro, which, like its counterparts elsewhere, is always looking to shore up funds for its various space programmes.
An association with a Bollywood celebrity can quickly raise the profile of a national and humanitarian cause, reeling in astronomical support, including generous donations. Rajput’s untimely demise, therefore, is more than just a blow to commercial Indian cinema.
The vacuum created by his death underscores a tangential loss for India’s science community and space exploration cause, both would have benefitted from Rajput’s occupation with space and his sphere of influence.
In the celebrity-crazed India, the hastily crafted tributes from a galaxy of high-profile public figures, which included India's top film stars, sports celebrities, political leaders, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, unvaryingly extolled Rajput's stellar acting talent.
Of the few that talked about Rajput's love of celestial bodies, none was so deeply felt as that of his fellow actor Bhumi Pednekar. "To star gazing and our endless chats...am going to spot you twinkling bright up there with the rest," said Pednekar.
Now that he has departed for the astral world, few will get to know the true vastness of Rajput’s inner universe.