Slowly but surely, the vivacious Sanya Malhotra is making a mark in Bollywood and finding repute as an actress who can hold her own even in the presence of giants. The curly haired actress has starred in less than ten films but each one has gained her respect and recognition, the latest being Shakuntala Devi released on Amazon Prime. In a cozy chat with Bharati Dubey, she holds forth on many things – career, personal life and today’s changing scenario.
Shakuntala Devi has got a tremendous response. How did you approach your role in the film?
I think for me while I was prepping up for my character Anupama Banerjee, I didn’t get to meet her. But whatever information that I needed about her I had the script in hand and it was pretty much based on her real life. She has basically narrated the entire story about her mother and her relationship. And whatever information or any doubt that I had in mind about my character, I think Anu Menon our director really helped me – to get closer to it and to get in sync with it.
She really helped me to know Anupama Banerjee well. And also for this character, the hair and makeup played a major part. When we got the hair right and the look right; I think 70 to 80 percent of my job was done. So I won’t take that credit. I would want to give the credit to Niharika Bhasin who did the costumes for our film and Natasha Mathias who did my hair and makeup for my character in Shakuntala Devi. So the credit goes to them.
How was the experience of playing Vidya Balan’s daughter?
I am playing Shakuntala Devi’s daughter Anupama Banerjee. And working with Vidya was a dream-come-true for me! I have grown up watching her films and I have been inspired by her roles and the kind of films that she does – as an actor and as an audience.
So it was definitely a dream come true to work with Vidya on Shakuntala Devi. Shakuntala Devi I think was a tailor made role for her. She has done a wonderful job and she is a brilliant co-actor to work with and I am really grateful that I got this opportunity to work with her on Shakuntala Devi.
Did you meet Shakuntala Devi’s daughter? People feel the film deviated a lot from the real story. What’s your take on this?
I did. When I first heard the script I really thought that this can’t be possible. Actually for a lot of people, it’s unbelievable. People are like, ‘How is this so filmy? This can’t be real.’ But to my surprise this story was narrated to Anu Menon by Anupama Banerjee. So when they started developing the script I think it all happened because of Anupama Banerjee.
I know it sounds really filmy but it’s all real. As an audience I was surprised when I first heard this script. The beauty of Shakuntala Devi and the beauty of their relationship is that it was real. Basically it’s a unique mother-daughter bond that they shared in real life which was empowering and inspiring as well. Just to see both their journeys and how they found themselves.
Anupama Banerjee in the film realizes that she needs to stop putting her mother on a pedestal. In fact we all need to stop putting our mothers on a pedestal and expect them to be perfect. Nobody is perfect. No mother is perfect. They can all make mistakes. I think that’s the beauty of the film and that’s the message that I took with me as an audience and as an actor.
Are you upset that the film didn’t get a theatrical release?
Not at all! I am really happy that during these times we all know how hard and difficult it is for all of us. I think as an actor I am really very happy that I got to entertain so many people through Amazon Prime Video. It got released in 200 countries and what else I could have asked for. I am really happy that even during these difficult times my film got released and I was able to entertain the audience. So yep, I am not at all upset! I am very happy.
Would you describe yourself as a method actor? Does acting come easily to you, or do you work hard on it?
I have never learned acting. But I always wanted to become an actor and since I never told anyone that I wanted to become an actor at my house so I never really got the chance to learn all the methods or ways of acting. So whatever I do is very instinctual in the sense that when I approach a character I work with my instincts, like whatever comes to me, whatever my intuition is telling me to do for the character. I don’t know if that’s a method or not!
I don’t know what method is but personally as an actor I really love to prepare and go on set. I want to prepare myself fully. I want to live my character’s life or at least gather all the information about it, have a mental sketch of how I want to play the role and also how the director wants me to play the character. It’s more instinct and I don’t know if it’s method or not. And it totally depends on films and the characters that you are doing.
Like in Ludo we didn’t have a script in hand and Anurag Basu doesn’t like to prepare or do any kind of homework for your character or the script. So that was something very new for me as an actor. And I thoroughly enjoyed that whole process. It was very refreshing. So with every character and every script the process also changes and how you approach your character also changes.
You began with a massive success like Dangal. Would you ever want to relive the experience of that film?
Any day! I think Dangal really changed my life. Whatever I am today is because of my first film. And whatever work that I have been getting, I think it was a perfect launch for a newcomer. It gave us a platform. It gave us a script. As actors we actually realized that we can get into a character.
It was a very fun process for us – that whole wrestling training and seeing our bodies change and slowly becoming the character that we were playing on screen. It was a mentally tough process but it gave a lot of satisfaction when we used to shoot and do the scenes in front of the camera.
So it was that satisfaction which I want to relive! Obviously I can’t like relive that whole journey but with some other character maybe? I want to have that much time in my hand to get into the character physically and mentally. So definitely I would want to relive that whole experience of shooting for Dangal. Mushkil hai! But hopefully we will be able to recreate it.
Wrestling must have called for physical fitness. Are you still at the same fitness level?
I am not at the same fitness level. But I do workout regularly. I think any kind of movement is really important for me and this was not the case before Dangal. I think it all happened because of Dangal and we got so much into fitness that I now really enjoy working out and moving around basically.
On a daily basis I don’t have that same fitness level because we used to work out a lot during Dangal. We used to do 3 hours to 4 hours of wrestling in the morning and then 2 hours of weight training in the evening. So it was almost 5 to 6 hours of physical training for Dangal and I was on a very strict diet. So I am not on the same fitness level now but I love working out.
What are the things that you learnt from Aamir Khan during the making of Dangal?
I think a lot of things. The kind of time that we got to prepare for Dangal, our character and what we saw on screen – we could see that it’s so important to actually get into your character’s shoe and prepare yourself. Do your homework before going on set.
I think this is a major lesson that I have learned as an actor from Aamir Sir. Because as we all know how passionate he is about his work and the characters that he plays. And how much hard work and how much homework he does before going on set. I think that is something I learned from him and from the making of Dangal.
Do you keep in touch with Fatima Sana Sheikh? You are doing a film together now – Anurag Basu’s Ludo.
Yeah I do. I do keep in touch with her. It’s been ages I haven’t met her as I am in Delhi and she is in Bombay. But yes, we do talk to each other now and then. And it’s crazy that we have done Anurag Basu’s film together! I can’t wait to watch it because honestly I have no idea how the film has panned out! I think only Anurag Sir knows how the film is going to pan out. So I am really very excited to watch it.
Many of today’s films speak on gender equality and having a progressive mindset. Has that translated into more challenging roles for women?
I think these are not challenging roles for women. These are very real roles and roles that we all can relate to. It was a change that happened in our industry and in our films and it was high time that it happened. I am really happy as an actor that I am getting to play such powerful and challenging characters whether it was Babita in Dangal or Miloni in Photograph.
They all are very real characters. So these are not challenging but very real and relatable characters as an audience and as an actor. So yes, now we are talking majorly about gender equality and progressive mindsets but as an actor these are not challenges. These are characters that I am glad I am getting to play. And these are roles that I am glad that finally people are writing and directors and producers are making.
On a slightly different note, what qualities would you value in a prospective partner?
Ye to bohot hi difficult question hai for me to answer!! I think for me it’s majorly now a mental connection that I want to feel with someone. So not a superficial one but somebody who I can connect to mentally and be in sync with! So that is something that I really look for. I don’t know if it’s a quality or not. So a mental connection is something that I want from my prospective partner.
Is dance a passion? We haven’t seen you doing too much dancing in your movies?
Exactly. Even I want to see myself dancing in a movie. In every interview I talk about it – that I am really dying to do a dance film. I can’t wait to dance in front of a big camera. Like I dance a lot at home and I keep posting it on my social media. My dance auditions and dreams are there online digitally.
But I am really waiting for a really good script and a good character where I can use dance as well. So hopefully very soon somebody will cast me in a dance film. I am hoping and I am putting it out there in the universe and I would request everyone to put this out in the universe that I should get a dance film!
What is the status of your two forthcoming movies? What can you share with the audience about these films?
So Ludo is releasing on Netflix very soon. And then there is Pagglait. I can’t really talk about these two characters because it’s too soon. But for Ludo I am eagerly waiting to watch it. As I said that I have no idea how the story or my character is going to pan out.
This would be the first time I will be watching my film as an audience because we had no material in hand. I think I am really happy that I got to work with Anurag Basu during this whole process because he is a sheer genius to work with and I am really looking forward to watch Ludo on Netflix.
And Pagglait is a film that is very near and dear to my heart. It’s a character that I fell in love with while I was playing it! For a good 45 days I was just my character Sandhya in Pagglait and that is a film I just can’t wait for everyone to watch. It’s a very special film with a very special message and an extremely special character that I played.
People believe that it’s tough for an outsider to make it in the film industry? And to sustain yourself in the film industry is definitely tough.
I think can we come up with a better term? This ‘outsider’ word has a very negative connotation attached to it which I don’t personally like. But it’s ok. Ye to mera personal issue hai! I am very grateful and extremely blessed that I got a film like Dangal to start off my career with and as I said whatever I am today it’s because of the film, the first film that I did. So definitely it’s tough to survive.
It’s tough to get that first break but it’s not entirely impossible for somebody who is not from the industry to do it. So I am not saying that things are not changing in the industry. Things are definitely changing in the industry. People are willing to cast new faces. But a lot of that chunk also depends upon the audience, whether they want to see it or not and media, whether they want to cover the new faces or not you know.
So it’s not just the industry but everybody has to be on the same page and basically promote and love and see films, characters, actors who really deserve that kind of love and appreciation. So I think things might change when we start appreciating good content and good performances and we start accepting people from wherever they come from. So yes it would be better if we start celebrating brilliant performances and good films.
Post Dangal, was it difficult to get your next film or did things become easy for you?
Things became extremely easy for me – which I was not expecting at all. I remember Dangal got released and then the next day I got a call from Ritesh Batra and he was very nice and humble. He was like, ‘Hi I am Ritesh. I directed Lunchbox.’ And I was like ‘Oh My God!’ Like I used to think I have to stand in queues again!!
I didn’t believe things would change so drastically – but post Dangal everything kind of changed for me. I still can’t believe it. It’s because of my first film that I am getting to live my dream and I am really grateful about that.