Every article about you, from the time you made your debut in Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015), to your last release, Shubh Mangal Savdhan, addresses your weight, both gain and loss. What do you make of that?
I know a lot of people feel that since I have lost weight, I have become a run-of-the-mill actress. But what I’d like to say to them is that, please look at the characters I have played this year — in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, alongside (Akshay Kumar) Sir, and Shubh Mangal Savdhan (SMS) with Ayushmann Khurrana. I look different in both these films, and I did gain a little weight for my character in SMS. After Dum Laga Ke Haisha, I found another film in which I could celebrate my imperfections. The filmmakers I have worked with have given me the confidence that if there is a pimple on my face, we should let it be. I’ve enjoyed watching myself in these roles.
You call Akshay Kumar ‘Sir’. Is there anybody in the industry you don’t address like that?
Haha, yes, Ayushmann and RS Prasanna (director, Shubh Mangal Savdhan). Calling Akshay Kumar ‘Sir’ really comes from a place of respect. All the ideas I had of what a superstar was like came crashing down when I met him. He’s very humble, and I had a great experience working with him. Toilet… was a very important film for me, and I was very happy that I had enough to do. That’s the reason I took it up as well. But you know how it is — things can change on set, and a film is made on the editing table.
In your first and third film, we’ve also enjoyed watching a woman who initiates intimacy and sex. Yes, I’ve been very lucky, all my characters, so far, have been very progressive. Some people might not agree with me on that, but if I’m going to pick on these characters for experiencing desire, how will I be able to play them?
Not all the reviews about Toilet… have been completely positive though. Does that affect you?
I know that Toilet… has received some flak for the stalking element in the film. But the film has used my character, a strong young woman, to spearhead change, alongside Akshay Sir’s character, who is not perfect, not an educated man, but who realises that things need to change. The kind of issues we’re addressing in the film, through a love story, are deeply connected with what women in urban and non-urban spaces face on a daily basis. I felt very gratified when I read a newspaper report about how a group of women, who lived in a joint family, went on a hunger strike till a toilet was built inside their house. I didn’t realise how grave this situation is till I got associated with the film. I believe India can achieve its goal to end open defecation in two years.
What makes you so sure? The aim to install 75 million toilets in India is not quite going to plan, according to several investigative reports in the media.
I’m an optimist and I’m obsessed with my country, and I’m truly a patriotic person. I’ve grown up in a family where we had to watch the news every day for an hour and read newspapers. My father would quiz me on general knowledge; I think my intellect was a lot sharper then than it is now (laughs). But I’m part of that generation that no longer thinks the West is a sparkly place. I’m not talking about a right-wing sense of nationalism or identity, but I’m interested and invested in what is happening in my own country.
Moving swiftly along to erectile dysfunction now. In all three of your films, while you do play self-assured and independent women, they are also very sympathetic and exhibit an emotional depth, especially when it comes the ‘shortcomings’, pun intended, of the men they are with. Comment.
Yes, my characters have been very grounded. They are rebels but not for the heck of it. It’s because of the milieu they are from — a lower middle-class section but not necessarily living in a very urban place. These are women who have experienced suppression, have had to live with different rules for men and women, and watched their mothers being treated in a certain way. So they’re automatically more sympathetic than urban women. These roles have given me a sense of empathy I did not have before. That is the best part about being an actor — one needs to connect to all the parts one plays, and we can’t be isolated from other people, especially those who are different.
Your latest project is a short film with Zoya Akhtar. What’s that about?
I can’t say much about it because it’s not been released yet. It’s a 19-minute film about love and lust.
Is there a rain sequence?
Nahin, doosri cheezon ki baarish hoti hai (laughs). Oh god, SMS has me coming up with the worst kind of sexual puns. Zoya’s film is an experimental one and it’s been fantastic working with her.