In Begum Jaan, you play the title role of a madam who refuses to budge from her brothel, which falls in the way of the Indo-Pak border being drawn during Partition. She is unapologetic about her profession and power. Is that what appealed to you?
As she says in the film, “Randi ko randi bolna bhi koi gaali hoti hai? Police wale ko do, toh shayad gaali hoti (If you call a whore a whore, how is that abuse? If you call a cop one, maybe it is)”. No woman chooses to be a prostitute; her circumstances must have led Begum Jaan to be one. But, she cannot be slut-shamed. Since this is what she does, she may as well play on the front foot.
Why is she so stubborn about not moving from the border? Why does she put the other girls at risk?
What else do people like her have to hold on to? No one has stood by her. She was probably sold to a pimp and that’s how she became a prostitute. When even her bodily space has been violated, this physical space is all she can call ‘mine’. And ‘physical space’ can be very personal. Countries go to war for it. Everyone is territorial. She knows these girls will come and go, she understands their pain, but she isn’t a mother. She is not asking anyone to stay and fight. She says, ‘This place is mine and I will fight for it.’
How territorial are people in the film industry? Does someone like you, who has earned acclaim, also have to fight for her space?
Everyone is negotiating to keep their space all the time, not just as an actor but also as an individual, a woman. When I married Siddharth (Roy Kapur), people would ask me if he has a say in the films I do. I’d have to explain that I don’t tell him what films to produce, and he doesn’t decide what films I act in. Even the most powerful women find the need to negotiate their position. They are torn between conditioning and playing by patriarchal rules in order to survive in a patriarchal setup. For instance, I get asked how I balance home and work. But no one asks my husband that. Recently, when Siddharth and I came back from a holiday, he didn’t have to bother to check if the kitchen is stocked, but I did. No one asked me to do it, but I did; that is conditioning. If I ask Siddharth to take charge, he will probably tell me we have a cook for that job. But, as a woman, I will still feel I need to supervise the cook.
You pick strong women protagonists in films — Silk in The Dirty Picture, Krishna in Ishqiya or Durga Rani Singh in the Kahaani series. What’s the common thread that runs through all of them?
They are all well-rounded women, which invariably makes them strong. I am not interested in playing diabetically sweet women who are unreal. Or even just badass characters. Maybe they are both, maybe they are more of one than the other. But, I want to play real people who have their flaws, issues, aggression and passion. I like to know people’s stories and I like to tell such stories on screen. Strong women don’t have to be alike. The Durga I play in Kalimpong in Kahaani 2 is quiet and withdrawn. But Begum Jaan is nothing like Durga. Durga wanted to be invisible, Begum Jaan is unmissable.
You don’t want to play ‘sweet’ characters. Ironically, that’s the public persona you have.
(Laughs) I have a lot in common with the characters I play on screen. There’s a lot of angst in me, as a person and as a woman. I get angry very easily. My family will tell you I am short-tempered. I get angry if I am taken for granted, if people misbehave with others, if they don’t treat another individual as equal… Maybe, I am thin-skinned because I am an actor, I allow things to affect me.
Where is this anger rooted?
For instance, the criticism I received all those years. My sister would ask me why I’m being so zen about it, but I now realise I was probably internalising it. I was also young — I joined the industry at 26, when other actors arrived at a younger age. I wanted people to like me because I also had to make up for the years I had lost. Over time, I have been shedding all those layers and coming into my own, and the roles I play have a great deal to do with it.
The first time you spoke up was after Heyy Baby when you pointed out the pressures of looking glamorous on and off the screen.
When I look back, I see it was more about what I wanted to do as an actor. In the years since, I have not taken up any role I don’t want to.
Is that why your characters are so angry?
Yes, I get to channel it in the films. But, it’s not just anger at the industry. At home, I was always made to believe I am special. But as a fat child, when you step into the real world, people start attaching tags. Then, while growing up, you want to be liked and try to shed all that weight, you try to be a certain kind of person. When you become an actor, many more people are watching you, which makes you more cautious. Acting has helped me come into my own every time. It’s probably why I choose such characters, to channel the part of me that felt rejected.
You have also spoken against being fat-shamed.
It doesn’t happen as often anymore, perhaps because now I am married. People associate thin with being desirable, which you need to be till you are married, which I now am. But I still get to hear it sometimes. To them, I’d like to point out the tag line of Begum Jaan: ‘My body, my rules’.
While making choices, did you deal with the insecurity of becoming irrelevant as an actor?
So, I don’t drive. Not that I don’t know how to, but I am the kind of person who will let loose once I am behind the wheel. And that’s what happens at work as well. Once I make a decision, I don’t hold back. Luckily, it’s okay to do that in films but not on the road. My family, too, has helped me, been my strong support system, told me I have nothing to fear if I do the right things and give it my all.
You have always credited your family and the neighbourhood you grew up in, Chembur, for where you are today.
I grew up in a typical Tamil household, a protected environment in a middle-class neighbourhood. Even at my lowest, I could always come home to my family, and feel special. That life is beyond being an actor. Until 15, I didn’t step out of Chembur. Even today, on a bad day, I like to drive through the leafy lanes of that neighbourhood and visit the Sai Baba mandir. The people I grew up around were never enamoured by stars, but by art. They have kept me rooted.
How do you view your career now, given that the last three films have not worked at the box office?
But the range of roles has only been widening. Eight years ago, when I started doing characters like in Ishqiya, the industry wasn’t making as many female-centric films. Today, there are more such films, and more actors doing these films. Of course, my last few films haven’t done well and I’ve been heartbroken, but I have moved on. Box-office success or failure today hardly indicates if a film is good or not. A film that doesn’t do well in theatres may fare excellently on TV. Even social media, which people seem to swear by these days, can be misleading.
How much has the industry changed in the 15 years you have been here?
There may be more women-centric films but the dynamics are still skewed and male star-driven. Most of the money invested by the makers goes in their fee. But yes, people today are open to all kinds of stories, genres and treatment.
Many women actors have raised their voices to demand equal pay as their male contemporaries. Is that a battle you have to fight as well?
No, because I hardly work with male stars. I ask for a certain fee, especially since the budget of the films I do is also limited. But if the makers tell me they cannot make the film if they pay me that amount, I tell them don’t make it then. So now people don’t use that excuse with me anymore.
Do you feel films with big stars may not have characters for you?
Absolutely. It is why I don’t do those kind of films. I don’t even get offered those anymore.