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‘When the comedy is scripted, it’s difficult to be spontaneous’

Diana Penty on playing a fiery Punjabi girl in Happy Bhag Jayegi and why she waited four years before her second big-screen role

Written by Pooja Pillai |
Updated: August 9, 2016 12:00:11 am
To play Harpreet Kaur in Happy Bhag Jayegi, Diana Penty took lessons in Punjabi diction, visited Amritsar, and watched videos and movies from Punjab.(Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty)

Diana Penty was only in her second year at Mumbai’s St. Xavier’s College, when ace photographer and family friend Farokh Chotia shot her photographs on a whim. With her tall, lean frame, she became an instant fashion world darling, snapping up prestigious campaigns with Garnier and Maybelline, runway shows for designers such as Wendell Rodricks, Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Rohit Bal, as well as stints at the New York Fashion Week. Then, when at the peak of her modelling career, Penty debuted as an actor with Homi Adajania’s Cocktail in 2012. Four years later, Penty is back with Mudassar Aziz’s Happy Bhag Jayegi. In a chat about her upcoming film, the model-turned-actor reveals why she prefers to do things at her own pace, and the lessons she learned from her debut.

Let’s get to the question on everyone’s mind, what were you doing these last four years, after Cocktail?

What do you think I was doing? (laughs) I don’t know why people say that I disappeared. I guess I just wasn’t out there. I was looking for the right project to work on, and nothing that came to me at the time really clicked, so I decided to play it by ear.

Tell us about your character in Happy Bhag Jayegi.

Happy is rather a loony bin. Her name is Harpreet Kaur. She’s a firestarter Amritsari girl. She’s very rooted, and what I like about her is that she lives life on her own terms. The film shows how everyone is a little bit scared of her, you don’t ever cross her. She really doesn’t care what she says. In a way, all the stuff that makes her a little eccentric is also what makes her endearing.

Your co-star Abhay Deol has been saying that you have natural comic timing.

He’s just being kind. I actually find comedy a bit tough to do. It’s not like in real life, where you come up with a spontaneous, witty response. When the comedy is scripted and you know you have to say it in a certain way, it’s difficult to be spontaneous. There’s too much pressure, because you have to deliver it in a certain way, and it has to make an impact. You worry that the audience won’t find it funny.

What made you pick this role?

It started with this one line that I was given about a girl from Amritsar who runs away from her wedding and she ends up in Pakistan. My first reaction when I heard this was to wonder if it’s even possible. I asked Mudassar, and he explained that it is possible. I guess, it doesn’t strike many of us, but Amritsar is only 30 minutes away from the border. That’s closer than my home to here (Juhu). So I wanted to know more, of course, and he then told me about the character. I just found it so entertaining. The role was completely different from what I had done in Cocktail. The movie is a situational comedy, the kind of comedy that I like.

Was it difficult to capture the “Punjabiness” of the character?

It was. I had someone to help me with that, an actor called Nilima Sharma, who has now become my friend. She is from Jalandhar and a hardcore Punjabi in every way, from the way she dresses, to the way she talks and gestures. She’s so animated and dramatic; the first one week was really a bit of culture shock to me. I asked her, “Are you like this on an every day basis?”, and she said, “We’re all like this. In fact, I’m a little toned down.” (laughs). I also spent some time in Amritsar, visited the Golden Temple and the border. Nilima helped me a lot with the diction and by the end of the movie, I was able to yell the dialogues like it’s something I do every day.

happy bhag jayegi

What were the lessons you learned as an actor from Cocktail? Did they help you with this movie?

Cocktail taught me that preparation is super important. It helps me get in the right space, especially since I have no background in acting. The last role that I did before Cocktail was in a school play. And doing my prep in that movie really helped me and I decided that I would do it the same way for Happy Bhag Jayegi. I also observed people a lot. Nilima suggested movies and videos I could watch online to contextualise my character better. Also, learning a lot of general, cultural stuff, like the folk art and dances of Punjab, helped. It wasn’t anything that would be needed in the film, but it gave me an overall idea of the character and where she’s coming from.

Since you continue modelling, is it difficult to balance it with acting?

It is a bit difficult, but I’m not sure why. I guess, they’re completely different spaces. I will maybe continue dabbling in modeling, but I definitely want to focus on acting now. I feel like I have given modelling my time, and I’ve done it to the best of my ability and it’s time to move on to something else. Acting is more creatively challenging. It requires more emotional and physical investment. Doing a modelling job, at least for me, meant that we would be done in a day, or two at the most. With acting, you’re on a project for a year, including prep, shooting time, post production, and promotion.

Is it too early to ask what you’ll be doing next?

Well, I hadn’t known that I would be doing a role like this! It’s so different from what I did in Cocktail, so it would really cool, if in my next project I could work on something that’s just as different.

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