In 2008, as a photo editor with a national magazine, then 23-year-old Shweta Tripathi wasn’t satisfied with just a byline. She wanted to be in front of the camera, which prompted her to suggest an idea: that caricatures be done of the entire editorial team, presenting them in their alternate avatars. While others were presented as geeks or along with their favourite food, her own was rather dramatic — in yellow salwar kameez, running through fields with a dupatta flying over her head.
Today, Tripathi, the 31-year-old actor who made her big screen debut with the critically-acclaimed Masaan in 2015, cannot but laugh at the irony. “That was such a Yash Raj Films kind of an image, an utter contrast to the roles I have done so far,” she says. Masaan, directed by Neeraj Ghaywan, went on to premiere at Festival de Cannes in the Un Certain Regard category, bagging two awards. The film, set in Varanasi, has Tripathi play Shalu Gupta, a college student, who falls in love with a boy from a lower caste (played by Vicky Kaushal). Though not a central character, Tripathi’s nuanced portrayal of a spirited young girl from a small town got her noticed.
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This month marks the release of her latest, Haraamkhor, a directorial debut by Shlok Sharma, where Tripathi is featured opposite Nawazuddin Siddiqui. The film is set in a village in central India and revolves around the drama that unfolds when Tripathi’s character, Sandhya, a 15-year-old school student, falls in love with her teacher, Shyam, played by Siddiqui. After a premiere at the New York Indian Film Festival and a screening at the Mumbai Film Festival in 2015, the film had to wait for a year to get a distributor for a big screen release.
The release of the film has also been mired in controversy. The CBFC stalled it, calling the story of an illicit relationship between a teacher and a student “provocative”. The film, based on a real-life incident, managed to clear the hurdle after a long battle that the makers took to the tribunal.
Incidentally, in both her films, Tripathi has played characters much younger to her age. She believes that her on-screen “cute and vivacious” label has been an advantage so far. “I got my break at a much later age than most actors. I am not sure what roles I would have got if I did indeed look like a 31-year-old. Now, at least there is a variety of characters I can play,” she says.
While she easily passes off as a 15-year-old in the film, Tripathi admits it took her a while to get into the skin of her character in Haraamkhor. “I am double the age of Sandhya. As you grow older, you begin to analyse more, become more practical, begin to question things. Reading the script, I was doing exactly that. But then I realised Sandhya is a mere 15 years old. At that age, she isn’t thinking how it can work out, how she will marry Shyam, who is already married. That’s when I let go and became Sandhya,” says the actor.
Tripathi admits that she still cannot believe that she has become an actor. She grew up aspiring to be a lawyer, but changed her mind at the last moment and sat for the entrance exam for National Institute for Fashion Technology (NIFT). The course landed her an internship with a magazine in Mumbai, where she made her on-screen debut at 22 with Disney’s show Kya Mast Hai Life. “Growing up in Delhi, I would watch plays, attend theatre festivals, alone if need be. There was always a hankering after performance, a desire to be in front of the camera, and perform. But frankly, I didn’t think I had it in me,” she says. When she did consider it seriously after graduating from NIFT, her father, an IAS officer, insisted that she study the craft first, and sit for the entrance to the National School of Drama (NSD). “I had already spent three years at NIFT, another couple of years at NSD felt like a waste of time. So, I took up the internship instead,” she says.
Once in Mumbai, Tripathi began to auditioning for ad films and attend theatre workshops. It was at Prithvi Theatre in Juhu that she was “spotted” by a casting assistant for Kya Mast Hai Life. “But I didn’t think of television at the time. It was either theatre or films for me. But the audition went well and I took up the offer.” She ended up playing a character nearly seven years younger. “It was a teen drama where all emotions were played up a notch. It did well for TV, but I realised that kind of acting wasn’t working when I began auditioning for films.”
The show lasted a little over a year, but Tripathi carried on with theatre work and dabbled in post production as well. A stint assisting casting director Mukesh Chhabra propelled her towards Hindi cinema, even if she didn’t realise it then. “It wasn’t a planned move but working on camera with actors and auditioning them gave me exposure and experience. I also ended up networking with filmmakers, came to be friends with Neeraj and Shlok, both of who wrote characters specifically for me, which is a huge compliment,” she says.
After a minor role in Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, titled Trishna in 2011, she found herself playing a younger Huma Qureshi in Sharma’s short film, Sujata, which was part of the 2013 ensemble, Shorts. Produced by Anurag Kashyap, it also had shorts by Neeraj Ghaywan, Vasan Bala, Geetanjali Rao and Anubhuti Kashyap. Afterwards, Sharma offered her the lead in his debut film.
Both Masaan and Haraamkhor have garnered wide acclaim, but Tripathi admits that the battle has just begun. She recently wrapped up a few ad campaigns,the web-series The Trip, and Sharma’s next, an untitled ensemble film. She had also auditioned for Dangal. “Making the kind of choices that I have so far, I am often tagged as ‘not as commercial’. I am not averse to commercial cinema, but it has to excite me. I would love to do a Kapoor and Sons or Dangal,” she says.
In the meantime, not the one to wait for offers, Tripathi has developed a script with a screenwriter friend and hopes to pitch it to makers soon. “I made a film debut at 29. I cannot sit and watch Netflix all day at home till the right script comes by,” she says, “If the concept I have developed is picked up by a maker, I would also like to produce the film.”