You started shooting for Chhapaak soon after your marriage, just over a year ago. How has the last year been for you?
This has been a year of nurturing. During one’s creative journey, nurturing is extremely important because as much as you keep giving to every film and every character, it’s equally important to keep replenishing yourself. It was important for me to nourish my creative side. Otherwise, we get into this rut of constantly having to churn out films.
You play an acid attack survivor in the film. How did you prepare yourself for it?
What helped me was the fact that Meghna (Gulzar, writer-director of Chhapaak) came to me with this script last year and we started the prep before my wedding. Then I kind of lived with it, let it simmer for a bit. I got into the wedding preparations and, through all of that, the character was there at the back of my mind. I knew that as soon as I came back (from the wedding), I was going to get into this. All of the pre-production work that I had done — the look test, the readings and the characterisation that we had thought of — allowed me to internalise it. I felt like I’d become the character, Malti, by the time I came back from my wedding.
What kind of preparation did it take for you to understand the trauma of an acid attack survivor?
To be honest, you can’t be prepared for something like this. The preparation is all theoretical. I have met with Laxmi (Agarwal), done workshops with Meghna and done readings with the actors. But those final moments of what it might have been like (for a victim) only played out when Meghna called out ‘action’. Before that, you’re working on assumptions and wondering maybe it’s going to be like this. You prepare yourself based on those assumptions. Between ‘action’ and ‘cut’ is when I emotionally had to go through what Laxmi or someone like her has probably been through. Maybe, that’s why this role has taken an emotional toll on me.
The trailer shows you mostly in prosthetics. Did it help you to get into the character?
To an extent it did. It helped externally to communicate to an audience what that trauma could be like. Emotionally, nothing of the exterior makes any difference. Eventually, what you have to portray emotionally is what you go through. There’s no other way of doing that. That’s why you can prepare a lot and think a lot, but eventually what happens on the set is very spontaneous. Eventually, you have to react in that moment. In that sense, I’ve discovered the emotional part of it through the filming.
Meghna Gulzar mentioned that she has used real-life acid survivors in the movie. Did you interact with them?
I interacted with Laxmi on several occasions because the film is based on her. The other survivors I met on a daily basis. They were always there. My takeaway from these interactions is their enthusiasm and their spirit. They have a great sense of humour. You realise that their appearance is not really a matter of concern for them. They have other practical issues related to inclusivity and equal opportunity to deal with.
What kind of liberties did Gulzar give you to make Malti your own?
I would say a lot of liberty. At the same time, a lot of guidance, too. Malti’s character is something that we developed together. But she guided me, with a little nudge, in the direction that she would like to see the character go.
Your projects seem to be very well thought out.
I do feel the need to be challenged by the roles I take up. By challenge, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to tear my hair apart. Even a simple beautiful film like Piku (2015) can be extremely challenging. It’s really about what my gut tells me and just being honest to that process. I don’t think I’ve ever worked towards having a certain number of releases a year. If I have not liked anything, I may have not had a release in a year. Do I get slightly anxious? Yes, I do. At the end of the day, as an actor, you’re dying to be on a set; you’re dying to infuse life into characters. Still, I don’t want to do something just for the heck of it.
Was your cameo in the upcoming movie ’83 as Romi Bhatia, the wife of Kapil Dev, planned?
It just happened. Kabir Khan (director of ’83) was joking with Ranveer (Singh, who plays the role of Kapil Dev) that they should ask me for this role. Kabir reached out to me for it. The film is primarily about the boys (Indian cricket team) and their three-week journey from the time they left India until the time they won the World Cup. My decision of doing ’83 is more personal, having seen the role that my mother (Ujjala Padukone) played in the success of my father (Prakash Padukone). A successful person always has a pillar of support or people behind the scenes who don’t get the credit they deserve. I saw my mother in Romi even though it’s a very small part, with only four or five scenes. When you’re the captain of a team, there’s so much pressure on you. In a film, at least, one can get to see the more vulnerable and private side of a sportsperson. It was important that the audience gets to see that side of Kapil Dev.
You are a co-producer of Chhapaak. Does being a producer change things for you?
It does. As a producer, you feel a greater sense of responsibility. You’re involved with other decision-making processes. With my name there, hopefully, the film will reach a lot more people.
How important is it to have women in leadership roles for the larger issue of equality and gender representation? The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), for example, aims to make their programming team 50 per cent women.
I really hope that we reach a point where women are not given a place because it’s a demand. Often, it seems like a quota. I can’t speak for other people, but as an individual, I don’t want to be somewhere because there was an allocation for me. I want to be there because I deserve to be there. Based on what you bring to the table, your talent, intelligence and experience one should be at a Cannes Film Festival or at a Toronto International Film Festival and not because there is a quota for women. That’s not the right way of going about it.
MAMI Mumbai Film Festival 2019 had several women filmmakers and talent in various roles.
It is important to understand how that happened. Is it because there was a quota for women? Or, is it because a lot more women today are a lot more empowered to showcase their work at such a forum?
You are expected to play the lead in an upcoming movie that tells the story of the Mahabharata from Draupadi’s perspective. Did the complexities of her character draw you to it?
The complexity of the character attracted me as much as my wanting to give a larger perspective to our understanding of the Mahabharata. It has always been written from the male perspective. There’s also Draupadi’s point of view. For us, the journey is about showcasing the same story, but from other people’s perspectives as well. It’s about broadening the horizon.