Your roles in both Dangal (2016) and Pataakha (2018) required a lot of preparation. Was Photograph as intensive?
Photograph is my second movie. I signed it soon after Dangal released. For Babita’s role in Dangal, I had wrestling to help me get into the character. We did nine months of training in wrestling before the shoot began and continued even during the shoot. Emotionally, it was easier to relate to Babita. With Photograph, the emotion was very internal. (Director) Ritesh Batra did not want me to wear any make-up. My character Miloni is a Mumbai student, a recluse. To understand her, I chatted with my best friend, who was a topper in school and college but was always scared of her parents and anxious about getting good marks.
Some of your films have done very well at the box office. Some have got a fresh lease of life on a digital platform.
I don’t think so much about box-office results though I know it’s very important for a movie to make money. Photograph is slow-paced but has a beautiful story. Pataakha did not do very well at the box office but it did well on an OTT platform (Amazon Prime). I was in Goa some time ago. To my surprise, some people in the crowd called me Chutki (her character in Pataakha).
You are now busy with Anurag Basu’s new film. He is known to have a very different process.
When I have a script in hand, I go crazy reading it. I rehearse constantly. But Dada (Basu) does not believe in a script. For the first time in my life, I’m very relaxed. One does not know what Dada will ask us to do. It is like being on stage.
How do you select your scripts?
Honestly, I am glad that I have been offered interesting roles. That’s the result of good movies being written. For instance, during the first narration of Badhaai Ho (2018), I knew that I had to be in it. Something like Dangal I could not have ever said no to. I knew Photograph would be a great learning experience. However, if you find a script interesting but it does not have a production house backing it, you never know if that project has a future…I also keep in mind what AK (Aamir Khan) had told us: ‘While signing a movie, don’t listen to anyone. If you feel creatively excited about the character and the script, go for it’.
Where do you see yourself in the industry after acting in four movies in three years?
The journey has been surreal. There are days when I’m not shooting, I ask myself, ‘Kya mujhse acting hoti bhi hai (can I even act?)?’. When I’m on the sets, I’m a different person, much more confident. I’m happiest when I face the camera.
When did you discover your love for the camera?
I wanted to be an actor since I was a child. In the late 1990s, my father worked in Japan for a couple of years. We had a video camera and I used to act in front of it.
When did you start working towards being an actor?
While growing up, I was very much like Miloni — introverted and reticent. When I was in Class I, my mother was detected with cancer. My sister and I had to live with my grandmother. This affected me emotionally — my confidence dropped. I used to be bullied in school. I did not do well in my studies. After my mother was cured and I was in Class VIII at Ryan International School in Delhi, I volunteered to dance for my school assembly. I was selected for the solo performance of Rind posh maal from Mission Kashmir (2000). Dance helped me gain confidence. In school, I also used to choreograph dance performances for competitions. After I joined Gargi College (Delhi) in 2010, I was part of its choreography society. When I was in second year, I trained under ballet teacher Fernando Aguilera. Eventually, I became a member of his company and started teaching dance at a school.
When did you think of moving to Mumbai?
I came to Mumbai in 2013 to audition for the reality show Dance India Dance. I was among the 100 shortlisted. I did not make it to the final list, and one of the main reasons was my self-doubt. But I told my parents that I want to stay in Mumbai. Though I approached several casting and ad directors, I never heard from anyone. I auditioned for the first time for the role of Geeta in Dangal. I promised myself not to have self-doubts. There was a rumour that Kangana Ranaut had been cast as Geeta. I thought: ‘Kangana can play the role of Geeta and I can be Babita. We both have curly hair’. When I didn’t hear from them for a month, I decided to return to Delhi. The day after I reached Delhi, I got a call from the casting director — Mukesh Chhabra — that I was shortlisted.
Now, you have a house of your own. But there was a time you had six flatmates.
When I moved to Mumbai, we were six people living in a 2-BHK. Whenever a friend of a flatmate came over, that person used to stay on for a month or two. At one point, there were nine people living in one flat. Since I was the only freelancer, I used to clean the house after the others would leave for work. I was like Monica in Friends, always stressing that they would mess it all up. After I signed Dangal, I moved to a 1-BHK. Now, I have a bigger space of my own where my family members can come over whenever they wish.
Your response to the Instagram account DietSabya, which called you out for wearing a knock-off jumpsuit — ‘I know I should not be so glad, but I am too excited about my DietDebut…’ — was applauded by many.
I was genuinely happy to see myself on their Insta page. I love that jumpsuit. The day I tried it, I decided to wear it to the Mumbai premiere of Photograph. Fashion is a personal thing and I don’t do it impress anyone.
Have you set any goals for yourself?
I used to set my goals. I have stopped doing that. I don’t put that kind of pressure on myself. The only thing planned is that I will take a sabbatical one day and learn something new.