Some people didn’t think Manmarziyaan was ‘real’ enough. Would you like to comment on that?
It’s 2018, and I wonder why this story cannot be somebody’s reality, too. For how long will our films show couples who aren’t allowed to marry because their families disapprove? What about families, like mine, who want me to marry but leave the choice to me? It’s still a patriarchal set-up but the concerns have shifted slightly.
Maybe the audience doesn’t think fyaar (lustful love) is possible in smaller cities like Amritsar?
Sitting here in Mumbai and Delhi, we really have no idea of what’s going on in places like Amritsar. We were there for two months, and, in that short time, the kind of stories I heard from women I met, about the kind of lives they live, will shake you up. In the big cities, we’re busy with our jobs, the commute, so many other things; they have more time on their hands to think of things we won’t even dream of!
Have you been surprised by any of the feedback to the film?
In a recent article, a female writer said that she’s sick of how a woman is shown smoking and drinking in order to establish she’s free-spirited. And how we’ll never write about a man shown doing those things or not. However, I don’t smoke or drink, but it doesn’t define me. And my hair is naturally curly, so even that gets clubbed with a stereotypical portrayal of a free-spirited woman or a rebellious character. I felt it was a generalised, shallow interpretation of one of the most layered characters I’ve ever seen or performed in my career. The other criticism is that Rumi (the character she plays in Manmarziyaan) is a rebel without a cause. I don’t think they get the cause: it is that a woman can make her own decisions and take full responsibility for them.
There is a burden on women actors to further the feminist cause, and so your choice of films (Judwaa 2, 2017) is always going to be questioned. Especially since your body of work boasts such projects like Pink (2016) and Naam Shabana (2017).
Feminism to me means equality and the freedom to make my own choices. Judwaa 2 is my biggest hit so far, and has opened the door to more mainstream films. Being the person I am, I still want films like Pink or Mulk, but I want to be able to balance it out with other kind of films, too. I like that the audience expects a certain kind of work from me, but I am not solely responsible for promoting a larger cause.
You got backlash for tweeting a picture of a Sikh man smoking, in response to the Sikh Sangat of Ambala’s protests that scenes of smoking go against Sikh culture. The scenes were deleted later. But you’ve been very outspoken on this.
I don’t think any religion tells you to smoke or drink but people do what they want anyway, right? Punjab is the highest drug-consuming state; they are okay with alcohol but not tobacco, and I don’t understand how we can judge what is less or more harmful. I feel that for a certain group of people, this has been a way to deflect bigger issues, so that people shouldn’t ask questions about real problems like unemployment, corruption, drugs.
You began your career with modelling before joining the film industry in the south. Take me through that time.
I began modelling while studying for my engineering degree to make some money. With modelling, that money came quickly, though, I’m sorry to say, I spent much more than I made!
Offers from the southern film industry came around that time. I told them that, besides the fact that I don’t know the language, I don’t know acting at all. And they said, ‘Come, we’ll teach you’.
Till date, you have made 18 films in Tamil and Telugu combined. You began doing Hindi films in 2013 with Chashme Baddoor, but you have one Tamil or Telugu release every year. Why?
I feel like I shouldn’t forget where I started from. Also, the industry and the audience down south accepted me, even though I am not from there. So there’s no reason to cut ties with them just because I’m doing Hindi films now. I do a Tamil or Telugu film each year as a way to say ‘thank you’ for giving me a chance when nobody else did.
If not acting, which profession do you think would suit you?
My father always told me that I should become a lawyer because I argue so much… either you convince me or get convinced. Maybe, I am playing an extension of myself in each of my roles, because they all have that streak.
Except Judwaa 2.
That character is also like me. I love wearing a bikini and frolicking on the beach!
Have you made any friends in the film industry?
I end up becoming friends with my co-actors. But after it’s done, but I have this whole detachment process, where I stop being connected to them.
You’ve just finished shooting for the Sujoy Ghosh-directed Badla. What can you tell me about it?
If Rumi is a character who comes the closest to who I am as a person, then the character I play in Badla is the furthest from that. It’s a 30-something Indian businesswoman who has built her own company in Scotland. She runs it by herself and she’s got a lot riding on her. An accident takes place and she’s blamed for it. Once again, Amitabh Bachchan is my lawyer but this time, she’s not a victim, she’s sharp and shrewd and the dynamic is very different from what we shared in Pink.
He sent you a lovely letter after watching your performance in Manmarziyaan.
Yes, but he hasn’t replied to my ‘thank you’ message or my tweets! I think I’ll have to tweet at him to remind him.