Every actor who comes to this city aspires to be in a Yash Raj Film
Sayani Gupta first made her mark in cinema with Margarita With A Straw, following which her upcoming release Fan, alongside Shah Rukh Khan, has been creating quite a buzz. The inspirational actress indulges us in a conversation on her love for theatre, how she goes about picking her projects, and the various aspects of working in cinema that have her charmed.
Tell us a little bit about your background in theatre, and what drew you to acting.
I have been dancing and acting ever since I was four years old. There was always a desire to be an actor, and I grew up in a very creatively stimulating environment; my father was also a musician and actor. My mother was quite opposed to the fact that I act, she thought I would become a dancer. I grew up loving the stage, and I’ve been trained in Bharatanatyam for 16-17 years.
It was when I moved to Delhi that I started taking theatre more seriously. I got to work with M.K. Raina and Habib Tanvir, which was incredible. I decided against going to NSD eventually, and studied in Lady Shri Ram College. Just a couple of days after graduation, I took up a Marketing and Sales job in the infrastructure sector, where I’d be working 19 hours a day. I’m quite a workaholic, and got a lot of promotions while I was there. It was very uninspiring though, and a year and a half later, I realized that I didn’t want to be 40 and have regrets about how I lived my life. My flatmate at the time, Ishara, was filling in an application form for FTII, and I had been thinking about studying cinema for a while. With all of these factors playing on my mind, I filled in a form too, and got through!
The last round was a 4-day selection workshop in Pune, which was a complete adrenaline rush. I was so excited to be there. I realized that no matter what I ended up doing with my life, I wanted to be at FTII, and to give acting a real shot to see if I was cut out for it. My mother was quite against the idea, but I had to do what I had to. I had immense confidence in myself, and it paid off; there’s been no looking back since.
We’ve heard a little about how there was quite a frenzy around your casting process for Fan. Tell us the story of how it worked out, and what it was about the role that attracted you.
I got a message in my Facebook inbox, and I dismissed it for an open casting call for which I’d missed the deadline. In a couple of a days, I got another explaining that they’d been trying to get in touch with me. So I went over and met Shanoo (Sharma), the casting director I’d met before, after she’d seen a play of mine. She told me that she’d been trying to get in touch with me on my old number.
So I went on to give my auditions — a 4-5 round process conducted over two months. I actually had no idea what the film was about, or who was in it, because they don’t reveal this information at that stage. I got selected, and Shanoo called me one evening and explained that it was a film called Fan, and Shah Rukh Khan was in it! (laughs)
I think it was good that things worked out the way they did, because sometimes when you know what is at stake, you jinx it yourself. Once I was finalised, I met Maneesh Sharma, the director, who was really sweet. This was also when the trailer of Margarita With A Straw had just come out, and I believe that, to a certain extent, played a part in me getting this role, apart from the audition that I’d given.
How was working with Maneesh Sharma like? You’re a pretty big SRK fan — what has the experience of working with him on Fan been like?
When I met Maneesh, he spoke about how Margarita’s trailer was outstanding, and how he wanted me to be in the film. I didn’t really grow up on Bollywood, and my sensibilities are still a little different, but I loved his first film Band Baaja Baarat, and I felt that in the commercial space, Maneesh has really managed to do an excellent job and direct the actors really well.
Maneesh was actually much younger than I expected, and he has incredible clarity of vision and thought for a man that age. Maneesh is one of the very few directors who know exactly what they want and as an actor, this makes him a complete pleasure to work with. Directing is all about vision, and that Maneesh has plenty of; he knew exactly how he wanted each line delivered. That makes life simple for everyone on set. I definitely want to work with him again. The whole crew was really young, and it was a great atmosphere on set.
I was, of course, very excited about working with Shah Rukh Khan, and also about working in a Yash Raj Film. Every actor who comes to this city aspires to be in a Yash Raj Film, it’s one of the leading production houses in the country. The way they work is incredible, and although I haven’t actually met Aditya Chopra, I really feel that he is a visionary and has the intelligence to have been constantly churning out good cinema for decades now.
There are very few people I’d say I am a fan of, but Shah Rukh Khan is definitely one of them (laughs). He really is the chosen one; not everyday do you come across a man as solid as that. The kind of love and affection he gets from people, he gives it back tenfold. Very gracious, very warm, and extremely genuine. He is actually very cool, funny and witty — and fun. It’s like a party on set when he’s around. As a co-actor, he was the first person I’d worked with who would hound me to practise lines — I love rehearsing lines, and the whole process of acting, so I was delighted; I felt like I’d found the co-actor for me. And it’s Shah Rukh Khan, no less. (laughs)
He’s the most technically sound actor that I’ve worked with and he has a crazy fan following all over the world. He’s so humble, though, like a middle-class Delhi boy (laughs). It’s inspiring to see that, because it reminded me that no matter who you are, what really matters is the humility with which you carry yourself.
Your debut in Margarita With A Straw really packed a punch. Tell us a little about your thoughts/apprehensions prior to its release, and the response. How did it pave the way for your projects after that?
My debut was actually Second Marriage Dot Com, a film that I got within a month of coming to Bombay. I didn’t even think it would get a release, but unfortunately, it did, and nobody went to see it (laughs). It was a good experience though, because for me, it was a good opportunity fresh out of film school. I got to play the lead and experience being on set; it was like a rehearsal for myself, and it was worth it. I’ve also done a Bengali film called Tasher Desh, and another film that didn’t get released. Margarita was my first big film that got me recognition and I went through quite a gruelling audition process for a month, prior to being cast.
It was a really challenging role, being so layered, and both Kalki (Koechlin) and I were really excited as actors to work on something so intricate. The film had gotten some amazing reviews and response from film festivals all over the world, and it was quite overwhelming. People would come up to the team very moved after the screening, something I witnessed firsthand at the South Asian Film Festival in Los Angeles. The film is still doing the rounds of festivals, and the longstanding joke between Kalki and I has become that we’ll be sixty years old, and still answering questions about Margarita. (laughs)
I still have a long way to go, but this film really put me on the map because of what a good film it intrinsically is. It has a lot of credibility, that extends into the actors’ performances. People just start taking you seriously after a role like that, give you these grace marks. All my roles in the films I’ve worked in have materialized through auditions, although I might be doing an American film soon because the director saw me in Margarita, and tried to find me.
What were some of your biggest learnings from working on Fan vis a vis working on an indie film like Margarita With A Straw?
There are all kinds of indie films being made, there’s so much frenzy about cinema in itself. A lot of films are being released, and a lot of people have real talent. The only way to realize how difficult the process is, is to actually go through it. People who are making independent cinema struggle at every stage, but there is an immense kind of satisfaction that they think they will derive from it. We had no money for Margarita With A Straw and went to New York to shoot, with no money to eat. There was a day when we shot with extras, and they revolted because we couldn’t pay them. It was only Shonali (Bose, Director) and Nilesh (Maniyar, Co-Director & Co-Writer) who had the incredible amount of heart, and they held it together. Until it actually released, things were really chaotic, and now the film has become what it has.
When you work with YRF, it’s a huge studio, and for the first time, you are doing a film whose release the whole nation is waiting for. The money rolls in a completely different way, and sometimes, you do feel like there is so much money – and sometimes, wastage, here – that some really should be distributed to filmmakers of independent cinema; because people really need it. (laughs)
I was quite taken aback on the first day of shoot — things are much more streamlined and professional, it’s a much bigger set and they have a lot more resources, obviously. The distribution of labour is very different from an independent set-up, but you become spoilt after you work with YRF. Who doesn’t want to work in a big film? (laughs) I consider myself a part of the filmmakers’ process, being a part of the film. I enjoy cinema because I believe it is a collaboration of so many different art forms, and a film is created because of a cohesion of so many creative processes.
What are the qualities you look out for in a project before choosing to pursue it? Would you like to diversify your roles in the future, and if so, how?
Going about picking my projects is something I do purely based on my instincts. I have very strong instincts, any performer should have that. Generally, if I’ve read a script in one go without putting it down, it means it has really held my attention. There has to be something in the script and the character that excites me, and it’s a very instinctive understanding and reaction.
I’m a very spontaneous person, and I don’t plan things. I generally take things as they come, and that’s how I choose my work as well.
What about short films and ads? Tell us about a few that you’ve worked on. What is your difference in approach to these vs. films, and do you have any personal preferences?
I do a lot of ads, because it helps me pay the bills, and I like working on short films because it’s a smaller format, easier to shoot, it seldom needs a big budget and I find the content is also often very exciting. You get to work with people at earlier stages of their career, who might not have the resources to make a big film right now, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the talent to. There’s no censorship, and it’s a format that I absolutely love working in.
I did a film called Bubbles and Stars by Rukhshana Tabassum, which was a part of the PVR Director’s Rare short film festival ‘Shuruaat’. I’ve also done Payal Sethi’s Leeches, Anubhuti Kashyap’s Call Waiting etc. I’ve done a lot of short films, most of which you can find online.
Being a newcomer, how would you summarize your experience in the industry so far? You have some interesting big projects coming up – anything you’d like to tell us about?
I believe that you attract the energies that you put out, so I don’t put out any negative ones. I really value my journey as a human being as well as an artist, they’re both equally important to me. I’ve always been honest, and I don’t suck up to people. If you’re honest with your intentions, people will see you and respect you for what you are. Every one I have met has been extremely nice, and I believe that if you carry yourself with dignity, no one can undermine that. I have met the warmest people, and have made some great friends here in Bombay. You eventually find like-minded people, and there’s a lot of solidarity.
As for future projects, I’m working some interesting voice over work now, I can’t really talk about the brand, but I’m doing their ads in India, I’ve finished about five, so that’s been on since a while. I’m excited about Fan, and figuring things out with Jagga Jasoos. The idea is to produce and direct, ultimately, because I’ve realized it’s not possible to do the stuff you want to without the money. So I think that’s definitely something to work towards as a larger goal.