Interview By: Ankita R. Kanabar
She’s this Indian girl from Australia, who has been obsessed with Hindi films, songand-dance, ever since she was a child. That’s what drove her to try her luck in Hindi cinema, all the way. With a journey not as smooth, but turning out to be fulfilling eventually, PallaviSharda gets talking about her upcoming film, ‘Begum Jaan’, and working in different industries…
“The sense of adaptability and always being in a different surrounding, playing different characters is fun”
What did you think of ‘Begum Jaan’ when you read the script; people are really surprised looking at the trailer?
It’s interesting because I got a call that there’s this director who is doing this ﬁlm, and I was asked, ‘would you be interested in playing a very strong character in a ﬁlm’, and then I was told she’s a sex-worker and it’s a ﬁlm about the brothel. That just intrigued me more. And when SrijitMukherji and I were introduced on email, we exchanged a few emails and he sent me the script. I was pleasantly astounded by the content because it was such a truthful script, written with so much integrity and the character of Gulabo, really did shine through for me. She also has a very sensitive, vulnerable side to her, a lot like me in real life, where in there’s a brave front for the world but there’s a lot going on internally. I just felt the need to play her. I was very drawn to Gulabo. There are so many different parallels we share. First of all, her name is Gulabo, and Pallavi means rose petals. Her back story is that she comes from Hoshiyarpur and my dadi was from Hoshiyalpur and to play a woman who is from rural Punjab from an area where my paternal grandparents came from, is very interesting. Particularly, because I’m born and bought up outside India. So, I found it very interesting to get into the character, pick up that dialect, wearing a salwarkameez and feel at home, which is also true. I feel very comfortable in salwarkameez more than in western clothes. So I was able to become that person. It was really seamless and a blessing in my eyes.
Did you have to work on getting certain nuances right?
We really thought about it and I was a part of the workshop that was happening with everyone. Gulabo’s backstory was very speciﬁc about the hardships she’s gone through before she comes into the house which makes her protective of herself in a certain way and makes her body language different from other women in the house. I had to actually adapt to that and inhibit that. Because actually everyday sitting in my trailer, you imagine you’ve actually gone through something horrendous when you’re walking to the set. It took constant work and constant immersion, in terms of the language and nuances. To play a prostitute, you have to be very free with your body, you’re no conscious. To shed that thing which we have as women today, to be conscious of your sexuality, I had to remove that from yourself, because the one thing prostitutes are very liberal about, is their sexuality. So, that was very liberating.
Do you think you’ve managed to shed your inhibitions more and more with each ﬁlm?
You deﬁnitely get better at being able to just become a character. The techniques you start to adopt, and seeing what works for you – there’s a lot of preparation that goes on as an actor. I’m not claiming that I have a set method, it changes, depending upon the character. So, right after playing Gulabo, I went and shot in Manali where I played a woman who is a memory of a man, where she goes through a difficult violent scene. I’m so glad I played Gulabo earlier because I could use similar techniques. But if I’m doing ‘Lion’ for example, it was totally different because she’s a student. What helped about Gulabo’s character was the setting we were in, the fact that we were all together and it’s an ensemble. So, you’re feeding off the energy of everyone else. Everyone was talking to each other by character names. I think that I did make an effort on this particular set to remain within the character even when we were not shooting.
You’ve played very Indian or rather traditional, as opposed to your upbringing which is western. ‘Begun Jaan’ adds to it, so are you happy with that contrast or do you think, that other side of you needs to be tapped?
It’s a double-edged sword. I’m very happy. I think it’s an incredible feat on my part. I’m speaking to you right now and I have an Australian accent so you realise that, but if I decided to talk in Hindi, nobody would know I was born and bought up in Melbourne. So they would think it’s no big deal, she talks in a Hindi Punjabi accent. But no, there are various elements to my personality that I tap into. I think as an actress it’s incredible that I can transport myself from a pub in Melbourne to a village in Punjab in 1947. So, yes it’s fulﬁlling. But the irony is, people look at me on-screen as a very Indian face, as a very Indian character. I have an Indian face but I’m an urban woman so there’s so much that they can tap into, from my urban side. There are urban characters, in our romcoms today. I’ve done stuff where I’m myself, like in my interviews and people say we love seeing you in this avatar. And Ayushmann said this to me, we took a very funny photo on the sets of ‘Hawaaizaada’, which looked like a poster of a romcom and he told me, you need to really do something fun. Because I’m a comedic actress in the west. It’s what happens. As an actor, it is the danger, it’s what happens with everyone. You play something and people look at you, as that. If I didn’t play that girl in ‘Hawaaizaada’, it wouldn’t have been a reference point for Shreejit. Often you get typecast and that’s why I work so much overseas because it gives me the opportunity to maintain a very diverse repertoire in my career.
“You really have to prove yourself, and you have to prove yourself against the odds most times. So, it has made me resilient”
How have you been managing work in Australia and India?
I have to be a different woman right now in a few days for a show, and it’s really tough because ﬁrst of all, you don’t get personal time to go, meditate and detach from a character. I am always walking into a place where I’m considered foreign. That’s also very tough. In India, people are like ‘she’s the ﬁrang’, and in Australia, people say, ‘she’s the Bollywood actress’. That’s why ‘Lion’ was very interesting for me, because I play an Indian girl with an Indian accent in Australia. That was very symbolic because it brought together, two of my cultures.
So, where do you ﬁnd a sense of ﬁtting in?
I don’t. I’ve always been a misﬁt. You grow up in Australia, in the early 90s and you’re ‘the Indian girl’. You watch Hollywood ﬁlms in the 90s at home on the weekends, and you’re dancing to ‘chanekekhetmein’ at functions. I have always dreamt of being a Bollywood actress. That NRI fascination of Bollywood was very much within me, but in a really deep way. ‘Bharatnatyam’ was a big part of my life, my father was a Bollywood buff , so I would watch ‘ChupkeChupke’, ‘Abhimaan’ and all those ﬁlms. Then it was the golden era of Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit and I was obsessed with their ﬁlms. You asked me any dialogue and I’d know. People think here that I’m the ﬁrang, but then I be like, should I give you the dialogues of ‘KuchKuchHotaHai’. India was always a big part of me. But Austrailia is such a big part of me now. What I get from Austrailia, is my conﬁdence and willingness to speak my mind and I don’t want to lose that because that’s a very positive attribute that my up bringing in Australia gave me.
So, out of these inﬂuences, what is it that makes you who you are today?
I think also my journey in India is a big part of who I am today. Before India, I ﬁnished as a student. I ran away from home and started giving auditions here. I learnt how to be an adult here, I really learnt how to overcome challenges,I learnt that life doesn’t go as per plan and hardship is a very important part of the journey and letting go, going with the ﬂ ow, letting the universe take its call is important too. Before that I was very optimistic and ambitious and really had self-belief, but it doesn’t work like that. You really have to prove yourself, and you have to prove yourself against the odds most times. So, it has made me resilient and a lot more comfortable in my own skin, and I’m glad I get the opportunity through my hard work, to work in various industries so that constant cross-cultural churning, really makes me who I am. The sense of adaptability and always being in a different surrounding, playing different characters is fun. I’m an experience junkie. I love putting myself in various situations.
Does the experience of playing characters like Gulabo or working in different industries further given you conﬁdence as an actor?
Yes I think Gulabo has given me a lot of conﬁdence because I was very authentic in the way I went ahead in playing her and I really trusted my instincts, and I had a director who was phenomenal. We were in sync on the set, and his trust in me gave me a lot of conﬁdence. It was the ﬁrst time I felt like I could really play a character on set and that’s what you really want as an actor. I’ve been a theatre actor, a free-style movement artist, so the theatre is where I ﬁnd joy, and on a ﬁlm set, it’s not as easy because the shots are going to happen a certain way. I remember something Shah Rukh Khan told me. When I came into this industry, I had the opportunity to meet him on a set, and I never met him again really. A lot of people asked me earlier that ‘do you want to be an actor or a star’, and I didn’t understand that question. I asked him, why do people ask that? So he said, that’s not important. He told me, ‘always remember that out of the thousand hours or hundred hours of working on a set, there are only 10-15minutes on the set where you feel magic as a human, as an actor. And it’s just for those minutes that we do what we do.’ It’s really true because I felt those moments on the set of ‘Begum Jaan’.
You also seem to have grown and become more conﬁdent as a person.
The last two years have been incredible as a journey for me. Post ‘Hawaaizaada’, it’s been extra-ordinary. The kind of work I’ve been able to do, the kind of people I’ve been able to meet. I felt like this is where I belong, it was about remembering why I do what I do – I’m a performer. And I really doing a lot of dance now which is keeping me so satisﬁed. I’m going back into freestyle movement, I felt like I didn’t get to explore dance so much which is ironic because it’s one of the things from India that I fall in love with. I dance every night, put on some music and just freak out.