Type in the name of any Indian female actor on Google and the drop-down list of suggested search strings invariably includes the adjective “hot" (male actors are rarely accorded this honour unless they happen to be Emraan Hashmi or Randeep Hooda). Shilpa Shukla will now forever be on this dubious list with her seductress turn in Ajay Bahl’s B.A. Pass.

Shukla’s character, Sarika, is not a nice woman to know—she deflowers and then nudges young and impoverished Mukesh into prostitution. She is the nightmare that post-adolescent men are warned about—and one of the best things about the neo-noir, which opens on 21 June.

“I really wanted a role that was meaningful and had a complete life," says Shukla, who has previously played a Pakistani schoolgirl (Khamosh Pani), a hockey player (Chak De! India), and a pickpocket (Bhindi Baazaar Inc.). “I was anxious about the way it goes on YouTube, but the intent with which we made the film is getting correctly translated."

Bahl’s screenplay is based on Mohan Sikka’s steamy short story Railway Aunty from the 2009 anthology Delhi Noir. Sarika is a textbook femme fatale—mysterious, alluring and manipulative. In Sikka’s words, she “insisted on initiating any kissing, which she liked deep and rough". Sarika makes a man, and a gigolo, out of Mukesh, played by Shadab Kamal, but turns her elegant back on him once he has served his purpose. The movie, which was premiered at the Osian’s-Cinefan Film Festival last year, closely follows Mukesh’s journey from abandon to emasculation, but it is hard to escape Sarika’s impression on him, and the audience.

“I did worry about the role a bit, I spoke to my mother and asked her if she would disown me," Shukla says. She keeps her clothes on during the intercourse scenes, although she does sport a range of undergarments. “The lovemaking scenes weren’t actually that challenging," she says. “It was the other scenes, where I had to emote", that were more taxing. “I didn’t know what pitch to use and how to work the role, and Sarika happened to me mentally and physically a day before the shoot," she says. Getting into Sarika’s slinky saris and silken gowns helped, as did the memory of a charismatic older woman Shukla had met at a party in Delhi several years ago, as well as a festival of physical theatre she visited in Japan, which persuaded her to work with her body in B.A. Pass.

The adult-rated neo-noir is likely to chart a new career course for the intelligent and sensitive performer. What that career course will be is debatable. These are supposed to be thrilling times for independent-minded writers and film-makers, but actors remain dissatisfied. They continue to slave in low-budget movies that are either abandoned halfway or sink without trace. They are not glamorous enough to qualify for leading roles in mainstream films and have to line their bank accounts with television and commercials.

Shukla’s blade-sharp features landed her the part of the scheming hockey player Bindiya in Chak De! India, but she hasn’t made much headway since. “You perceive the person on the basis of a notion you have—you are defeating the idea of why you are making a film," she says about the trade’s tendency to pigeonhole actors. “It’s a better time for directors and actors but the gap for actors is getting wider and wider. Actresses are totally sidelined, commercially and in terms of the roles they are being offered." Low-budget films offer prestige and the promise of critical recognition, but they don’t help pay the bills, she points out.

“Small-budget films give a chance to the actors, but that chance becomes more important than the remuneration," she says. “Sometimes, you lose the balance." It’s difficult to pay the rent, follow a fitness regimen and maintain a staff on the cheques that come in (or don’t) from independent cinema.

Often, there is neither quantity nor quality. Shukla has passed up roles because she felt neither “creatively charged nor monetarily compensated". She agreed to be a part of the 2011 movie Bhindi Baazaar Inc. because she needed to contribute to her insurance payments.

Shukla does get a lot of “thinking woman" offers, apart from bit parts in A-list productions. “I get that a lot—you are intense, you are serious. It’s very sad, so I try and smile often."

She adds, “I’m just kidding."

Some of Shukla’s distance from the Mumbai dream factory can be attributed to her grounding in the Delhi theatre scene. A major in sociology from Miranda House, Shukla worked from 2000-04 with Arvind Gaur’s theatre group Asmita. “His choice of scripts is what forms the core of Asmita," she says about training under the acclaimed director. “I got a role many months after serving tea, making posters and watching my favourite actors perform."

Despite a healthy run on the stage, she hasn’t returned to the floorboards since she first walked on to a movie set. “My exit from theatre was dramatic—I fell on the stage thrice during an adaptation of Girish Karnad’s Yayati," she says. Naseeruddin Shah’s theatre group Motley approached her for a role in a production, and she spent many hours with the script. “But I didn’t have the courage to do the role," she says.

Shukla first came to notice in Sabiha Sumar’s Pakistan-set drama Khamosh Pani (2004), in which she played the girlfriend of a character who becomes a religious radical. “I got only one call after Khamosh Pani, for Abhay Deol’s Junction," she says. That film didn’t materialize, nor did a comedy called Season’s Greetings.

She appeared in the television miniseries Rajuben, directed by Charudutt Acharya, which she describes as a “brilliant experience", but has since been waiting for scripts that fire her imagination. “It has been tough managing the lifestyle and satisfying the hunger inside," Shukla says. “There’s always a pattern of waiting and working, waiting and working." This year, at least, that pattern seems set to be broken.

B.A. Pass releases in theatres on 21 June.

Also Read: Ajay Bahl:| ‘B.A. Pass’ notes

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