New Delhi: A day choc-a-bloc with promotions, reality show appearances, interviews and dressing up for all of the above hasn’t tired Bhumi Pednekar who sounds chirpy even at 11 in the night. Pednekar is out marketing her latest film, a biographical drama titled Saand Ki Aankh scheduled for Diwali release, where she plays a real life 60-year-old sharpshooter from Uttar Pradesh. It’s only her fifth film in four-and-a-half years, despite a much acclaimed debut in Yash Raj Films’ Dum Laga Ke Haisha, with which the young actor had instantly broken out, playing a small-town overweight woman. Successful outings such as Toilet: Ek Prem Katha and Shubh Mangal Savdhaan followed, as did the massively acclaimed Netflix' original Lust Stories. Along with contemporaries like Taapsee Pannu, Ayushmann Khurrana and Rajkummar Rao, 30-year-old Pednekar, who started out as a casting director, is currently the face of the new-age Hindi film actor who has beaten the erstwhile superstar who drew crowds without having a story to tell. In an interview with Mint, she talks about this new age for cinema, balancing social messaging with box office returns and why it’s a good time to be a female actor in India. Edited excerpts:
You’ve only had four film releases and one web show in the four years you’ve been around. Have you consciously chosen to do such selective work?
I had undergone a physical transformation for my first film Dum Laga Ke Haisha where I had gained about 30 kgs. Since it had taken me a year to put on that weight, it naturally took me a little more than that to knock it off. And I was very realistic about it, I wanted it to be a healthy process. In the middle there were about eight months where I was figuring a few things out which usually happens unless you come from a film family or have some sort of a machinery working for you. Both Toilet: Ek Prem Katha and Shubh Mangal Savdhaan, which I had signed by then, released in 2017 and since 2018, I’ve been shooting for all these new films and I had another release—Sonchiriya. So it wasn’t a hiatus as such, it was a technical issue I couldn’t avoid because I had to get back to being Bhumi before I could do another film and the idea is to not play the same person in every movie. But ever since I started filming Sonchiriya, it’s pretty much been back-to-back and most of it has come together now, this year.
What kind of a time is it to be a female actor in India? Are you getting enough variety of roles?
I think it’s the best time to be a female actor in India and I’m extremely fortunate that I started my career at a time when parts for women are being celebrated. If you just see the kind of stories that I have done, be it Dum Laga Ke Haisha about an overweight girl and a guy who’s a complete failure, Shubh Mangal Savdhaan about a couple dealing with a topic that is taboo, or Toilet: Ek Prem Katha where I am on an equal footing with Akshay Kumar. And this is not just about me, I can speak for Taapsee (Pannu) because she also does a lot of female-led films or Alia (Bhatt) who did Raazi which was one of the most successful films last year. A lot of my contemporaries have been doing great work and I think it’s a great time to be a female actor.
What about off screen? Has anything changed for women since the MeToo movement broke out last year?
What happened with the MeToo movement was a very welcome change. At least now women are not taken for granted, the society has become conscious that it’s not that easy to walk over a girl. The women who came out have really paved the path for so many others. I always say that I’ve been fortunate to have been a part of Yash Raj and it’s been a secure environment for me. But having said, because I started working when I was 17, I’ve met people who’ve not had the most pleasant experiences, and I’ve seen today that anybody in a place of power, be it a man or woman, who would want to exploit another person, would not just think twice but not have the courage to do this. And that is exactly what we needed.
Do you see actors like yourself, Taapsee, Ayushmann and Rajkummar Rao as representative of the change today where films run on the basis of story and not star power?
Absolutely. I’m a product of that change. I wouldn’t exist if our content hadn’t revolutionized. Today, Taapsee and me have the courage to play characters more than double our age in Saand Ki Aankh, and I get to do a film like Bala (co-starring Khurrana, slated for November) where we’re talking of colour bias and conventional notions of beauty and I’m playing a deep-coloured girl. Today, people want to see movies that they can relate with and characters that could be one of them. That’s what’s working. There was an entire period where the actor was the karta dharta (most powerful entity) and any random rubbish they did would work. But today, writers are celebrated.
How important is the messaging in a film for you versus the box office?
My reasons for doing a film are very honest and basic. I want to be part of the journey and story, and if I see those reasons have played out, I’m happy. I don’t have control over what happens at the box office.
I don’t think the theme matters to me, but the story does. The message has to match my ideology and belief system. A film like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha has a wave of nationalism around it but it’s also talking of an issue relevant to the country and the entire world. I’d read reports that 54% of the country didn’t have access to a bathroom and majority of rapes happen when women go out to relieve themselves. These facts really got me thinking, there was a strong script in place, and the icing on the cake was it had a bankable, commercial star like Akshay Kumar with an opportunity for me to hold my own. It was no-brainer for me. So I’m not saying there is no math or thought that I put into it (choosing films), but the math has to match the message.
You have often spoken about liking the idea of looking good and ironically, you play these characters with unconventional physical design, be it Lust Stories or Dum Laga Ke Haisha. How does that dichotomy play out, especially with the pressure on actors’ looks today?
Bhumi, the person, believes in vanity. I want to take that time to get ready and wear make-up, but I don’t think make-up is the reason I look good. It’s just something that enhances my mood and what I’m trying to communicate in that moment. What’s most exciting for me is that when I’m in front of the camera, I don’t care about shedding these layers and I love celebrating my flaws because I think that’s the most human approach you can have. In real life, I’m nothing like the characters I play and it’s like an adrenaline rush for me. It’s a lot more reaffirming when you’re appreciated for your craft and not just your beauty. My craft is something that is going to stay with me forever, the way I look is not something I have control over.
How excited are you about the digital space? Any web projects after Lust Stories?
What I got to do with Lust Stories was liberating and unique. I would go back to the platform if I had something this out-of-the-box and that would push me as an actor and a performer. But honestly, with my movie line-up ahead, it’s a little tight for me and the amount of time a series requires is a lot more than a film. So I just want to do complete justice to this format and then do a switch. It’s not like I’m averse to the idea, I’m completely open because the kind of reach OTT platforms have is crazy. Lust Stories has been nominated for an Emmy and it’s something our fraternity should be very proud of and I hope a lot of actors and filmmakers get inspired and realize that the world is changing, there isn’t a lot of difference between platforms like OTT and film.
What goals and ambition do you have, even beyond cinema?
My list of the people I want to work with, is endless. But something apart from films that I’m passionate about is the environment, and I’m trying to use my power to change how irresponsible people are towards it. I’m starting a property called Climate Warrior on my social media, which would comprise interviews with people who’ve been fighting this war for many years, I’m going to get their point of view. I’m going to put out a lot of interesting content, it’s going to be simple yet hardhitting and entertaining, just to send across the message that we have really abused our planet and it’s reached a point where things have gone out of hand.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I belong to a family of workaholics and I can work 24X7. We’re a bunch of very ambitious women. I’m born and brought up in Mumbai so I have a very set life. When I’m not working, I try and spend as much time as I can with my family and girlfriends or just watch TV, read, do some gardening. My life is pretty simple and basic that way.