A few months ago, the second season of Maharani was unveiled and you picked up the ropes of Rani Bharati’s character from where you left it in season one. As an artiste who is more accustomed to a limited shelf life of a character, was that tough?
Oh yes! I was petrified when we started working on Season Two. Season One had done well and the character had been appreciated. There’s this curse of the second season which we wanted to avoid. I had discussed it with Subhash Kapoor sir and we were clear that we will bring our A game on. Rani Bharati’s character would grow and become stronger but without losing the essence of her character. I love playing strong women but not at the cost of sacrificing their vulnerability and their softer qualities which make them believable and relatable. We were scared but we were inspired; we took leaps in the show which were huge, to make Rani stronger and yet keep her qualities intact with granular details.
Today, as an artiste, you have a solid trajectory, which is a departure from the first six years of your work life in show business…in fact, your foray in web-shows seems to be one of the reasons you’re taking giant leaps of faith in the movies. Comment?
The last few years have made people see me differently as an artiste. I came here to be able to do one good film, which I did. I had no plans and I was lost, scared, uncertain, insecure and what have you. There was no path chalked out and I had no clue what worked in my favour to begin with. I didn’t know my own expectations of myself. When you are new and lost, advice comes from all corners and it often confuses you. I didn’t know whom to turn to because even my brother Saqib (Saleem) was charting his own space. I made mistakes, and said no to things out of fear which I should not have done. I wanted to play safe which took me to a space of deep unhappiness. Four years ago, it fuelled me to look in a different direction and look deep within, make some unpopular choices just because it makes me happy and have fun. That somehow started the engine and good work attracts good energy and good vibes. Since then, I’ve been constantly working and I wouldn’t have it another way. I have so much inside me that seeks expression. It is limiting to play safe and pretty.
But wasn’t turning to the OTT space too much of a risk?
It was and the perception was that udhar jaaoge to teen bacchon ki maa ka role milega. We need to back ourselves, ya! It’s easy to say XYZ didn’t see my potential but I was limiting myself, too. I shouldn’t blame others and I won’t. Unless you are completely happy and certain, how can you convincingly breathe life into a role written on paper? Conviction will open creative discussions which are so fulfilling. The industry has rewarded the fact that I took chances with myself. The work resonated with people I had least hoped it would.
In recent times, at least in the OTT space, several stories led by women have been put together by men, with a strong feminine gaze. How do you think that works?
I can talk about the writers, the director and the show-runner of Maharani, who are all male and are such feminists. They didnt write a character with a gender in mind, it was just a heroic character who happens to be a woman. Of course, she has to navigate her space but having said that, the men working on that show and even some of my upcoming movies are such strong feminists. Even though the dialogue has the bite and bark, femininity is not sacrificed. And feminism is not bastian of women, neither is patriarchy is restricted to men. Feminism is such a misunderstood idea. It’s not about taking a hit at men but a question of choice and equality. It means inclusion, and a just world for both sexes. Without strong men as equal partners, you can’t make a strong feminist film. The way to achieve that is by educating one another with our experiences and understanding of certain areas that are sacrosanct to us. And without any toxicity.
How receptive do you find people to what you are saying? Earning a voice in this business or a seat at the table is not easy…
We’re all hustling for it and I am not the spokesperson for this, but all my colleagues are doing it in their own way. Women are flaunting their pregnancy, marrying, owning their relationships and doing whatever they like, and often at the top of their game. And why should we have shamed a woman for doing any of this ever? Why propagate a size or any other kind of misogynistic ideas and thoughts as must-haves for any gender? It’s disgusting that some of these have been pushed down generations. It’s changing now and we’re all fighting towards its elimination. I think it is a question of being in a position of power and using it create a better place, tell good stories, engage and uplift.
Is that the thought that turned you into a producer?
Double XL was an accident. Mudassar (Aziz) had heard Sonakshi and me chatting about things so often in my drawing room that he decided to write a movie. And we were kicked to make it. It’s a special film and should have been made long ago. I had always planned to make content irrespective of whether I act in it. Even though I didn’t have a fixed plan, I was sure I wanted to back engaging and rooted stories that speak to a larger section of people.
Taapsee Pannu and you seem to belong to the same school of thought where you want to back content and use your position to do something more than what is expected of you…
I just think we all demand to sit at the table and be a part of the chatter. It is what all the women are doing in their walks of life. The idea is to keep knocking the door till it breaks open. There is no math to how this works. Just know what you stand for and know and speak for what you are okay with and not okay with. If you are stubborn enough, it will come to you and you will fly. I think I did that and I know what I like and understand. Success is the luxury of choosing how you want to spend your life. I feel a whole lot of satisfaction in how I approach my life, work and everything in between.
With so much on your hands, what’s next on your wish-list?
When I walk on to a set, I just want to do something jo main aasani se nahi kar sakti. The work has to give me a stomach flip. Simple!