At the auditions, she was told that if she gets through, she will have to chop off her hair. For a 24-year-old girl who had left her home over a year back to pursue her Bollywood dream of becoming an actress, this would have worked as an instant deterrent. And it did for most other girls who had queued up for that audition — but not for Sanya Malhotra. Losing her precious curly mane was too small a price to pay for the opportunity she would be getting in return. “Baal hai, ug jayenge, par aisi opportunity nahi milegi,” she thought. But eventually, she would be faced with a bigger concern. “For the first three months, while we were prepping for the film, we were not allowed to disclose to anyone that we have been finalised for the movie, the news was totally kept under wraps. There would be speculative articles in the media every now and then and both Fatima and I would really get worried if we were still in the movie or been replaced by some bigger actors. It was a huge opportunity for us; in fact, it was too good to be true, and we were scared of it slipping away from our hands,” Sanya recalls.
Instead of making her debut as a quintessential Bollywood heroine, dolled up in chiffon sarees romancing some hero on the snowy Alps, she made her maiden appearance on the big screen in a spandex singlet as a Haryanvi wrestler. She knew this movie will change her life and break open the doors that had so far walled her dreams. And it did. Nitesh Tiwari’s Aamir Khan-starrer biographical sports drama film Dangal (2016), became the highest-grossing Indian film worldwide, a record that was broken only this year by Shah Rukh Khan’s Pathaan. Although hailed for Aamir Khan’s mind-blowing physical transformation matched with a heavyweight performance as wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat, Malhotra — even with her relatively shorter screen time as Babita Kumari — packed a punch.
“I knew my life was going to change post Dangal; but I couldn’t anticipate the magnitude of it. I got a call from Ritesh Batra the very next day of the release. He had seen Dangal and wanted to meet me. It was all too surreal. I had never thought that there would be a day when I would directly get calls from directors and writers. And this was happening right after my very first film had hit the theatres, and the director was Ritesh Batra! His Lunchbox is one of my all-time favourite films. He said he had a script that he would like me to read. I was too excited to work with him, but I eventually read the script and loved it. That is how my next film Photograph happened,” reveals Sanya.
Ritesh Batra’s wistful and poetic 2019 slow-burn romantic drama was selected in the Berlinale Special section of the 69th Berlin International Film Festival, and the movie saw Sanya Malhotra almost outshine the marvelous Nawazuddin Siddiqui with her quiet brilliance. Her evolved and exquisite performance as the shy and reticent Miloni was a sharp contrast to her Babita, and firmly established her range as an actor. Not only did she pick up a few nominations, her Dangal act set her firmly on the path of her dream career.
The powerhouse performer, who never had any formal training in acting, would go on to play Chhutki, Renee, Anupama, Shruti, Sandhya, Meenakshi, Jyoti, Neha, and Mahima with equal gusto and ensure that each character got a fulfilling life of their own on screen. It is not often that one can boast of such a consistent and prolific career as hers — it is a seven-year-long journey without a single misstep. So, is then the Bollywood journey really not as difficult for ‘outsiders’ as it is made out to be?
“For me, it wasn’t, because I started with a film as huge as Dangal. I am sure that otherwise, things would have been very different,” she explains. “I took a lot of time to find a sense of security. I would always feel that if I take one false step my career might disappear… one bad performance and I might not get the next movie. It was probably a pressure I was putting on myself. Even during Dangal, Fatima and I would often say that we couldn’t slip up for if we did, we might not ever get another opportunity. But yes, that one-and-a-half years between landing in Mumbai and landing that audition was tough.”
It seems her sense of insecurity and the fear of missing out on the next project has ensured that all her performances to date are top-notch. Excerpts from a free-flowing chat with the actor:
Your last release Kathal was a Netflix film. How have OTTs changed the game, if at all, for actors like you, who are not getting into the conventional Bollywood heroine mould?
Thanks to OTT and good writing, I am so glad that I am an actor now. The kind of characters I am getting to play today isn’t the kind of woman I would see on screen while growing up. Most women characters used to be easily replaceable. OTT has definitely changed the game. I have seen it happen with Ludo, Pagglait, Meenakshi Sundareshwar, and now Kathal. Thanks to OTT, that shift has happened in my career where I am getting so much love from the audience.
You have headlined movies like Patakha, Pagglait, and now Kathal. Do you see women-led movies finally becoming mainstream instead of being a sub-genre?
I think that has definitely changed with films such as Sherni and Thappad. I am glad that my seniors in the industry and other actresses are taking up roles like these and headlining movies. Even the audience wants to watch such movies today. There are writers writing stories like Pagglait and Kathal and there are producers backing those. From the time I joined the industry to now, there has been a tremendous change in the kind of roles I am offered. But yes, we still have a long way to go.
While growing up was the dream ever to play the quintessential Bollywood heroine dancing in a chiffon saree?
Of course! I definitely used to imagine myself doing such movies too while growing up. I would really love to be part of such a movie, and sing and dance. But content has taken over and I am definitely not complaining!
Were you a filmy kid? What was the impact of Bollywood on you while growing up?
Weirdly, neither of my parents was a movie theatre enthusiast. I don’t know why. But we never used to go to cinema halls. We used to watch a lot of movies on television. Papa was a huge Sunny Deol fan. He used to watch and rewatch only his movies every weekend. I must have seen Vishwatma about a hundred times! Also, I had this friend who would watch every film first-day-first-show. She would watch the movie in the morning and sit with us in the evening and narrate the entire film replete with dialogues, wardrobe details, and even songs. Bachpan se narration le rahi hoon mein (laughs). We would then do our own choreography for the songs and dance. It was my dance group. I used to love dancing and would copy steps from famous Bollywood song. My go-to was Ek Pal Ka Jeena and Kajra Re. I used to ensure I have a solo dance performance at every birthday party, shaadi, sangeet that I used to go to. In fact, I would get really offended if I was not asked to do a solo dance… phir mujhe bulaya hi kyun? Kal Ho Naa Ho was the first one I had watched on the big screen.
You were also part of a dance reality show. What was the initial dream… to become an actress or to become a dancer?
The dream was always to become an actor. But that kind of shifted when I reached college. Being in Delhi, the dream to become an actress and work in Bollywood seemed too farfetched. After my graduation, I was teaching dance in a school, and I loved every bit of it. I was also learning ballet. Then out of the blue I got an email from a dance reality show. I decided to participate because I thought it was a good opportunity to be on television and maybe some director will spot me, and I would land a movie. I came to Mumbai for the auditions of the reality show but got rejected. I went back to Delhi and told my parents that I wanted to shift to Mumbai and give acting a shot. Till then I had not shared my dream to become an actor with anyone. Mom was insistent that I finish my degrees, in fact, she still keeps asking me to join some course every now and then. But thankfully, my dad was rather supportive. I shifted to Mumbai. But back then I was so shy and reticent that I would not even go for auditions (laughs). I was also scared. I had no idea about Mumbai or Bollywood or how these auditions go.
Failures often turn into great life lessons. Did the dance reality show experience and the rejection teach you anything?
Definitely. It taught me to never doubt myself. I used that for my Dangal audition. I was so confident for that. I have to also give credit to my roommates, I saw how they believed in their capabilities and their dreams, and that really inspired me to build my confidence.
It is great that getting rejected for the reality show helped you get rid of your self doubt…
But I was still too harsh on myself. I definitely have imposter syndrome. But I have really worked on it in the past few years and got it a bit under control. Before 2020, I used to not like anything that I did. I would reprimand myself as I would think that I was not good enough. It all came from a sense of insecurity; I knew if I messed up once, I might not get a second opportunity. I would be fine while shooting — I love becoming a character, I love being in front of the camera — but would become a bunch of nerves during the release of the movies. I never enjoyed promoting my work or talking about my performances. I made a conscious effort to change this during the promotions of Shakuntala Devi. I watched how wonderfully Vidya (Balan) would go through all the promotional events and give such wonderful interviews… we would often do these Zoom interviews together and I would notice how much she seems to be genuinely enjoying talking to the journalists. It really helped me to make that change. During the promotions of Kathal, I didn’t feel how I used to feel before. In fact, I have started to like talking about my work and giving interviews like this. I am finally able to not take things so seriously. It is also because I know that I am part of some really good films and it can’t all be due to sheer luck, I must be putting in the work.
You have had 11 releases in 7 years. That’s a lot of movies. You have been constantly shooting for or promoting movies. Does it ever take a toll on your health?
I had gained about 15 kg for the second schedule of Pataakha and it took me about a year to lose the weight. And that was because I was suffering from multiple injuries during that time. I met with a bike accident right after finishing the movie and had a plastered leg for the next six months. I was still working out a bit, but it was not intense enough to lose weight.
That got a bit healed and there were so many events I was attending — Pataakha had released followed by Badhaai Ho — that I wasn’t paying too much attention to my health. And then I broke my ankle, twice. I was in and out of plasters. My films were releasing and there was so much work that was happening, but physically I was a mess. I remember I was in Gujarat for a promotional event for Badhaai Ho, and while on the stage I couldn’t stop myself from breaking into a dance, and I broke my ankle there again. I was all over the place, but I didn’t stop working. I was still figuring out how to balance everything. But things are much better now. I have not only recovered fully but I ensure that my health, both emotional and physical, is not compromised. I am much more aware now; I take enough breaks between work. Last year I worked on five films back-to-back. This year is packed with releases. I am currently on a month’s break in Delhi and spending time with my family.
And what about your mental health? You play such intense characters. Do they leave any residue, especially emotionally?
I used to often come home from shoots feeling sad and heavy. I didn’t realise that the emotions I am inducing for a particular scene while playing a character, I was imbibing those inside me. It took me time to understand that those are not my emotions but that of the character. In 2020 I started getting therapy and that was the time I realised this. I am much more aware of this now and therapy really helped me dissociate from the characters I am playing and create that healthy boundary. Sometimes, if a movie or a scene requires it, I let myself flow and be in that emotion, but now I do it intentionally. I don’t get confused with those feelings.
And… what can you tell us about your next two releases Jawan and Sam Bahadur?
Just that I am in them! It is still too early to talk about both. I still can’t believe I am part of Jawan; I am a huge SRK fan! I had a huge star-struck moment on the first day of the shoot. But thankfully, I could eventually be all professional and do my job.
A Woman Of Characters
In a career spanning just seven years, Sanya Malhotra has created a niche for herself in the industry portraying various shades of fearless female characters on-screen. The powerhouse performer goes down memory lane and discusses 5 characters she has brought to life in these years and how each shaped her as an actor:
Apart from being emotionally overwhelmed to be part of such a big project and scared of losing the opportunity, it was physically challenging to become Babita Phogat. It was a biopic, so there would be comparisons and we had to be extra cautious about getting the body language right. Wrestling is a very difficult sport and although I am seen wrestling on screen for just about a minute, I trained for a good eleven months. While training, both Fatima and I had multiple injuries, my knees were gone, but we would initially not tell the production people or the ADs that we were hurting. But eventually they got us physiotherapists both on sets and off it. Also, I was very harsh on myself while shooting the movie. Working with Aamir Khan wasn’t challenging at all. When he met us at the audition, I could not recognise him; he weighed about 110 kg and was already looking every bit the part — we didn’t meet Aamir Khan the star, we met Mahavir Phogat. But what he did with that role, the way he transformed into the character, became a lesson. Working on Dangal and with Aamir Khan became a conditioning whereby I never reach a set without doing my homework.
Chhutki is so loud and spiteful. She is not me at all. And that is why I wanted to audition for that role. Those were the initial days and I wanted to challenge myself and see what my capabilities as an actor are. For Pataakha I did my first acting workshop where I was completely dragged out of my comfort zone. We shot the film in 28 days and after the first schedule of 14 days, we came back to Mumbai and I was supposed to gain 10 kg in less than two weeks for the second schedule where the character is shown to have grown older, had children and become overweight and lazy. I started eating like a maniac and gained a whopping 15 kg. It would be a lie if I say I was not scared to put on so much weight at that stage of my career, and it became quite a task to eventually shed those extra kilos. If I have to do such a thing now, I will be much more careful and ensure that it is done in a much healthier and planned way. But when it is a Vishal Bhardwaj film, you don’t think about these things (laughs). I am so glad that I got the opportunity to play Chhutki at that point in my career; it gave me immense and much needed confidence as an actor.
Photograph was different from Dangal. While for Babita, I had to work extensively on the physical aspects of the character, I had to know and imbibe Miloni emotionally. I needed to get into the psyche of the character. Ritesh helped me build that world and I got locked in it for quite some time, even once the shoot was over. I had no boundaries as an actor back then. I played Miloni and for months, I stayed Miloni. I became her; I took her home. I started imagining things as Miloni and started believing that I was like Miloni. I was unable to dissociate from the character. I shot Badhaai Ho right after Photograph. As Miloni I had an option to not say the dialogues. Ritesh used to say that if you don’t feel like saying things, don’t; but if you want to, these are the dialogues. I got used to that. I was very shy and reticent on the sets and did not talk to people. I was still Miloni. But I had to become Renee Sharma! Pataakha, especially the acting workshop I did for it, helped me to eventually snap out of it. I learnt to create that boundary between the actor and the character. Characters require you to imbue their feelings and emotions but now I know how to get in and out of their worlds.
There are some characters that you want to transform yourself into. Sandhya in Pagglait was one such character. Her life experiences were not anything that I had ever experienced, so I couldn’t find any material in my memory bank that could help me play her. Even her backstory as shown in the movie is a compilation of fleeting moments. I started to write a journal as Sandhya. I would imagine situations as her in an attempt to understand her and to become her. I remember when we had about two days left for the shoot, one day after returning to my hotel room, I started cleaning my cupboard. I am otherwise a very organised person and have a neat cupboard. I had not realised that while playing Sandhya, my cupboard had started to look like hers — there is this scene in the movie where you see her messy cupboard contrasted with her late husband’s neatly organsied one. When I started cleaning my cupboard, I could feel Sandhya leaving me.
For a character like Mahima, I had to do extensive research. Most of the characters in Kathal, including Mahima, were based on real people and Yasho [director Yashowardhan Mishra] had interviewed them for the movie, I went through those recordings. I read a lot, one book that proved to be the most helpful was Coming Out as Dalit: A Memoir by Yashica Dutt. But I had never seen that world. So, just reading up on it was not enough. Also, I had never interacted with a cop before and I had no clue how the real police, not their movie versions, talk, walk or function. I mentioned this to Yasho and we visited some of the villages near Gwalior where the story is set. We also met a number of women cops stationed in the region. Before meeting them, I had a very masculine approach towards the character, I would imagine Mahima walking like a man, and her body language was not flowy and feminine in my head. But here are these real female cops who looked pretty, they would have a tinge of makeup on, they were also maybe dealing with phone calls from their MIL [mother in law] while on the job. They were every bit a woman and every bit a cop. Mahima was purely inspired by these women that I had met and spend time with. We don’t have characters like Mahima in Bollywood. Also, I found this very impressive UP cop named Shrestha Thakur on YouTube, and I tried to copy some of her mannerisms.
Describe your style in three words
Preppy, comfy, and casual
Essentials that you don’t step out without?
Water bottle, watch, phone, and wallet
The most precious accessory piece you own?
A pair of drop earrings my mother had gifted me
One family heirloom that you have repurposed, or have your eye on?
My mom’s gorgeous emerald and cut-diamond choker
One fashion trend that you are currently excited about and would like to incorporate into your wardrobe?
Waistcoats! I think they look really good on me and are chic and comfy. You can dress them up or dress them down. I am glad that they are back in fashion.
One thing we will always find on your nightstand?
Which is your favourite destination for a holiday?
Maldives. I love scuba diving there and I have recently got my certificate
What was your last luxury purchase?
I got myself a car last year
What is your dream car?
An Audi Q8 — it is the car I bought last year!
Stylist: Meagan Concessio
Styling assistant: Harshita Samdariya
Photography: Mohit Varu |
Hair and makeup: Natasha mathias
Hair and makeup assistant: Janvi shau |
Styling intern: Sakshi sarda