She came into the industry as a breath of fresh air and impressed everyone with her subtle yet strong and expressive performance in October. Debutante Banita Sandhu talks to Bhakti Mehta about shooting a film in a foreign language and in a country unknown to her.
Shoojit Sircar said he found his Shiuli the first time he saw you on the sets of an ad he was directing. What was your reaction to this?
I am going to be honest here and say that my reaction was not really over the top. When he offered the film to me, it was all pretty casual. He told me, and I started chatting with Juhi (Chaturvedi), and they told me I looked like the main girl that they had in mind. And I just said ‘yes’. I didn’t even react much because I didn’t get the time to process it properly.
When did it actually sink in that you were entering the Hindi cinema industry?
I think it really sank in when the trailer released. I have worked with Shoojit sir before and the crew had become like family to me. So, when I came back for the promotions, it didn’t feel like I was coming back for my first film; it felt like I was coming back to my family. When we were shooting the film, I was aware that I had a job to do and we did it, after which I went back to my normal life in London. I didn’t feel like I was making this big, Bollywood debut. When I came back for the trailer launch and we released it in Mumbai, it received a huge response. That’s when I realised how much big a deal this film was actually going to be.
Is it true that you were not keen on doing movies when you were doing ads?
It is not so much about me not being keen but about me not considering it, knowing my linguistic limitations. It is common knowledge now that I cannot speak Hindi and so I didn’t think I could be offered a role in Bollywood. But, I did have the opportunity to come to India and do some ads. It just felt right. I got to make money because being a student in London is very expensive and I also got to explore my heritage, my culture. It made sense for me to come back here. I didn’t come with the intention of working with so-and-so or making an entry into Bollywood. It was almost a fluke and fate that it happened.
Did you have a connection with Bollywood before?
My connection with Bollywood is only through my mum who used to watch Hindi movies. These films would air on TV when I was growing up. But, my mum would watch her generation of actors so I have grown up watching Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan. I haven’t really had a chance to see any work done by the new generation, Varun’s generation. When these guys started out in Bollywood, I got independent in my choice of films and lost the connection with Hindi movies.
The role is not very glamorous and wouldn’t be considered the right debut choice by many. But, you had conviction in the strength of this character.
It was actually very instinctive. It made complete sense to do this film because I had one of the best directors in the country making it. I didn’t care about the big, glamorous debut. I was not strategic or meticulous in the way that I wanted to be launched in this industry. I just want to do diverse roles. This is the kind of movie which gave me that edgy character to play. If anything, it was the fact that the role was so different from anything anyone has done before that made me say yes to it. As an actor, it was an absolute treat because here was a role I could really grapple with.
In the film, you express a lot non-verbally. How difficult is it to emote on screen when your character is physically restricted?
It is difficult, for sure. I didn’t have a lot to work with. People keep asking me what the worst part about filming was, and the worst part was that one week when my movement was limited. It is difficult to keep your eyes closed, without blinking, especially when everyone around is calling you. You want to react.
I felt very frustrated at the end because I could feel everyone working, acting around me but I couldn’t get that chance. I was jealous because I wanted to act and do something! Frustration really builds in you and it came out when we see Shiuli going through a tough time in the end. I was feeling that frustration, anger and sadness that she was feeling, and that is what showed in those scenes. But, finally those were the scenes where I felt like I was actually doing something in the movie. Towards the end of filming is when I felt fulfilled.
In the film, there is an unspoken bond between Shiuli and Dan. What was the connection between Varun and you on the set?
There was actually no ice to break between Varun and me. He’s a very nice guy and we got on fine when we were shooting. To be honest, throughout the filming, we didn’t really have much time to spend together so we didn’t really get to know each other except in the last week. It was a very quick shoot and it was very intense.
When we were shooting the difficult scenes, I couldn’t even have dinner with anyone else because I just wanted to be by myself. When you are shooting for a film like October, for 12-15 hours a day, you want to step back a bit in the little time you get, so I would do that. I would just go back to the hotel and speak to my mum and try to hold on to whatever I had in me.
We have heard about the unusual workshops that you all went through while preparing for this film. Can you elaborate on how you prepped for your role?
We divided the prep for this character into two parts – one was the normal, healthy Shiuli and the other was for the Shiuli who is in a coma. For the first part of the role, there were a lot of references that we had about this young, sweet, innocent, mature girl who is trying to build a career. I spoke to Juhi for hours about who Shiuli is and what her character is like and how she acts, reacts. It was a little difficult for me to connect to that because she is a much better person than I am. She is a pure soul, so I had to calm down a lot because I was ridden with anxiety while I was doing this. I had just turned 19 and there was a lot of teenage angst in me and a lot of worries. So, there was a lot of preparation required for that part of my role.
Shoojit sir told me that I had to mentally prepare for this as well as for what was to come, which is the coma part. That was also physically taxing because there was a lot of prosthetic work that was applied to my face, followed by 8-10 hours of filming, and then the prosthetics took another hour or two to come off. It was all very mentally and emotionally draining. I watched so many documentaries to prepare for the coma part. I would watch them every single day and record little snippets and send them to Shoojit sir.
One thing I realised then was that people can have the same injuries but recover differently from them. We had to be really specific about how we wanted Shiuli to recover and in what capacity her health would progress in the film. I was in London during this time and I was doing the prep from there. I would be talking to Shoojit sir on video calls and we realised that we wanted her recovery to be natural and calm. We didn’t want it to be violent like certain patients tend to get.
You can see that aspect in Shiuli here and there but not outright. We didn’t want to go to the extreme with the recovery, we didn’t want to go to those lengths. I am not sure I am able to explain it adequately; you have to see it to fully understand. The first time I sat in a wheelchair, it was an overwhelming experience because I felt so limited. That kind of acting took a lot of preparation.
I also heard that you were very distraught when you shaved your hair for this film.
Yeah. I was told in the very beginning that this would be the case but I had forgotten about it in the initial stages. Looking back, I am so glad I decided to do it. There is a preconceived notion in cinema that shaving your head makes you feel liberated but that’s not how I felt. It took a good three to four months of insecurity and struggle with the kind of new identity I had and then I finally came to terms with accepting this part of me. It was such a learning experience. October is more than a film to me. It is a culturally and spiritually enriching journey that we went on and I am grateful for it.
What is your next step going to be now that you have become an acclaimed Hindi film actress?
Right now, my only plan is to go back and finish my graduation in London. The entire experience of studying at the university, shooting for a film in a language that I didn’t know, a country I am not familiar with, shaving my hair and juggling all this was very foreign to me. This entire process has been quite challenging. So, I need to finish my studies and take a week’s vacation to unwind. Beyond that, when I have a career in mind, I will know which path to choose.