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A ‘Quiet’ Revolution

With Photograph now playing in screens, Sanya Malhotra talks to Bhakti Mehta about how silence can sometimes be more powerful than words, working with Nawazuddin Siddiqui and much more

What kind of response have you received so far?

I don’t know and I don’t want to know (Laughs). For the first time, I am so relaxed and feeling so happy before the release of a film. Thanks to the film festivals where Photograph was screened, I am quite stress-free. I saw the film with the audience and I know what their reaction was. But you never know with the Indian audience. I am very proud of the film and I am not at all nervous or anxious, which I usually am. I am pretty chilled out this time.

Tell us more about the experience at film festivals.

The experiences at the Berlinale and the Sundance Film Festival were good. I did not want to come back from Salt Lake City. It is such a beautiful place and has a lovely vibe. People were there to watch good movies. It is an altogether different high. I remember watching the screening one day and shopping the next day. Shopping toh banta hai na (Laughs)! While I was shopping, people came up to me and talked about the film. They had their own versions for the story of Rafi and Miloni. I felt so good. Non-Hindi speakers could relate to a Hindi language film that is set in Mumbai where my character speaks in half-Hindi and half-Gujarati – and that felt so good!

The Berlinale and the Sundance Film Festival are big festivals. Do you think screening films there helps their theatrical run?

More than that, these festivals help the business of a film as they help sell a film. After Sundance, a lot of people bought Photograph for the Spanish, Italian and other markets across the world, which is a great thing. A very big production house called the Match Factory bought the film. The audience at festivals loves watching films. They are not there for recreational purposes. I do not know if screening movies at film festivals helps the PR aspect of movie-making but it definitely helps the business. And Ritesh (Batra) has a special connection with the Sundance Film Festival.

Speaking of Ritesh, he told us that ‘the best thing about Sanya is that she can do a lot with silences’. What do you have to say about that?

My first line comes 30 minutes after the film begins. And with Photograph, I could do a lot with my silences. Before every scene, Ritesh used to tell me to take my time and not say something if I didn’t feel like it. My character, Miloni, is like that. She is reticent and psychologically convoluted. She is a very complex girl to understand.

On the surface, she looks like someone who is not listening to you, is not interested in talking, is indifferent and is only interested in her books. But she is very complex, is constantly thinking about things and is very aware of whatever is happening in her family and around herself. She feels burdened by the expectations of her family and the things they want her to do. Ritesh gave me a lot of freedom to play this character in the way I wanted to. He also helped me a lot on the set so that I understand Miloni better.

Miloni had lines but I was given the freedom to express my emotions without words. I remember shooting a scene where I was eavesdropping on my parents’ conversations. That has stayed with me. This character has stayed in my system. After he called ‘cut’, I went back to my room and started crying. It was a very emotional scene. I was genuinely feeling bad about the conversation that they were having.

This was on the second or third day of the shoot. Ritesh asked, ‘Sanya, are you fine? Is everything okay?’ I did not know why I was crying. Miloni is someone who never lets anyone know what she is going through. She agrees to pose as Rafi’s fiancée. She is a weird girl, nahi toh kaun aisa karta hai? But she is seeking something else in her life. Rafi shows her a new world and helps her see a new side to her that she had never experienced before.

Since this was your second film as an actor, were you apprehensive about not being able to convey the things you wanted to through silences?

No (Laughs)! As Sanya, I could totally relate to Miloni. I was also quite reticent, but we come from two very different worlds. I have never experienced her anguish. She is a CA topper and I can never be a CA topper in my life (Laughs). My family is very supportive and hers is not. When you get into a character and your director gives you the freedom to do the things that you want to, you trust your instincts and play it the way you want to. When you are working with great actors, it becomes very easy. If you are not acting with a very good actor, you are not having a conversation with them.

I believe that acting is all about the reaction you give your co-stars. If an actor is not listening to you, you just know that and you can see the confusion on their face; you can see that they are waiting for their cue. When you are acting with people like Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Jim (Sarbh) or Geetanjali (Thapa), you know they are not acting but literally having a conversation with you. Everything feels very real when you are with them on set. And that really helps you play your character. If you do not have a conversation, it breaks the momentum of the scene.

When Ritesh used to talk to us before shooting a scene, it used to be different for different actors. It would be like an actor-director secret. He would come to me and whisper something in my ear, something weird and unrelated to the scene. Then he used to go to Nawaz and tell him something else. We used to constantly improvise.

After Dangal, you must have set a career path for yourself. How does Photograph fit into that?

After Dangal, I had no thought whatsoever (Laughs). I had a lot of pressure from everyone around me. They told me that it should be with a good director and it is your second film that shapes your career. First, they say your first film shapes your career, then they say your second film does that, and then they say your third film is the litmus test! Aise toh har film achchi karni padhegi (Laughs)!

After Dangal, I genuinely felt that there would not be any major change in my career. Who would come to me with a script? It used to feel like a dream. I was used to going for auditions. When scripts started coming to me, I used to feel so happy. I used to tell my mother that I am going for a narration (Chuckles). I never could imagine that someone would come to me with a film. Three days after Dangal released, I got a call from Mukesh Chhabra, who told me that Ritesh Batra wanted to talk to me. I thought that he wanted to congratulate me for Dangal. But he told me that he had a script and he wanted me to read it.

I was, like, ‘Oh my God! Is this actually happening?’ I read the script. Then he came to India and I went in for an audition. That is how I got on board. It was a big thing for me. I have been a huge fan of Ritesh. I loved The Lunchbox. It is a beautiful film. I keep looking for opportunities like these where I feel I can learn a lot from the story and from a character. When I read the script, I was very excited to be part of the film.

From the trailer, it is evident that the backdrop of Bombay almost comes alive in the film. Did this thought cross your mind when you first read the script?

It is true that Bombay is a character in our film. The film is set in the world that Ritesh has created with is writing. He said something very beautiful a few days ago. He said he left Bombay when he was 19 and for him, time stopped there.

That is why the film has ‘nostalgia’ written all over it.

Yes, that is what he said. He said it is nostalgic and it is about how he sees Mumbai. For me, Mumbai was always about Manto’s writing. I could relate to places like Colaba and Matunga to Manto’s writing. When I came from Delhi, I used to read a lot of Manto. I read his book called Bombay Stories and I was so excited to see places like Bandra Fort while we were shooting for Photograph. The fact that Manto used to write there made it so special.

While preparing and shooting, I used to listen to old Bollywood songs from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. That helped me get into the character. These are small things, but when he incorporated them into his writing, they became magical. He created a magical Mumbai through his writing. Mumbai looked so beautiful in The Lunchbox too – the trains, the buses, the houses gave a very real look to the film.

In fact, we were shooting in Ballard Estate on a Sunday. I was telling ‘Rafi’ – I used to call Nawaz by that name – that I love this area of Mumbai because I feel like I am a part of Manto’s stories. Back then, I did not know he was shooting for Manto. What a connection (Laughs)! Manto was doing the festival rounds while we were shooting.

Reading Ritesh’s script is like reading a book. His films are like visual poetry. The script of Photograph was very different from what we shot because he was rewriting it while we were shooting. He improvised it according to us and our characters. He used to carry his book and his pencil to the set. Even when we were shooting, he used to sit there and keep writing, and then after the shot he would come and tell me the changes, that we were doing something different. It was wonderful because when you are shooting on the set, some things which were there in the script, don’t work out. When you are doing it, you know when something is not working. Some directors are rigid about it and they want those scenes to be there but some go with the flow of the characters or the script.

I really like that about some directors and Ritesh is one of them. It helps because when you are enacting certain scenes, you get to know that some things don’t fit, you just know it. As an actor, I would feel that if this is not necessary for the film, why would I do it? It is nice to work with directors like Ritesh because they see the bigger picture.

Last year, in the span of a month, you had Pataakha, for which you were appreciated even though it didn’t do very well, and then there was Badhaai Ho, which did wonders at the box office. What is your headspace when you deal with this roller-coaster of highs and lows?

Even though Pataakha didn’t do well at the box office, I am very satisfied and proud of that film. I learnt so much because my character taught me a lot. The whole process of the shoot, prepping for the role of Chutki and working with Vishalji (Bhardwaj) as well as Atul Mongia, was a learning experience.

People who have watched the film on Amazon Prime Video have really liked it. A lot of people didn’t know when the film had released. But as soon as it went online, it got so much love and I still get messages on social media from people who have enjoyed and appreciated the acting, story and the two sisters. Some people liked it and some didn’t, which is normal for every film, whether Pataakha or Badhaai Ho. There is always that balance. Yes, I know it is important for the film to do well at the box office, for the producers and the investors. But, as an actor, the audience’s reaction and review are more important. 

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