When I spoke to Meghna Gulzar last week, she told me that you had said ‘yes’ to this film even before you heard the entire script. Why did you do that?
The thing that grabbed me is the fact that it is a true story. Also, it is set during the India-Pakistan war. I believe that a story about India and Pakistan will always be relevant because of the futility of the war that we have going on with Pakistan for the longest time. The journey of the character was also a factor but it being a true story tops it all.
You get this feeling that it actually happened, that all this really took place in a person’s life at some point in time. When you read a story or get to know about one that really happened, it excites you and you feel you have to go and watch it. Stories like this become a part of our history. That was the main reason I wanted to be associated with this film.
Have you read the book Calling Sehmat?
I was given the book by Mr Harinder Sikka and the main reason I read it was because it hadn’t yet released in the market. It was exciting to have it and read it before it came out. Otherwise, I believe in always sticking to the script that is given to me.
So, did you prefer doing this because of the differences between the book and your character?
Actually, there aren’t many differences in this book and the character. The book is very extensive but the movie is about this girl, so we have crunched the book. I believe it is better to pick out one story or plot from the book than try to incorporate everything. Then, there would be questions like book mein yeh hua tha, woh hua tha. There is too much information in the book.
From the trailer, it is obvious that you underwent a lot of physical training for this role. You also learnt Morse Code and got a teacher to coach you to get the Urdu dialect right.
For a film like Raazi, it was my number one priority to get my body language and dialect correct because of the period sensibility. That was 40 per cent of my job done. Since she was a Kashmiri girl, the dialect had to be clean but not too clean. So, first, I had to clean up my Hindi, all the nukhtas and the way it is spoken. I had no idea about any of that because I am this Mumbai girl who speaks Mumbaiya Hindi.
That was what we did first, and then we un-cleaned it by going backwards to get the dialect right. Like in Kashmiri, they don’t pronounce ‘bha’ or ‘gha’ as we do phonetically. So, if I have to say your name, Bhakti, I would say ‘Bakti’. Similarly, they don’t say ghar, they say gar. They don’t enunciate the ‘h’. There is a line in the film where Sehmat says, ‘Main toh ab wahin ki hun jaha mere garwale hain.’ She doesn’t say ‘gharwale’. I found these nuances very sweet. These things bring a softness to the character.
Absolutely! One can see that softness co-exist with the tough things she has to do and go through. It must have been tough balancing that.
You know, there is a lot of fun portraying strength to vulnerability. If you kill strength with strength, or if you pit strength against strength, it’s no fun. It’s a bit off. And I have always believed in the underdog. So, I was in complete agreement with Meghna that we had to portray her like a regular, feminine girl. There is no way she suddenly becomes an action hero because she is a spy.
We spoke about the physical training earlier but the trailer has you going up and down on the emotional graph as well. How exhausting is a role like this for you as a person?
More than the physical training, it was the emotions that got to me. The physical was limited to the prep we were doing for some sequences. Actually, I am doing a lot of physical training for Brahmastra and that is much more tiring. In this film, as you said, the emotional graph is crazy.
Yes, we can see the anguish of Sehmat from the glimpses we have got so far.
I know! It is just the beats she goes through and to put that together in your head is a little difficult. But, I am not one of those people who thinks too much about the character’s journey and main yeh feel karun and isko aisa sochna chahiye. When I have to think it, I think it and when I don’t need to, I let it go. It is not very easy, but I just let it go; it is better that way.
We see you in the presence of some amazing actors like Vicky Kaushal, Rajit Kapoor and of course your mother Soni Razdan. What was it like sharing screen space with them, especially your mom?
Let’s start with Vicky, who is fantastic. We all know he is a fabulous actor and for him to be a part of this film was essential because his character was a very important one. His was a very silently effective character, and to communicate the beauty of acting through silence is the toughest job. He is outstanding in that.
Rajit sir is a renowned theatre actor so his command on screen as a father was very essential for me. And he is fabulous, he has such a great energy on the set. He is very passionate about his work. This is exactly like my mum because she is also a theatre actor. Passion is like the forefront of filmmaking and acting. If you lack that passion, then you lack that ‘x’ factor that sets you apart. That is why I feel my mum is so unique when she is on screen.
Even today, people say that my mother is such a fabulous actress, even though she has done only a few films in the last few years. But, I feel like her time is just beginning. Now is when people will really wake up to her as an actress.
Does it help to have a female director when you have a sensitive film like this with a female protagonist?
For me, a director is a director. I like working with a female director because it is a different kind of energy with them. They have a more sensitive kind of energy on set. I like working with my male directors as well, they are all fabulous. There is no difference. Each director is different from the others and that is what sets them apart.
You have done so many different types of films, from Student Of The Year to Raazi. After your first film, people had a certain image of you. You changed that with your second film. You have been constantly surprising audiences with your movie choices. Are you deliberately making different choices?
It is obviously not a random choice. Somewhere, it is a conscious one, not because I need to prove something to people but more for myself. So, it is a conscious decision that I am making for myself. It is like I just did something and I cannot do this again, and so I have to do something else. So, it is more for me than for other people. Where I keep people in mind is during my communication, my speech, when I am talking to the press, in the media – that is when I think about people because I can’t say things without assuming certain responsibilities. That is the only time I think about people.
But, don’t you feel the pressure to live up to expectations?
Yes, I do feel that pressure. But, if I make decisions based on that pressure, then I would be doing very different kinds of films. Then, I would want to only make people laugh or only make them cry. I want to do different things for myself, and that’s the only way I satisfy myself. If I can satisfy myself, I can more or less satisfy people.
You are one of the very few actresses who have blurred the lines between mass and niche films. Raazi is not a very big or massy film, as per the definitions that we have. But, it has a big banner backing it; it has you, a superstar. How does it feel to be at the forefront of the change that is happening?
I don’t think Raazi is a niche film at all, not because of the banner but because of the subject, which has wide appeal. It speaks about the country; it speaks about the people of the country. It is very Indian in nature. So, I don’t think it is a niche film.
I would say that Dear Zindagi was a little niche because mental health is something that not many people understand and nobody even wants to listen to a girl ranting about her problems. But, still, that film got a very positive response because it was simple and sweet. It made everyone cry and laugh. And a film like Raazi is a true story. It is a part of history. So, people should be screening Raazi in schools and stuff so that they understand what happened, what war is all about and what it does to people’s lives. I have learnt so much from this film. So, I am sure people will learn from it too.
Do you want this to be the thing that the audience takes back from the film?
They will take back what they want to take back. I can’t tell them what to take back. But, there is quite a lot to take back.
Any anecdotes you would like to share from the sets? Anything else that you learnt from Raazi?
I learnt a lot but I can’t say much because that would reveal too much about the film. I think every time I did a scene, I would always think, ‘Okay, this is a true story.’ So, even while watching the film, one should remember that whatever is happening actually happened.
Is it easy to play a real-life character?
No. Because it kept hitting me that all this had actually happened. A sensitive person like me understands and feels the pressure.
Do you believe that fiction is easy?
I would not say it is easier, but it’s different.
You just started shooting for Kalank. Can you tell us about it?
It is going very well, and by ‘very well’, I mean that we are working very hard. That, for me, is a sign of wellness. It is a very difficult film. They are shooting right as we speak. I am also in the middle of shooting and promotions.
How are you handling all these things?
I am handling it now. I don’t know how. We will see later. When the films come out, only then will I understand how I had handled them. If they are rubbish, then we will know that I am not made for this. I hope they are not bad, for the sake of my producers. But, it is going very well. That is all I can say. I am very excited. I am looking forward to working with this epic cast. I think I am one of the only actors in the film who has a scene with everyone in the film. Yes, I am very excited.
What about Gully Boy and Brahmastra?
Gully Boy has been such a special journey. It was great to work with Ranveer (Singh) and Zoya (Akhtar). It is a special film. And I am super excited about this because it is also sort of a true story. I cannot call it a ‘story’ because it is something that happened. It is about two rappers who have come out of Dharavi. But, I have to say that it has been such an eye-opening experience shooting in the heart of the city and shooting with Zoya and her team, who are all so efficient and good at what they do. I am really looking forward to it.
And, yeah, Brahmastra is a huge world that I have stepped into. I don’t think one has ever seen a film like this that has no reference point.