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"Nepotism can get you only this far"

As her first film, Student of the Year 2, hits theatres, debutante Ananya Panday talks to Bhakti Mehta about how excited she is, what went into crafting her character Shreya, and her game plan going forward

Ananya, you look super excited about the release of the film.

(Laughs) I am super excited. Karan (Johar) has called me the ‘enthu cutlet’ and the ‘keen kumari’ of the team so I am trying to live up to the names I have been given.

But it was the dream for you, to be a movie star?

Always! I think ever since I popped out of my mom this has been something I have wanted to do. I came out knowing I wanted to be an actor. (Laughs) But, yes, I am lucky that I have got to do this.

Your debut in the media was through Koffee with Karan, where you addressed certain issues commendably.

I did that because I do not live in a bubble. I am well aware of my privilege and I know that nepotism does exist, in all industries, and not just our film fraternity. I put it out there because I believe it to be true and also because I never want to feel ashamed of who my father is. He has worked very hard to get the kind of reputation and respect that he has in this industry.

Also, I believe nepotism can get you into those rooms with those people but what you do in those rooms, what you do at auditions, depends solely on you. I was lucky to have a chance to meet a Karan Johar, but what I did, how I gave the audition, that depended solely on me, on my talent. No one is going to invest their money in you if they do not believe you are talented.

I also know that the audience is not stupid. They know what they want, they know what they like, especially in these times, and they will reject someone as easily as they will accept that person. In that way, I am submitting to the audience completely and I really hope that they like me. Personally, I know that I auditioned for this film, I didn’t just get it. I auditioned twice and did workshops with our director Punit (Malhotra) for almost a year. So I don’t feel guilty that I landed this film because of my family connections.

I am 20 years old and, like so many other girls, I have been dreaming about this for years. So, if I get a chance to audition, I am going to give it 5,000 per cent. 

Coming to your debut in SOTY 2, was this something you envisioned for yourself?

Four to five thousand per cent! Growing up on Dharma (Productions) films, watching Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham… every single day, you cannot help but dream about this. Whenever I would hear the KKHH track that plays when the Dharma logo appears on screen, I would think, I want this for myself, I want it at the start of my film.

Then I watched Student of the Year, I saw Alia (Bhatt), and I was just blown away. For me, living that dream… just sitting in the Dharma office, I keep thinking, what am I doing?! Just seeing myself in a Dharma film is going to be the biggest thing in my life. I think I have sent it out to the universe so much that it is actually happening.

What was your reaction when you first saw yourself on the big screen?

When I saw the film for the first time, I watched it from the perspective of the audience, so I was just clapping and whistling. Then I thought, I need to look more closely. I don’t think it has sunk in yet. When I saw the songs, like Fakira and Jatt Ludhiyane da, I felt like that wasn’t me, that just looked like a fun film. So, yes, I am still waiting for it to sink in so I can really look at what I have done. It would be surreal for me to try and judge myself right now because I am just too excited.

In the film, your character seems to be spunky but with a soft side…

(Cuts in) She is! She is very badass and yet there is the sensitive side too. So, who is she? I think she is very similar to who I am as a person or who I want to be as a person. Since I was young, I feel like I always had Shreya in me, this badass chick who is fierce. It was like an alter-ego. And it was Punit who brought that out. I have always been this person, had these facets, but when I was on set or in front of Karan or Punit, I would suddenly get scared and shy away from it. The one year that I spent with Punit, him helping me get out of my comfort zone, get Shreya out, was a huge thing.

Shreya is this no-nonsense person who doesn’t take no for an answer. She is who every girl wants to be or who every girl is from the inside. A lot of the youth is like this right now and many girls going to schools and colleges have this kind of disposition and they will be able to relate to it when they see it on the big screen. This character makes mistakes but she will own up to them. She is loud, expressive and that is exactly who I am as a person. And then again, every girl has the soft romantic side too, a shy side which makes you a little different especially when you fall in love.

It helps when you can connect your personality with that of the character’s.

Yes, for sure. But, again, I give credit to Punit because when I came on board for this film I was quite shy and extremely quiet. He used to make me scream in the Dharma Productions office. I would just be yelling and screaming cuss words because Punit wanted to get that side of me out in the open. Everybody around would ask if I was okay because I would always be screaming. But this exercise helped me on the set, because since childhood I had this side to me but had tucked it away. Punit took those inhibitions away and that helped a lot. The prep that I did was to tear down the inhibitions.

It seems like you worked quite hard. But people don’t always consider the hard work that goes into being part of a ‘commercial’ film.

You know, people often ask me what my thoughts were when I made the decision to be part of this film. What was my first reaction? Why the Student of the Year franchise? For me the consideration always is, what would I like to see in a film? If I was still in school, what would I be looking forward to watching? Which film would my younger sister Rysa (Panday) go to watch with her friends? And the answer would be a film like Student of the Year, for sure. So I want to do those films that I would want to watch. That is my only mantra.

Even in future, the films that I would like to do are those that I would enjoy watching. So I feel that even though the smaller-budget films, the realistic films, are doing very well right now in India, the massy flavour, the commercial, larger-than-life films, will always have a market. You will never not want to watch a Dharma film, and hopefully people will go to watch our film as well. (Smiles)

Having said that, I am very happy that these smaller films are doing very well and I would love to be a part of them. In fact, my next film, Pati Patni Aur Woh, is the kind of film that would fit into this section. Doing different kinds of films is the key in a way, but enjoying the films that you are doing is more important than anything else. I don’t think I ever want to do a film just because the critics will like it or someone has done a film like that and been praised. I want to do films that a young Ananya or even the Ananya right now would want to go and see.

In taking the franchise forward, were you nervous about the comparisons that might be made between you and Alia Bhatt?

I don’t think I needed to set myself apart from Alia’s character in SOTY, because her character of Shanaya and mine of Shreya are so different. Yes, there are some similarities. Alia as an actor has been my idol and inspiration. The most important years of my life, the formative years from 15 to 20, were spent watching Alia Bhatt films, and I have always looked up to her. The thing I like most about her is that she is real, she is herself. Right from the start she has never claimed to be perfect, never claimed to be the best. She came in raw and fresh and people have seen her evolve, they have seen her grown with films like Highway, Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, Raazi and now Gully Boy. I want people to watch me grow as well, watch me evolve, and I think that is the best kind of career graph, people growing with you and watching you grow.

Do you think that, to have that connect with the audience, your digital reach through social media also helps?

Absolutely. I think it is a very important tool and I have grown up in the social media age. It can be a blessing because it connects you to so many people. Even before my work is out there, there are a lot of people looking up to me and following me. That is such a nice feeling and I really hope that I can maintain it. My mantra on social media is to be yourself, because I want young girls who are following me to be themselves too.

Growing up, I saw Alia and Kareena be themselves throughout their career and stardom. It is important because you have so much going on these days; you have peer pressures all around you. I remember feeling bad about myself in school, about the way I looked. I would get bullied and teased. When I meet someone I feel like I want them to be my friend and it is not just when I meet them but even they see me on screen or follow me on Instagram. These are the blessings, because there is trolling and negative comments too. But I have learnt from my dad; he has such a thick skin, and I hope that I’ve inherited that from him. He can always take a joke about himself and I want to be like that. Trolling doesn’t affect me much because I try to take everything that comes my way positively.

Also, we would be stupid to not use social media because it is such a good platform to promote and put your talent out there. We have Harsh Beniwal in our film who is a YouTube sensation just like Sanam Puri, who has sung songs in our film. I knew him because I followed him on social media.

Lastly, you said your father follows the numbers and Box Office India. What about you? Any thoughts on the business side of things?

No yaar. As I said, I am too clouded by my excitement. Whatever the fate of the film is, I feel so blessed and feel so much gratitude that I will be celebrating.


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