Debutants Meezaan and Sharmin Segal have just entered the industry with Malaal. In conversation with Team Box Office India, the two talk about what prompted them to become part of the film world, the nervousness of promoting their first film, working for Sanjay Leela Bhansali and much more...
Box Office India (BOI): Let’s go back in time and talk about the films or characters that inspired you to step into this world of acting.
Sharmin: For me, I don’t think it was films or performances that prompted me, but acting itself. I was not inclined to become an actor until I was in school. Even in school I wanted to be a doctor, at the age of 17. But in the 11th grade, I went on stage for a performance and I just had this feeling that this is something I want to pursue. Actually, I was really fat, really chubby back then. At some point I looked at the audience when I was on stage and there were kids who used to make fun of me - those same kids were laughing at me at that time too. And somehow I felt from the inside that they were not laughing at the fat Sharmin, but at the character that I was playing. At that moment, something changed and I felt that acting is a really interesting thing. It can make you feel like multiple people in one lifetime. So I said that fine, let me lose weight. All this for the feeling of acting, to not be who you are and to become different kinds of people. Today, I am very happy with who I am; I can be multiple people and then come back to being Sharmin.
Meezaan: There were a few films that inspired me. We have such amazing films in the Hindi industry and everyone who watches them feels like, ’Okay, mujhe bhi yeh karna hai’. Films like Deewar with Mr (Amitabh) Bachchan, Veer Zaara and Kal Ho Na Ho with Shah Rukh Khan, Singham with Ajay Devgn inspired me. When I saw Singham, I was like, now I want to become a police officer. Then there was the whole Govinda phase that I loved. And for me, personally, I love Akshay Kumar and Priyadarshan films, the whole comedy series, right from Hera Pheri. I love those kinds of films. Yes, all of them are all different genres, but I think that is the reason that everyone takes a liking to them. In the industry, there is not one kind of genre that works. We love all kinds of cinema and if it is a good film, then it is a good film.
Sharmin: I think today, word-of-mouth works for good films more than anything else. It can change the trajectory of a film.
BOI: In this last week, what were you feeling as you were gearing up for the release of your very first film?
Sharmin: It is really overwhelming. In the beginning it was all very fun, but then I was more nervous as this Friday came near. It also got more hectic with everything happening together, so it was really overwhelming. But now that ‘the’ Friday is here, we are getting to know what people are thinking and what we want to do next.
BOI: This dream that you both had of acting, how did it take the shape of Malaal?
Sharmin: Well, Malaal came to us…
Meezaan: (Cuts in) It came to us in 2016.
Sharmin: Yes, and I read the script before Meezaan did. At that time he had already spoken to Sanjay sir about being an actor. I came back from USA after studying in acting school there and I told Sanjay sir that I really wanted to act. I said that I didn’t think I deserved to be directed by him, I really did not. I was not even asking for that. I told him that if there is something, whatever it is it, that he feels I am suitable for, then I wanted to be given a chance to audition for it. Then he told that there is this director, Mangesh Hadawale, who has brought in a script in that I should read. I read it and then I met Mangesh sir and it was one of the initial drafts of the script. Then he auditioned me and Meezaan and our auditions were so different from our characters. I did the cool girl monologue from Gone Girl and if you see the film, my character Astha is nothing like that. Sanjay sir told Mangesh sir that he did not have to take us, but asked him to meet us once and take the decision. That’s how Malaal happened for me.
BOI: Meezaan, the way you became part of this film was serendipitous, from what we hear.
Meezaan: It happened when Sanjay sir was shooting for Bajirao Mastani and Sharmin was actually assisting in the film. She invited me there because she needed help, someone to try on the costumes, as Ranveer Singh was not available on that day. They just wanted to see what the costumes looked like on someone. I came, I tried the costumes, and met Sanjay sir for the first time and I was actually very scared as well as nervous. But I met him and for some reason, he saw something in me. He told me that I am a star and I should act. After that I visited him on the sets of Bajirao Mastani as well, just to observe and learn. And even that one day was amazing; it was a life-changing experience for me. What happened was that the DoP, Sudeepda (Chatterjee) saw me standing on the side and he told me to come in front of the camera and stand there because he needed someone to set the frame for the next shot. Then Sanjay sir came in and saw how I looked in front of the camera. He saw me on the monitor and I think he was really impressed. After that, he called me and told me that he wanted to launch me.
BOI: That must have been surreal. How did you react to that phone call?
Meezaan: I actually was very scared. And I got that call from Sharmin and she said that sir is calling you to meet at the office. I asked her what had happened, ‘Did I do or say something wrong?’ I felt that, because he was very sweet to let me come on the set and observe everything, after which I disappeared.
Sharmin: (Cuts in). Sanjay sir also got angry at Meezaan for disappearing like that.
Meezaan: And rightfully so.
Sharmin: But I think it was because he had already started to think about you acting at that point and then, when you didn’t show up, he was like, ‘Where is Meezaan?’ I told him that he is sick and he said, ‘Itna jaldi bimaar padhta hai toh actor kaise banega?’. I did not have an answer to that. (Laughs).
Meezaan: But then I did come and meet him later and he said that he wanted to launch me. I didn›t know to react, I didn’t know what had hit me at that point, so many thoughts were going through my head and my life was about to change. I was about to enter into a new dimension of my new life. When I left his office, I went and I sat down in the car for 10-15 minutes and I had to process what had just happened. Then it finally hit me and I called my mom, told her about what had happened and she also did not respond for like 30-40 seconds, then told me to come home. When I went home she was crying, she hugged me and was very happy. My dad was actually shooting throughout the day and when he came home in the evening, we told him about it. I told him the whole story and he was so shocked! He was like, ‘When did you meet Sanjay Leela Bhansali? What is going on?’ Then I told him that he had to come with me to meet Bhansali sir the next day and he said that he had to shoot. Both me and mom were stunned and said that he was not going to shoot, but he had to come with me for this. (Laughs). So I took Mom and Dad to meet Sanjay sir and the rest is history.
BOI: From what we have seen, your characters are very different from you in real life in terms of where they come from, their backgrounds.
Sharmin: (Cuts in). The word is ’privileged’.
Meezaan: They are different from us, but not from society. For me, my character Shiva and me are poles apart. Yes, I could relate to him when it came to the emotional aspect of it, because the emotions are the same, universal. But when it came to the background, language, cultural barriers of the character, they are very different. Also, the financial problems in his life are so different from mine. His daily routine is very different from mine. He is a character who lives in a chawl and comes from a lower middle class family. At the same time, he has a lot of potential, but doesn’t know how to channel it in the right direction. He is very stubborn, loud and angry, but Meezaan is very quiet in real life. Those differences had to be adapted, that body language had to be inculcated in me to be able to portray that on the screen. It wasn’t like, just because I curled my hair, did tan make-up and put a Hanuman tattoo on my hand, because am dressed as boy from that background, I have the pulse of the character. I had to really adapt it from the inside. Only then would it be reflected on screen and only then will it affect the hearts of people. It was a year and a half of workshops. People don’t usually get that kind of time and we were lucky to have it for our first film, our first characters. It was extremely difficult.
Malaal was a very difficult film and Shiva was a character that was very difficult for me. I am glad that I got to portray this difficult character in my first film, because normally people want to take the easy way out. But we did not do that here. It was not my decision, it was not in my hands. I was given this film by Sanjay sir and we were given Mangesh sir by him too. I am extremely grateful to him. In the beginning I did not realize what I had in my hands, but after spending time with Mangesh sir, after understanding my character, I understood the vision and what would come out of this. I think it was their belief and trust in my talent that made them give me this character.
Sharmin: You know, Shiva’s character is very externally loud and that is me in real life. Whatever comes to my mind, head or heart, I just say it. The filter is very light, exactly how Shiva’s character is. One place that I did connect with her was her emotions. They are really basic, like Meezaan said, universal emotions. For me, the entire theme of the film - that two characters become one due to love - is something that I strongly believe in. It encompasses so many different emotions - laughter, anger, sadness and others - that come under the one emotion of love. That’s why it is so basic. For me, the relatability is in the same way that I fall in love with somebody. When I have genuine feelings for someone, it makes me want to talk, to smile, and you will see that change in Astha from the first half to the second half.
On a more personal level, when we started shooting Malaal, there was another personal aspect that I connected to. Sanjay sir, my mother, my naani and their entire family lived in a chawl before he became Sanjay Leela Bhansali. They didn’t even have a bathroom in their house. I didn’t register any of their stories from those times until I walked inside the chawl of Lower Parel where we were shooting for the film. I went there and I was like, I can smell somebody cooking dal from this house and fish from the other house. I kept thinking, how did my mother live in that environment! Due to that, today I understand why she is so stingy. I am not joking - she hordes things! She kept pickle bottles in the fridge and I used to get irritated because all my things in the fridge smelled like pickle. But when I experienced this, I went home and I was like, okay, let the woman keep her aachaar there. Things like this helped me in understanding her personality and that was my relatability factor with Malaal on some level.
BOI: Sanjay Leela Bhansali has established a different school of romance in the industry with his films. Since your film is also about love, were you tense about that chemistry, that brand of romance?
Sharmin: Sanjay Leela Bhansali comes from a brand of romance, right? So again, like I have said before, I think that every film traces back to his production house somewhere. There is always an essence of that production house left in the film that they are putting out. As for Sanjay sir, yes, he has made romantic movies, but they have all been on a scale that is next level. That is where Mangesh sir came in and his emotional connect was what we needed. Between Mangesh sir and Sanjay sir, we managed to take that Bhansali romance and bring it into a completely different zone and hope we retained at least 5 percent. It was very difficult to do without him actually being there on set; he came twice, he was always there in spirit whenever we needed him, or on the phone.
Meezaan: I feel like yes, it’s a certain expectation and responsibility. I can only speak for myself and what went through me in the process - or for us, for that matter. As debutants being launched by Sanjay Leela Bhansali in a movie produced by him and it being a love story is huge. He is known to make lavish love stories. I always knew that people would have a certain expectation. It’s a responsibility given to us and it was always pressure to be able to perform or outdo their expectations. But I don’t think I ever got affected by it; neither did Sharmin, because we only thought about the characters in our film and we said to ourselves, we should just forget everything else.
Sharmin: We spent three years working on Malaal and we shot for about 75 days over the span of one year. So 2 months before that, every time we met Mangesh sir, he would look at us and be like, “Bachchon, Sharmin-Meezaan neeche aao office main, kahaani sunte hai.” He would literally tell us stories about the characters, stories about his love life, stories about how our love life should be. It used to be really random things. At the end of the day, Astha and Shiva were just Mangesh sir’s children, so as soon as we got connected to Mangesh sir, the intensity of what our characters were supposed to feel automatically got imbibed into us. And the intensity you talk about - I feel like on some level we were able to achieve that, because we’ve known each other for so long, we have been friends for a long time. I am grateful that I got to do my first film with Meezaan. It would have been a lot more awkward for me to be able to achieve that same intensity with somebody else. There were no outward inhibitions. There might have been inhibitions internally, personally, about whether I will be able to do it or not. But with each other, there was nothing like that and I was grateful that he was with me in this film.
BOI: Let’s talk about your newly formed social media status - is it true that you joined Instagram and Twitter just for this film?
Sharmin: Sanjay sir gave us a big, long lecture about this. Sanjay sir and I were talking and he was telling me about his life. I wanted to know, what I should do to put myself out there. I was very confused. So he said, ‘Sharmin, have I done any of this? My work has spoken for me.’ He said that the feeling of your work speaking and everything else following is much better than getting the things before and your image being judged based on what you have or have not put out there. I agreed with him, but I also told him, ‘You are a director and I am an actor. There is a difference. You can be behind the camera. You are not selling the film with your face.’ People recognise his name. Yes, Sanjay Leela Bhansali is a brand, but they don’t have to recognise his face. But the people have to recognise me to go see my movies. Meezaan is better at socialising than me. I am upar se an extrovert and andar se I am an introvert. So Meezaan was like, ‘You need to be getting out more, you should be dressing better.’ I said I would try and find middle ground.
BOI: What do you expect from the audience now that the film is out there?
Sharmin: Love, lots and lots of love.
Sharmin: I expect people to appreciate the film…
Meezaan: And our work, our performances. We have put a lot of effort and time into these characters. I feel I am so attached to this film because I have given it so much time, which is why I want everyone to fall in love with it, the way I did. When Mangesh sir and Sanjay sir tell me that ‘You have a very good job and have fulfilled the task’, then that is the validation.
Sharmin: Sanjay sir doesn’t give compliments until and unless you deserve it.
Meezaan: Actually, he doesn’t give compliments at all. He says, ‘Why say anything when you have done a good job? When you perform badly, I will say something at that time.’
Sharmin: So when Sanjay Leela Bhansali calls you and says something good, the ground beneath you shakes because of the careers that he has made. He has really helped Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone’s careers. When that man comes in your life in a professional capacity, you believe that you can achieve that. And at this point, it is important to have that belief.