While most reviews of the recent blockbuster Fan had overt critical outpourings on Shah Rukh Khan’s makeup and melodrama: an overdose of King Khan. But a connoisseur of cinema cannot afford to miss some others who shared the screen space with the Bolly giant. One among them being Neha (Shriya Pilgaonkar) the sprightly neighbourhood girl who in the film is often seen using Gaurav Chandna’s (Shah Rukh) cyber café to materialise her dreams to fly to the USA. Although playing a cameo, Shriya has managed to turn heads with her debut role in Bollywood as SRK’s love interest. She is now making headlines as Bollywood’s Fan girl.
Post her big break in the film industry, an overwhelmed Shriya tells Guardian 20, “I am one lucky girl to have bagged this role. More than 700 girls had auditioned for it. The combination of SRK, Maneesh Sharma and YRF can’t go wrong. Fan has been a surreal experience.” “I love Maneesh’s sense of story-telling . Even though, I knew it was not going to be a big role, I trusted Maneesh. And who would say no to working with SRK! I have always loved him and he is an incredible co-actor. He made me so comfortable. I felt like we had been friends forever. It was quite interesting to experience working with a super star with all the madness around. All I knew is that I had to shine in whatever screen time I had. The response to my work has been overwhelming. It’s nice to hear from people that they wanted more of me on screen. That’s a huge compliment,” she adds.
“I have been telling Maneesh that in this film, I couldn't reciprocate the love that SRK as Gaurav was giving me, so I need to do another film with SRK where I get to do a song and dance with him,” quips Shriya. Since childhood, Shriya admits she has never been camera-shy. While recollecting childhood memories of fixation over animation films, sheer love for stories and story-tellers, accompanying parents to their film sets, Shriya says, “Being in front of the camera makes me feel calm.” . “I used to visit my parents’ film sets as a child and was always curious about the whole process. I loved that it was so collaborative and everybody worked together to create something beautiful. Even as a child when I faced the camera, I remember feeling very comfortable,” she says further.
So to say that, growing up in a family which was closely associated with films and film business had caused an early blossoming of the film bug in Shriya, would not be altogether wrong. Born to Sachin and Supriya Pilgaonkar, well known faces of the film and the TV industry, Shriya’s entry into showbiz happened at the tender age of five in her father’s popular sitcom Tu Tu Main Main, which also starred her mother.
“I used to visit my parents’ film sets as a child and was always curious about the whole process. I loved that it was so collaborative and everybody worked together to create something beautiful.”
But Shriya says that even though she has always been a performer, she genuinely did not have plans to become an actor. “I always thought that it would be so predictable if I decided to act and I don't like being predictable. I had other interests too, like sports, linguistics, teaching. So maybe, a part of me was not considering acting at all. But I have always been a performer. I love an audience and I love expressing myself through my work. So acting has happened organically.”
She stresses that her parents always encouraged her to find her own path: “My parents have always been very supportive and they have encouraged me to create my own unique path without any pressure. All my parents have ever said to me is, ‘do things with conviction, don't stop learning, be happy no matter what and don't forget to have fun’.”
While studying at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, the 26-year-old received a scholarship to do a summer course in screenplay adaptation at Harvard University. This led her to work on her own short films, Painted Signal, Dresswala and Panchgavya, which have been screened at international film festivals. On being asked whether she sees herself growing as an actor or a director in the Indian film industry, pat comes Shriya’s reply, “My mind thinks like a director. I have always been interested in the process of filmmaking and I am very inspired by how multi-faceted my father is. I never want to stop learning and I feel, acting helps you to know the process of filmmaking and vice-versa. Yes, I definitely want to direct a feature in a few years once I gain more experience. But right now I am more focused on being in front of the camera. My journey as an actor has just begun.”
Besides her debut performance in Fan, Shriya has dabbled in theatre in a play called Internal Affairs, in the ad world opposite Shahid Kapoor, in a French film called Un Plus Une opposite Oscar winning actor Jean Dujardin, and Sachin Pilgaonkar-directed Ekulti Ek, which happens to be the first film of her life.
Recalling how it was like to share a professional space with her father, Shriya says, “Being on the set was like being in film school. As people we are both open to learning from everybody around us, so we used to have a lot of creative conversations. I learnt a lot from him. He is so good with his team and has so much energy! There were also times when we didn't agree on things. At the end of the day, I was working as an actor, so for me the director’s word is the final one. Ekulti Ek will always be special also because I got all the awards that year for best debut.”
The TV commercial, Shriya says, opposite Shahid, was Dibakar Bannerjee directed, adding that playing Ayaana in Un Plus Une with the legendary Claude Lelouche and Jean Dujardin was an obvious choice for the young actor has always been fascinated with the latter since The Actor. “In the film, I played the role of an Indian dancer and a film actor. I was called by the casting director Mona Irani to audition for the film and I feel so grateful to have been chosen to play Ayaana. I went for the premier of the film to Paris last November . It was my first international red carpet experience.”
Shriya has not signed a film after Fan. She claims to be in no hurry. She says, “quality matters more than quantity and I just want to be part of stories that excite me.”