The year 2016 is now drawing to a close, and this was your eighth year in Bollywood as a professional actor. Did you always want to do what you’re now doing?
A. I don’t think I always wanted to be an actor as such. I always wanted to do something on a very big level. I was a very ambitious child from the beginning. I started modelling when I was 16 years old and I thought this was going to be the course of my life. But I never thought about movies. Also, when you come from outside the film industry and you do not know anyone here, then it’s far-fetched to think that you’re going to be an actor. If you had asked me this 15 years ago, I would have said, “What rubbish, this is not possible.” So, I guess if something doesn’t seem feasible you don’t even think about it that much. So no, I don’t think that I always wanted to be an actor.
Q. You played the character of a shy girl, Tani, in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008); and of the outspoken Alizeh in this year’s film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (ADHM). The two characters are poles apart. It’s the same story with the rest of your filmography, which is marked by this characterological diversity throughout. Do you pay special attention to choosing the roles you’re offered?
A. Always! I knew from the very beginning in my career that I will always define my success through the films I do and the characters I choose to play, and nothing else can help me except this. I believe in it. The reason is because I did a film, called Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, which was a big film and obviously a huge project but it did not turn me into a star overnight or give me the kind of success I was hoping for. But what gave me that kind of success was actually Band Baaja Baaraat, which had a first-time director and a first-time actor. So I soon realised that if you do a good film, then you will gain success.
And that’s what I have continued to do. That’s why I have tried to pick roles and films which have different, and quality, stories to tell.
Q. You started your career with Shah Rukh Khan, and now have just completed your third film with him, The Ring. How was it working with him in your debut film, and how has your equation with him changed over the years?
A. Your equation develops more and more with time. I have done three films with him and in between, I think, I have become more comfortable with him. He has always been kind to me. But I guess I have started becoming more comfortable with him. I and Shah Rukh share a great bond with each other; we talk a lot. He is very philosophical as a person, and so am I. So we never much discuss the people or the industry or the film. We always talk about things besides all that, and beyond all that. I think he is very intelligent and I like listening to him. We keep sitting and talking on the sets. I get to learn so much from him and from his experiences. He is a very evolved person. It is not just because of our friendship that we keep in touch or meet each other. We definitely have a bond. So whenever we are together on a film set or hanging out, we have interesting things to talk about and also, there is a lot of mutual respect for
Q. In your film Sultan, you played the role of Aarfa, a girl from Haryana. How did you prepare for this role and what were the challenges involved?
A. As I told you, I always pick different roles. And I knew that Aarfa has the potential as I was playing a Haryanvi girl from a small town. So I had to learn the diction for the film. I had a diction trainer for my Haryanvi accent. Similarly, for playing Alizeh in ADHM, I had to speak a lot of Urdu, and had to take diction training for getting it right. So with every role I try to be as convincing as possible, and a lot of work goes behind it. For me, this year has been very great not just in terms of my films, which have done so well at the box office, but also because of my contribution to those films. My performances have been appreciated, and that is something which I have worked towards, by working hard on my characters before I start filming. I am very happy that people understand and appreciate the versatility of these characters — with Aarfa being a Haryanvi girl and Alizeh, an altogether different person.
“In every film of mine, I get into the understanding of the character and the kind of relationship she has with the people in the movie. It is like knowing my character inside out. It is not an easy thing to do but it is very enjoyable. It is an enjoyable process to convince people that you are somebody else in each film.”
Q. Is it taxing on the actor to switch from one character to another within a short span of time? You, for instance, have played two very different roles in films that were released only a few months apart.
A. That’s what you have to do as an actor. You have to keep redefining and keep changing according to the given character. Honestly, I would not say that I relate to any of the characters entirely. I am my own person, and Aarfa and Alizeh are two different people. See, what you have to do as an actor is to keep convincing people with every role you do. So, as I said, I get into the understanding of the character and the kind of relationship she has with the people in the movie. It is like knowing my character inside out. It is not an easy thing to do but it is very enjoyable. It is an enjoyable process to convince people that you are somebody else in each film.
Q. You are the only actress in Bollywood whose films have grossed over Rs 400 crore at the box office this year. How do you feel about that?
A. I feel superb! The films have done so well at the box office, and it shows that so many people have seen these films. But I am actually feeling elated because my work has been appreciated the way it is. Being appreciated for both the films with two very different roles; you cannot ask for anything better than this. Ask any actor: this is the best situation to be in.
Q. But do you think box-office success is a valid benchmark to judge the quality of a film?
A. The thing is that every film is different and every film is made with a different budget. Take NH10: the kind of decent money it has made and the kind of budget it was made out of, it could have done really well. Box-office success is a huge thing but you have to understand it on the basis of the budget of the film — on how big or small the film is. Like if you notice, European films have been really high on content whether they make a small- or medium- budget film; they do good business. They might not be in the top five films in all-time collections but they do very well. So, I think content is very important. Even this year, these two films [Sultan and ADHM] which have done good business, their content has also been appreciated. So I don’t think it’s an either-or — you need both box-office success and quality.
Q. You also turned a producer with your film NH10. Why did you think of donning the producer’s hat at this early a stage in your career?
A. Yeah, I was actually 25 when I decided to produce NH10. I had to get on board as a producer because we had to make that film on a particular budget. So that was a different reason. But my brother and I have always wanted to create some great cinema and do something which is different and unique. We are trying to collaborate with many young writers, and the next film that we are going to produce is Phillauri, which is releasing next year in March with a first-time director. We believe in backing talent, in showcasing good talent and good stories. I have been very particular about good stories in my career so, as a producer, I try to do the same. While NH10 was a very hard-hitting film, Phillauri is a more accessible and commercial film. We are only trying to make good cinema with the films we produce.
Q. Also, NH10 is said to have set an example by highlighting a social evil — honour killings — in mainstream cinema. Was it a conscious decision to make this film woman-centric?
A. Honestly, I don’t think it’s a female-issue based film first of all. It is something else altogether. It is about a girl and what she goes through. But the incident that happens in the film is not only a woman-centric issue; it is something which is happening in our society. For me, NH10 is a film about the fighting spirit of a person, no matter if you are a man or a woman.
Q. How do you define creative satisfaction?
A. I believe you cannot be creatively satisfied because the time you are creatively satisfied, you are heading towards your fall. You have to be very restless. A creative person is always restless; that way your work emerges from your energy. The idea is to never get creatively satisfied, otherwise you are not going to do anything more.