In a career spanning less than a decade, actress Aditi Rao Hydari has gained recognition in Bollywood and beyond, and has worked with some of the best directors in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu film industries. She speaks to Latha Srinivasan about her pan-India appeal.
Q. Before your Bollywood debut, you made your mark in Southern films. What are your criteria for choosing a script?
A. I love the fame, money and adulation that come with cinema but primarily, I love cinema and what cinema does to people. I always stay true to my intentions, so I pick a script instinctively. Usually what draws me to a script is the director and my desire to work with the director. A film is a director’s baby and the director is the captain of the ship. I feel I’m a director’s actor and I work with directors whom I can surrender to, and with whom I can enjoy the journey. Sometimes I have done extended cameos in films because I always wanted to work with that director, and I knew the director would create magic out of a 20-minute part. I feel that a hero or heroine can be a 20-minute role or a two hour one, but it’s the quality the director brings to that role. This is why I’m not afraid of the decisions I make. Sometimes I feel if Hollywood actors like Jennifer Lawrence and Natalie Portman work like that, then why can’t we? So yes, it’s the director and the vision. And the script and character of course. It’s completely instinctive for me. To the horror of many people around me, I have chosen not to do a big film because I was uncomfortable around the director. I felt I was there [in such films] only because of the way I looked. There’s nothing wrong with that but the director should value my talent and what I bring in front of the camera.
Q. Interestingly, you’ve worked with some of the best directors in Hindi cinema, like Sudhir Mishra, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Imtiaz Ali and Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Do you attribute this to your talent or to luck?
A. I feel blessed. I’ve always wanted to work with the best. I can go for days without sleeping when I’m working with a director whom I look up to, respect and admire. It’s a combination of being blessed and also about people finding me. I like creative satisfaction, and the romance and song-and-dance as well. I like to mix it up. I feel I’ve been lucky but I have also worked very hard in making those choices. People don’t relegate me to only a pretty face or someone who is going to do intense, hectic work—I like both and I want to do both because that’s who I am.
Q. As you mentioned, you’ve made it in the Hindi film industry on your own, and without any backing. How difficult has it been for you?
A. I came to Mumbai and in four months, I got my first film. Who gets that? I feel I’m blessed to have got the work I have, and the love and support. But when I actually think about it, it’s been really hard. What is difficult is getting good work. Getting work is easy; there are many ways to get work. I feel to get good work, the kind of work you want to do, work which is timeless, and work with people whom you respect—that is difficult. That takes conviction, belief, hard work and blessings. For me, it’s always one step at a time. I’ve always had amazing people pick me for their projects and protect me through the process. I have worked in the way I’m comfortable working: doing one film at a time. I don’t compromise on anything in terms of my sleep at night and peace of mind. It’s possible to stick to your principles, to say no when you have to, to work for the love of cinema, and to take slow and steady steps in the film industry. I’m a living example of that. Eight years into the industry, and I’m still working the same way.
Q. How does the recent success of your Telugu debut film, Sammohanam, feel?
A. I did the film because I loved the script and I instinctively felt that the director, Mohan Krishna Indraganti, had a style of telling a story with a Hrishikesh Mukherjee vibe. And through the shoot of the film, I kept telling him that. It’s so nice to see that kind of film again—a family film which is real, funny, warm and has something magical about it. It’s the kind of film that you can keep going back to. The fact that it has done well feels really great because it was a quiet, small film which we made with a lot of love. When the critics and the audiences like it, and it’s a commercial success, it makes it really special.
Q. Five years ago, you started talking about casting couch, triggering a debate on the issue. Only now has it become a talking point in Bollywood.
A. I have also been in this situation but I was able to stand up to it, make my decision and move away. I did lose work and I cried about it. I didn’t regret it but I cried about it because I felt so upset that this was true and this is how girls are treated. I was like, how dare someone speak to me like that! For about eight months [after the incident] I didn’t get work, but I feel that decision made me stronger in my intention about the kind of work I wanted to do. The year 2013 was difficult for me as it was also the year I lost my father, but from 2014 onwards everything kind of fell into place. Sometimes you need to see a situation, deal with it, get out and be very comfortable with it, and that’s how I felt. You need to be comfortable with the consequences and have no regrets. I was able to do that and I need to thank my family for that. Not for one second do I regret that decision. I will always speak about the misuse of power which is there in every industry. But personally, I don’t want to dig up dirt and name names. I made my decision and it was an empowered decision. Some people can’t make that same decision for whatever reason, and there’s no judgement. But I feel that no one should be forced to do something they don’t want to, and it’s not a rite of passage or barter. Nobody should misuse their power. Nobody can misuse you. I feel girls need to empower themselves—the moment you empower yourself, the decision lies with you. If anyone has been misused and they are living with that unhappiness, then they have every right to speak out and they should. If they don’t, it’s because of the fear of losing work. It’s about power play in the industry, and you should nip it in the bud. What is the fear? That you won’t get work? If you are talented, the right people will call you. They need to understand why they are there in the film industry. If they are there for the love of the medium, they will get work. This is my naive belief but I’m a living example of that.
Q. Director Mani Ratnam’s Kaatru Veliyidai was your big South cinema entry. Were you disappointed the film didn’t do as well as expected?
A. Mani Sir’s films are slow burners. He makes cinema that leads to a lot of thought, debate, emotional turmoil, and it’s the kind of cinema that makes you go back to it again and again. That’s what makes Mani Sir and his cinema so special. I loved doing Kaatru Veliyidai and it was a journey that I enjoyed. Everyone knows how much I adore Mani Sir. He has really taught me a lot. He’s like a parent, mentor, everything. There’s not one iota of doubt about Kaatru Veliyidai. Mani Sir’s films have always had a mixed response and he’s comfortable with it—and so are we. You can blindfold me and take me to Mani Sir’s films—I will work with him again and again and again! I feel for an actor that’s the most amazing thing, and what you learn from him and get from him is irreplaceable. I’m very happy when people talk about a film and they either love it or hate it. I’m not okay if a film is just average.
Q. You’re working with Mani Ratnam again, in Chekka Chivantha Vaanam.
A. It’s a completely different role and also very challenging for me. It has a huge ensemble cast of good actors and a script I haven’t done before. I was very happy that Mani Sir called me for this film. If he believes that I can do something, I will try my best to do it.
Q. You received a lot of praise as Mehrunisa in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat, which was a blockbuster. Did the controversy surrounding the film affect you at all?
A. Somewhere in my heart, I had a lot of faith and I knew that a project like that can’t be kept down. I knew that film would be loved and the team was also very positive. Sanjay Sir works in a way similar to Mani Sir. When they are working, they only focus on the work. So while that issue [the Padmaavat controversy] was happening, we were shooting and we were shut off from the world. I can imagine the kind of pressure Sanjay Sir was under because he was dealing with it. But when he was on set, it was just the film and the actors. We were just so immersed in our work and there was not a shred of negativity around. Of course, later on, things got ugly, which was terrible. But I knew that the film would do well.
The response to Mehrunisa was completely overwhelming, but I remember that Sanjay Sir had told me this part was going to be magical. He was a director I’d been wanting to work with, and it was a magical experience.
Q. Do you think Padmaavat was the turning point in your career?
A. Every film of mine has led me to something better, bigger or more challenging. It [Padmaavat] is the biggest film I have done in terms of box-office returns and in terms of budget. I guess if you look at it conventionally, it changed a lot for me, but so did Mani Sir’s films. It’s a fact that if an actress is picked for Mani Sir’s films, it carries a lot of weight in the industry.
Q. 2018 has gone well for you, with both Padmaavat and Sammohanam doing well. What’s next for you?
A. This year started off great for me. I was dubbing for Padmaavat on 1 January, and then I flew to Chennai to start work on Chekka Chivantha Vaanam. I started off my year with two of my favourite directors. I am now working on director Sankalp Reddy’s Telugu sci-fi film, which is set in space. I have another Hindi project. My plate is full and the rest of the year looks hectic. I like being in the moment and giving it my hundred percent.
Q. You have won numerous awards for Bhoomi and Kaatru Veliyidai. How important are awards
A. It’s always nice and heart-warming to get appreciation from the audience. Awards should be given in their true spirit and I want to get them because people like and appreciate my work, not because I attended an event. But the award thing has now become a different kind of cycle. I want to get awards when I deserve them, and that’s the way I’ve always won till now.