Bhumi Pednekar is among the new crop of actors who have pushed content-driven cinema against star-powered films. Right from her debut, Dum Laga Ke Haisha in 2015, Pednekar has chosen roles that leave an impact on the audiences. Among her recent releases are Saand Ki Aankh, Bala and Housefull 4. She speaks to Guardian 20 about her career and her goals as an actress.

 

Q. You were an assistant casting director before becoming an actress. How has the journey been for you—from behind the camera to performing in front of it?

A. It’s been a beautiful journey. I am living my dream. I always wanted to be an actor. My talent was noticed by the right people and now I am doing everything I hoped I would do. My life has turned out the way I imagined it to be. But of course, my journey has been very different. I was very fortunate to start with Dum Laga Ke Haisha [in which she played an overweight small-town girl] because it already set the path for me. People knew that I am someone who likes to experiment. I have realised that if I have to survive and create a space for myself, this is the way to do it. I have to give my audience something new. They have to see me in a new avatar. If that means that I have to work 10 times harder than my colleagues, I will. There’s so much hard work in my films. But since I have tasted this route, I feel that if I do a film that doesn’t have that kind of passion and work in it, something would be wrong. It disturbs the actor in me. I need to excel in whatever film I do. And that’s in my hands.

Q. You’ve portrayed roles of small-town girls time and again. Having grown up in Mumbai, do you think playing characters you couldn’t relate to has helped you as an actress?

A. The way I have experienced rural areas and small-town life in the last four years, I had never experienced it in the past. My films have really been like an awakening. These experiences have humbled me as person. I realised that the world I lived in for the major part of my life was a bubble and my films burst that bubble. All my aims and ambitions in life have totally changed. Now I want to work more for humanity. I want to make a difference with my work. I want to have a voice. I want to have opinions. I want to encourage other women to have opinions and stand up for themselves and their rights.

Q. In Saand Ki Aankh, you are playing a character that’s twice your age. What made you take up this film?

A. My first reaction was, “What part am I doing?” There was clearly no role that was appropriate for my age. Then I got to know that it was Chandro Tomar’s part. I totally loved the material. I thought I had to do this film. We were confident that this film would not get lost among the biographical films that are being made these days. The characters I and Taapsee Pannu [Pednekar’s co-star in the film] play have lived under their veils throughout their lives. We have seen people changing their lives at a young age, but have you ever heard of people doing it when they are 60-65 years of age and finding fame on the international stage? These women haven’t had any opportunities. They’ve never been appreciated nor acknowledged. They never mattered in the societal structure. They realised they didn’t want their daughters to lead similar lives as they did. They wanted their daughters to take up sharpshooting. While persuading their daughters, these women also started shooting. That was the first time they were appreciated. They enjoyed it and made a career out of it. They changed the lives of 50,000 women. When a biopic is made, it’s about somebody who has changed their life, especially in sports. This is a lot more than celebrating the sport and the person. It’s about celebrating the human spirit…celebrating mothers.

Q. There has been criticism about the casting of the film which has sparked ageism debates. What are your views on that?

A. We have really challenged ourselves and stepped out of our comfort zones as actors for this film. We put ourselves out there for the world to judge. People were like, “These two girls think they can play older characters?” It was very tough. But the makers and producers are the ones who put in the money and they thought the film is worthy of getting a big release despite the controversies. So we remained positive. It is an endearing film. It empowers the female gender, without making it preachy. But yes, it was a little disheartening to be criticised for choosing the roles, especially by veteran actresses we both admire. But they weren’t personal attacks. That was just their opinion. At the end of the day we are actors. It is our job to be able to do different kinds of roles. It’s the definition of being an actor. So even if I have to go and play a man somewhere, I’ll play it. That’s my perspective.

Q. You are known for choosing unconventional scripts. What’s the striking factor that works for you in any script?

A. Funnily enough, it’s a feeling in my stomach. But I try to evaluate the script by answering two questions. One, whether I would feel really bad if I say no to the story, and two, if the audience would like to see this. I honestly don’t understand what the audience likes to see, because I think they are changing their taste with every new film or content experience. And it’s happening at a very fast pace. But I think my sensibilities are also changing with them because I am very aware as a person. So I just think, “Would I want to watch this story on screen?” That’s how I get my answer.

Q. Being one of the faces of new-age cinema, do you think opportunities have opened up for actors like yourself in the Hindi film industry?

A. The content has completely transformed. We are trying to make social comments through cinema. Most of the films that I’ve been doing are women-led. I have been very fortunate that all my roles have been about strong women. I really think that today people want to go back with an experience. They want to go back with some kind of a message. Who wants to waste three hours of their precious time watching something irrelevant? One would rather sleep. That’s the way I think and that’s what works for me. The idea is not to be a part of films that only have a social message; it is to be part of films that are sensible. The films should leave people with an experience and people should walk out with a sense of whatever work I have done.