Actress Sapna Pabbi was born and brought up in London, but always had a dream of becoming an actress in India. She started her career with modelling and bagged a role in the Indian adaption of the popular American series 24. This set the ball rolling for Pabbi who then featured in the film Khamoshiyan and in web series like Breathe and Inside Edge on Amazon Prime Video. She speaks to Guardian 20 about her struggles in the Indian film industry and finding her footing on the web platform.
Q. Did you always want to be an actress?
A. I excelled in drama and theatre studies at school. However, my father wanted me to be academically stable so I focused on my education. Once I had graduated and started working for an MNC, I was approached for a show in Mumbai and I jumped at the opportunity. My passion found wings when my childhood dream of becoming an actor turned into reality, as I joined the team of 24in India. I was just in awe of Anil Kapoor, Anupam Kher, Tisca Chopra. I felt like I had been thrown right into the deep end of things. I owe everything I know to my first directors, Nitya Mehra and Abhinay Deo. Not being from India or a film background does have its downsides as you don’t always get the right advice and guidance. However, every project comes with its owning learning arc. So I’ve decided to just go with the flow of good content and roles that make me happy.
Q. You’ve talked about how your British nationality and modelling background have created obstacles in your career. Can you explain?
A. I was born and brought up in London. So Hindi is not my first language. In fact, it’s my third language after English and Punjabi. Sadly, I do get looked at as just a pretty face, which believe it or not has probably been my biggest struggle as I’ve received feedback from decision-makers who even without seeing any of my work have responded with, “She’s too pretty to be able to pull this off.” There are projects like Breatheon Amazon Prime Video where I convincingly played a Bengali woman who’s lost a child, and am so grateful to the directors who believed in me beyond my ripped jeans and my accented English. My Hindi is extremely fluent. But it depends on who gives me a chance to act. I am extremely grateful for all the opportunities that have come my way and the critical feedback which has really helped me grow. No complaints really.
Q. You have worked across various platforms, but most of your success has come from the web. Do you enjoy the web space?
A.I’ve been quite a series girl, starting from 24and The Trip to Breathe and Inside Edge, the long format is definitely something I enjoy. However, it’s not because of the platform, but rather the chance to be able to go deeper into the characters and their personalities. Even 24 never felt like television for me, it just felt like good content boot camp. Good content matters to me the most. The exposure is not only helping me to grow as an artist, but also in moving towards a rapidly evolving Indian entertainment industry.
Q. Tell us about your criteria for choosing a role.
A. I go for whatever makes me happy. If I’m going to enjoy it, and if it’s going to challenge me, then yes! Also, I’m not in the habit of pushing myself into a project. If someone does not believe in you for the part, it’s okay. They also have a vision just like you and if they don’t, someone else will. And whenever I hear about a role that touches me, I definitely go and put my foot forward and ask for it.
Q. After your first film, Khamoshiyan, received a mild response from the audiences, you were seen doing web series. Was that a conscious decision?
A. Khamoshiyanwas definitely one of my biggest learning curves. The film has given me so much to be grateful for, such as stunning music that remains on several top-ten most-played charts. So you win some, you lose some, and I learnt so much from Mahesh Bhatt and made a dear friend, Ali Fazal. A few months after Khamoshiyan, 24 Season 2 started shoot, which helped me once again to get my soul back into nothing but good content. And then came the ultimate soul project, The Trip, which was a pure shot in the dark and probably where I grew most as an actor because I was so connected with my character and her reality.
Q. How do you think the digital space has opened up opportunities for up and coming actors?
A. It is a brilliant new platform that is allowing us to go deeper into stories. I think it’s phenomenal for everyone, not just actors. We are seeing new editors, writers, directors and it looks like everyone is bringing their A-game to the table. I thoroughly believe in good content and good content only, be it on our television, on our phones and laptops or on the silver screen. If the content is good, it will work.
Q. What appealed to you about your role in Inside Edge 2?
A. I absolutely loved playing Mantra Patil in Inside Edge 2. She sometimes feels like the woman I aspire to be. She’s so grounded, so subtly empowering yet so soft and graceful. When Amazon Prime Video, which has become like family now, came to me with India’s first ever Emmy-nominated show and this beautiful character, how could I have said no?
Q. Which filmmakers would you like to work with in the coming years?
I’ve recently just wrapped up a dream cameo in Anurag Kashyap’s next. I had the best time being directed by this genius. So I definitely want to do a lot more work with him. And Zoya Akhtar is the other powerhouse on my bucket list.