She has completed 370 episodes of Balaji's late-night thriller Kaahin Kissii Roz, yet she considers herself a learner. She is breathtakingly beautiful and vivacious by every yardstick, yet she gives herself only 6/10 when asked to assess herself.
Her character 'Shaina' has become a household name, but when told that, she just shrugs her shoulders. Clearly, an extremely modest girl whose head is firmly on her shoulders.
Settling down, she looks up and starts, "Let's take it from the beginning. Strange are the ways of life. You do your M.Sc, you end up as a journalist. You do your M Com, you end up running an electronics shop. Something like that happened with me."
Excerpts from an interview with Vickey Lalwani.
What's a Hotel Management and Mass Communication student doing in TV serials?
How did you know about my educational background? (smiles). I was coming to that, but I haven't yet told you about it. You have done your homework, I must say.
Thanks. But that isn't what I asked….
(laughs) Well, I am a science graduate from Kolkata. I came down to Mumbai to do my hotel management. Soon I realised that I wasn't cut out for it and left it midway. Then I joined a course in mass communication, but didn't complete that either! (laughs) At this point of time, I started getting many modelling offers. Despite my best efforts, I could not resist the temptation.
Did your parents consent easily to the fact that you were entering the big, bad world of glamour?
Not really. My mom didn't like it a lot. There was quite a bit of objection, in fact. Actually, she remains worried about me all the time even now when I am quite settled. I keep getting calls from her, every now and then. Her anxiety stems from the fact that I am a very, very fickle-minded person.
Like when I was in modeling, she used to feel I would leave modelling too, midway-- like I did to my studies. Then, when I got into TV, she again thought that I won't stick on. She feels I am still a kid. But I have grown into a responsible adult. I know how important it is for a woman to be financially independent in life. I am taking my acting career more than seriously.
"Today, talent in Bollywood has taken a backseat. Wearing minimum, talking brazen and PR has become the name of the game"
What was your mom's objection, precisely?
I come from an educated family where people are settled in either a job or family business. Almost all my relatives knew hardly anything about this world. Entering the glam world was taboo for them.
Then how did you land up in Mumbai?
Actually, I came to Mumbai to do Hotel Management. I came with my best friend's sister who was a freelancer in Kolkata. She had secured a job as a copywriter in an ad agency. I started living with her on a twin-sharing basis. At that point of time, life surely wasn't a bed of roses. The cost of living kills, doesn't it?
(laughs) Better… it surely doesn't kill. Today, I have bought my apartment in the suburbs.
Is Mumbai better than Kolkata?
I have developed quite a few friends who are very supportive. So, things are good. Mumbai is quite a safe city for a woman to be in. I like the fact that Mumbaikars don't look down upon women who stay alone. In most other cities, you won't get accommodation if you are a female from the glamour world who wants to stay alone.
Have you raised your voice ever in defence of a girl who is being sexually harassed?
Yes. I remember doing it against a guy in a shop. He was acting fresh with a 20-something. But do you know what I got in return? The girl's family asked me to lower my voice, they said 'it's okay, let him go'! Sometimes I wonder why most of us are so cold. Surprisingly, we take the first opportunity to blame the law without realising that there are four fingers pointing at you!
Tell us about the modelling assignments you have done.
Pears, Rin, Ariel, Close-Up, Double Diamond, Asian Paints, Sonam Quartz, Britannia, Maggie, Bombay Dyeing.
Gearing up for films? Your looks and figure seem to fit the bill...
I have received some offers. But none of those have been interesting enough for me to sign on the dotted line. I don't want do roles wherein I am required for two or three scenes. I am not ready to be projected as a mere showpiece. People will surely start saying 'she played such a noteworthy character of Shaina, what is she doing in the backdrop?' Today, talent in Bollywood has taken a backseat. Wearing minimum, talking brazen and PR has become the name of the game. I cannot expose my cleavage and midriff.
Besides, I am petrified of too much action. Like there was this scene I did recently in KKR, where my 'pallu' catches fire. The director did not want to use a dummy. I do not know how many times my heart skipped a beat.
Importantly, I would be uncomfortable doing overtly romantic scenes. Like, I don't think I could do Sangeeta Ghosh's lovey-dovey scenes of Des Mein Nikala Hoga Chand. It peeves me that there are no more serials like Udaan on air. In fact, such serials in today's times would be very timely. I cannot fathom why TV serial makers are either obsessed with showing females only as homemaker or homebreakers.
Do you agree that TV-types are not digested as heroines, easily?
Look at Gracy Singh. Her first film Lagaan almost won an Oscar for India! Agreed that Aamir Khan stole the show in Lagaan, but could Gracy's neat performance be discounted? Offers didn't fall into her lap as expected, but hasn't she had quite a few plum projects of late- like Honey Irani's Armaan for one?
"I am not a senior actor that I can do things my way. I have to toe the line"
How do you keep yourself in the limelight? Do you party?
That's my only drawback. Yes, today, you need to be seen around in the right places at the right time. Maybe I'll have to change on that front. So far, I go for only some channel party or Ekta Kapoor's birthday celebrations. You will never find me hanging out at Athena, Velocity, Fire N Ice. I am not a party animal. I would rather chat up with friends on phone, or curl up with a book.What books do you read?
I love reading, but tell me, does our profession give me the time to even flip through a book? TV work can be so taxing at times, that you are virtually asleep, rather half-dead, during your return journey. A friend of mine has suggested a great book How to improve your Acting Performance. From next month, we'll shoot only for 15 days for KKR, unlike the 26 days we have been devoting now. I plan to take up this book then.I get a hunch that the serial is winding up.
Please don't read between the lines. We have been given a year's extension. Hopefully, we should be going on…. (smiles).To retrace a bit…. How did you become a tele 'bahu' of Balaji Telefilms?
I was doing a few TV commercials. Then I got Milan directed by Lekh Tandon. Ekta saw me in Milan and called me for Karam. And then came Kaahin Kissii Roz, the ball had started rolling.Before agreeing to do 'KKR', you had told Ekta that you don't want to be portrayed as a bahu. Right?
Absolutely. I didn't want to come across as a 'bechari'. If you are nice, you can still be a confident go-getter without being timid and helpless. Ekta narrated the script to me and I loved it. The suspense portions, in particular, excite me no end. I just love suspense- be it in serials/ dramas/ films/ books.Having done a central role, will you play a second or a third bahu in a joint family?
Let's face it. I do not have an author-backed role in KKR. But yet, the role has lots of substance. I am almost in every frame of the serial. If the second or the third bahu has that much weight, I am game. But let me remind you that I don't want to play a 'bechari' whom the public sympathises with. I wouldn't mind a negative character either.
I wouldn't mind playing a girl who blindly apes the West- dons Western outfits, smokes at the drop of a hat. I am even game to playing the spoilt wife of a rich businessman. But remember, Western outfits does not mean those which will create a flutter. As I told you, I will not expose.Would you explain your 'modus operandi'?
I am a spontaneous actor. I read my lines but I don't memorise them. I get the gist of the matter, mark the main points, and then say it in my own words. When it comes to emotional scenes, I often don't use glycerine nowadays. Initially, I used to use it more. I have been playing Shaina for over 370 episodes now. Naturally, I have got into the skin of the character.
How important is the director to you?
Now don't get me wrong. When I say that I have completely got into the skin of the character, that does not imply that I don't need a director. I am purely a director's actor. Without a director, I would be lost. I understand a director very quickly. Every director can extract the maximum out of me. Naturally, my best is a long way off. Goes without saying that my next will be better than Shaina.What do you do if and when you find a particular scene very difficult?
I sit with the director. I request him to explain. Then I take my lines and retire into a corner. I ask for a rehearsal. I wish we could take our lines home. In TV serials, particularly in daily soaps, lines are written at the spur of the moment. That does make the task of the artiste sometimes very difficult.You said you are a director's actor. How do you cope if and when the director changes midway?
These things are difficult in the initially stages. Now, Shaina is deeply embedded in me. So, a change of director does not affect much. In fact, the director has to do more homework and adjustments than the artistes. He has to go way back into the full history of the serial. But yes, it would be great if one director saw every project to its logical conclusion.Do you get peeved when the channel demands a look that you are not comfortable with?
What's the point? Can I afford to? I am not a senior actor that I can do things my way. I have to toe the line. I recall the difference of opinions in the early days of KKR when Ramola Sikand (Sudha Chandran) did not agree with the manner in which the channel wanted her to look. She stood by her conviction. She was adamant that she wanted those 'bindis' and jewellery. Look where she is today! Her 'bindis' and jewellery are a craze, sorry, a rage even in London. She has become a trendsetter! But for me to put down my foot, I still need a few years.
Have you put down your foot on something else at least in 'KKR'?
Oh yeah! I take care not to say lines which I can't digest. If you are not convinced of what you are saying, it invariably reflects on your face. Consequently, the output suffers. Like there was this scene I did recently where I was asked to pray, 'Bachcha takleef mein ma ke paas jaata hai, meri maa mere paas nahin hain, main kahan jaun?'. The word 'ma' referred to my mother-in-law. I politely drove home my point as, "Sir, agreed that you want to emphasise that Ramola Sikand has turned over a new leaf, but how can I equate the woman who has committed 12 murders as my mother? How can I equate the woman who tried to kill me and my husband (Yash Tonk) as my mother?". The lines were deleted.Can I peep into your work kitty?
Kaahin Kissii Roz consumes about 2O-25 days of a month. I did about 20 episodes of Kutumb in the recent past, but that's over now. I was supposed to do a serial for Vishesh Films co-starring Kiron Kher, but the channel which was supposed to carry it had some problem. Of late, I have met some people. Soon, I might sign something exciting.Is this fickle-minded beauty giving herself a stipulated period on the tube before she settles down to make her life complete?
I believe in the age-old saying 'A woman's life is complete only after she becomes a good daughter, wife and mother'. But why will I quit after marriage? Didn't I stress on a woman's financial independence in the beginning? Please underline this: A woman who is not financially independent is incomplete; she commits a blunder if she does not pursue her goals- but surely not at the cost of her character and self-respect, mind you. I will always continue to act on television. I am here to stay. I love the TV world. It gives me an immense high.Amongst your costars whom do you look up to?
Sudha Chandran, who else! Who can rise like a Phoenix from the ashes from the terrible position she found herself at the age of 16 when we have stars in our eyes? Initially, I used to keep my distance from her, but today, she is like my elder sister. We share the same make-up room, we have the maximum scenes together. All this has brought us real close. That however does not imply that we intrude into each other's private life.Private life! Is there a man in your life?
You took a long time to say that?