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It’s not just Akshay Kumar, but the female characters in the satirical dark comedy drama, Jolly LLB 2, were also applauded.

It’s not just Akshay Kumar, but the female characters in the satirical dark comedy drama, Jolly LLB 2, were also applauded.

One such character was the wonderfully-nuanced cameo by SayaniGupta, who played Hina Siddiqui, a young Muslim woman driven to despair.  It’s a small but pivotal and deeply impactful role, so much so that Sayani was lauded for her performance by some of the veterans from the industry. Twitterati in large numbers also poured their love for her.

Gupta has so far been doing a balancing act between commercial and art cinema. She has received critical acclaim for her offbeat and distinctive roles in films like her debut Margarita With A Straw (played the role of Kalki’s love interest)and most recently Fan (as Shah Rukh Khan’s secretary), however, Sayani doesn’t take compliments or criticism seriously.

“I have never sat down to ponder over what others have to say because ultimately you know what you have done. Piyush Mishra (theatre and film actor, NSD alumni) called me few days back when I was shooting for Jagga Jasoos, and said while referring to Jolly LLB 2, ‘I didn’t know you acted so well.’  Lot of people are complimenting me on social media as well. Somebody told me that they went to watch the film thrice because of me. There are lot of people who said I made them feel for the part and I made them cry,” says Sayani.

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She continues, “My performance really moved my mother, and she is far too detached about the industry and not at all excited about the film world or what I am doing. She is not in favour of me acting and it was quite a struggle to convince her when I went to FTII (Film and Television Institute of India). Little by little, she is coming to terms with it but she would have rather seen me as an IAS officer or in a regular job.”

“We are from middle class family and they didn’t want their only daughter to get into films. Obviously there are certain perceptions about the film industry. My close friends never say nice things, they are always critiquing my work, but finally they felt that I was brilliant in Jolly LLB 2.”

Strangely enough, Sayani has been getting offers for horror movies for last few years and she, too, fails to understand the reason for it. “Maybe they think I am a Bengali, I have big eyes…” she laughs.

While Sayani so far has rejected two offers post Jolly LLB 2 (as  she is “choosy”, “instinctive”, “and not ready for it”), she is certainly excited about her first international project, The Hungry, which is an Indo-British production starring Naseeruddin Shah and Tisca Chopra. The film, for which the actors were very selectively chosen, is directed by debutante filmmaker Bornila Chatterjee, who is an alumnus from New York’s Tisch School of the Arts. The Hungry is an adaptation of William Shakespeare tragedy Titus Androcinus, which is believed to have been written between 1588 and 1593.

“This year marks the 400th death anniversary of Shakespeare. His stories could seem a tad hyper-real for this era, but this film is a realistic take. The script won at a collaborative cine-lab,” says Sayani, further adding, “The film has a bunch of deadly actors. We shot for it in Delhi and Agra. The ambience on set was stimulating and since we all got along so well, it turned out to be a great shoot.”

Recently, Sayani earned an honourable mention for the Best Actress award for her short film, Leeches, at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles  (IFFLA). In just two years of her career, she’s also bagged one of the lead roles opposite Naseeruddin Shah with The Hungry. The actress considers it her privilege to act alongside ‘Naseer’, who was her teacher at the FTII.

“Naseer was very excited about his role after decades. He plays my father. He has been my teacher and lot of my understanding about acting and the craft is because of him. It was almost like reassurance of sorts when he would come to take our class. I adore him as a human being. He is fun to be around. He has always taught us how acting is all about reacting. He is a keen listener, which adds to the performance,” she says, adding:

“There are two of the coolest men I have worked with – Shah Rukh Khan and Naseeruddin Shah. They are sensitive, they are aware, they don’t take themselves too seriously. They are normal dudes.”

So did Sayani take any advice from the two “coolest” men?

“Some of the things Naseer told me is: ‘Learn your lines till you bump into a furniture. Know your lines backwards. Study the script well. Be relaxed and don’t take things too seriously. Make it fun and light.’ On the other hand, there’s much to learn just by the way Shah Rukh carries himself. He is the most technically sound actor, I feel. His understanding, the cleanliness with which he does everything, his craft is solid. He doesn’t show it. He is persistently hardworking and also the humility. He doesn’t take his stardom seriously,” she reveals.

Two of Sayani’s “friends” from the industry are the erstwhile directors – Rajkumar Hirani and Vishal Bhardwaj. She may not have offers from them yet but she certainly takes their advice. “I don’t talk work with them. Hirani often tells me that I should give people time after they have seen my film. I did audition for a part in Rangoon but Vishal told me that it won’t be good enough for me. I would never ask them to cast me because that could hamper our relationship. Whenever they want to cast me, they will.”

Sayani is currently shooting for Ranbir Kapoor-Katrina Kaif- starrer Jagga Jasoos which has been in the making for a long time. “When I signed the film I was playing the only narrator in the film. I had a separate track of my own. But since there is no script — Dada (Director Anurag Basu) doesn’t work with scripts, he writes as he goes along — my role has changed. I will know what my part is only after I see the film. Also, it is a very difficult film when it comes to format. It is musical, it’s a children’s film, and it is not a normal narrative. I play a 14-year-old girl and that is all I know (laughs),” she says.

Pankaj Tripathi: ‘Modi is the traditional Hindustani hero, Kejriwal is the common man’

He had been around for several years in the Hindi film industry before he played the bloodthirsty Sultan Qureshi in the film that became his calling card, Anurag Kashyap’s violence-ridden Gangs of Wasseypur in 2012.

Variety is clearly Pankaj Tripathi’s glucose as an artiste.

Last year in the internationally lauded and awarded Masaan, he played a hesitant suitor to a feisty female colleague, his manner towards her a marked contrast to the aggressive wooing of women by so many commercial Hindi film heroes even today. He is currently basking in the universal praise he has received for his performance as an eccentric school principal with questionable though well-intentioned teaching methods in the sleeper hit Nil Battey Sannata, in which Swara Bhaskar plays the lead. Nil Battey is now entering its seventh week in theatres, which is unprecedented for such a low-key, low-budget venture.

In a conversation with contributing editor Anna M.M. Vetticad, Pankaj Tripathi discusses the meaning of ‘mardaangi’ in Bollywood’s dictionary and heroes who molest heroines in the guise of courtship. He also explains why the success of small Hindi films these days telling stories of Everywoman and Everyman are a sign of changing audience tastes and an evolving society. These are excerpts from the English translation of an interview that was conducted in Hindi:

There is a line you did not cross with your character’s quirks in Nil Battey Sannata. Did you deliberately control yourself? Were you aware that if you crossed a certain line, you would have made Srivastava Sir effeminate?

Yes I was absolutely aware of it.

A caricatured effeminate man is a character we are used to seeing in Hindi cinema. Why did you stop yourself?

When I first read the role, he was quite flat. What you see on screen is not entirely what the character was in the script. I felt that since this film makes such a serious and important point, since it is a serious story of a mother and daughter, and there is humour in only that one scene where the mother comes to get admission for herself in school, my task was to make my character interesting. But there was a line in my mind that I was very clear I would not cross.

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Generally, when actors are trying to make their characters entertaining, they end up crossing the very thin line that divides entertainment and buffoonery. I wanted him to be believable as a serious guy. He is a Maths teacher, the kind I would have been if I had become a teacher: he is serious but he makes sure he starts off by livening up the class, catching the attention of students whose minds are wandering, so that everyone is alert when he teaches his subject. While doing so, I was determined that none of this should come across as a caricature, buffoonery or mimicry.

Most actors in such roles end up mimicking an old actor, either consciously or sub-consciously. They’ll play the teacher as, say, Prem Chopra, Pran or Jeevan might have played him. My references don’t come from cinema. Most actors who join films are very inspired by cinema. I’m not. I’ve perhaps seen 40 films in my life, perhaps two or three films from Hollywood or world cinema. So my performances are drawn from reality, from the life I’ve lived, the people I’ve met.

There’s nothing wrong with a man being what people consider effeminate. Why does Hindi cinema choose to caricature such men?

You should watch my next film Anarkali Arawali which stars Swara Bhaskar. I play a dancer from a small town called Ara in Bihar who runs a song and dance troupe and performs with them on stage. He has some very feminine moves when he dances,

You will see that this performance too is one I’ve given with great care to ensure that it does not cross over into buffoonery and a caricature of the kind actors do when they’re playing gay men on screen. Actors usually play gay to draw laughs and they end up misrepresenting gay people.

There is such a thing as maatra, amount. An actor shoud be aware of the economics of his gestures and emotions. Is this too much or too little, if I go beyond this will it be a waste? I learnt this from my guru, Baba B.V. Karanth at the National School of Drama. He said, Pankaj, you should not waste your gestures, they should be measured with care. Many actors get carried away, they start enjoying their own performance on set especially when the crew starts reacting with laughter during the shoot. They begin to think they’re doing a great job.

I begin to get worried if people on set enjoy my performance too much, because we forget that what they are seeing in real life and what I can then re-watch on our 16-17 inch monitor will be watched by the audience on a screen of 30 feet. What may seem less while shooting could be too much on the big screen.

Besides, I’ve worked as a cook so I know the exact texture, thickness, look and smell of a dish even before I make it. My process while acting too is similar.

Would you like to play a conventional macho Hindi film hero like the guy in Singham who flies through the air and beats up 50 people single-handedly? You know the kind of hero who exemplifies the Hindi film fixation with ‘mardaangi’?

No, because I would not be convinced myself. Or if I do, I’d make him slightly sanki, slightly abnormal, because I don’t think such a man can be normal.

You know, our society has changed quite a bit and is turning its back on many conventions. For instance, earlier when I used to visit Bihar, I would perhaps spot one girl in every five villages who would ride a bicycle and she would be a subject of much discussion, but when I visited my village a few months back I saw dozens of girls riding cycles to schools. So certainly our society’s mentality towards women is changing, that whole notion of mardaangi would have been acceptable to most people but now in a small way it is being questioned. The male mindset is changing in a small way, largely because young people who have been exposed to the outside world and to world cinema through the Internet are questioning everything. They are much more aware than us, the older generation.

You mentioned the dramatic change in your village. Do you think the marginal changes we are seeing in the attitude towards this so-called ‘mardaangi’ is a result of society influencing Hindi cinema, or are our films being influenced by society?

This is always a tough question. In India I feel society is influenced by cinema, everyone is aping films. However, young people who are responsible for filling up halls on opening weekends, these youngsters are refusing to be constrained by society’s rules at least in our big cities. If they’re gay they want to be open about it, they don’t want to hide their sexual preferences. Urban Indian society has become more open-minded and since urban audiences contribute greatly to our film collections, we are seeing more characters who are not the routine macho type.

After Gangs of Wasseypur I kept getting offers to play raw characters who were goondas. I got sick of it. In Bihar there is a term, mahua, which is the complete opposite of macho. I decided I wanted to play a role like that. I’d had enough of the macho stuff.

Earlier actors had a great hunger for roles that were described as powerful, you hear actors giving interviews saying they want powerful roles, when what they’re talking about is the traditional macho role where the hero would beat up people, everyone would be scared of him and they would bow before him. These characters emerge from a feudal mindset. Most of our heroes were people with this mentality, but that old feudal system is gone and many of today’s real life heroes are people who would definitely not be seen as macho.