‘…it didn’t make sense to me.’
‘If the character was not adding (to the story), I wasn’t interested.’
‘The reason why I chose to act is because of the way it makes me feel when I’m acting, not for the fame and money.’
Shahana Goswami presses all the right buttons in her performance in her Web shows A Suitable Boy and Bombay Begums.
Her latest release, The Last Hour, a supernatural thriller, is getting good reviews too.
Shahana, who began her career in Naseeruddin Shah’s directorial debut Yun Hota Toh Kya Hota in 2006, has added colour to so many characters in her career so far.
But as she tells Ronjita Kulkarni/Rediff.com, “I don’t think I’ve ever had the opportunity to play who I am as a person.”
What has the feedback been for The Last Hour?
I think it’s been mixed.
Some people love it. They’ve mentioned on Instagram how they have binge-watched it.
There are others who may not have liked it as much.
I’m very happy and pleasantly surprised by the amount of people who have found it intriguing, and not alienating.
Do you believe in the supernatural?
Yes, most definitely.
We call it supernatural only because our definition of natural is so limited. But it’s very much part and parcel of natural.
You’ve been terrific in A Suitable Boy and Bombay Begums. Would you say this is a good phase in your career?
I think it depends on what you’re looking for.
The only thing that is different now is perhaps that because of the OTT platforms, the kind of characters that are being written, and the kind of storylines that are being written, the length of time that you get to play out the character is longer.
But in terms of the process of work, I’ve always loved it.
That has been my focus, the collaborative part.
The part where, you know, you creatively choose to engage with the people with a certain director’s vision, or a writer’s vision, and then help them achieve that as a team.
Do you think people are finally recognising your talent the way they should?
To be honest, I feel everybody has always been extremely kind.
Right from the start of my career, I have always been appreciated, sometimes even more than I understood, by the media and the audiences.
The only difference is the reach… in terms of how many people the project reached.
I don’t determine my career to be on the success of the projects I’ve been a part of.
For me, the success of my career is about how well I have done, how well I have portrayed my character and how my collaborative process has been like.
Having said that, of course, it’s great to be a part of three shows that are talked about and to play three characters that are so varied and liked. That’s definitely been nice to have in such a short span of time.
You play contrasting characters in A Suitable Boy and Bombay Begums.
I think in the case of Meenakshi (in A Suitable Boy), it was tapping into a side of me that I had never explored and using some observational aspects of things that one had seen or heard and conversations from that time that era in Calcutta — the very Anglicised Bengali families.
Of course, there was Mira (Nair, director) to guide me.
The hair-makeup-wardrobe team does a huge chunk of the work for you because once you get into the look, you start feeling like another person.
Meenakshi is the epitome of effervescence.
Then, you have Fatima (in Bombay Begums), who is extremely subdued and almost lacklustre.
So for me, I try my best to live in the moment, as a character at least.
In real life, that’s very hard to do, but when I’m playing a character, I do very little preparation because I really stay in the now.
I am not trained, I don’t have techniques.
I go by instinct and for that, I need to really focus and pay attention and be in the now while doing it.
You put yourself in the character’s position and somehow imagine yourself taking that journey.
How similar or different are you from Fatima and Meenakshi?
Oh, I’m totally different from both of them.
The closest character I’ve played to myself is Kavya from the film, Tu Hai Mera Sunday.
I don’t think I’ve ever had the opportunity to play who I am as a person.
But the whole point of being an actor is to be very different from who you are, and explore parts of yourself and your psyche that don’t come out naturally.
For example, with Meenakshi, I would have never imagined myself to be able to play that part because I may have suppressed those sides of myself, that sexuality. Maybe not suppressed, but not focused on them.
I’ve focused more on being a tomboy, being chilled out.
So I had to tap into that side of me and I think it unlocked someone in me and I discovered a more feminine side to myself.
With Fatima, anger and confrontations are something I always shy away from…and I think I probably found and channelled that from inside me for Fatima.
Did you always want to be an actress? You don’t come from a film family.
Yes, I wanted to act from the time I can remember.
Even though my family isn’t professionally in the business, I have been exposed to the arts all my life.
My mother has been a dancer. She used to do street plays and workshops.
My father was a theatre performer (Omkar Goswami, her father, is a well-known economist).
My aunt and uncle were in theatre.
So a lot of that was around, it’s just that nobody took it up as a full time profession.
My school (Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, Delhi) was also very encouraging. A lot of actors like Swara Bhaskar, Richa Chadha and Suraj Sharma have come from there.
I learnt Odissi from Kiran Sehgal, Zohra Sehgal’s daughter. I learnt it for 10 years.
All these things made me keenly aware from a young age that I enjoyed that process of becoming somebody else, of telling a story.
And I was always fascinated by cinema.
It’s just that I didn’t think it would happen. I didn’t know how to make it happen.
When I moved to Bombay at the age of 18, the idea was that I would do theatre and then maybe join NSD (National School of Drama).
I joined a theatre group called Working Title, run by Jaimini Pathak. I was studying in Sophia College at the time.
Around this time, someone, who knew Jaimini, met me and said, Oh, don’t you want to act in films? A friend of mine is casting for a Pooja Bhatt film, why don’t you meet her?
So I went and met her.
But she told me, forget about that film, there is another one that Naseeruddin Shah is directing and there’s a character you might be good for.
I met Naseeruddin Shah and he asked me to come for an audition.
I did the audition and two weeks later, I got the part.
It just happened very unexpectedly, and very quickly.
After that, I’ve just been very lucky and consistently got work.
So I started acting when I was 19 and still in college.
Within the next six months, I already had Ru Ba Ru, Rock On, Firaaq, Tera Kya Hoga Johnny and another film that never came out.
Rock On was your third release. How much did it help your career?
It put me in the map of things.
Suddenly people knew me and recognised me. Till date, people remember me from that film.
I’m very happy to have been a part of that film because of the wonderful memories.
So many people took note of my character and that’s also because of the writing.
There was a lot more nuance and that made her real, not just a caricaturish, nagging wife, who was trying to thwart the dreams of this man.
Of course, when I look back, I look at the acting and there are so many things I cringe at.
But I also cut myself some slack and realise that for that time, for what I knew and understood, I was fine.
Were you happy with the kind of roles you got after Rock On?
Yes and no.
I was happy with certain kinds of things that came after that. Like, there was a film called Jashn that didn’t do well, but on paper, it was a really well written project.
(Mahesh) Bhattsaab directed parts of it so it was a great journey to learn and grow.
What are the other films that I got?
Actually, not too many.
What happened was Rock On coincided with the economic demonetisation, and the economic depression that happened then. So everybody’s choices, in terms of cinema, became very safe again.
Cinema took a slightly different turn; it didn’t go very experimental for a while.
The typical Bollywood stuff required a certain kind of look and feel and maybe I didn’t fit into that.
I don’t think I was consciously aware of it at that time that I was not growing and not happy…I expected things to open up a lot more and it didn’t.
I played smaller parts in big films.
Even though I gained from that — you know, like, getting close to certain kinds of people and making friendships — but creatively, they didn’t satisfy me.
They left me feeling very empty.
I didn’t like that feeling, so I decided I would never do that again. And I didn’t.
Yes, the films in the earlier part of your career were mainstream Bollywood films (Break Ke Baad, Game, Ra.One, Heroine), and you seemed to move away from that later.
It was not a conscious decision not to do mainstream films.
I didn’t want to do work where the reason why I did those films were strategic — like, doing smaller parts in big films with big actors because that brings a certain kind of exposure.
Of course, there was that exposure and people did get to know me.
But the reason why I chose to act is because of the way it makes me feel when I’m acting, not for the fame and money. That was the bonus.
What drew me to acting was the process of acting.
So when that is not fulfilling, you don’t want to do it.
I said no to a lot of big films that came after that because it didn’t make sense to me. If the character was not adding (to the story), I wasn’t interested.
Also, parallely, I started doing a lot of interesting work in smaller, independent films. They were all international films.
It opened up a new world of cinema for me.
I was playing interesting parts.
I was getting to travel the world to shoot them.
I was working with interesting teams of people from all over the world.
I was travelling with the film to festivals and meeting a bunch of interesting people and representing the film.
That process was far more exciting than what was going on in India.
You moved to Paris for some time. What made you do that?
I wanted to get out.
I was around 25-26, and at that time, I wanted to grow more, explore more.
I had never lived outside of India.
Four years prior to this period, I was travelling around a lot in different parts of the world.
I started feeling like, it would be nice to live somewhere else and experience a different reality.
The films I was doing at the time were not Indian productions,
I didn’t need to be based in India, so this thought came up, that why don’t I base myself somewhere else?
I thought maybe I would open new doors.
The initial idea was move to either London or New York.
At some point, I realised that America was not where my heart was in terms of the arts and creativity, even though I love New York.
A European director named Paul Cox with whom I worked told me, No, don’t live in the US. It’s not for you. You should live in Europe, that’s more of your sensitivity.
It just happened that I was visiting Paris for three weeks. I have a whole bunch of friends there.
I started understanding the essence of Paris, so I said, sure, why not? I think I can move here.
I was with my then boyfriend, who was an Italian living in Paris.
The moment you mention a boyfriend, people feel that I moved to Paris for love.
Not that I have any problem moving for love, but I didn’t.
I mean, if he lived in Italy, I would have probably still moved to Paris because it had to make sense for my life and career.
The reason why Paris made sense was because I had friends in the film industry there.
Secondly, it was just a two-and-a-half hour drive away from London, where I had an agent.
It was a gamble, of course.
The reason was not so much my career as a balance in my life. Yes, it had to make sense for my career, but basically, I wanted to grow and explore.
So I moved to Paris in June 2015 for four years.
Don’t miss Part 2 of this interview next week!
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