“People are quick to stereotype”
+ Photographed by Joel Koechlin
People have preconceived notions because of the way you look and who you are. My parents are French, I was born in Pondicherry and have grown up my entire life having to break the ice. When I go to my friends parents’ house, they’re like, “Who is this firang ladki?” But then they speak to me in Tamil, they see me eating rice and sambar with my hands and they’re so thrilled and happy, you know? It stems from how people see you from the outside and how you need to break that, something that has been a part of my life right from the start. It’s been easy for me to breakthrough because of how Indian I am. And it’s the same when it comes to Bollywood. On the one hand, people are quick to stereotype me as a white girl, but as soon as they realise that I’ve grown up here,
speak the language and have had the same experiences as pretty much everyone else growing up in India, their perceptions changed and they’ve accepted that. But I’ve always suffered from a little bit of an identity crisis. When I’m in France, no one there thinks I’m French because I have this accent, Indian accent. Wherever I go, I’m like a confusion. So long live identity crisis I guess! But there’s an upside to this. You have the ability to fit into everything, you become malleable. For instance, I found that when I speak to English or French people, I would change myself, my accent, my demeanour. I feel that a part of acting came out of that, of having to accommodate myself according to the social situation I was in.
I just love being on stage, I love the chance to be someone else, literally be something else.
When I was six years old, I was casted as a tree in a school play and I was extremely disappointed. I can’t be a tree for the rest of my life! I wanted some life! Then in Macavity I played the sheep which kept me happy for a bit, cause at least I was a moving thing. Post that I finally got the role of a character and won best actress for it. All of this while I was still in school, but I just loved it, I just love being on stage, I love the chance to be someone else, literally be something else. And then I had to go to university, my grand parents had set aside money for it and my mum said I had to. So I thought, “What can I do that I won’t get bored for 3 years?” And yeah, acting it was! Much to the fear and disappointment of my parents.
So when I got into Bollywood, I was faced with the reality of not fitting into the standard requirement because of the way I look. I knew that I cant pull off a gaon wali ladki role because I don’t look
conventionally Indian. I have those limitations. Language is a limitation. My hindi is not as fluent as it should be, like if I’d grown up in the North or in Bombay.
So I’m in tune with these realities, but this frustration actually helps motivate me. I immediately got a tutor on board to help me learn hindi; I’m ready to push where I can push. But I also know that I have limitations and we are always typecast. One of my best friends is Radhika Apte and she’s tired of playing the good girl role. She’s got that sweet very beautiful, very Indian, desi face; she looks that way but it’s not that way at all. She’s an outspoken feminist, but because she has that look, she gets stereotyped in those kind of roles. And similarly I’ve been stereotyped in these dark roles and I want to break that. We are all typecast on the basis of our looks and the way we carry ourselves. As an actor it’s a challenge to change and push that.
+ Margarita with a straw screengrab from YouTube
When Dev D happened, I was just thrilled about getting work you know! I wasn’t thinking about my career in a long term way. For me it was like, “Oh my god! Finally I’m getting some work!” And I thought it was a very interesting role and loved it. It was a really cool film and I had no idea how lucky I was. Has it been easier or gotten difficult through time to stay true to my conviction of playing brave and taking on challenging roles vis-à-vis commercial roles? A bit of both, because you get typecast even in that right; and people have an idea of you taking on dark roles. So you eventually have to break the mould yourself and go out of your way to make people see you in a different light. Which is why a film like Yeh Jawani Hai Diwani directed by Ayan Mukerji and Zoya Akhtar appealed to me. Directors like them are not only thinking of a film in terms of branding or pitching a bunch of stars together, they really want to tell a story. The business, TRP aspect of the industry is secondary for me, the first thing that matters is the script and whether I can pull off the character and bring authenticity to it.
Although when I met Ayan Mukerji for the first time, he didn’t even have a script! He would give us the lines 3 days before we’d shoot and change them on set, he was like completely crazy. But he knew his characters inside out – Aditi’s childhood, what she and Bunny had been through, all of it. So I could see the enthusiasm in the way he thought out his characters and the authenticity came from there.
And then you have roles like Laila from Margarita with a straw, where I spent 6 months gathering information on cerebral palsy and hanging out with Malini. Apart from the physical exhaustion, it affected me mentally. This one time I had spent the entire day in a wheelchair with Malini. At the end of the day I got up and said, “Okay, bye Malini. I’ll see you tomorrow!” And she said, “See that’s the difference between you and me. You can just get up and leave.” That really struck me and I decided to stay in the wheelchair throughout to get that frustration and feeling.
I still have a swift, had it for 6 years. And I’m not interested in buying a bigger car. I’d rather spend that money producing a new play. So it really depends what struggle means to you.
Expressing myself across different mediums is important to me you know, be it theatre, acting, play writing or poetry. It’s difficult for me to sit around and do nothing for too long. There are long gaps between projects, and as an actor I find that frustrating. Like if you’re a musician you always have your instruments with you and you can practice wherever you are. But it’s not the same when it comes to acting, because most of your practice comes via collaborating since acting is reacting in a way. So how do you keep honing your skills? Writing helps fill that void, to be able to put what I’m feeling into words, it’s important and therapeutic. Whereas theatre helps me learn, it gives me a certain kind of confidence. Have you noticed the people who go to the Lokhandwala gym, building up their muscles and all? So theatre for me is my local gym, where I go to work on my acting muscles. It’s about riyaaz and getting your voice and body to open up. And this is so important. Because when you’re sitting in a vanity van all day and you give your shot whispering the lines cause you have a mic on.
A lot of celebrities end up doing this, where they just end up being themselves in every role. So theatre helps me step out of myself and into another character. In fact theatre helps me in films, makes me improvise and think on my feet. Theatre and cinema are like a father and mother – they drive me crazy but I love them both.
Is the industry receptive to people who’ve got different personalities? Yes, but it is a struggle. I think you have to be aware of it, and enjoy it. It also depends on your ambition and what you want in life. I still have a swift, had it for 6 years. And I’m not interested in buying a bigger car. I’d rather spend that money producing a new play. So it really depends on what struggle means to you. Personally, I find the struggle of life interesting, I enjoy it. There are obviously several ups and downs but I do think that if you’re motivated and talented, you can make it, you can keep going.
As told to Pratik Ramesh Prabhan
Last modified: October 17, 2018