Sayyeshaa Saigal, who marks her debut in Bollywood as the leading lady in Ajay Devgn’s upcoming action-drama, Shivaay, can be considered one lucky newcomer. Besides her lineage — the 19-year-old is the grand niece of Bollywood legends Dilip Kumar and Saira Banu — she has got her mentor Ajay to advise her on film offers and her career. Then there are other close family friends she looks up to, like Salman Khan, who is just a phone call away.
Daughter of actors Sumeet Saigal and Shaheen Banu, Sayyeshaa wanted to face the cameras as far back as she can remember. She was also obsessed with dance and over the past 14 years, underwent extensive training in various styles like Odissi, Kathak, Jazz, Latin American among several others, that she learnt in India, London and South Africa.
She made her debut in Tollywood last year, in VV Vinayak’s film, Akhil, in which she played the lead role opposite Akhil Akkineni (son of Amala and Nagarjuna). Shivaay happened subsequently.
“I didn’t get into movies because of my filmi background or my family connections. It happened because I truly love the camera and the arc lights. I want my dream to come true. I always wanted to be an actress. I enjoy people’s love and adulation. From childhood on, my focus was acting," says Sayyeshaa.
Incidentally, her quest for an acting career didn't preclude academic excellence: The Science student scored 97 percent in her Board exams. “My friends thought I was absolutely crazy to get into Bollywood but this is my passion,” Sayyeshaa says.
While Ajay has imposed restrictions about how much she can talk about her role and character in Shivaay, "he has been extremely kind otherwise," Sayyeshaa says. “There is absolutely no restriction on me, I haven't signed any film deal or contract. Otherwise people impose a lot of restrictions when they launch a newcomer. But of course, if he asks me to be part of 10 films, I would be willing to do all of those. He is my family,” the young actress says. "He told me that it was a performance-oriented role and found me quite natural in front of the camera. He didn’t want anyone with a set image. May be I met all those requirements.”
As a director, Sayyeshaa describes Ajay as "accurate and technically very sound". "He would be sitting with six cameras and if he wasn’t giving a shot, he would operate one camera himself. Because he is an actor himself, he knows what he wants from his artistes. He would tell us to be natural and say the lines just as we might in real life," Sayyeshaa shares.
Having been brought up in an extremely protective background in a household with such legends and iconic figures is truly a blessing, says Sayyeshaa even though the family doesn’t discuss films much. However, she would like to 'borrow' the natural acting style of Dilip Kumar and the Western outlook of her grand aunt Saira Banu. “In her time she was one of the most glamorous and modern actresses; she wore Western outfits with such ease. Mr Dilip Kumar was so effortless and natural which was his strongest point. I would like to portray myself on screen like both of them,” she says.
Sayyeshaa shares anecdotes that Dilip Kumar told her. "Before he went on the sets, he would mark the relevant lines in the script. He would go prepared so that it became easier. Maybe I should take this tip! Secondly, his language is flawless! I have picked up certain Urdu words from him. But just spending some time with him is a huge learning experience every day,” says Sayyeshaa.
There were reports that Shivaay almost had Pakistani-born Canadian actor Ali Kazmi as part of the cast. Scheduling delays ultimately led to his opting out of the project. Shivaay's director-producer and star Ajay Devgn has stated now that he will not be working with any Pakistani artistes until the bilateral tensions are resolved.
Sayyeshaa echoes her mentor's sentiments: “It is India that comes first before everything else. Although I feel that the actors have nothing to do with terrorism, if there are decisions taken by the Indian government that is right, we will follow them as they are taken to secure us. I support my own country.”
Meanwhile, as she readies for her film's 28 October release, is she worried about the clash with Ae Dil Hai Mushkil?
“I truly feel that if both the films are good or whichever is better, the audience will go and watch that. It is not about publicity, promotions or what the press is writing; only the script and film matters. It’s Diwali time and people may watch both. Also the films belong to totally different genres. I am being a bit selfish here when I say that I want people to watch me. That is what I am focused on, more than the clash. I am not comparing myself to actresses (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Anushka Sharma) in the other film at all. I am too young for that,” says Sayyeshaa.