Kajal Aggarwal on Sita, working with director Teja, and the struggle to avoid being typecast
Kajal Aggarwal says her character in Sita is a representation of the aspirations of the modern woman Indian woman.
Kajal Aggarwal has been acting in films for nearly 15 years now. Every time she was on the brink of being written off, she proved her critics wrong. With nearly 55 films to her credit, the actress confesses that she feels the urge to give back to the industry and the people, who have made her a star, more than ever before. Excerpts from an interview:
Your latest film, Sita, is being touted as a modern retelling of the Ramayana. What intrigued you about this script?
Sita isn’t really an adaptation of the Ramayana. The way I see it, my character in the film is a representation of the aspirations of a modern woman, who’s hard-working and ambitious, and achieves her goals. The film is more about relationships, about each person wanting to make it big in their life, and how different people have different priorities. The role does have grey shades. I knew that I was walking a thin line because I was quite clear that I didn’t want her to look like a negative character. Teja, the director of the film, pitched me this story many years ago; however, we couldn’t work on it back then. Later, while we were shooting for Nene Raju Nene Mantri, I kept telling him that I really want to work on it. It was quite a collaborative process and we sat together to understand Sita’s journey at different stages of her life.
You said you could relate to your characterisation in Sita partly, but not all. Where do you differ from her?
At times, she comes across as way too self-absorbed. I used to get scared of playing her because I’m not that person. I wouldn’t compromise on other people’s well-being for my own selfish reasons, but Sita would. But when you dig deeper into her psyche, you realise that it’s more of a defence mechanism to deal with people in a society which is not favourable to her. I’ve been blatantly rude, at times, in the past because I didn’t want people to get into my personal space. So, I could relate to the role to a certain degree and the rest was imaginary and exaggerated. Not many films give you so much scope to explore a character’s psyche to this extent, and I’m really glad that I got this film. It was also physically challenging because I had to do several stunts on my own. I had
to undergo physiotherapy during the shoot. I gave it my blood, sweat, and tears.
In recent times, you’ve spoken about your urge to play stronger characters. Did your role in Sita feel like the right thing to do?
It’s only in recent times that films have started showing women as strong, independent and fierce. In my journey of acting in more than 50 films, I’ve mostly played docile characters. I do like playing characters which are sweet and obedient. There’s nothing wrong in that, but, I believe all of us have different shades and different levels of enthusiasm at various stages of our lives. I can’t always be the bubbly and chirpy woman. I wanted to break out of the nest. I wanted to play strong characters and portray women how they truly are. I felt that playing Sita was the right thing to do now. She’s young and confident, someone who trusts her instincts, and prioritises work over personal life.
It’s your third film with director Teja after Lakshmi Kalyanam and Nene Raju Nene Mantri. How has your equation with him evolved over the years?
I’ve lots of respect for him as a filmmaker. There’s something that keeps him going and that drive doesn’t go away. His energy is contagious, and when he’s in his zone, he doesn’t care about anything else. I feel that way from 'action' to 'cut'. It’s almost meditative. He has known me since I was a kid. Teja knows when to push me and he does it like no one else. I love that process because it makes my job easier. He keeps testing my limits. What makes Teja so good, as a filmmaker, is that he doesn’t take your performance at face value. He wants to see it in your eyes. It drains you out, but it’s totally worth the effort.
In a recent interview, you said that actors are still fighting to not get typecast...
It’s an ongoing struggle and you really need to up your game, otherwise you’ll be typecast very easily. Now that I’ve done Sita, people keep asking me if I’m looking for more female-oriented films. The answer is 'no'. I’m an actor and I’m here to do varied roles. Of course, I want creative satisfaction and do films which pose a challenge, but at the same time, I love commercial cinema, the song and dance routine that comes with it. Sometimes you take up films because the money is good, or you want to work with a certain director, or simply for the joy of acting. There are different motivations. I want to balance it out, but at the same time, the struggle to be relevant and not get typecast is always going to be there.
Every time people think of writing you off, you spring up a surprise. For instance, your role in Awe! Now you are back with Sita. Have you become more conscious about the roles you do?
I’m making a conscious effort to evolve and some of the choices I’ve made in the recent past were a step in that direction. But then, I’m not doing any of this intentionally. I need to grow and break out of my comfort zone. I want to try to do roles which I like instinctively, and I don’t necessarily have to relate to every role. I feel that the quality of a good actor is when you can do something, which you can’t relate to at all, convincingly. And I’m at a stage of my life where I’ve to do such things, even if I don’t relate to them. Like Awe! for instance - How can I ever relate to that? I don’t have to feel those emotions. If I really did, then I would need professional help. There’s no fun in doing something which comes to you easily. The fun lies in the exhilaration that you experience when you do something which you can’t relate to. In Sita too, I’m not okay with how Sita is inherently, but it was so much fun exploring the character.
Do you recall a phase in your career which triggered this urge to grow and break the mould?
I’m the sort of person who needs to be in this constant process of motion. I can’t handle inertia or stagnation. If I feel that my professional life is getting boring or redundant in any way, I feel the need to kickstart the process and start afresh. There was this phase in my career, maybe two-three years ago, where I knew that I had to do films which were relevant to today’s time. More importantly, I wanted to add value to the project instead of it being the other way around. At the same time, I feel that I’ve received a lot of love, faith, trust from the audience and industry. They’ve made me a household name. I feel immense gratitude for that. I want to give back and be in a position where I can influence or educate people to make a positive impact. Like seeking professional
help as was the case in Awe! or maybe, touch upon more such topics which we consider as a taboo, or break notions and cliches that we have been living in to the best I can. I wish I could say that I can change the world, but it’s not about that. What I can do is be able to influence mindsets, even to a small extent, through my films.
Anyone who knows you would say that you are a workaholic. Where do you get that drive and find a sense of purpose?
I think I’m addicted to what I do. And I’m like a pendulum, almost. It’s the momentum, more than the physical fatigue or the mental stress, that keeps you going. It’s like working out. If you squat and you do it faster, you won’t feel the pain as much. But if you do it slowly, then you can feel every muscle burn. In that sense, I’m squatting really fast, if that makes sense. I feel immense joy with what I do and I do projects which give me that joy, but after a point, it becomes a habit which is difficult to shake off. This whole thing about work-life balance is overrated. If you try to achieve it, you’ll realise that it’s like a mirage. Your work is your life, and if it isn’t, I think you can’t be successful. I’m fortunate to have a strong supportive group who are like my buffer and they ensure that I don’t get affected. I’m very thankful to them for that. But I’m still at the core of that activity, and I feel the need of that activity to keep me going. I don’t know what’s going to happen in future, but as of now, the activity is all there is. You just keep moving ahead.
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