Ludo actor Shalini Vatsa weighs in on completing a decade in Bollywood and working with Anurag Basu
Whether it's Kanta Bai (Sacred Games), Dhaniya (Peepli Live), Karma Devi (Gurgaon), Prosecutor Tambe (Shahid), or her most recent portrayal of nurse Lata Kutty opposite Pankaj Tripathi in Ludo, Shalini Vatsa has received heaps of appreciation for her myriad roles over the years.
From Peepli Live in 2010 to the more recent Ludo, Shalini Vatsa marks a decade in Bollywood, and the actor has managed to carve a niche for herself in a variety of roles, which she believes is liberating.
Whether it's Kanta Bai (Sacred Games), Dhaniya (Peepli Live), Karma Devi (Gurgaon), Prosecutor Tambe (Shahid), or her most recent portrayal of a benevolent albeit quirky head nurse Lata Kutty, opposite Pankaj Tripathi’s Sattu in Anurag Basu-directed ensemble dark comedy Ludo, Vatsa has received heaps of appreciation.
Having earned her acting chops working on stage, Vatsa looks back at her “adventurous” journey with a lot of surprise as she says – “I never had a wish list but it got built by itself.”
With an M Phil in Political Science from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Vatsa was a part of thespian Barry John’s Theatre In Education Company (TIE) where she would integrate theatre with education. She further joined playwright and director Habib Tanvir's Naya Theatre repertory. Eventually theatre led to films and now Vatsa is lighting up the big screen.
Excerpts from a chat with the versatile actress.
What’s the feedback to Ludo and what attracted you to the film?
The film as well as my character is getting a lot of appreciation. It is entirely Dada's (Anurag Basu) creation. He was enough to say yes to the film without knowing anything about my part. I did the film just for Anurag Basu, I would have gone and done anything with him, any role he asked me to play.
Considering that Basu doesn’t reveal much to his actors, what was his brief to you?
I knew about it broadly, but I wasn’t told much and I love Dada's process of working. It was very exciting for me. Having worked in theatre, especially with Barry John where he does a lot of improvisational work which I always find very adventurous because there is more of the unknown, so there is more discovery and more sense of magic over there. I really enjoy Dada's process because there is lot of adventure. You get on there and discuss what you are going to do on that day. I have done improvisational work even in films before. For me it is a lot of fun.
You were seen with Pankaj Tripathi in Gurgaon that conjured a tense mood, whereas Ludo was just the opposite...
Gurgaon was a completely different story and treatment. The mood of the script or the story just lingers around and that happens even on stage. If you are doing a tragedy or comedy, the story does linger around. With Pankaj it is very comfortable. He is very gentle mannered, soft-spoken person. He is very generous as a co-actor. When you are working with such a co-actor, it is very assuring. Ludo was completely different space to be in and that is the fun of it. We get to explore two absolutely different kinds of relationships. I know Pankaj since the time I was doing theatre in Delhi and he was in NSD (National School of Drama). We would watch each other’s plays and productions. He is just the same person. We have not been in touch but it is very comforting to get back with someone whom you have been seeing for a long time. His is a very inspiring journey.
You have played some very interesting and powerful characters, be it Peepli Live, Gurgaon, Shahid, Sacred Games. How do you look back at your journey?
I have tried to do my best in all these roles and I have had fun because they are all very extraordinary women to portray on screen. I feel very fortunate now that I look back and one by one as it has accumulated. They have all been very interesting, exciting and also very liberating women to portray and that too with such fine directors and fine co-actors. When you are in the process of building it up you don’t realise but after some time when you look back at the trajectory I feel grateful to handle the opportunity to explore and play these women on screen.
Dhaniya of Peepli Live is the way most of our women are. She is very independent minded and she maintains her stand throughout the story. Then, playing a woman building her career in a man’s world, she stands her ground, in Shahid. It was exciting to be part of a project with Hansal Mehta and Rajkummar Rao. I wasn’t sure if I could pull off the character in Gurgaon. I played a Haryanvi woman. I have done some amount of work directly in the field with the development sector. So a lot of pulling out experiences from there and putting it together was required because the character’s emotional journey is very different from what I or the women close to me, my family or friends have ever experienced. But we know that these things do happen. It was very important to portray the way she is and without making her completely downtrodden.
But the role that intrigued me the most was playing Kanta bai in Sacred Games. When I got the brief for my character for the first time it said that she runs a theka and I was like, ‘Wow! This woman is a challenge’. She was so much fun. She wears this mangalsutra throughout and there is no reference to any man in her life. The writer-director didn’t feel the need to explain that and she was accepted like that by the audience. Playing Kantabai was also exciting because of her journey in age and this being a long format I could play around with the character. I have done different age groups on stage. I had done a play where I would transform from a 15- year-old to a 75-year-old and I used to wonder if it was possible on screen because the camera makes it very real.
And then to be part of the ‘whimsical’ and comical world of Ludo..
It was great because when we were doing it you take it scene by scene. Of course, you know broadly when you join that this is the space in which the film is getting made but you don’t know exactly how it will pan out. My character was a lot of fun. It was all very comical but very humane. Lata Kutty is after all an ordinary woman. And there is so much fun in working with Dada. He brings so much passion into whatever he does. The whole set-up was extremely reassuring for me.
What is your usual process of preparing for a role?
It varies from character to character and story to story. With different directors it is a different process. Dhaniya required lot of work on blending with the village environment because I am an urban person. For Shahid, I actually visited the court for a day where I couldn’t understand a word of what is going on (laughs). Actually I have faced challenges right from my first film as I have spoken different languages in most of my films. In Peepli Live, I spoke Bundeli, in Gurgaon I had to pick up Haryanvi, in Shahid, my character speaks like us... which is partly English and partly Hindi.... I’ve done a film in Bengali also. It’s actually an American film called Girl Rising. Each director has different brief and that is the exciting part of being an actor. Gurgaon’s character has to be looked at more emotionally, it was a journey in life rather than going into social research. For Sacred Games I didn’t have any clue about the crime world. Till very recently I had not even seen God Father. So I got into reading about all that to feel familiar with the world because it was too alien for me. For Ludo speaking Malayalam was a challenge. But then, even a Hindi speaking character would have a definite way or style of speaking. It is part of our work.
You seem to be academically inclined, so how did acting happen to you?
I come from Patna and both my parents were university professors. But they were also very culturally active. They had friends, had associations with theatre groups, music concerts…There was a definite effort to expose us to these fields. We were taken along for watching films, we were not restricted from all that. My father would support theatre groups, so I had all that exposure when I was very young. I used to find stage and performances very magical and mesmerising. I also had friends around me who were engaged with theatre, so I started performing along with them. When I came to Delhi I started working with the theatre groups. I worked with the development sector but constantly did theatre and that was the understanding of life. I continued with Barry John and trained with him in TIE (Theatre In Education) and that is the first time that I began to make money out of acting in theatre and I further joined Habib Tanvir.
You have been a part theatre, films and the web series, how do you look at this phase of your career? What were the challenges considering that good roles don’t come by easily?
Yes, great roles don’t come easily especially for women but I have had the opportunity to play some fantastic women on screen and got to work with some of the best directors, so I don’t think I have any reason to complain. But yes, it is very difficult to get a good part and be part of a good project, work with a great director, these are not easy things. The acting career is not like a regular office where appraisal happens and then you get a promotion. Freelance job has its own challenges.
But the shift in content and filmmaking is the reason that an actor like me has been able to get the kind of work that I am getting. If I take my journey exactly 10 years back I don’t think I would have had such wonderful projects in my kitty. Also, the long format enables creators to explore much more. Then, short films are doing so well, they are no longer niche like in the past. OTT has been a great platform for everybody. Those brackets which existed are slowly dissolving. It is a great time to be an actor here at this time. When I did Peepli Live that was the time when shift in content was happening and the roles that kept coming to me one after another took me by surprise.
Somebody was asking me my wish list and I said without having a wish list I have worked with the wish list (laughs). If I could go ahead like this it would be so fantastic. Working with one terrific filmmaker after another is so exciting. I don’t mind working in mainstream films if they think there is something worthwhile for me. Before Peepli Live happened I never thought I would ever be acting in films. Coming from my experience I was sure I would never get cast in a film. But each time I was surprised. I was given a very warm welcome. Even after Peepli I felt this is one film, like an aberration I have done. But one after another when things happened I felt there were people who wanted to cast me. Now when I am asked if I have a wish list and I say, ‘No, I want to keep it like that’. There is a lot of adventure and surprise in this. You don’t know where it is going to take you and that is the fun of it.
(All other images from YouTube)
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