Sanya Malhotra's five-year trajectory is unprecedented in an industry not always welcoming of rank newcomers
From Dangal to Pagglait, every role is a challenge, every part is fresh, and doing things the easy way seems to be an alien concept.
In an interview a couple of years ago, Sanya Malhotra told me that the most adventurous thing she has ever done was riding a 350cc Bullet from Manali to Leh. Many might disagree with her on that one though, because her career has been nothing if not adventurous.
From playing a young wrestler in her debut film (Dangal, 2016) to a young widow in her latest release Pagglait, the versatile actor is rapidly carving out a legacy for herself in an industry that has not always been welcoming to rank outsiders.
It has not been easy for the 29-year-old though. Having trained in contemporary dance and ballet, Malhotra moved from New Delhi to Mumbai after finishing college in order to participate in reality show Dance India Dance. And while she did not make it past the Top 100, she stayed back in the city of dreams chasing her own ambitions of making it as an actor. What followed was the rigour of the audition circuit and a few small gigs in commercials, both in front of the camera and also assisting behind the scenes.
When Malhotra auditioned for Dangal, clicking selfies with Aamir Khan was admittedly a huge draw for the aspiring actor but actually landing the role was a far-flung and distant dream.
As things turned out, this was the audition that plonked her into the industry with a role most debutantes would proverbially kill for. Playing the role of a wrestler was not all strawberries and cream though. What followed was an intense dive into the world of wrestling and training for the part. The demands on the young actor’s physicality apart from having to hone her self-acquired acting skills might have something to do with how she has gone on to build her career since then.
Every role is a challenge, every part is fresh, and doing things the easy way seems to be an alien concept.
After riding the highs of a mega-successful Dangal and even sharing a Best Action Award with her co-star Fatima Sana Shaikh at the Jackie Chan Action Movie week (Shanghai International Film Festival), Malhotra’s next release could not have been more different. Vishal Bharadwaj’s rustic drama Pataakha (2018) was not meant to be commercial fare, and the box office was not overly kind to the film either. The film, which also features Radhika Madan, follows the lives of two quarrelsome sisters living in rural Rajasthan. Given the film completely rides on the performances of its two lead characters, it really is a testament to their acting skills that one of the industry’s leading storytellers chose to launch the project on their young shoulders.
Having shared screen space with another female actor in her first two films, Malhotra’s first leading lady role came about a few months later with Badhaai Ho, one of the top grossing films of 2018. It is probably her safest role to date, playing the supportive girlfriend to Ayushmann Khurrana’s character in a film that really was hijacked by its older cast (Neena Gupta, Gajraj Rao, and Surekha Sikri). It is easy, after all, to build a successful résumé by picking up the heroine roles in films dominated by other people – it is something most of our leading ladies in the past would do. Not so much for this generation though, as evidenced by young Malhotra. Not only did she hold her own amongst the seasoned cast of Badhaai Ho, she followed it up with what is arguably her most solid performance till date.
The Lunchbox director Ritesh Batra’s Photograph (2019) was the first film Malhotra had signed after Dangal, though it ended up getting made and released only a couple of years later. The intimate story of an unlikely couple finding each other amidst the chaos that is Mumbai, made waves at the Sundance Film Festival that year. More than the film though, it was the then-27-year-old Malhotra who caught the attention of the international film fraternity. So much did she impress with her performance as the fake fiancée of a struggling street photographer Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) that The Hollywood Reporter named her as one of the five breakout talents to watch out for at the Berlin Film Festival.
You would think that kind of praise would go to someone’s head, but Malhotra remains as grounded as ever and aware that she still had a lot to learn about her craft. In the same interview, she told me less about the things she had figured about ‘this thing called acting’ but chose to focus on all the things she still had not. “As an actor, there are so many things that I still don't know. I'm very new to acting, and with every film, I feel I like should be learning something new. I remember when I was shooting for Photograph – on Day 1, there was a scene where I had to eat. And that was my first eating scene for a film ever. So I didn't know that a lot of actors didn't really eat. Ritesh does 30 to 35 takes for almost every scene, with different improvisations. I ended up eating so much that I got sick. When I went back home, I Googled how actors do eating scenes. That's when I learnt they eat and spit out the food. They have a spit bucket. I have a lot of eating scenes in this film so that’s what I did for the rest of the film.”
It is this drive to keep learning new things that has pushed Malhotra to foray into unfamiliar territory with every role that she picks. 2020 saw her in a couple of streaming releases. True to form, her roles in the two films are like chalk and cheese. In Ludo, she plays a young woman desperate to marry a rich man, and her on-screen chemistry with Aditya Roy Kapur hogged paragraphs in every review of the film. In Shakuntala Devi, she plays the role of the disillusioned daughter, and brings a certain amount of nuance to that troubled relationship between mother and daughter.
Her latest release Pagglait has Malhotra playing a lone hand as lead protagonist for the first time, and having the entire film rest on her shoulders has really showcased her range as a performer. Cast as Sandhya, a young woman who finds it difficult to mourn the death of her husband, Malhotra pulls off the role of a newly widowed, middle-class girl with an amount of empathy that is rare for one so young. And she balances all of that with traits that are hers and hers alone – it is almost as if you can see the girl lurking within the woman just waiting for an opportunity to break out of the shackles imposed by society. While the film is populated with interesting characters played by exceptional actors, Pagglait is a Sanya Malhotra show all the way.
In a recent episode of reality show Dance Deewane 3, Malhotra attended as a guest celebrity promoting Pagglait. With her trademark mischievous smile and tongue firmly in cheek, she talked about not clearing an audition for a dance reality show in the very same studio six years back. She then amps up the wattage of her smile, looks at choreographer Dharmesh Yelande, and tells him he was the reason she was rejected. "Life has come full circle for me today," she says, and you cannot help but think, “You go, girl!”
All images from YouTube.
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