Sayani Gupta on being an actor sans vanity, and the importance of finding the rhythm for every character
In an interview with Firstpost, Sayani Gupta talks about how she, given her origin from a musically-inclined family, finds a 'rhythm' for every character, even though her entry point is the character's spine.
Sayani Gupta recently wrapped up shoot for the second season of her web show, Four More Shots Please!
She was born into a musically-inclined family, where her father was an established classical singer and musician.
The actor is a graduate from Pune's Film and Television Institute of India.
Sayani Gupta meets me at Mumbai's Harkat Studios, after apologising profusely for delaying the interview for weeks. She was busy shooting for season two of her Amazon Prime Video India Original, Four More Shots Please! Since the entire schedule had to be wrapped up within a limited window, the cast and crew shot for as long as 20 hours a day at a hotel in Udaipur.
Sayani looks look as good as she did in the maiden season of Four More Shots Please! However, one cannot help but emphasise on how she steered clear of any perceived notions of 'beauty' while playing a Dalit woman in Anubhav Sinha's social drama Article 15, and while essaying the role of a psychotic person in Suman Mukhopadhyay's Zee5 film, Posham Pa.
"I get that celebrities have to look good in order to be taken more 'seriously', or to look good when fans approach them for selfies... I'm not like that at all. I want people to respect my private space. Also, I don't like doing hair and make-up. But when it comes to my work, I want to go down and dirty with all my characters as much as possible. I don't want them to look 'beautiful', as per the popular notion of 'beauty'. From Jolly LLB 2 to Article 15, I want to just be, and not 'look good' as much as it's possible," the actor says, in an interview with Firstpost.
She was born into a musically-inclined family, and was influenced by her father, who was a singer and musician. As a result, Sayani discovers music — both sur (tone) and taal (rhythm) — in every character. "The sur can be different, but every character has a rhythm. I know amazing actors but they are rhythmically challenged. How can you miss the rhythm of the character? Your heartbeat, something as fundamental as that, has a rhythm. Since it is a part of you, which you don't necessarily observe, every character also has a rhythm you need to crack. I can't help but find the rhythm of each character I play."
But the rhythm is not her entry point into a character. "You don't have to crack the rhythm first. You first have to crack the character's spine. Then you get the stance. Then you get the walk. And in the walk, you get the rhythm. Once you get the rhythm of your character, playing it becomes easy. You also figure out how the person would talk, provided the lines given to them. So it's all interrelated," Sayani says.
Her breakthrough film, Shonali Bose's coming-of-age drama Margarita with a Straw, saw her play Khanum, a visually impaired Pakistani woman living in the US. The spine of that character, she believes, is exactly what attracted Kalki Koechlin's lead character, Laila, to hers. "Since both of them were challenged persons with disability (Laila was battling cerebral palsy), I don't think Laila related to Khanum's journey because of the similarity. In fact, she was awed by how the disability was only a part of Khanum's life. Despite her physical state, Khanum was such an empowered woman. I think that really attracted Laila to her. I had talked to a lot of visually impaired people as part of my research, and not even one complained about the loss of eyesight. When you're born with a disability, it becomes a part of life. We ended up talking about other things in life, such as films, boys, families and careers."
Sayani distanced herself from Hindi cinema after that film, in order to avoid more offers of playing a disabled, Pakistani, or pregnant woman. Additionally, she did not take up brand endorsements, like most other actresses, admitting to having a long list of principles that prevent her from doing so. "I was associated with Apple in India and much of Asia for the longest time. But Apple has a different policy, and doesn't allow you to talk about the brand association. Also, doing ads is quite different from brand associations. Moreover, I don't think I'm that kind of actress. When I play my characters, I want nothing, let alone my brand value, to come in between how I play them. If I'm offered the role of a bald woman, I'd go bald for it. There is absolutely no vanity in me," she says.
However, her body of work —ranging from Jolly LLB 2 to Article 15 — substantiates the claim. Not even once during the entire interview does she adjust her hair.
She is composed and confident throughout, as she talks about delving deep into every aspect of a character, from the wardrobe to the surrounding art design. "For example, in Jolly LLB 2, I had a bus ticket that I would keep under my watch all the time. I have seen so many normal women do that in real life. Now, you won't notice that when you watch the film. But for me, that small detail is essential to living my part. Probably because I've been trained that way in FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) — I look into every aspect of my character. Like in Article 15, I had a particular green plastic bag with me all the time. So in order to get the exact bag, I went about looking for one everywhere, telling the production design team they won't be able to find one for me. I finally got one buried in my cupboard a day before we had to go to Lucknow for the shoot. The first day, when I was going to the set with Ayushmann (Khurrana, lead actor), he complimented the bag and said it goes really well with my character. He knows me so after a pause, he asked me, "'Wait, did you get this bag?' Haha!"
Right from Margarita with a Straw, Sayani has been a part of female ensembles like Four More Shots Please!, Parched, and Posham Pa. "There were lots of women on the sets of Four More Shots Please! So naturally, it was crazy mad fun. Parched was different because Leena (Yadav, director) is very zen-like. So there was no noise. I just had two scenes in Parched but I wanted to be a part of a good film, and work with good people. Even in Jagga Jasoos, my part was big but it eventually became very small in the final cut. But I don't regret it because I had fun working on that film with Dada (Anurag Basu, director), Ranbir (Kapoor) and Kat (Katrina Kaif). It was different with Posham Pa because they had to literally squeeze my scene within the nine days I could take out from my busy schedule. But my character didn't require much preparation since it was very unpredictable by nature, so I could do anything with it. Also, the director was male so the energy is completely different from the sets where there's a female director."
Sayani claims that the difference between the male gaze and the female gaze is what ultimately projected her web show Four More Shots Please! differently from what it was on paper. "I did that show because I hadn't seen in India anything that focused on a woman's desires and agency to that extent. But on the edit table, it turned out to be something else. For example, the first 20 minutes of the first episode was supposed to focus on my character, Damini, as per the script. My opening scene with Milind (Soman) is a great fantasy scene to show. But the editor thought that the other three girls also need to be brought in. So it turned out to be different than it was planned," she says, adding that "men made the trailer, while the show was made by women", as a result of which "there was a big difference in the gaze there, since parts of the trailer were sensationalised."
"But they are the marketing people so they know their job. However, there's only a certain extent of say an actor has in the show. A film or a show is not an actor's medium. It is the director's medium. So it's completely the director's call. As actors, we just need to play our parts well," the actress says.
Going by Sayani's recent performances, one may safely conclude that she does her job well. Whether it's the spine of a character, or its inherent rhythm, the actor seems to have a firm grip on her craft. However, with a filmography that boasts of an artistic range like hers, it's difficult to determine the rhythm she personally follows as an actor. Well, we are certainly not complaining.
— All photographs by Rahul Sharda for Firstpost
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