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'How many actors get paid to eat and act?'

Actor Bhumi Pednekar, who put on 24 kilos for her National Award-winning debut film, on her unusual journey into the movies, her physical transformation for the role and on why body shaming - of women and men - is a soul-destroying malaise

Kunal Purandare
Published: Aug 6, 2016 06:56:03 AM IST
Updated: Aug 5, 2016 07:10:25 PM IST
'How many actors get paid to eat and act?'
Image: Rohan Shrestha
Rigorous exercise and healthy food helped Bhumi Pednekar knock off all the kilos she put on to play Sandhya in Dum Laga Ke Haisha. She even began a #LoseItLikeBhumi ‘suggestion’ on her Instagram handle

In the short walk down from the second floor to the ground-floor cafeteria at Yash Raj Films’s (YRF) sprawling office in Andheri, Mumbai, Bhumi Pednekar greets every staffer—receptionist, driver and cafe attendant—by name and with a friendly smile. Over the next hour, as she recounts her short but memorable journey into the film world, you understand where her warmth for YRF and its people comes from.

“This is my school, my family, my temple,” she tells ForbesLife India amid intermittent sips of cold coffee on a sweltering afternoon in April. “This place means so much to me. I cannot find the right words to express my love for YRF. It has given me everything and changed my life.”

Pednekar, 26, is not exaggerating. Her performance as the overweight, naive Sandhya in her debut film Dum Laga Ke Haisha (DLKH, 2015), a YRF production, saw her sweep almost all the best debutant (female) awards for the year. The film also bagged the National Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi in April this year.

The script she could only imagine at the age of 12 was playing out in life. And it feels surreal, says the Mumbai-born Pednekar. Her amazement is for good reason. In a family of highly-educated people—her cousins have degrees from IIMs and IITs—Pednekar’s interest in showbiz separated her from the others, including her younger sister Samiksha, who is studying to become a lawyer. Mother Sumitra was aware of her aspirations but father Satish was not in favour of his daughter joining an acting school after completing her ICSE from Arya Vidya Mandir in Juhu, Mumbai, in 2005.

Pednekar went against his wishes, and joined the Whistling Woods International Institute of Film, Communication & Media Arts. However, within a year, the 17-year-old saw her world tumbling down when she was asked to leave for poor attendance. “That was the biggest blow,” she recalls.

She says she had two choices after the setback: To study further since she had completed her A levels—the secondary school leaving qualification accepted in the UK—from RIMS International School or find a job in the film industry.

'How many actors get paid to eat and act?'
Image courtesy: Yash Raj Films
Pednekar’s character Sandhya in DLKH is everything a lead Bollywood heroine typically isn’t: A small-town, overweight, vulnerable, married girl

A friend informed her about a vacancy for a casting assistant at YRF—a job she landed when she was months short of turning 18 and within days of being expelled from Whistling Woods. Her parents, though supportive of her decision, imposed a condition on her: Pednekar had to complete her graduation while she worked. “They saw my drive [to achieve something] because in my family, to leave studies at the age of 18, is a big thing,” says Pednekar, who eventually got a degree in commerce from Mumbai University even while she integrated into the YRF family.

The next six years were about odd jobs and learning various aspects of filmmaking at YRF. It was also the time she met and assisted Shanoo Sharma, now the casting director for YRF.

Sharma noticed a spark in Pednekar when she observed her conducting auditions by enacting some scenes. “Her acting skills were fantastic,” says Sharma. “I knew she was a pretty girl, but that’s not all that it takes to be in the movies.”

'How many actors get paid to eat and act?'
Image: Yash Raj Films
Bhumi Pednekar swept almost all the best debutant (female) awards for her performance in Dum Laga Ke Haisha

Some months later, the script of DLKH was being considered and YRF honcho Aditya Chopra and producer Maneesh Sharma thought of Pednekar for Sandhya’s role, having been apprised of her acting potential by Shanoo Sharma. For the next two-and-a-half months, Pednekar auditioned for the movie, unaware that she was being considered for the lead character. “Initially, I was auditioned by Shanoo and later by the director Sharat Katariya. He would audition me in the mornings and afternoons, and I would test other girls for the same part,” recalls a bemused Pednekar. “It was an interesting phase because I wondered if I wasn’t doing my job right.”

Pednekar’s dilemma wasn’t unfounded. Shanoo Sharma reveals that she wasn’t the sole contender for the role and that they were open to the idea of someone else playing the part. “We tested everybody. It was a matter of who gave the best audition and hers was the best. She was chosen as Sandhya purely on that basis,” she says.

The character, Sandhya, was everything that a lead heroine in Hindi films typically wasn’t: A small-town, overweight, vulnerable, married girl who’d play English films to initiate sex with her husband and yet was strong enough to consider divorcing him after public humiliation. Accepting such an unconventional role was fraught with risks and the possibility of being typecast loomed large.

But Pednekar dismisses these apprehensions and says such thoughts did not even cross her mind when she took on DLKH. “In all honesty, for me, I was getting a film. And it was a great script. I was blown away even when I read it while we were casting for the movie. I don’t think any newcomer would have turned down the role. I could not have asked for a better debut,” she says. The actor, however, admits that as a debutant, she had the luxury of time to lay the groundwork for the role, a privilege that perhaps established actors may not enjoy. And the preparation that she mentions involved a transformation of gigantic proportions, literally. Pednekar had to put on 24 kilos in 10 months. Though never fixated over fitness, she skipped going to the gym altogether; she devoured butter chicken in the mornings and pizzas at night before shooting commenced. “How many actors get paid to eat and act?” she says. Inevitably, once the posters and promos of the film were out, the focus was on her appearance and the unusual pairing with the scrawny Ayushmann Khurrana. There was, however, much more that went into the making of Sandhya than just the weight gain.

Pednekar underwent intensive acting workshops, worked on her diction and language with a teacher named Seema Pahwa, and even lived in Haridwar, where the movie is set, for a few weeks before the first shot was recorded. “I had to unlearn a lot to become that character. I am an urban, independent girl who’s been a go-getter and a dreamer from a very young age. Sandhya has her dreams, but her dreams are different from mine. The film is set in a different era as well—when I was four years old in real life—so it’s a time that I haven’t seen,” says Pednekar. There were no references either, she adds.

Also, probably for the first time in Indian cinema, a leading lady was stout but not portrayed like a caricature. “She was treated like a heroine. That’s the beauty of the role,” says Pednekar, who passed the test with flying colours going by the reviews, audience feedback and reactions from the film industry. Her DLKH co-star Khurrana says Pednekar is a smooth performer who’s passionate about her craft and has a lot of spunk. “She never came across as a fresher,” he tells ForbesLife India via email. It helped that she was never disconnected from the script. “It reached a point where I knew my dialogues as well as those of my co-stars,” says Pednekar.

Was she ever worried that her physical metamorphosis would overshadow her acting? “It was something I was scared about. But the most pleasant surprise was that every review I read and every person I met spoke only about my performance. My weight was [mostly] talked about when I lost it!” she says.

'How many actors get paid to eat and act?'
Image: Yash Raj Films

During the film promotions, the presence of a slim-and-trim — an almost-unrecognisable—Pednekar took everyone by surprise. A rigorous exercise regime and healthy food from her mother’s kitchen had helped knock off all the kilos that she had gained to play Sandhya. “That was always the plan,” she says. Her new avatar led to her mailbox and social media accounts being flooded with requests for tips on losing weight. She felt the need to reach out to them, and began a #LoseItLikeBhumi “suggestion” on her Instagram handle once a week, where she would share her approach on shedding excess weight. For instance, she writes in one post: ‘Quitting, or rather reducing, the intake of refined sugar was one of the best decisions of my life’. The excessive attention on her on-screen character and off-screen personality also opened her eyes to a major ill plaguing society—body shaming. Both men and women suffer from an image problem, an issue DLKH addressed openly. “The situation is a lot better today compared to the time when the size-zero labelling began. But it’s still a very big problem and shame on those who body shame. I feel it’s your intelligence and personality that matters. You should be able to look into the mirror and love what you see,” Pednekar says. She advocates fitness as long as it is pursued in a healthy way. And quickly adds that actors get professional help, that an ordinary boy or girl may not have access to. To emphasise her point further, she reveals that she underwent a host of problems—her joints and ankles would hurt and she even felt breathless at times—because she put on weight in an unhealthy way for DLKH. “It was a mistake,” she admits.

I ask her if she’d do it all over again. “Tricky question,” she responds, and after a long pause, says, “Yes and no”. “If I get to work with those people again, I would do it in a heartbeat for a script like DLKH. But I would not go through this sort of drastic body change again because I am a girl and we go through a lot of hormonal changes. I will definitely gain weight if a role demands it, but 24 kilos is a lot. Only if there’s something as epic as DLKH would I undergo a major physical change,” says Pednekar.

Though young, Pednekar is clearly socially aware, a result of breakfast conversations at home which often led to intense debates on politics, economy and global affairs. She says it hurts her to see people in pain, children begging on the streets and farmers having to kill themselves because they need a mere Rs 3,000 to stave off debt. Her wish is that her career opens a path for her to make a small difference to society in her own little way. “With each passing day, I hope I can progress in life so that I can give something back [to my country].”

Career-wise, she’s in a happy place with a three-film deal with YRF; her next is a romantic comedy called Manmarziyan, where she pairs up with Khurrana again. She’s excited about the film which will be directed by Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari. “She has a unique knack of changing herself with every film,” says Khurrana of his second-time co-star, who is part of a love triangle in the movie.

There are also other projects that she’s considering, some outside the YRF banner too, but she’s reluctant to talk about them. “Nobody wants to let go of a good opportunity. And Adi sir [Aditya Chopra] is involved in all our careers… so it’s all planned. I don’t do a single thing without his nod. Every project I sign is with his consent,” says Pednekar.

While she’s focussed on her acting ambitions, the extroverted Pednekar hasn’t put a pause on her hobbies. Watching cricket is one of them. The “fierce patriot” says she watches all the matches, especially the keenly contested India-Pakistan ones, streamed on her phone, even when she’s shooting. “But I prefer to watch them alone, or else India loses,” she says with a tinge of sadness. The actor also enjoys playing badminton and going for a swim. Apart from being a voracious reader, she claims there isn’t a single international TV show that she has missed. “You name it and I have seen it.” But the best time she has is what she spends with herself. “I love dressing up and doing my own make-up. I am obsessed with it since my childhood. I think I was made for this profession.”

She’s living her dream and does not want the story to end. “When I decided to be an actor, I wanted every bit of it… the films, awards, performances, clothes, make-up. And I am fortunate that I have got all that.” At the same time, Pednekar is also aware of the fickleness of stardom. “All these achievements are also frivolous,” she stoically shrugs with the maturity of a seasoned professional.

(This story appears in the July-Aug 2016 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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