Divya writes about gender, philanthropy, startup and workplace trends, and business from the lens of its impact on people. She is keen to find interesting stories and new ways of telling them. A journalism graduate from Mumbai who was previously with The Economic Times, Divya is also an editor and proof-reader. Outside of work, she likes to travel, read books, drink hot chocolate, and endlessly watch, read and talk about cinema.
Actor Wamiqa Gabbi; Image: Bajirao Pawar for Forbes India;
Hair, Makeup & Styling: Wamiqa Gabbi
It was something like a life coming full circle moment.
Wamiqa Gabbi was nine years old when she first saw Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas (2002). She became obsessed with the opulence of the film, the sophistication of its sets, and the graceful dance sequences. She was also learning kathak at the time and performed Madhuri Dixit’s ‘Kaahe Chhed Mohe’ in numerous dance competitions in her hometown Chandigarh. In subsequent years, as she started working as an actor, she was sure that they didn’t make films like Devdas anymore. Rather, they didn’t have beautifully choreographed mujra sequences in films anymore.
So, almost 20 years later, when she performed a mujra as part of the introduction sequence of her character Niloufer in Vikramaditya Motwane’s Jubilee, her joy knew no bounds. The OTT series, which is based on the emergence of the Hindi film industry in post-Partition India, released to rave reviews this year. Gabbi’s portrayal of Niloufer—a fiery and independent-minded courtesan who chases her ambition of becoming an actor—was also noticed, making Jubilee one of the biggest hits of her career so far.
Motwane says Gabbi not only understands the nuance and emotion that a director wants, but also has a “gorgeous” on-screen presence. He remembers how she made notes in a little notebook during the shoot to understand the background of the character. “That’s very helpful for an actor when you’re trying to create a sense of story,” he says.
Aparna Purohit, head of originals, India and SEA, Prime Video, the platform on which Jubilee was streamed, agrees that Gabbi embodied Niloufer to an extent where it was impossible to imagine anyone else in that role. “Months after the show’s release, Wamiqa continues to be synonymous with Niloufer, a testament to her remarkable performance,” she says.
Gabbi followed up Niloufer with the lead role in Vishal Bhardwaj’s series adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Sittaford Mystery, which was called Charlie Chopra & The Mystery of Solang Valley. She then played co-lead with Tabu in the Netflix film Khufiya, also directed by Bhardwaj. Along the way, she also starred in Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s trippy and meta short film in the Modern Love Chennai anthology, and played one of the leads in Punjabi film Kali Jotta. She was also the protagonist in the short film Fursat, directed by Bhardwaj.
And as she sits down for a telephone interview with Forbes India, she’s on Day 1 of shooting for a film opposite Varun Dhawan. It’s a remake of the Tamil film Theri and is being produced by Atlee, who directed the original.
“I feel very lucky that I’m able to work with the best of directors and get good roles, coming from a non-filmi, no connections background. Lucky, because I know there are more talented and beautiful actors out there who don’t get such opportunities. And because I got these chances, I am trying to make the most of it and be as hardworking as I can be,” says Gabbi, 30, who is also named among the Top 10 most popular actors in India in 2023 by IMDb. “Surreal-sa lagta hai [It feels surreal],” she adds.
Within 15 minutes of Gabbi’s birth, her father apparently proclaimed that she’s going to be a dramebaaz (a dramatic person). A literary writer, he encouraged the arts and took the young girl to the theatre to watch plays and also enrolled her into kathak class. In fact, Gabbi says the first time she faced the camera was when was just two years old.
“It was for a Punjabi music video on the girl child, which I can’t seem to find anywhere online,” she adds. She was in class 5 when she got a slightly bigger role in a Punjabi TV serial called Saude Dilaan De, which was based on the Partition.
She was in class 8 when she shot a cameo in Imtiaz Ali’s iconic Jab We Met, starring Kareena Kapoor Khan and Shahid Kapoor. She played one of Geet’s cousins and had a dialogue or two. “The teenage girl on that film set used to wonder if she would ever get a chance to play the lead role in a film,” Gabbi says.
The director of Jab We Met, however, had recognised the spark in the little girl with braces, who he still refers to as “chhotiwali” [little one]. Imtiaz Ali says he is happy that Gabbi is doing well, but not surprised. And that he won’t be surprised if she achieves much more.
“Even at a small age, she was a pleasure to work with. We were shooting in Nabha and if there was anything more to be done, I remember asking my assistants to call for the chhotiwali,” the filmmaker recalls. “Wamiqa soon became the darling of the entire unit. I realised then that she has a natural talent and can go anywhere she wants. Luckily, her father and her family always supported her.”
Gabbi says her father used to take her to auditions in Delhi. Her first lead role was a forgettable outing in a film called Sixteen (2013). She started getting offers for Punjabi films, and also worked in South Indian movies, including Telugu film Bhale Manchi Roju (2015) and Malayalam film Godha (2017). Along the way, she also faced numerous rejections after auditions, like a role in the hit film Dangal (2016), for instance.
As she kept working, Gabbi reached a point where she wanted to give up because she felt like she was just playing variations of herself on screen. She did not have any formal training in acting and hence did not know any better about how to dig deeper into her craft, the actor says.
Gabbi auditioned for the lead role in Bhardwaj’s ambitious adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children for Netflix and was shortlisted. By this time, however, getting shortlisted no longer thrilled her. She was so used to last-stage rejections that when she was told the director would make a decision at the end of a three-day workshop with acting trainer Atul Mongia, she went in with the mindset that she had nothing to lose.
Perhaps it was this sense of fearlessness that helped impress Bhardwaj, Gabbi says. But the filmmaker tells Forbes India that there was also something more. When he met her at that workshop, he realised that “she has real emotional capability and intelligence beyond a person of her age”, he says, adding that she could add layers to the character beyond what was written on paper. He also saw in her a “fighting spirit you find in people from smaller cities”. This was something Bhardwaj says he identified with, given that he also hails from a small town, Meerut.
Although Midnight’s Children was shelved, word got around about Gabbi being finalised for the main role, which opened doors for more—and better—audition opportunities. The next time Gabbi would work with Bhardwaj was for Khufiya, although the film would release after other projects.
A lot of actors in the Hindi film industry had rejected the role of Charu in Khufiya because she was the mother of a six-year-old boy. “Wamiqa was beyond those kind of trappings. She trusted me enough to not even hear the script,” he says. It was here that Bhardwaj developed a sense of responsibility towards the young actor’s career, and went on to cast her for three other projects.
Another breakout role in her career, according to Gabbi, was in the critically acclaimed OTT series Grahan (2021), which was a drama set against the backdrop of the 1986 riots. Film critic Udita Jhunjhunwala agrees. “Wamiqa looked striking against the otherwise-grim environment of the show, and I was curious to know what more she can do. She then played different parts in Mai and Modern Love Mumbai, but it was Jubilee that was particularly a great part. There was a lot for Wamiqa to bite into,” she says.
Gabbi has worked with Bhardwaj four times, and “working with the same directors can send an actor into a comfort zone and it can be difficult to break out of that mould”, Jhunjhunwala explains. That said, she thinks of Gabbi as a “thinking and aware woman who knows she has to evolve”.
The critic is looking forward to Gabbi’s film with Varun Dhawan, which is an out-and-out commercial project. “We are used to seeing Wamiqa’s work in the offbeat OTT space, playing pivotal characters. It will be interesting to see what she does to command space in a commercial film,” she says.
While Motwane’s advice to the young star is to “not revert to default settings when she gives her first take”, Bhardwaj says that Gabbi could be more disciplined (while quickly adding that the young actor is already working towards it). “She’s on the way to success and is devoting time to brush up her craft. I hope she never stops doing that. It often happens that when we get success, we stop working on our craft. But if Wamiqa stops doing that, I’m always there to beat her with a stick, like a teacher,” Bhardwaj says with a laugh.
As she enjoys this high point of her life, Gabbi remembers that fame is temporary. For now, she is enjoying meeting new people and learnings from them. “We can get so self-obsessed as actors, but I’m interested and curious about other people now,” says the actor. “Even if I experience a downfall or a bad time in the future, I just hope I’m still able to dance my way out of bed.”