Hindi cinema’s newest heroine doesn’t fit most of the pigeonholes into which leading women have to squeeze themselves. She doesn’t have a body that will make conventionally-minded men quiver with desire, hair that glimmers whatever the time of day, clothes that will send female fans rushing to copy at their local tailors, or a trademark dance move that will be replicated at weddings.

But appearances are deceptive, on the screen and off it. Meet Bhumi Pednekar, Method Actor.

One half of Sharat Katariya’s low-budget and high-impact romantic drama Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Pednekar has been widely praised for her sensitive performance as Sandhya, an overweight Bachelor of Education student who wins over Ayushmann Khurrana’s Prem, her deeply reluctant and vastly thinner groom, through her patience and maturity. Much of the admiration being showered on Sandhya, and the actor who brought her to life, has been both in spite of and because of her unusual appearance. Pednekar was kept away from the February 20 release’s advance publicity, and the reason has now become clear. In real life, she is many kilos lighter and considerably more glamourous than Sandhya. Pednekar gained close to 12 kilos for the role, but has since shed the extra weight. She was close to 87 kilos during the shoot, and is now 64 kilos, she told Scroll.in.

“I have always been an overweight girl, I have been plump, what they call healthy, but this was never an issue for me,” 25 year-old Pednekar said. “I gained weight for the role, and ate everything possible. It was the best time of my life. I got to do the two things I am passionate about, which are acting and eating.”

Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015). Courtesy Yash Raj Films.

Pednekar was working with the casting department headed by Shanoo Sharma at Yash Raj Films, Dum Laga Ke Haisha’s producer, when Katariya decided to cast her opposite Khurrana. Pednekar used to conduct auditions for acting hopefuls, and among her tasks was to rehearse their lines with them. “She would give cues to the actors, and we would only hear her voice, but I felt that she would be speaking the lines better than some of them,” Katariya said.

He cast Pednekar because she has a “very strong presence in front of the camera” and could “hold her own during the silent moments,” he added.

Yet, the job involved piling on the kilos, which have an annoying way of squatting in the body and refusing to leave. Pednekar knowingly embraced a risk taken by previous actors as varied as Renee Zellweger for the Bridget Jones movies and Christian Bale for American Hustle because she said she had full faith in Katariya’s screenplay.

“I was very grateful I was getting the opportunity, and I was very confident of the script,” she said. “I knew that even if a few people saw the film, they would walk out with a smile.” She has been “overwhelmed” by the media attention, she added. “I feel like this is not really my life, and all this is happening in a parallel universe.”

A Mumbai resident who has been working with Yash Raj Films ever since she completed her A levels at the Arya Vidya Mandir School in Juhu in suburban Mumbai, Pednekar always wanted to be an actor. But she was never “vocal” about her desire because she wasn’t confident enough and was aware that the movie business and audiences need their actors to look a certain way. “There is a path that everybody takes, and mine was this,” she said. “Once I finished shooting, I went back to home-cooked food.”

When an actor alters his or her appearance for a movie, its promoters have ready fodder for the publicity beast. When Aamir Khan grows a handlebar moustache, as he did for Mangal Pandey in 2005, or bulks up, as he did for the 2008 action thriller Ghajini, his efforts are faithfully reproduced across the media, and they contribute considerably towards curiosity about the production within the trade and among audiences.

In Pednekar’s case, the process has been reversed. Entertainment journalists curious about Yash Raj Films’ new find are being greeted by an altogether new person. Pednekar was probably shielded from attention in keeping with Dum Lage Ke Haisha’s claim to authenticity and honesty in its depiction of the small north Indian town milieu in which the odd couple romance unfolds, as well as the manner in which Prem and Sandhya negotiate their relationship. This claim demands that Pednekar be as fat and frumpy in real life as she is on the screen, even though such demands will not be made of Khurana, who spends the movie looking scrawny and scruffy.

Indeed, Katariya has already seen expressions of disappointment over the difference between character and actor on social networking sites. Sandhya’s fans are already shattered about the disappearance of the “fat girl”, it seems. “Bhumi is an individual in her own right, and she is not going to be the character for the rest of her life,” the filmmaker reasoned. “The film has a journey of its own, and I will be very happy if she gets many offers and success as an actor in the future.”

By shedding the kilos that helped her gain encomiums and possible acting awards, Pednekar has already escaped the vice grip of type-casting. Dum Laga Ke Haisha is filled with surprises, but the biggest trick it has pulled has been behind the scenes. Sandhya waddled into the hearts of viewers in the movie and after its commercial and critical success, she is preparing to join the ranks of well-proportioned female actors such as Vidya Balan, Sonakshi Sinha, Huma Qureshi and Parineeti Chopra. Like these actors, Pednekar probably won’t ever be allowed to look up from the weighing scale, but like some of them, she might be able to slay the scrutiny through her on-screen moves.

Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015).