Fatima Sana Shaikh has been drawing warm notices for playing the chattering, clumsy and exuberant Kashmiri cook Lali in the Raat Rani episode of the Amazon Prime Video series Modern Love Mumbai. Directed by Shonali Bose, Raat Rani maps Lali’s journey from anguish to optimism, with a forbidden bicycle ride on Mumbai’s Sea Link bridge (which is barred for two-wheelers) serving as a metaphor for Lali’s journey.

Shaikh’s prominent roles include the wrestler Geeta Phogat in Dangal, Pinky in Ludo and more recently Chetna in Thar. She spoke about Raat Rani and how some of her roles have helped her emotionally and psychologically.

Did you get a brief from Shonali Bose or did she leave it to you to interpret Lali in your own way?
The script was quite clear about Lali’s journey, her emotional problems and her struggles. When something is so well written, it becomes much easier to comprehend. Nilesh [Maniyar, writer], Shonali and I were on the same page that this performance needed to be guttural and the emotions needed to be instinctive.

So I didn’t think too much. I was honest to the moment. I did work on a few things, such as the dialect. I have done dialects many times before and though I am not that good at them, I have understood that the more you read the script, you understand the inherent behaviour of the place. Each dialect has a tone which brings with it an attitude. A character automatically builds out of that.

Also, unlike Lali, I don’t have a habit of talking to myself. She talks to herself continuously. I did have to put some effort into that aspect.

Modern Love Mumbai (2022).

What about Lali’s body language, especially her clumsiness?
I didn’t think about that so much either. Once I started speaking like her, wore the hijab and got on the cycle, the body language came automatically.

The same thing happened in Dangal. I worked on everything else and the body language happened. Similarly with Raat Rani. Even my character of Pinky in Ludo had a bit of the fluidity like Lali, but I can’t explain how it happened. It was not part of the brief but just came out of me.

What was it like shooting on Mumbai’s streets? And how did the Bandra Worli Sea Link scene come to be?
I had fun shooting on the streets. The line producer who had to block roads went through hell. It was a difficult shoot, with so many cars passing, less time, no vanity van. Fortunately I didn’t have to worry about hair and make-up. I would wipe my face and be ready in five minutes. I like such films.

As for the Sea Link scene, we used VFX and we did cheat with a few shots on the Reclamation side, which had similar roads. But imagine the feeling of riding under the iconic bridge. I had a ball doing this film, which is so well written and gave me so much space to perform without dependence on other actors. If you have a good rapport with the writer and director, then the variations come easy.

How good a cyclist were you?
I can fly on wheels. I am very good with cycling, bikes and skates. The struggle was to show that I don’t know how to ride.

I have fallen so many times. I have learned to fall. For example, when Lali is on the flyover, I stop and stumble. I felt it would add to her misery if she falls and you see that she’s broken.

Fatima Sana Shaikh in Modern Love Mumbai. Courtesy Pritish Nandy Communications/Amazon Prime Video.

You once said that Raat Rani came to you at a time when you were struggling emotionally. What did you mean by that?
There are phases in life when you are emotionally unclear and vulnerable. It has happened that films have come to me when I am at an emotional point, and that film helped me cross the emotional barrier.

Raat Rani is so uplifting that it is cathartic. Your character crosses the flyover and watching her, you feel, I am capable too. I have done this film, so I can do others. Films can help you grow, can change your perspective and how you feel.

Lali has empowered me. Dangal and Ludo also made me feel this way, and Thar too. I was not sure about Thar. Going out there was alien terrain. But that film also came to me at a time when I felt stuck.

I am not like Chetna. If my husband hit me, I would bash him up. It’s not about physical violence. It’s the suppression. Chetna is the opposite of Lali. These two films came back to back and I was curious whether I could do both.

I have had so many questions about my work. I am the kind of person who, if a scene does not go well, I have an existential crisis.

What do you reject in terms of roles?
If I don’t connect with something in the character, if there isn’t a spark, then I won’t do it. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do Thar because of the length of the role. The script was very interesting and I liked the world, but I was not sure of Chetna.

Also, because there wasn’t much on paper, I didn’t know if the moments I have on screen were enough. But then I did it because they are nice people and I hoped something nice would come out of it. And something nice did come out of it.

I no longer equate my career with what people expect from me. Right now I am just exploring and doing what makes me happy. There are certain kinds of films I want to do – like Queen, and other female-oriented films.

Fatima Sana Shaikh in Thar. Courtesy Anil Kapoor Film Company/Netflix.

What are you looking forward to work-wise?
In August, I will start shooting Sam Bahadur, based on the life of Sam Maneckshaw. I play Indira Gandhi in that. Then there is Dhak Dhak, which is about four women travelling on motorbikes from Delhi to Khardung La pass. My co-stars are Ratna Pathak Shah, Dia Mirza and Sanjana Sanghi. Taapsee Pannu and Viacom18 are producing.

This time I will be on a Bullet – and I do know how to ride a motorcycle.

Fatima Sana Shaikh, Ratna Pathak Shah, Sanjana Sanghi and Dia Mirza in Dhak Dhak. Courtesy Outsiders Films/Viacom18.

Also read:

‘Modern Love Mumbai’ review: Look for the cycling woman and the Indian-Chinese dragon mom

‘Thar’ review: Pretty scaffolding and little behind it