From five auditions for Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year in 2009 to no auditions for Bestseller earlier this year, Gauahar Khan has come a long way.
“Staying relevant for two decades is never easy,” Khan told Scroll.in. “There are times you feel like you’re not getting everything you deserve, everything you worked hard for. But what kept me going was hard work and the belief that things will work out for me.”
The 39-year-old actor has only now begun to move from supporting to headlining roles. After standing out in a small part in the 2021 series Tandav, producer Siddharth P Malhotra offered her the lead in Bestseller. Khan had the meaty role of advertising filmmaker Mayanka Kapoor, who deals with a pair of vengeful siblings out to destroy her novelist husband.
The MX Player series Shiksha Mandal, out on September 15, stars Khan as police officer Anuradha Singh Srivastav. Anuradha leads an investigation into a Vyapam-like education scam. The series co-stars Gulshan Devaiah and Pawan Malhotra.
Although both Bestseller and Shiksha Mandal feature working women with complicated domestic lives, the characters are different, Khan argued.
“In Bestseller, Mayanka doesn’t have a say in front of her husband, gives in to all his antics because she thinks he is how he is because of her faults, and fumbles on the professional front too,” Khan said. “But in Shiksha Mandal, Anuradha is pretty cutthroat with her husband, just as she is in the office where she takes charge, calls the shots, and rarely makes mistakes.”
Web series are giving Khan her due, and allowing her to come into her own. “People are finally focusing on me,” she observed. Earlier, people took note of her acting performances as part of an ensemble cast: “everybody – and Gauahar Khan”.
She has shared the screen with such seasoned talent as Dimple Kapadia, Mithun Chakraborty, and Pawan Malhotra (who was her neighbour at one point).
“I would rush to get a glimpse of Malhotra ji back then, who’s just so fab,” Khan said. “My fan mode is on with these actors. But when the camera is on, I know I need to own the space as my character, I want to deliver and not disappoint. It was a great feeling when Mithun da got up and clapped after my character broke down in the climax of Bestseller.”
Khan’s early noteworthy performances in films such as Rocket Singh and Ishaqzaade came to her after years of struggle. At 18, the Pune-born Khan stood fourth in the 2002 Femina Miss India contest. She was cast in music videos, including the Bombay Vikings hit Hawa Mein Udti Jaye in 2002. She did a few song performances in star-led films and hosted the film gossip show Page 3 on Zoom.
In 2009, Khan participated in the third season of the dance reality show Jhalak Dikhla Jaa. The week after her first performance was telecast, she was called by Yash Raj Films to audition for the part of Koena Mukherjee, a receptionist at a computer services company in Shimit Amin’s Rocket Singh.
Five rounds of auditions followed. Khan says that Amin and writer Jaideep Sahni told her that 200 women had auditioned for her role. “They said they really liked my performance, but I didn’t look like a Bengali, with the big eyes and everything,” Khan recalled.
After the fifth and final audition, Koena Mukherjee was renamed Koena Sheikh, one of the five rebels in the company who start a rival agency led by Ranbir Kapoor’s titular hero.
“As an avid watcher of films, I knew the potential my character had,” Khan said. “I knew these five characters are the soul of the film and it didn’t matter if I was opposite Ranbir. I didn’t listen to anyone’s advice that I should star opposite a star to be counted as an actor.”
Rightly so: every review noted her performance.
Khan’s subsequent choices have held her in good stead. These included moving from Mumbai to Gurgaon where, between 2010 and 2013, Khan appeared in over 1,000 performances of the stage show Zangoora: The Gypsy Prince at the now-shuttered Kingdom of Dreams amusement park. Khan played the lead role of Laachi alongside television heartthrob Hussain Kuwajarewala’s Zangoora.
An important role in another Yash Raj Films production, Ishaqzaade (2012) followed. Khan played the golden-hearted sex worker Chand Bibi. The role summarised her career thus far: the first half consisted of her dancing to two superhit songs, Jhallah Wallah and Chokra Jawaan, and the second half featured her performance.
Khan continued to appear in dance-based reality shows. In 2013, she won the seventh season of Bigg Boss, which brought further fame.
But she just was not breaking through in films. “I say no to any role that doesn’t have any importance in plot,” Khan said. “Doing songs as Gauahar Khan is different, but as an actor, I have failed if I have not given a worthwhile performance”.
So it was heartbreaking when a chunk of her scene in Badrinath Ki Dulhania (2017) was cut out of the final film. Khan had a cameo as a police officer who advises the lovers (played by Varun Dhawan and Alia Bhatt), similar to Ishaqzaade.
“People would say that I took the film just because it’s a big film but I did it because there was a scene which didn’t make it to the final film, in which I set Varun Dhawan’s character straight about how he should be treating women,” Khan said.
Khan had a brush with chauvinism herself in 2014 on the sets of the reality show India’s Raw Star, which she was hosting. A man in the audience slapped her and later told reporters that he was outraged that a Muslim woman had worn a short-length dress.
“What was wrong and uncalled for was the way news channels made this guy famous,” Khan recalled. “All he wanted was his two seconds of fame. At the end of each episode, the junior artists get to be on stage, but after two episodes when he didn’t get the opportunity, he thought I was to blame and took his frustration out on me.”
Off screen, Khan claims that she has rarely encountered sexism. “I know my line and I draw it for myself,” she said. “I have never allowed anyone to objectify me in songs. I always check the lyrics.”
She is careful about how she presents herself on social media, particularly on her Instagram account, where she frequently posts entertaining videos of herself dancing or goofing around in her home.
“I represent no betting apps, pan masala, or alcohol,” Khan said. “My Instagram is a representation of who I really am.”
As a Muslim professional, Khan continues to receive judgement for her Instagram posts but she is unfazed. “I get attacked from both sides,” she said. Some ask her why is she dancing despite being a Muslim. Some tell her to go to Pakistan.
“I don’t change my ways because of that,” Gauahar Khan said. “I stay true to who I really am: an Indian who believes in secularism.”