Marathi film star Sai Tamhankar’s body has earned her fame and notoriety, and it is her body that is once again at the fore in a very different way in the November 11 release Vazandar.

Written and directed by Sachin Kundalkar, the Marathi comedy Vazandar (Heavyweight) features Tamhankar and Priya Bapat as friends who tackle weight gain, diet plans and self-esteem issues. Tamhankar plays a plump sari-clad housewife, in stark contrast to the voluptuous bikini-clad scorcher that strode across the screen in the 2012 Marathi hit No Entry Pudhe Dhoka Aahey. Tamhankar gained 10 kilos for Vazandar. “I am a party person who believes in work hard and party harder, and here was somebody paying me to put on weight,” she half-jokingly told in an interview.

The extra kilos have already been zapped into nothingness. In person, Tamhankar is small-built and slim, fitting snugly into a Piet Mondrian-inspired white and yellow top and skinny blue jeans. “I have a body structure in which I gain weight only in my arms and stomach and never on my thighs, so my tummy was not a pleasant sight when I was shooting,” the 30-year-old actress said.

Diet Diet, Vazandar (2016).

Vazandar is Tamhankar’s eighth release since 2015, if you count the Hindi film Hunterrr. She has played several different characters, proof of her versatility as well as her impulsiveness. In the 2015 sex comedy Hunterrr, Tamhankar plays a housewife who is one of three main sexual conquests of the self-declared satyr Mandar Ponkshe (Gulshan Devaiah). In a finely tuned performance in which little is said and a lot is conveyed through looks and gestures, Tamhankar’s character Jyotsna tumbles into bed with Mandar, giving the young man the sexual experience he craves while simultaneously enlivening her dull marriage.

Tamhankar plays a housewife yet again in the August 2016 release YZ, but a decidedly frumpier one, while in the October release Jaudya Na Balasaheb, she portrays a demure small-town woman who blushes at the hero’s advances. Jaudya Na Balasaheb chimes with Tamhankar’s hunger for variety, even at the risk of adding herself to a production that has an ensemble cast, while Hunterrr is one of many films that contributes to her image as a Marathi male fantasy.

“I am a very impulsive person, and I don’t think about what will benefit me but pick whatever hits me from within,” Tamhankar said. “I am in search of good work, irrespective of the length of the role. Whether it’s the second lead or the third lead doesn’t matter.“

Sai Tamhankar and Gulshan Devaiah in Hunterrr (2015).

Tamhankar has played smouldering siren as well as devoted wife, loyal girlfriend and femme fatale in a career that began in 2006 with television soaps. For No Entry, the 2012 Marathi remake of the Hindi comedy of the same name, she stepped into the role of the seductive housebreaker played by Bipasha Basu. In Ravi Jadhav’s coming-of-age film Balak Palak (2013), she plays a Malena-inspired object of desire for a hormonally charged adolescent. In the neo-noir Pune 52 (2013), Tamhankar is a classic femme fatale. The phrase “bold and beautiful” is frequently used to describe Tamhankar in the Marathi media, and she lives up to the image through her off-screen chic, uninhibited interviews, and comfort with her body.

In a hilarious and revealing episode in the web series Casting Couch, hosts Amey Wagh and Nipun Dharmadhikari invite Tamhankar as a guest and struggle to overcome their lechery. Wagh wonders why she isn’t more skimpily dressed, and one of the gags involves a costume change into a bikini. It’s all scripted, of course, and Tamhankar sportingly lets the men objectify her at every turn.

“It feels nice if people think I am hot and desirable – I take it as a compliment,” she said.

“Sai is our first clearly urban film actress,” Vazandar director Sachin Kundalkar said. “Many of our actors have migrated from stage and television, but she is very urban and was made for the film camera. She is very much at ease with her body, because of which people call her bold, but she is actually daring and honest.”

The Casting Couch episode featuring Sai Tamhankar.

Sai Tamhankar grew up in Sangli, the only daughter of a merchant navy officer and a housewife. The seeds of rebellion and independence were sown in the western Maharashtrian city. “I had always been the talk of the town for the right and wrong reasons – I did not mind sitting on a male friend’s bike and going for a ride, but it was a big deal back then,” she said. “We had a bit of a Western influence at home, and I had friends from every part of society and all communities. I loved to wear good clothes and would boast of my confidence and fashion sense. I told my mother long ago that I would settle in Mumbai, which fascinated me with its nightlife and its fast pace and lifestyle, and I did just that.”

Tamhankar completed her bachelor’s degree in commerce in Sangli, but she had already started acting during her second year in Marathi television. An early stint in theatre at college attracted her to the importance of focus and concentration that acting demands. After shuttling between the two cities and halfheartedly pursuing a hotel management course, she decided to embrace the inevitable.

Mumbai initially resembled “an amusement park”, and not all the rides were smooth. “I don’t decide and do things, they happen,” she said. “I have done many stupid things, like party till 3am and then go for a 6am shoot. I then came to the realisation at the right moment that I needed to get serious.”

Among the triggers was the notorious Pune farmhouse party incident in April 2011. Tamhankar was among several celebrity guests at a gathering that was raided by the police following a neighbour’s complaint. The incident sealed Tamhankar’s reputation as a wild child, but in retrospect, she says, she is glad for the bad publicity.

“What an eye-opener the Pune controversy was – thank God it happened,” said Tamhankar, who is married to visual effects artist Amey Gosavi. “Once in a while, you need to remember that you carry the responsibility of being a public figure. I am glad it happened, it was very tough and I lost a lot of things but also learnt a lot. I am somebody who has learnt everything from experience, and I feel glad and proud that I have no one guide or manual or book to take me through life. There have been situations and there has been me.”

Tamhankar’s tendency to take things as they come has also shaped the contours of her career. Her early roles include nondescript appearances in Marathi and Hindi films, among them a dialogue-free role in the Aamir Khan starrer Ghajini in 2008. Tamhankar plays the silent friend of Jiah Khan’s character, and she took the part only so that she could be in the same movie as Khan.

Sai Tamhankar (right) in ‘Ghajini’.

Tamhankar’s early career in Marathi is little more than the sum of heavy-breathing parts. But it is a testament to her risk-taking tendency as well as Marathi cinema’s lack of pigeonholing that the actress has been able to vary her screen appearances. Sanjay Jadhav’s blockbuster Duniyadari (2013), in which she plays one of four college friends, was a professional turning point. Since then, the roles have alternated between populist and offbeat, to the extent that it might appear that Tamhankar doesn’t have a grand plan in place, and is content with meeting whatever challenge is thrown her way.

Not too many stars from other language cinemas would have agreed to play Jyotsna in Hunterrr, but when director Harshvardhan Kulkarni approached Tamhankar, he found her to be willing and able. The role was initially meant for television actress Narayani Shastri, who had to drop out after a personal tragedy. Kulkarni’s only image of Tamhankar was her “in-your-face bikini moment” from No Entry.

She auditioned in a sari,” Kulkarni said. “She was very intuitive, had the right gait and agreed to no make-up. Her Hindi didn’t have any traces of a Marathi accent, and I realised what a big deal she is only after I cast her.”

Tamhankar has worked with several directors, but none has shaped her career as strongly as Sanjay Jadhav. The popular filmmaker has directed her with Marathi star Swwapnil Joshi in Duniyadari, Pyaar Vaali Love Story (2014) and Tu Hi Re (2015). “We had no idea that our first release would be such a blockbuster, but one thing we all realised during the shoot was that there are many bad things in life, and Sai has all of them,” Jadhav joked. “She is not a girl, she is a boy, and you can talk to her about anything and be absolutely comfortable with her.”

Tamhankar’s ambition is not always matched by rigour, Jadhav added. “She just goes with the flow, is not always as punctual and professional as other actresses, and doesn’t work on her acting as hard. There will be that one day in the shoot that I will have to tell her, Sai, go home, you are not ready for the shot. But it is a part of who she is, she is impulsive and doesn’t plan things.”

Tik Tik Vajate, Duniyadari (2013).

Tamhankar does use the phrase “go with the flow” an awful lot during the interview. She confesses that she does not care for structure or a planned approach while choosing her films. That is why she walked across the screen in a bikini in No Entry, confident that she could shake off the consequences of that decision. “I don’t see the bikini as a big deal – when you swim, you wear a bikini,” she said. “Besides, wearing a bikini can keep you in shape. I didn’t think that there would be good or bad repercussions. If you think too much, your thoughts can confuse you.”

And that is also why Tamhankar signed up for Hunterrr, whose lead actress is Radhika Apte. “The role was very interesting and one of the edgiest I have played,” she said. “One wrong look and the whole character could have flipped to the other side. I love roles that have a thin line and involve risk.”

After Hunterrr, Tamhankar turned down several offers to play an iteration of the same character, and has signed only one Hindi film, the 2017 trafficking drama Love Sonia, which also stars Demi Moore, Richa Chadha, Freida Pinto and Manoj Bajpayee.

“Hindi cinema tends to typecast you very quickly, which is not the case in Marathi films,” Tamhankar pointed out. “The only thing I envy about Bollywood is its global reach. Marathi cinema has money and good work and wonderful actors and technicians, and I am glad that more of our films are being subtitled in English.”

Apart from Love Sonia, another upcoming project is the Marathi fantasy thriller Rakshas, directed by Dyanesh Zoting and co-starring Sharad Kelkar. “I am a test match player, not a 20-20 type, and I like to think of what will benefit me in the long term,” Tamhankar said. “I am delighted with the variety of meaty roles that come to me, and I am blessed if this variety continues.”