Bhumi Pednekar is only three films old (Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha and Shubh Mangal Saavdhan), but the young Yash Raj Films protege is clearly enjoying her moment.
Pednekar’s poignant portrayal of a maid in Zoya Akhtar’s contribution to the Netflix anthology film Lust Stories has been widely appreciated. Pednekar plays Sudha, a young maid who manages her employer’s home with a quiet efficiency and enjoys a fulfilling sexual relationship with him. But she is pragmatic enough to remain silent and inconspicuous in the face of callousness and unintended humiliation from her employer and his family.
In a conversation with Scroll.in, the 28-year-old actress spoke about preparing for the role, her well-chronicled weight loss after her award-winning debut in Dum Laga Ke Haisha in 2015, and the myths about her background.
You have garnered a lot of praise for your performance in ‘Lust Stories’. Were you expecting audiences to respond this way?
Well, I knew these fantastic directors were coming together and though I didn’t know about what they would be making, I knew that the platform and the stories would be different. I knew that all the films would have a very strong voice and that they were going to show women in a very different mode.
I was excited, but the response has truly overwhelmed me. People are watching it every day. I wake up to beautiful messages on my phone, Instagram, Twitter. The way our audiences have responded to Lust Stories shows how much they have matured and changed.
You speak only a few words in the film. How did Zoya Akhtar narrate the script to you?
Four words, actually three.
When I was told that Zoya wanted to work with me for the second installment of Bombay Talkies, I was obviously excited. It’s not a conventional platform for a feature film actor. Actors are usually wary of experimenting because there is a demarcation between platforms, which is quite wrong, in my opinion.
But Zoya is a fantastic filmmaker and she has always been on my bucket list. Our first meeting was actually a Skype call where she briefed me about the film. Later, she sent me the material to read. I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do. Especially because there are no dialogue.
I had not done something like this before. With the other characters, I could still imagine living that life. I can never imagine living the life Sudha had. Zoya said, you will get to do something you love. And she was right.
The big talking point about your performance is the sense of familiarity with which you negotiate the maid’s space. What was your point of reference?
There was a lot of work that went into it. It also comes from a lot of practice that I had since my first film and years of observation. I am a Bombay girl who’s grown up with a lot of house helps around me. So I know the kind of the world Zoya was trying to show. I had observed the way people work at my house, the way they treat the clothes, the kitchen, their behaviour. The film is a big comment on the class division in India and knowingly or unknowingly, we all are a part of it. We might not ill-treat our house help because we are educated, but we do believe in this divide.
They are almost invisible, silent. But they treat themselves in a more practical way. They don’t have the time to whine over things that have gone wrong. They have to get their shit together and move on. They might make khayali pulao but the end of the day when reality strikes, they handle it. They are stronger and tougher and that’s exactly what Zoya has shown.
I worked with an excellent teacher, Atul Mongia. We had workshops. I remember I was wiping floors at home for weeks and I realised how tough it is to sit on your haunches. I kept losing my balance. My mom loved it.
The opening scene of the film, where Sudha is having sex with her employer, could have been a talking point but it wasn’t. Were you apprehensive about how this scene would be received?
Zoya had given me the confidence that she was going to shoot the scene aesthetically. It was meant to be there for a reason, not just for entertainment. The scene, in fact, evokes a deep emotion, something very beautiful. And that is what happens when two human beings are connecting, when you are in bed with somebody.
I was made to feel very comfortable doing the scene, because obviously it was a first for me. It was just like shooting any other scene. I really have to thank Zoya for making this scene look so natural. I was not uncomfortable when I was watching the scene either.
I was expecting videos and my face being focused… you know what happens. My family, my mum’s friends have loved my film and very proud of my work. I am like wow, our society has realised that sex is not bad, and it’s good.
You spent six years with Yash Raj Films in the casting department, briefing and prepping actors. Did the experience help you hone your skills as an actor?
Hundred per cent. I started working at YRF when I was 17. I have assisted, I have directed and I have narrated television. But I have worked the longest in the casting team, and it had added so much to my craft.
You were dealing with different directors. At one time, I would have four scripts and do the secondary casting for all the films, working with actors of the craziest calibre and at different levels. I would audition 150 people in a day, which meant I was cueing 150 people, I was directing them. Honestly speaking, if you want to be an actor and you do not want to go the conventional path like film school, getting a casting job is a wonderful way of training yourself.
When you began to lose the weight you had gained for ‘Dum Laga Ke Haisha’, you took to social media to share the process. What was it like bulking up?
People thought I was depressed. They came up to my mum and me out of concern because I had gained an abnormal amount of weight. But I always laughed at them – ha ha, one day you will know about it. Once they saw the film, they came up to me and said, why didn’t you tell us, we were worried.
I realised that being that plus-sized draws a lot of negativity from people around you, and it’s quite sad. I did not need to be depressed. I was getting a chance to do what I love – eat good food and act.
And the moment you lost weight, the comparisons with Priyanka Chopra began.
I know! Honestly, I admire her. She is a beautiful, strong woman. But I have my personal style and I have always been like this and I don’t see any similarity between us at all. The only similarity we have is that we are both born on the same day, so I don’t know if that is what people see in us.
In Abhishek’s Chaubey’s ‘Sonchiriya’, you are playing a dacoit. In your films, you are seen in earthy, de-glamorised roles and on the other, your Instagram posts show you in a more sensuous avatar. Is this a reminder to your fans that you are this but can also be that?
Yeah, it is. It is actually surprising that people don’t know a lot about me. They think that I am a girl from a small town and are suitably surprised that I know English.
I love playing these celluloid characters because they are so not me. I do not know any of these girls and their lives. I have never really lived in any small town in any part of India. So I think social media is a way of showing people who you really are, as opposed to what your characters are. And that is exactly what I am doing. I am just sticking to my core and my reality.