Actress Banita Sandhu’s Twitter bio reads ‘that girl from that film’. Referring of course, to Shoojit Sircar’s October, the debut film of the young British Indian actress, in which she played Shiuli across Varun Dhawan’s Dan. For Sandhu, bagging the role was the result of something of a whirlwind Bollywood fairy-tale having been plucked straight out of university to be in one of the most acclaimed films of the year across a big star after Sircar discovered her during an ad she was cast in.
And yet, following October, for Sandhu the phone stopped ringing for almost a year, with few follow up opportunities coming her way, something she’s been vocal about. After the film, she returned to the UK to finish her degree and focus on her mental health. “I’ve always said October was the right first film for me, but it was the wrong time. I wasn’t ready. I had this anxiety about starting my career at that time but it was also a film I couldn’t say no to and when you’re not from the industry, you don’t have the privilege to be like ‘can we just push it back a year’”?
Sandhu’s trajectory is telling of a fickle industry which favours flashy packaging and presentation over storytelling in how it wishes to see new actors launched. That said, 2019 has been quite the year for the actress. With October behind her, she’s currently straddling multiple industries. Earlier this year she was in US TV show Pandora and is now all set to make her Tamil cinema debut in less than a week with Adithya Varma, the Tamil remake of Telugu film Arjun Reddy whose Bollywood remake Kabir Singh came out earlier this year. Essaying the role of the troubled titular character in the Tamil version is Dhruv Vikram, son of Tamil star Vikram in what’s considered one of the biggest launches of a star son in Tamil cinema so far.
Next on Sandhu’s radar is conquering Spanish cinema (a result of having spent part of her childhood there) and a Bollywood film she doesn’t want to talk about just yet but one she’s very excited about. At 22, Sandhu seems wise beyond her years, perhaps the result of seeing success and fame relatively early on. Despite being a self-confessed Bollywood newbie when she was first signed October (she says she was only aware of the Shah Rukh Khans and Aishwarya Rais of the world but not the newer crop of stars) she now discusses the industry with the knowledge and enthusiasm of a seasoned Hindi film geek.
At her agent’s office in London, Sandhu spoke to me about her apprehensions about Adithya Varma, the challenges of playing the PR game and why Shoojit Sircar spoilt her for the other directors she’s worked with.
What made you connect with the script of Adithya Varma? Why did you feel like that was the right project after October?
I’d never done a South film before and I believe you’re only as good as the team you work with. When I knew who was on board, I couldn’t say no. We had Ravi (K. Chandran) sir as our DOP who’s one of the country’s best and I knew Vikram sir was going to be on set. With Dhruv, I could tell he was young and talented and hungry. I figured there’s a great team on board and the film already has a cult following.
Yes, there are problems with it that I find as a woman. I’m not going to sit here and be like ‘it’s a great film because it does commercially well and that erases all the misogyny in it’. That’s not true. But what I felt was because there were creative differences with the initial Tamil remake they’d made, and they were now remaking their remake, I figured they would be open to ideas and changes in terms of giving my character more autonomy and agency.
But as an actor there’s only so much (you can) control in a film. I think the audience thinks we have more control than we do. At the end of the day it’s on the director and the editor. That’s the final product. What I can do is in my scenes try to make the best of a given situation. And honestly it was such a good shoot, I was so impressed.
Are you worried the film will face a similar backlash to Kabir Singh?
To an extent, yes, I am. I’m not going to say ‘no it’s perfect’. It’s not. There are problems with it. There are problems I had while watching that film which I addressed with the direction team before I even started. I told them I’m not comfortable with certain aspects and asked how we could make it better. Vikram sir was actually the one who pioneered the idea of giving my character more autonomy and agency and having more shots of her looking at Dhruv’s character. That’s what we tried to do and I feel very blessed that I had a team that listened to me, especially being a young actress who’s not only from outside the industry but also outside of the country.
Dhruv and I also discussed it a lot. I do understand that I have a young female following and the last thing I want to do is influence them. Actually, I also have a large young male following and again the last thing I want to do is glamorise or glorify that kind of behaviour. There’s a difference I think, in film, between telling a story and glorifying it. There’s a very fine line and I had to make sure on my part that we weren’t crossing it. Yes, he’s a toxic character and he has bad traits but there’s a way to tell that story. Like I said, I’m not in control of the final product but I know I tried my best and they listened. I have no complaints.
October is an interesting film to debut with. It’s one of the least ‘Bollywood’ films of the last few years. Was it weird having to explain to people this wasn’t that kind of Bollywood debut?
I remember when we had a press junket in the UK, it was such a weird time in my life because I was still in my final year of university and the press here were a lot more excited thinking ‘she’s going to be singing and dancing, she’s going to be so glamorous!’ I just kept saying ‘wait till you watch the film because it’s not Bollywood’. I kept trying to make the point that Bollywood is not a genre, it’s an industry. I think a lot of the time people abroad think Bollywood is kind of vacuous and romantic and glamorous, but it’s such a huge diverse industry with so many great filmmakers which I’m proud to be a part of.
But I think perceptions of the industry are changing organically with Netflix and Amazon Prime. If you look at Spanish TV and cinema, they have some of the best filmmakers in the world, but people have always associated with them with like telenovelas until the last few years where it’s finally getting its due. I think the same is going to happen with the Hindi market where foreign audiences will see the substance there.
You’ve also talked about how after October you didn’t get many follow up opportunities and didn’t feel like you were really embraced by the industry. Do you think it’s because of how different that film was?
I can’t say the industry didn’t embrace me because I also made the conscious decision to come back to London because I had to graduate. Also, my mental health wasn’t great and without my health, I’m nothing. So I think a lot of it was my own conscious effort of knowing I need to come back and graduate and find my grounding again and think about where I wanted to go next. I didn’t want to jump on the hype of that film and take a project which had no substance just because I was there.
I’ve always said October was the right first film for me, but it was the wrong time. I wasn’t ready. I had this anxiety about starting my career at that time but it was also a film I couldn’t say no to. When you’re not from the industry, you don’t have the privilege to be like ‘can we just push it back a year’?
But I don’t regret it. I would much rather have a smaller role in a great film than a big role in some big film that I didn’t feel anything for. I’m willing to wait for the right roles… That’s why Pandora spoke to me, because the character had nothing to do with my ethnicity, she could be anyone.
Is there a downside to launching with a director like Shoojit Sircar? Does that spoil you?
Yeah, for sure! It’s weird for me to do a TV show because every episode you get a different director which means we work with great directors and not so great directors and that made me realise how lucky I was for having Shoojit Sir as my first director. Even internationally, he’s still one of the best directors I’ve worked with to this day. He’s so talented in terms of how he nurtures his actors before a project. He’s just such an amazing human being and I learnt so much from him.[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]When I came back after October, I read this Amy Adams interview that changed my life. She was a struggling actor till she was about 30 and got her big break with Leonardo DiCaprio and then after that nothing really panned out for a couple of years. Then, at 33 it just took off again. And the interviewer asked how she got through that and what changed for her and she said ‘it only began for me when I started focusing on the work and worried less about the noise’.[/perfectpullquote]
How did your US TV show Pandora come about?
I wanted to get an American TV show under my belt. I wanted to start building a profile on that side of the world, so I signed up with my agent, and hired acting and accent coaches because you have to get your American accent perfect. And then Pandora just came around.
It all happened very quickly during pilot season which is intense. I was doing at least 4-5 auditions a week, sometimes 2-3 a day and you just have to be on the ball at all times. And this was great because usually what happens is you get picked up for a pilot but you don’t know if the show is going to get picked up. But here the network commissioned the entire season beforehand so I knew I was doing 13 episodes and I knew my work was going to air there. I was really lucky with this one, and it came literally just after I finished Adithya Varma, so I literally came back to London for two days, did my laundry and went straight out to Bulgaria to shoot.
You’ve said before that ‘my biggest problem is PR… But even Varun Dhawan told me that to survive in the film industry, you have to be business-like’’. Do you feel that a sustainable career in Bollywood is more about the noise around you than the work?
PR does play a huge role in Bollywood. Especially with brand endorsements, it makes sense for a brand to be associated with someone who has a lot of noise around them and I think a lot of people have gone down that route and it’s worked, and good for them. I just know that it isn’t the route for me. I see myself going somewhere that no one has really gone before. I know it’s going to take time and it’s not going to be easy which is why I guess I steer clear of making a lot of noise because I’d rather let my journey speak for itself.
When I came back after October, I read this Amy Adams interview that changed my life. She was a struggling actor till she was about 30 and got her big break with Leonardo DiCaprio and then after that nothing really panned out for a couple of years. Then, at 33 it just took off again. And the interviewer asked how she got through that and what changed for her and she said ‘it only began for me when I started focusing on the work and worried less about the noise’.