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“Understanding commerce is not my job, conviction is”

With her first film Kedarnath already winning accolades for her, debutante Sara Ali Khan gears up for her next release, Simmba. She talks to team Box Office India about how instincts ruled her decisions, the spirit of Rohit Shetty and a lot more

Firstly, congratulations on Kedarnath. You have got some amazing reviews for your debut performance. And we can tell you that the numbers are good too.

Thank you so very much. I am relieved to hear that it is doing so well. I don’t really understand numbers. But I am beginning to understand that more numbers mean more people have gone on to see it and that increases the chances of people liking it.

Before you announced your debut, there was speculation for about a year on what you were going to do, who you were going to star with, which production house, etc. Did that put pressure on you?

I will be honest with you here. I feel that when you are a newcomer, and a newcomer with no experience, the only thing that matters is conviction. You need to have conviction in the script, you need to have conviction in your role and your character, and that is the most important thing. It is so important that the other external pressures get silenced because you are so focused on ensuring that you are convinced about what it is that you are doing.

Up until that happens for you, no pressure really matters. That is the only thing that you have with you. If you are not convinced and if you get pressurized and in that pressure you sign something that you do not believe in, you are not going to able to deliver, ever. So, no, I didn’t feel any pressure, as such.

Did you ever think that both your films, essentially your debuts, would release so close to each other? How nerve-wracking was that?

I did not ever think that both the films would release so closely. I don’t think anybody expected it to be like this. It is very unconventional for this to happen. But, touch wood, I think that one really did luck out here. To be honest, being an actor has always been my dream. And the reason that I wanted to do this is because I aspire to be versatile.

My favourite thing about my job – and there are so many things that I love about it – but my favourite thing is that it allows you to live such diverse lives. It also allows you to explore such different realms of your own personality along with aspects that are not even in your personality, which is great. I think that I have been very lucky with films like Kedarnath and Simmba. It was not a plan at all but I feel lucky that it happened like this.

Since you have said that you rely on instinct when it comes to choosing scripts, what were your instincts when you read both these polar opposite scripts?

When my writer Kanika (Dhillon) read Kedarnath to me, I knew that this was a film I had to do. I mean, the innocence with which she had written the characters, the novelty with which she had presented them, the world she put them in, it was overwhelming. With Simmba, it was actually a little different because I just wanted to work with Rohit (Shetty) sir. I just knew I wanted to be a part of Rohit sir’s cinema. In fact, I messaged him about this and he didn’t reply to me. Then I messaged him again and he didn’t reply to me the second time too. Still, I messaged him for a third time and I was like ‘Sir, please just meet me.’ I went to meet him and said that sir it would be an honour for me to work with you. I was talking to him in Hindi and I had gone to his office alone which I think is something that really impressed him, that I did not take a manager or anyone along. I just went to meet him and I was like sir mujhe kaam de do. And he had that faith in me.

Gattu sir (Abhishek Kapoor) gave me my first film and I will always be appreciative of that. But Rohit sir gave me an opportunity when nobody in this industry was willing to look at me. And the reason was because Kedarnath was going through so much trouble, because everything was so uncertain, people were, like, this is trouble. But Rohit sir just said okay, Simmba is yours. I don’t think I will ever be able to forget that.

Working with Rohit sir has always been a dream for me. I love the cinema that he does. I think he is the king of commercial cinema in the Hindi film industry. But appreciating the human being he really is and the amount of things that he taught me, is something that I realized only after Simmba. So, I really, truly thank my lucky stars that I got the opportunity to work with him.

You say he is the king of commercial cinema. Did you factor in that there is an almost guaranteed box office success with this film?

Honestly, like I said when I started this interview, I don’t really understand the commercial aspect of cinema very much. And I don’t think understanding that is my job. I think the best thing about our industry is that there are so many different jobs and so many different people doing it that it is best to leave these things to people who are best at that particular job.

I don’t think understanding commerce is my job. Conviction is my job. Like I said, with Kedarnath, I was convinced in the script that came to me. With Rohit sir, I am convinced in his vision and just being a part of that is a dream come true. Then the rest is his thing. Figuring out the commerce and the first weekend collections is on Rohit sir. It is not on me and I don’t even think it is on Ranveer (Singh). Our job is to do the work that we are given and that is what I have endeavoured to do.

Both your characters are rooted Indian girls. Many actors say that they need to connect with some of the characteristics of the parts they are playing to do so honestly. Is it the same with you?

Of course, I think there needs to be a level of connection in order to perform. But I think that, like you said, both the characters that I have played, neither of them is really me. So, more than me finding myself in those characters, you need to totally surrender to your director. I have had the opportunity to work with directors who have made that very, very easy. I have also had the opportunity to work with co-actors who have made that almost natural.

Whether it is Sushant (Singh Rajput) or Ranveer, the vibe on the set, the atmosphere on the set is great. One is not really thinking like Sara anywhere. In fact, there were moments and days where I have done double shifts. I had been shooting in Hyderabad with Ranveer and Rohit sir and I have come back and shot with Gattu sir and Sushant in Mumbai. People keep asking me how I did it. But I told them that it is not like Sara is on the set anyway. They are both different characters and both these characters are a product of my directors’ vision, my directors’ direction and the energy of my co-actors. Yes, one does look for personality traits or things that are in me so that I can resonate with the character better. But it is definitely more about what the director and the co-actor give you, at least for me because I am so new.

And as far as my character in Simmba goes, I do not know how much I should be telling you because I am not sure how much I am allowed to tell you (Laughs). I am a police inspector’s daughter. I run a catering company called Good Food Catering Service. I think there is like an innocence to this girl but she also knows what she is talking about.

There is this thehraav that she has. This entire world – the police station – is known to her because her father is a police officer. She is a strong girl. Even in the trailer, she says, ‘Agar kisi ka encounter karna ho na, toh tum mujhse tip le lena.’ There is definitely a softness and innocence to her but she is not scared by the world she lives in. She also values and stands for justice, which is something you will see in the film.

Speaking of the energy of co-actors, you said you had more fun on the sets of Simmba.

I had a blast.

What was the thing that made it so enjoyable and memorable?

I don’t even know where to begin! There was not a single day that we did not have fun. If you had bad weather, it can get very expensive from the production point of view. It can get expensive if you are sitting on the set in Hyderabad with a unit of more than a hundred people and it is raining due to which you are not able to shoot, but there wasn’t a minute where Rohit sir’s spirit was dampened. He would be, like, ‘If the shoot is not going on, it’s okay, call for ice cream. And there would be tubs of ice cream on the set (Laughs).

There would be games like cricket and volleyball being played on the set. There were people making fun, having fun, people were playing pranks on each other, tearing people’s shirts, throwing water balloons at one another, so much happening. It was like a camp. But one thing I must say, which is obvious when you look at Rohit sir and Ranveer, in the middle of all this masti, there is a dedication, hard work, a focus that not everyone has. That is why they have the kind of fun they do and I think having fun with them is so much fun in itself. When it is fun, it is just that but when it is game time, they are very focused.

Then, you put on your game face.

You have to! What else would you do? Rohit Shetty and Ranveer Singh have their game face on which means that you have to find your game face and you don’t even have it! And then you feel, like, ‘Oh my God, these people, they are serious!’ That’s what I am saying, that the magnanimity they have is something else but the dedication with which they work, even though they have been doing this for years… they are arguably the best in their fields. It is really commendable.

It is this stereotype that our films are thankfully breaking, bit by bit, that the actresses in these masala, commercial movies don’t have a substantial part to play. What makes Simmba different?

I don’t think it is ever about anyone taking a back seat or a front seat. I think we are all in the same car and we are all going from one destination to another. You have to complement the film and the film has to complement you. People have asked me this, in fact, how does it feel to go from an author-backed role to a role which is not author-backed? But I don’t think that is the point. You have to be convinced. Either you are convinced with the script or you are convinced with the director’s vision. Whatever it is, you have to be happy being a part of that.

Kedarnath is a slightly intense, rural film. Simmba, on the other hand, is a hardcore commercial film. What the girl has to do in both these films will be different. But the girl is still doing something. I cannot tell you what is easier or what is harder or what is more fun. Doing Ganga dupkis in negative degrees is challenging but then, at three in the morning, when you haven’t been eating carbs, doing Seeti bajaye with Ranveer Singh is also challenging. It is not a cakewalk. I think every film set has its own vibe, has its own energy. I think one has chosen this job to aspire to be versatile. You have chosen this job because you want to do different things. I don’t think you get more different than this.

How was the first day of Simmba different from the first day of Kedarnath for you?

Not very! I don’t think it will be, ever. The butterflies will always be there. Like I said, the vibe is so different. The energy is so different. Every set is so different. Every film is different. The only one thing that changed was that I became more comfortable speaking in Hindi. I was a little new with Hindi. So that was not a problem with Simmba. The two films belong to two different genres. Simmba belongs to such a different world. God willing, if people like my work and I get a third film, a fourth film and a fifth film (Laughs)…

So Sara, now that you are in the industry, are there other checkboxes to tick before saying ‘yes’ to a film script or will you always go by instinct?

No, it has to be conviction and instinct and more now than before. I realize that you have to be convinced about what you are doing. There is no way you can shoot for a hundred days if you are not convinced. There is no way you can ask somebody, ‘Hey please pay your money and come watch me!’ if you are not convincing for two-and-a-half hours. It is not going to work that way. Conviction and instinct are very important. Also, at the end of the day, there is really no formula here. We will never know if something is a sure thing. So if you do not know for sure, then make your own mistake, at least.

Tension kyun lena hai, right?

Exactly! Tension kyun lena hai? Carry your burden. Do not stress over other people. I believe in listening to my heart. Maybe that will work. If it does not work, then it is your mistake, right?

You belong to a film family. Being an actor is very different from actually knowing the world. After doing two films, has the perception of the industry changed?

I want you to know that when I went to my father’s sets, I used to play with Preity Zinta and Deepika Padukone’s make-up artistes. And I would go to my mom’s set and be, like, ‘Oh wow, a wig! A lipstick! Mascara!’

I have never really been on a set to see what being on a set is like. The first time that happened was when I was on Gattu sir’s set watching Sushant shoot for the first two days of Kedarnath. I started shooting on day three. Hence, I have not really grown up understanding the film industry. For me, in fact, it was very shocking. You think it is just glitter and glamour but it is not. Shooting songs is difficult. I used to be really happy and excited about shooting songs. My second song from Simmba has just released and you wonder, ‘Oh Switzerland! I will dance with Ranveer Singh around the meadows!’ But it does not happen that way. It is not easy. It was so cold there. Shooting for songs is so tricky. There is continuity, there is hair, there is make-up, there is light; it is hectic.

And you cannot even shiver!

Yes, you can’t! At least in Kedarnath, one could shiver because I had to take a dip in the Ganga (Laughs). Jokes apart, it is very different. It is not what you expect. There is a lot of hard work that goes into it, which is something that one realizes only later. It is the amount of people who work to do that shot and get it right. In my mind, I used to always think that there would be six-seven people around you. I used to think there would be the actor, the actress, the director, the producer and the cameraman. That is it!

But that is not how it is. There is a unit of a hundred people for every shot that you take. The amount of hard work and dedication that each of them has to put in is something that deserves appreciation. That is also something I realize. There are so many things. If I start talking, this conversation would never end. I did not have any idea what a film shoot entailed. You need to have the focus to be able to do it. The amount of time that you have to wait between shots should not matter. 

That is a very good idea for a newcomer.

It is true! You realize that between ‘action’ and ‘cut’, nothing else matters. You could want coffee, you could be hungry, you could be tired, you could be unwell, but none of that matters. Your life is not defined by the waiting time or the call time. It is defined by those shots.

How do you react when it is said that you have to bear the onus of carrying forward your legacy of belonging to a film family?

If I think about that, I will not be able to move. Everybody is their own individual. Because of who I am, there might be a certain amount of expectation. My starting point or my initial position might be different from somebody else’s but I do not think that matters. I think what matters is your growth and that is something you need to focus on. You cannot be like, ‘Oh wow, this is where I am!’ No, that is where you need to be. It does not matter where you are, just go up there.

People are expecting a lot from you. What did you expect of yourself before you made your debut and have they changed in any way?  

I do not think about that. I just think that every day you have to wake up and go and do your best, and I feel that even more now. After Kedarnath releasing and getting me decent reviews, the only thing that has changed is that I feel like there is potential, for sure. And when you realize that about yourself, it is not pressure or expectations; it is almost like now you are sitting in your car and you need to start driving. I do not even think that chapter one is over. I feel like I have just been told that I know how to read. Now I have this book and I must start soon. That is the only difference. 

Have you been guided about the highs of successes and the lows of disappointments?

Yes, both my parents have because they are parents and they are from the industry. They have told me that a sense of balance is very important, and that there is a life outside films so that I can go back to that when I need to. It is funny that I am saying this at Box Office India but it is true that successes and failures are temporary.

Things change from Friday to Friday. Everything changes from Friday to Friday. The way you are greeted changes from Friday to Friday. The person who is running to you to give you coffee will change from Friday to Friday. These are things I am aware of, these are things I realize. And I believe that it is okay because that is the job I am in.

In the last couple of months, you have appeared on a chat show, two of your films are releasing, there have been back-to-back promotions, TV shows and radio shows. Do you fear over-exposure, especially since it is all out there on social media?

Can I ask you all a question?

Yes, please.

What will I do about it? What can I do about it? You talk about competition, over-exposure, the media, people seeing me in my gym clothes, people seeing me bloated, two of my films releasing. But what is in your control? What are you going to do? There is no point thinking about stuff you cannot control. That is not healthy. You have to accept your life and move forward.

The only thing I can do is try and look different on different chat shows, I can try different hairstyles, I can try to come up with witty answers, these are things that are helpful. They might sound funny but they are things I can control. I can spend time with my stylist, that something about my look is boring and so we can try pink mascara. That is productive. But thinking about over-exposure and about people seeing you always is not in your hands. You cannot do anything about it. You have to go out! So you might as well go out without putting too much thought into it.

What are your expectations from Simmba. What do you want the audience to take back from the film?

I think one expects Rohit Shetty and Ranveer Singh to come up with a big, commercial, hard-hitting film.

Especially since it is a year-ender.

Yes, all of that! But there is also a huge and serious social message that our film comes with. That is something that I am excited about. Even if it was about fun and games, nobody does them better than Rohit Shetty and Ranveer Singh do. But Simmba is a lot more than fun and games.

Is there anything in your future that you can talk about?

No, there is nothing in my future that I can talk about (Smiles).

How about we turn off the camera and then talk about it?

How about we leave this place, take off the mics and then talk about it (Laughs). That would be perfect!

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