If Betty Cooper ever came to life, Bhumi Pednekar would make the right cut. We find out what lies behind her curious career choices and that infectious smile.
There is nothing accidental about Bhumi Pednekar nor is her story about chasing Bollywood stardom by fighting a family that stood between her ultimate dream. No, she didn’t have to elope from a small town with 500 bucks in her pocket to navigate through the dirty lanes of Indian cinema. Neither did she have any godfather or a film background that paved the way with the comforts of being a star-child. So, don’t expect an average Cinderella fairytale that will bring you to happy tears.
That is what makes Bhumi so refreshingly different. A regular Bombay girl who lived with her well-educated parents and younger sister, with all the comforts that a normal home brings with it. The family loved eating out, going on holidays, watching movies together. She grew up with a happy childhood, and partied and went out with friends like any other teenager. Whenever she wanted something her father would say, “If you get good scores in school, you will get what you want.” Sometimes she did, at times not. It was not because “he couldn’t afford it,” says Bhumi.
“It was my dad’s way of telling me that I must earn what I get so that I don’t take what comes my way for granted. It made me responsible for my actions and demands. And happy that I earned it,” she says. And that lesson has stood her good. So, when she told her parents (even before turning 16), that she wanted to work in Bollywood, there were no arguments at the dinner table or lectures on the perils that lie ahead. She was told to follow her path as she pleased. And she did.
“Frankly, to be part of the cinema world was my only ambition. I had taken that decision longer than I can recall. I knew that I was not the kind who will be happy with what one might call a regular job. I was focused right from the word go.”
At 17, this half-Konkani, half-Haryanvi teenager heard that Yash Raj Films was looking for casting directors. “I didn’t even know what that was. But I applied. I was interviewed, and selected.” So, there goes the story of flying off to New York to learn the art of cinema. No, not even the National Film Institute in Pune. Bhumi learned to learn on the job. “YRF is my school of cinema. I started there right at the bottom, going on to become assistant director. I watched all these great actors and directors work, and picked on it. I would often be asked to act out a scene for another actor so he or she would get an idea of what the director wants from them.”
The later part is pretty much history. It was during one such mock trials for a film called Dum Laga Ke Haisha that she was told to take the lead role of Sandhya Varma. It was the story of an obese educated woman who gets married to young, good-for-nothing idiot who wanted a “beautiful” wife, ergo “slim and lovely”.
Bhumi, who had already seen the underbelly of the making a film, took the job. A brave move considering the fair-and-lovelies would not dare to debut on 75mm screen weighing close to 90 kilos. Pan the camera: Bhumi was gorging on butter chicken, paneer, fried snacks and everything that spelt unhealthy and obesity. She did this for eight months. And Bhumi Pednekar, with her well-chiselled jaw lines and shapely curves, morphed into “moti Sandhya”. The film was a sleeper-hit winning both critical and eventually commercial success.
The fat girl won. On her terms.
Critics ate crow while she went about collecting her Best Debutant trophies, as she worked off the extra kilos and got back to shape. Would she do this again? “No, certainly not for a while. The process messed up with my metabolism. I want to maintain a healthy weight. But what was absolutely surprising for me was that there were so many men who came up to me to talk when I was overweight. It was a flood, I tell you.”
“But the flood has receded now ever since I lost all that weight,” she says with her infectious laugh. But then who knows Toilet Ek Prem Katha opposite Akshay Kumar, might just open the flood gates once again, in more ways than one. After all, its commercial success and the awards that followed has made her “star-worthy”!
“Oh, I don’t think so,” she winks and adds, “The pre-actor time was really the flood time. Now it’s all work.”
With a cluck of a tongue she steers towards work talk. “After doing Sandhya and Jaya (in Toilet EK Prem Katha where she plays a bride who refuses to go to her husband’s home unless they build a toilet), critics and friends told me I am now going to be typecast. Even Shub Mangal Savdhan is a social topic dealing with male impotence. But I am not afraid of such silly things. I have two more releases on the way, one with director Abhishek Choubey and other is Bombay Talkies 2, so being typecast is really not my worry. After working with Akshay Kumar and seeing how he can change from character to character at the blink of an eye, all you need to do is play the part and get out of it. Look at the stardom he enjoys.”
Now, is Bhumi the “regular Bombay girl” finally feeling like a star? “Actually, I always felt like a star. I think it has a lot to do with the way we were brought up. My parents never made us feel less than anyone. So the both of us — my sister and I — were always ‘star material’. But if you talk about cinema, the era of ‘stars’ are gone. There will never be another Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan, Rani Mukherjee, Kajol, Shah Rukh Khan ever again. They are the last of the Titans. The kind of cinemas we make today are different. Not that I am complaining, just that the nuances have changed.”
Clearly, learning on the job is her thing, which is probably what makes her personality an interesting read. Her attention to detail, the student-like enthusiasm as she sits down to look at her shoot images, listening to how a simple photo can take complex reaction on a magazine page. “I am very opinionated, and that too comes from my parents. Since they did not stop us from expressing ourselves — be it our thoughts or believes — I always have a point of view.” Probably, explains the kind of cinema she is attracted to.
For now, as she sits and discusses her life in a pair of distressed denims and yellow shirt, one can tell stardom is yet to affect Bhumi Pednekar. “Just because I am an actor now does not mean I am a new person. Or that I don’t meet my friends and got out with them. Those are the real things I enjoy. Being with my girl gang, laughing at ridiculous jokes, going out partying. What’s life without a few real laughs?” True that, girl.