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Applause: In conversation with Saiyami Kher

Applause: In conversation with Saiyami Kher

by Khalid Mohamed June 17 2020, 11:17 am Estimated Reading Time: 11 mins, 21 secs

Khalid Mohamed in a frankspeak with Saiyami Kher, who has made a huge impact with her performance as a housemaker-cum-bank employee in the Netflix film Choked.

At this very moment, she may be rustling up a meal at her house in Nashik.

Or exercising. Or maybe she’s on the phone, discussing a film or web series offer she can’t refuse after her bravura act in Anurag Kashyap’s Netflix film Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai – which touches upon the subject of demonetisation.

Truth be told, I’ve been so bowled over by Saiyami Kher’s bravura performance in  Choked, that I can’t wait to see her next go before the camera right away.

Yet with the uncertainty facing the recommencement of shoots, I’ll have to wait patiently. Silver lining: the series Breathe 2 featuring her with Abhishek Bachchan has been tentatively scheduled to open on Prime Amazon Video on July 10.

By the way, I’m hopelessly clumsy at telephone interviews, with all the fuzz, crackle and drops, but this one I have to attempt asap. Fingers and ears crossed, then, here’s over to a conversation with Saiyami Kher (pet-named Sammy), whose high-cheekbones, grey eyes,  and especially her effortless chemistry with the camera are just some of the weapons in her acting armoury:  

Is there anything that’s already not known about you?

(Pause) Not really. I’m an open book, I always speak my heart out. Sport is my first love, especially cricket and badminton, lately I’ve also taken to running. Unfortunately, I tend to say the most politically incorrect things. When my father would ask me about my five-year-term goals ahead, I would never have half an answer for him. I take each day as it comes, this outlook has made survival easier.

I was shaken and deeply disturbed by the death of Sushant Singh Rajput. Mental health doesn’t discriminate. Rich or poor, old or young. Money and fame have nothing to do with it.  One can’t guess what was going on with Sushant. No one can.

Purely from my own experience, my first film Mirzya didn’t work. Yet (director) Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra and (writer) Gulzar didn’t let that unnerve me. To date I try to speak to them every Sunday, if they’re free to talk, to imbibe from their wisdom and advice.

So you made at least two strong Agony Uncles to help you move on after Mirzya.


You’re related to Shabana Azmi, no heart-to-hearts with her?

I call her Shabana Maushi. I don’t have the kind of relationship with her where I can talk to her about failure. I would rather use my time more wisely with her and chat on how I can work on my craft.

I reach out to Shabana Maushi for constructive help very often, if I were to use a certain dialect or a certain approach to a role. I know she’s always there for me.

Before Mirzya happened, did you have to go through the dispiriting exercise of giving auditions?

Yes, I would be standing in countless queues at Andheri where the auditions are mostly held. The room’s walls are plastered with sheets of dialogue which have to be enacted before the assistant directors. Once, a senior actress wanted to be prioritised in the queue and a virtual catfight broke out with another girl.

When I was in school, I must have been 13 or 14,  Zoya Akhtar saw me at Shabana maasi’s house and asked me if I was interested in doing Luck by Chance, the role which Esha Sharwani probably did. I felt I wasn’t ready. Anurag Kashyap was also interested in casting me in Dev D, for the part done by Kalki Koechlin I’d imagine. It would have been too premature to start acting before completing my school, then my graduation in political science and history from  St Xavier’s College. Those five years at the college were the best years of my life, I loved the campus, I wish I could have studied there forever.

A filmmaker who met you at an event told me that you look extremely glamorous and seem to be cut out for a Bollywood heroine. So how come you accepted an unglamorous, earthy role of a middle class housemaker with a 10-year-old son in the Choked?

Ha! The son was supposed to be eight actually. Doesn’t make a difference really. The point is, with due respect to the quintessential Bollywood film, I haven’t taken to acting just to do one of those chaar-paanch gaanewalla roles. I have no ambitions to become a Bollywood diva. I would like to think that there’s more to me than what’s generally perceived.

In the first season of Special Ops, I was seen briefly. I accepted the role because the director Neeraj Pandey could use me in the action space. In the next season, I have a feeling there will be more of me. Since I’m into sports, action is my second nature.

Okay hypothetically, if Karan Johar and Anurag Kashyap both offered you first-rate scripts, and you could only accept one, which would be your choice?

Now, that’s a tricky question. Okay, then I’d try to do both. And if it came to either/or, then I’d do Karan Johar’s. I know my equation with Anurag, he’d probably want me to take on Karan’s offer anyway.

On another note altogether, your paternal grandmother, Usha Kiran, was an extremely popular heroine of the 1950s and ‘60s… but has never been accorded the status of a legend. Does your family ever resent that?

She passed away when I was very young. At home, they do talk about the fact that she won National and Filmfare Awards. I’ve seen some of her films like Daag, Patita, Baadbaan, Chupke Chupke, and Shikheli Baiko in Marathi. In that era, I’m told acting wasn’t considered much of  a ‘respected’ profession, and the women actors didn’t have it as easy as we do.

During a conversation with Waheedaji (Rehman), she told me once there would be no workshops, no vanity vans, they’d be lucky to get a changing room. Of course, the family talks with tremendous reverence about my grandmother, but that she should have been considered a legend has probably never crossed our minds.

In retrospect what’s your take on featuring in the Kingfisher swimsuit calendar?

I do what I want to. I must have been 20 or 21 at the time. The photos were cool, I showed them to my parents, they were okay, quite muted in their reaction. At that point, I enjoyed the shoot, the photos didn’t objectify the woman.. but today, I wouldn’t do an item number on the screen if it was just meant to titillate.

One has to see life from one’s own eyes, one’s own perspective. Once, I flinched when one of my ex-managers said that women shouldn’t have an opinion in the film industry, they should just smile around beatifically, which I found amusing.

Fortunately, I haven’t experienced any other kind of derogatory male attitude. Of course, if I happened to sit down on the hero’s chair by accident, I would be told that’s not on. These sort of snubs can be handled.

Directors are known to use bad language on the sets when a shot isn’t going right. Anurag is known to lose his temper at times, but I never saw him losing his cool once, he was always persuasive and sorted.

For the role of Sarita – the housemaker-cum-bank-employee, in Choked, did you keep any role-model in mind… or do some homework?

While the pre-production was on, I was in Nashik and I’d visit the local government banks there. I’d observe a cash-teller whose name was Renuka and notice her pride in doing her work efficiently; and at times, I could also notice a deep level of frustration. This doesn’t mean that method acting is absolutely essential though. To play a bartender, an actor doesn’t have to work days and nights serving drinks at a bar, does he?

The script by Nitin Bhave was so minutely researched that an excessive amount of homework wasn’t required at all. Often, I’d wonder if a cash-teller who handles so much money mechanically every day, ever succumbs to the feelings of temptation and greed. They don’t because it’s a key part of their job, and above all it’s the security of their job which is uppermost in their minds. While the script was detailed, Anurag’s style of direction is spontaneous, so many scenes were improvised on the spur of the moment. Like Sarita’s breakdown scene.

And he never calls out “Cut!” at the end of the shot, allowing actors to go beyond the script. For instance, that scene where I’m arguing with my husband with our child watching, went on and on since we were adding our own inputs. Or even that character of the old lady who has to be prevented from pottering around in the kitchen. Anurag just saw her among the crowd and felt she would enhance the scene.

Right. I felt the scenes in the bank were the most effective ones, but not the flashbacks to the reality show where you lose your voice.

The farewell given to a senior bank employee, I felt, was unnecessary but in the final edit, the scene worked beautifully. So see, I was wrong. That reality show angle was to come off as a fantasy wish for Sarita, it was as if she wanted her dreams to come true but they didn’t.

At the end, in fact, there was to be a scene when Sarita does get her voice back, she regains her confidence and sings to her son sitting in her lap. I was all for that scene, but it was left out. I truly believe that a film is a director’s medium, so if Anurag wanted to leave the end ambiguous, that was his prerogative and a correct one.

Are you open to uber glamorous roles too?

Very much so. When Shabana Maushi saw Choked, she phoned to say she was overwhelmed that I’d taken on such a realistic role. She also added that if she were in the director’s place, she wouldn’t have cast me because, in real-life I have another personality altogether… suitable for glamorous lead parts. She was very generous with her praise that I’d projected another aspect of myself.

Javed saab also complimented me that my body language wasn’t at all like someone who’s majorly into sports. He said Sarita seemed like someone who didn’t know a jot about cricket or tennis. Tennis because we’ve often watched the Wimbledon tournaments with the family, together, at home. They talked for hours, and my parents were overcome with tears. They were so thrilled that I had got validation from Maushi and Javed saab.

In any case, the so-called glamorous roles have changed drastically, for the better. Alia Bhatt in Kapoor & Sons and Anushka Sharma in Dil Dhadakne Do had defined personalities, with a heart and mind of their own.

Which three films have influenced you the most?

Different ones at different times. Right now off the head, I’d say Casablanca, Abhimaan and Guide.

And books?

I’m afraid I’m not an avid reader. When I do read, it’s the biographies of sportspersons.

In the wake of the Sushant Singh Rajput tragedy, have you reflected on the hazards, which accompany success?

Absolutely. One’s psyche is bound to be affected. The film industry is a scary place, it breeds insecurity. So even if you’ve scored a hit, you’re hankering for the next big thing. With an ongoing struggle to prove oneself and the bouts of loneliness, you do get sucked in. I’m not claiming any expertise on this subject, but perhaps it would be helpful to share your anxieites… your frustrations with someone you trust, be it your parents or a friend.

Erm, do you have a boyfriend?

I’m not seeing anyone right now. I had a boyfriend at college, but you know how it is, sometimes things don’t work out.

Lastly, your name means self-control or patience. Have you ever had a bad patience day?

Post-Mirzya, the three years were a test of patience. I lucked out, I stood true to my name. And then there was this day when I was doing an ad shoot. I reached the spot at 4.30 a.m in keeping with the call-time. The director took my first shot at 12 in the afternoon and the next one at 9.30 in the night. I completed the shoot, didn’t complain, but yes it did bring on a cloudy mood. 

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