There's a cluster of crew and managers huddled around a laptop when I enter the suite at The Park Mumbai in Juhu for this month's cover shoot. The look, the light, the angle, the expression....it's all under the scanner and after the intense brainstorming she goes back to facing the camera. Dressed regally in shimmering rust, she looks ethereal as if a puff of wind could blow her away. But that's the impression. “I inherited my genes and the entire team involved with a film presents me in a certain way. It's what is on the inside that matters,” says Aditi Rao Hydari who has taken time out from the film schedule of Ribhu Dasgupta's The Girl on the Train, an adaptation of British author Paula Hawkins' book of the same name, for this photo shoot for THE MAN.
She could be right, but perhaps she was groomed to take centre stage from the beginning. She stepped into the glitzy world of Indian cinema from a world where she'd been exposed to culture through her growing years. Music, theatre and the arts were a part of her life from the time she was born. Films weren't. That she's made a mark for herself in the film industry, points to her grit and determination to stay the course in an alien world.
Aditi juggles her calendar between Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Hindi films and flits from one to another fitting seamlessly into the different working styles of each of these film industries. Once the camera rolls, it's just her and the character she's playing, it doesn't matter where the set is. “It's all about stories, and stories must have feelings,” she says. “They must evoke a reaction in you, you must take home an emotion. Feelings are universal, they don't have a language. Every director wants an actor to bring realism to a character, they all want 'raw emotions'. I learned how to do that from Mani (Ratnam) sir.” The Tamil film (Kaatru Veliyidai, 2017) where she acted opposite the popular star Karthi, changed her outlook and the way she was. “I realised how important it is to be real and authentic. He demands only that from an actor.” The other director who has had an impact on her is Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Known for his attention to detail, he strings together a lot of elements and then expects the actor to bring them all together in the role to the extent that there is little difference between the reel character portrayed by the real character.
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Moving between the four major film industries of the country, Aditi has learned that “this (the film industry) is a great equaliser. It doesn't matter where you come from or to which family you belong. As long as you bring something of substance to the table you will be accepted here.” Doing a film with Mani Ratnam, she admits, opened the doors of the South Indian film industry to her and she has the fortune to look at scripts from four languages. Although, she's largely played supporting roles, she has mostly enacted strong and pivotal characters with intensity and enjoys being pushed to give her best by directors who wring that performance from her.
The roles that she's most proud of are Padmaavat (2018) because “it was my dream to work with SLB,” Sammohanam (2018) because “it's bit like (the 1999 British film) Notting Hill, and what was happening in the film was sort of what was happening in my life at the time,” Kaatru Veliyidai (2017) because "it's a love story and Mani Sir's films are so 'immersive.'”
For all that, there are irritants and she works at not letting anything get to her. “I choose to be happy. I can get annoyed and crabby but what's the point.” Like when people tell her she hasn't got her due in the industry she takes it as a back-handed compliment. “That means that they think there's potential, and that one day I will get to meet that potential.” However, talent alone does not always ensure success, and that can be an irritant too because an actor might have done a great job, but filming is always a team effort and there are other elements that go into it like the production house, other actors, the look, the story and so much else. “So, it makes sense for me to find my happiness within those parameters and take it all in my stride. Keep yearning or keep working and be happy.” In fact, she's quite in her element juggling her work commitments in India's four major film industries, and loves the idea that films have no barrier in terms of language or region.
Social media too has been an equaliser. The mystique attached to movie stars is now missing. We know about the minutiae of their lives more than ever before. Have expectations increased as well? With social media and instant news, leadership roles seem to have been thrust on film stars and they are expected to give intelligent sound bites about all sorts of situations. It has often been a crib that such and such senior actor didn't respond or react to a situation. “But how do you know,” she says “that the person wasn't busy, or that he wasn't ill or quite simply that he didn't feel the need to jump in with a reaction.” It isn't just about actors, Aditi insists. “We should, I agree, but it isn't only our (actors) moral duty alone. As citizens, we must all be more aware. Perhaps there needs to be prudence about when a mic is thrust at you for a sound bite. You might have come out of a prayer meeting and might not want to react to the latest scandal or political flashpoint.” And yet she is happy instagramming about the current agitations on citizenship that are sweeping the country.
Her attitude to trolls is along the same lines. She prefers to give trollers the benefit of the doubt and figures that they could be going through personal problems and feel the need to vent their anger. She looks at trolls as her fans and as an opportunity to engage with them personally.
With lives so hectic and Mumbai a city more on the move than most, it would appear that there's little time for anything other than shoots and movies; are relationships then the casualty? Casual relationships seem to be de rigeuer and with limited longevity. The legal aspect of a relationship is old, but earlier there was a responsibility to keep it going. Relationships now seem to have shorter life spans. It is said that Aditi was married for a short time and kept that under wraps. In the past, the cracks in a marriage, she says, were papered over and the hurt and healing were within the confines of marriage. Through counselling or turning to spirituality (or some other way), people eventually got their act together. Now it breaks wide open and there's no healing. “The most important way to change anything to a positive is to acknowledge first that there is damage, that the crack has caused hurt and only then can the healing start.”
To illustrate the point, Aditi returns to the roles that changed her. “Leela (Kaatru Veliyidai) and Mehrunissa (Padmaavat) changed my outlook to relationships, all relationships not just the romantic ones. You can give to another person only if you are healed and whole. Everyone wants their own person, someone they can come home to and with whom they can be themselves, without the fear of having a heart broken.”
She enjoys her stardom and is happy to take selfies with fans, but finds it irksome when she's stalked. She'd rather they came up to her and asked for a picture directly. It takes courage for fans to come up to a star knowing they could be rebuffed, so she accommodates them all. She's aghast at the suggestion that she might venture into politics one day. “Me?” she squeals with an incredulous expression before breaking out into a peal of laughter. Neither is she fixated on the future and the limited career span of stars. “I don't agree with you,” she says. “We are actors and actors have a long shelf life. I believe in living very much in the moment, giving it my best; I don't want to be a stress bunny.” And yet she's bought herself a stake in Chennai Stallions, a tennis team.
Pictures: Marie Baersch
Creative & fashion director: Nupur Mehta Puri
Location: The Park Mumbai Juhu
Hair & Make-up: Elton J Fernandez; Assistant styling: Grace Soni, Vindhya Tandon; Production: Neha Ahuja for N2Root; Video: Ishan Singh