For a girl who loved chai, gup shup and long evening walks with besties in sleepy Cooch Behar, to one who counts 23 million+ followers on Instagram, you could say Mouni Roy is the stuff middle class dreams are made of.
She has just finished shooting Blackout, a film with Vikrant Massey and Sunil Grover, and is hard at work on an as yet unannounced Hotstar show. Penthouse, a Netflix original that she has wrapped up recently, is out soon on the OTT platform. Then there is Ultimate Gurus, an ed-tech platform launched with brand new husband Suraj Nambiar, and, of course, rocking Instagram with all those hot pics that she drops with enviable regularity! Oh, and did we even mention playing antagonist on the much-awaited Brahmāstra, up for release on 9 September?
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Yeah, sure you could say, India’s favourite Naagin is a poster girl for every Bareilly ki Barfi desperate to live out her dreams. Or, you could go, thu thu thu, as the patli kamariya girl does laughingly, revealingly in a freewheeling chat with THE MAN. Obviously, you can take the girl out of the small town, but you cannot take the small town out of the girl!
How was it even growing up in Cooch Behar, we wonder? Immediately, there’s a lilt in YouTube’s favourite music video girl. "It was fun," she says. “The most striking thing was the relationship with Baba, who cultivated in me the reading habit,” she reveals. “It was a tiny little town and we didn’t travel a lot, so it was through my books that I understood that there was a huge world out there, that there were so many languages and cultures to be experienced. So many stories waiting to be told.”
And though the performing gene was in her blood in a way, she regrets she never really paid a lot of attention to it while growing up. “Now I feel like I should have, because my mum put me in a dance school and I would come up with a new excuse to not go because I loved reading lying on my bed!” But along with the regret is the gratitude to her parents for giving her that base for whatever singing and dance prowess she has now. “I’m so grateful to them. I wish now that I’d taken them more seriously growing up, I would be far more rounded,” she says wistfully.
Well, whatever she learnt worked out, considering the virality of her moves on any music video that she does. Honestly though, how does she even deal with all the attention?
“I don’t,” laughs the 37-year-old actor/singer/businesswoman. “Because in my normal life I’m not getting any,” she says. “You know how typical Bengali families are, right? We are very matriarchal, focused on women’s independence and education. And that’s where I am rooted, completely embedded in reality.” Any attention that she gets, she tells us, is from her husband of four months, and her two best friends, Roopali and Anisha, who “will criticise everything I do!” and have nothing to do with the film industry. “As for Instagram, you can’t really take it too seriously.”
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Of course, she hastens to say, mindful of any disbelief, it’s not that attention doesn’t matter ("when people praise you, you feel really, really good about it. But, at the same time, there’s a lot of trolling and you have to take that too"). “I have a good laugh about it, knowing that it’s just people hiding behind their screens. So, it’s okay. It balances out. As an actor, it is necessary to be on social media, but you can’t be hovering on it all the time.”
For a girl who left home some months shy of her 16th birthday to study at Delhi’s Miranda House, and then never looked back from an eclectic trajectory of well-received television and film roles, she comes across as remarkably centred. And will often surprise you with her references to the Bhagwad Gita during the course of the conversation. Na samman ka moh, na apmaan ka bhay, a line that she quotes from her hit TV show Devon Ke Dev… Mahadev, is her credo.
Perhaps, it is all the ‘spiritual stuff’ that she has been into for the last three-four years. (She has been studying the Bhagwad Gita properly for the last two-and-a-half years with a teacher every Saturday, and chants and meditates every day, she informs. And then, seriously, “You should too”.) Perhaps, it the middle-class values of her small-town upbringing that keeps her rooted even as she reinvents herself every so often.
Whatever the reason, it is a fact that Mouni broke the mould in the Indian daily soap scene, not fading into oblivion as many of her one-series contemporaries did, some much bigger than her, but coming back over a decade to bag one lead role after another on TV — Krishna Tulsi (Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi), Sati (Mahadev), Shivanya and Shivangi (Naagin). And then, crossing over successfully to the big screen, holding her own against big stars and powerful actors. From playing shrewish housewife Monobina in Gold and Romeo Akbar Walter’s spy Shraddha to beer-swigging Surat housewife Rukmini in Made in China and now arch antagonist Damyanti in Brahmāstra, she sure has good shelf life! Was it all part of a plan? A well-thought strategy that she worked on, ticking off one goal after another?
“Really, I didn’t plan on anything,” she says, pointing to everything panning out probably because she always had her priorities right. “I keep a completely 50-50 balance for my family, friends and my work,” she shares. “When I’m working, I’m a hundred per cent there and when I’m not I am a hundred per cent with those close to me. That’s all that I’ve thought about.” For anything to be successful tomorrow, she says, you need to be present in your moment.
“I’ve never really thought of what shelf life I’m going to have or what my career graph is going to be.” She is just a grateful person, she shares, and understands that she needs to give back to the society as much as possible and as quietly as possible, because “that’s what the Bhagwat Gita says, that you yourself are only a mediator of God. You do not own anything. You are not the doer. God is the doer. And, you know, He is just flowing through you. So, you should not make a big hoo-ha about doing anything.”
Maybe that is why she won’t say anything when you press her on her social service, though she will admit that she is associated with ISKCON and Isha Yoga Centre. “But it is not something I talk about. I will do my bit, putting it out on social media, etc whenever they need me to talk,” she says.
And how does the small town deal with Mouni? Does she go there often? “My mum came here during the lockdown, so, I will know the next time I go home to Cooch Behar!” she laughs and then sobers up immediately to ruminate. “I feel we give our past too much importance. Of course, it shapes us as the human beings that we are, but we are not the people we were. We are the people that we are at present and that is what you need to embrace.
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“I’m still a small-town girl, because that will be my home forever; it is my father’s house. But am I the exact, same person that I used to be? How could I be? I left home before I was 16 and never looked back, first studying in Delhi and then leaving to work in television in Mumbai,” she reflects, almost to herself.
Middle class, educated, articulate, ready to step out of her comfort zone, Mouni Roy is an interesting study in contrasts, ready to tell the “thousands of remarkable stories out there waiting to be told” that she points us to. Perhaps, hers is one of them.
20 questions with Mouni Roy
As adept at long winded conversations as at witty comebacks, Bollywood’s hottest upcoming villain kills it in our rapid-fire round
Rich and regular or broke and interesting? Earning and interesting
Zippers or buttons? Buttons
Trousers or dhoti? Trousers
Sporty or mind over matter? Mind over matter
Dev R Nil or Troy Costa? Why choose?
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Massage or jacuzzi? Massage
Mile high or drive-in? Drive-in
The beach or mountains? Beach overlooking the mountains
Fun ‘n games or coffee and conversation? Coffee and conversation
Golf or polo? I can’t play either
Whiskey or vodka? Neither
Clubbing or fine-dining? Depends on the mood of the evening
Cream puffs or death by chocolate? Cream puffs
Jazz or rock? Jazz
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Broadway or ‘Bombay’? Broadway in Bombay
Action or romcom? Action
Books or films? Tough! Books
Sidney Sheldon or self-help? Self-help
Better to have loved and lost or never to have loved at all? Better to have loved and lost
Never have I ever…Seen the Northern Lights skies
Tripping with Suraj or girls only? Both! Because it’s always a good idea to go on a trip with your loved ones
Comfort dressing or, do you carry 5 suitcases and then some? Comfort dressing always! I prefer to keep it light while travelling
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Travel porn with Mouni
India’s favourite ‘Naagin’ is as versatile in her choice of holiday destinations as she is in her eclectic films and television career. And while bungee jumping may rush her adrenaline, our Bong bombshell is equally happy diving into the London arts scene. Looks like, Mouni Roy is quite at home in the world
From summer vacations, surely everyone’s favourite childhood memory — when Mouni would spend long, lazy days “learning new things” at home in Cooch Behar, hang out with cousins and plan picnics to Siliguri with them — our Shivanya/Monobina/Damyanti/viral girl sure has come a long way.
Her most favoured holiday destination now is London! “I completely love the city,” she chirps down the phone line from Mumbai on a hot day in May, adding that every time she goes to the mega city, she explores something different. Well, that’s easy to do in a city that has art, book stores, museums and libraries round every nook and cranny that Mouni loves diving into. And then, there’s Harrods, of course! “I love, love shopping at Harrods!” she laughs. Who doesn’t, Mouni, who doesn’t?
And what about matters culinaire? How important is food on her holidays? Does she like to do food trails? Eat like the locals? Bar hop? What gets Mouni drooling? “Bas, bas, baba,” she surrenders laughingly. Food is one of the most important things about her holidays, she tells us. “I always try and eat at local restaurants and I make it a point to look for plant-based restaurants,” says Mouni, who follows a careful diet, does not drink, and is a strict vegetarian.
So lentils and leafy greens is what she looks out for, wherever she is in the world, she says.
Well, whoever said hot bods come easy?!
But shopping and food apart, our gal is a self-avowed adventure junkie, who keeps it light while travelling and swears by comfort dressing on vacay. From the world’s highest bungee in Macau, China to sky diving, she has done it all. Up next is cliff diving, she says. So, if you spot our girl jumping off Amalfi’s Furore Bridge or Rick’s Bar in Jamaica, don’t say we didn’t warn you!
She has a lot on her plate and is loving it, including Ultimate Gurus, a new ed-tech venture with Suraj. What’s that about? “The idea is to give the ultimate education to aspirants. Presently, we have three courses: Business and Strategy by Zerodha founder Nikhil Kamath; The Business of Film-Making, taught by Karan (Johar) sir and Cue Sports by world billiards champion Pankaj Advani. We are curating other courses now, but the plan is to have a mix, not pertaining to only one industry — it can be a cooking course, something on hair and makeup, influencing….
Styling assistants: Sanskriti Sharma, Rushabh of Meraki Productions
Hair: Queensly Chettiar;
Make-up: Albert Chettiar
Artist reputation management: Raindrop Media