Power packed: Beyond good-girl roles

Incredible, breathtaking, extraordinary and truly phenomenal... The Man speaks to five powerhouse performers from Netflix's Now Stree-ming campaign list — Shweta Tripathi Sharma (Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein), Mrunal Thakur (Dhamaka), Kusha Kapila (Plan A Plan B), Shefali Shah (Delhi Crime) and Prajakta Koli (Mismatched)

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netflix womens day family picture

Shweta Tripathi Sharma: I give a pleat of my heart to the character and let it leave it’s imprint on me 

Bubbly, energetic, and full of life, she instantly feels like the childhood best friend you’ve been rooting for

shweta tripathi sharma Raw Mango ‘Gulshirin’ silk blouse with ‘Hestia’ silk sari; Earrings, Paavaki jewels; Ring, Tanzire; Heels, Eridani (Picture: Neha Chandrakant; Make-up: Nisha Karna; Hair: Mehvish Majithia)

Being one of the few Indian Disney stars, you kind of grew up in front of the world. Would you say it was easier or more challenging?

I was much older than people realised. The benefit is that you're playing a character that looks much younger, but you have the maturity as an actor and you have to understand and respond better. I was essaying the role of a college student and I must be 25 at the time. Even in Haramkhor, I played a 17-year-old when I was 28. Even then, I love that I’m growing up with my audience. People who watched Kya Mast Hai Life are now watching Yeh Kaali Kaali Aankhein and I’m growing with my content and fans. There is also a huge responsibility as a child actor because kids look up to you for inspiration. So, with great power comes great responsibility.

What's one thing from your childhood that will always stay with you?

My dad always use to ask me two things: “What are you reading” and “Did you exercise”. Now when I look back, I realise he was telling me that both mental health and physical health go hand in hand. Both are things we should practice irrespective of age. Even if I am on holiday, I try to squeeze in a workout whenever and wherever possible. 

march cover womens day Picture: Manasi Sawant

How do you unwind at the end of a really long workday, or a really long project?

I sleep with the biggest smile on my face. It's very satisfying when you have a productive day. As actors, you're always trying to find the truth at the moment. So, as a performer, if I’m able to do that, nothing like it. Apart from that, meeting Cheetah puts my mind to rest. He's not just my husband but also my best friend and anchor. I feel like myself when I am with him because as actors we spend so much time being other people. It gets challenging to remember our roots.

How do you decide to be a part of a project when it comes to you?

From the days of Masaan till now, it has been the same: I depend on my instinct. Beyond the few things I look for, I need to relate to the character as an actor and as the audience. Apart from that, the director is important. I also look at characters that excite me. Taking on a role is such a psychological, physical and emotional job. If I’m giving a pleat of my heart to a character and letting it leave its imprint on me, I want it to be exciting. 

Do you believe in creating a social impact with your work? Do you see yourself as a changemaker in a professional and personal capacity?

Subconsciously, I always do it. But it is not on my mind when I am selecting a script. I do, however, believe that you have to be responsible for your work. It's going out into an opinionated world so that influence shouldn't weigh over what your core is. 

Since you've been in the industry for so long, what's the one thing that centres you?

The people I meet! I’ve been lucky to meet very supportive, motivating people in the industry and when I look at the kind of work they’re doing and telling such amazing stories through their work, I feel the people will also be like that... full of heart and soul. 

Your most cherished character?

My last played character is always my most cherished character! But Golu from Mirzapur and Zenia from Kya Mast Hai Life.

How do you think OTT platforms like Netflix have changed over the past two years?

They’ve been killing it at expanding the “menu” they offer. They are catering to a wide range of audiences and people are getting a chance to see different stories and narratives. Films like Bulbul are so thought-provoking and powerful, especially with the content created for women now. Every character’s powers are different, just like every woman’s.

QUICK WITS

Currently looking forward to: Seeing sharks in the Maldives

Favourite features: Queen’s Gambit, Bulbul

Want to see next: Don’t Look Up

Love: Travelling and acting

BEHIND THE LIMELIGHT

shweta tripathi sharma husband cheetah

My best friend: Cheetah, my husband

My solace: I get my energy from my fans and the people I meet 

Best moment of 2021: When we wrapped the shoot for Yeh Kaali Kaali Aankhein in Ladakh amidst snow-clad mountains

mrunal thakur Raw Mango 'Chorus’ silk lehenga; Necklace, Prerto (Picture: Neha Chandrakant; Hair: Mallika Jolly; Assisted by: Manisha Kami; Make-up: Lochan Thakur; Assisted by: Karan)

Mrunal Thakur: We can make our weak points our strengths 

Behind the stardom is a homely “banker’s daughter”, she proudly says. Candid, kind, warm and driven, the actor works hard for every applause

Your life centres around?

My family. When I go to my mother’s house and my mother opens the door for me... there I’m just my father’s daughter. I’m not an actor, I’m not a celebrity or a diva. That part of my life doesn't only keep me grounded and humble, it also keeps me close to reality and reminds me of where I’m from. For me, my centre is my people.

Tell us about your childhood. Did you always want to be an actor? 

I was a rebellious kid and I didn't know what I wanted to do. All I knew was that I wanted to make a change, make a shift and ensure we live in a better place. Recently, a man complimented me and called me an “alpha”. I was offended at first but when I asked for a clarification, he said: “I called you an alpha because you possess leadership qualities.” I was so pleased because I’ve never been recognised for that in my life. Even as a kid, I formed a football team because our PT teacher was against the idea of having an all-girls team. So when someone told me “you can't do this,” my reflex was, "Let me show you how." So that’s what my childhood was about.. coming into my own. 

mrunal thakur parents

What's your fondest childhood memory?

To go to my mom’s wardrobe and try on her best sarees whenever she fell asleep. I loved using her Lakme makeup too. Before she’d wake up, I’d keep everything back in place just as I found it. The funny thing is that I endorse Lakme now. Back then, I couldn't own even a single lipstick of theirs and now I’m the face of the brand... so it's a big achievement, I’m living my dream and life really has come full circle for me. 

A career milestone you're most proud of?

When I got to work with Demi Moore in Love Sonia, I felt so lucky to even share screen space with her. I was also amazed to witness the Hollywood pattern of working. That was my career milestone — Love Sonia allowed me to play a vulnerable, naive, strong, courageous, fragile yet unbreakable character. I was really lucky to have a titular role in my first film. 

Which of your fictional characters would you say you're most like?

Dr. Ananya from Toofan! I believe in humanity and think every individual is equal — be it, a man or a woman, no matter what the religion. A similar quality we share is that we can make our weak points our strengths. In the film, Ananya lost her mother in a bomb blast but she transformed her pain into power by being a doctor and healing and saving people. Instead of looking at the negative aspects, she looked ahead and that’s what Mrunal is all about. All the people who told me I can't do it, I worked hard for it and I made sure that every failure made me a better actor.

What's your selection process when it comes to a new project?

I need to connect with the story, the character, my director. The director is the captain of my ship, whenever I’m on set I surrender myself to them.

Do you ever plan or go with the flow? 

There is no hard and fast rule, of course. I have a vision but if I can't reach that, it's fine. I’ve seen people lose heart when they fail to achieve their plans. One thing that stays constant is my perseverance and determination. Agar late bhi pohochte hain toh acha hai because if you get everything easily you do not value it. When you work hard for it, you value it. Growth kam bhi ho, honi chahiye, zindagi jeene ka ek nazariya milta hai. That being said, my aim is to get an Oscar, not just do work in a lot of Indian films but also overseas, to be recognised globally... that's my dream. 

How do you think OTT platforms have changed the characters written for women now? 

I can’t thank OTT enough! These platforms have given such great opportunities to people coming from all backgrounds. We’re all coming together from different places where language, region, colour, age... nothing is a barrier. With just one click, it connects us to such a wide audience. I have fans reaching out to me from Kenya, Japan, Europe, all over. That kind of love and appreciation — it's unparalleled and insane.

netflix womens day Picture: Manasi Sawant

QUICK WITS

Director I’d like to work with: Sanjay Leela Bhansali

Love: Alia Bhatt’s work 

Favourite movie: Casablanca

Favourite fictional character: Geet from Jab We Met

BEHIND THE LIMELIGHT

Proud of: How my parents brought me up

At the end of a long workday: Just want to crash on my bed 

Styling must-haves: Crisp white shirt, comfort, a smile

I admire: Tabu

kusha kapila Raw Mango ‘Anisa’ silk organza blouse with 'Beloved' Varanasi brocade sari; Necklace, Vintage (Picture: Neha Chandrakant; Make-up: Savleen Manchanda; Hair: Swapnil Kashid)

Kusha Kapila: I am quite a pessimist in  real life. That’s why I relate to Monday Aunty

She is unfiltered, true to herself and to everything she does. This powerhouse has only just begun

What's the biggest learning from your career so far?

That the learning never stops. Once you feel you know everything, you get too inside your head and not in a good way. To be able to challenge yourself, learn more, feel new at new things, to change and evolve with time is my biggest takeaway. My second learning would be: If you didn't ask for it, you won't get it.

Which of your alter egos do you relate to the most?

I would relate to my Mom character if and when I become a mom. For now, Monday aunty! I’m quite a pessimist in real life and Monday aunty is also full of manhusiat so I relate with that. 

How do you conquer lack of motivation? 

It happens quite often. In moments like those, I fall back on eating...  I love momos. But other than that, I go back to doing things I like — I watch something or spend time with my friends. My special four are my parents, my husband, my dog and my female friends. I’ve been lucky enough to cultivate some great female friendships which have stayed with me from my childhood. Going back to them is like going back to the drawing board, I can start fresh. 

What does your ideal weekend sound like?

Meeting my friends, binge-watching something, running errands, spending time with my dog, meeting my parents. I try to squeeze in a lot because that's when the rest of the world is on pause so I try to do as much as I can.  

A social cause you care about?

Support the LGBTQ community any way I can. Other than that, I involve myself with raising funds for the education of marginalised communities. Funding education is something I believe in. It's something I want to promise my money to and make sure people around me also contribute to that. 

Have you ever been in a situation where a man was intimidated by you? How do you deal with that?

I remember when I was 18 I was cracking jokes just out of good humour and someone came up to me and said “stop trying, you’re not funny.” I wasn't even trying to be funny at the time. I was a performer from very early and an extrovert, and at 18 when you're still trying to find yourself, it could be very demotivating. Now, I don't interact with a lot of men out of my circle. The ones in my life are extremely wholesome and supportive. At this point, I am also at a place where I can call it out immediately if that happens. 

How have OTT platforms changed over the past two years?

There is a power shift from mainstream cinema to streaming platforms. Now we have more female writers, directors, storytellers. Women are telling women’s stories and there’s a lot of diversity. There is a long way to go but a little has to happen first and I think the change has started. Storytelling and directors have also gotten the *main character energy* now. 

Do you have a 10-year plan or do you prefer going with the flow?

I would like to give my all to acting. I want to be very honest about this profession and give my best. Whatever I’m doing five or ten years later, I just hope I stay true to it and I give it the respect it deserves. 

kusha kapila plan a plan b

What’s in store for 2022?

Plan A Plan B is coming where I star alongside Tamannah Bhatia. Apart from that, there is also a project that I had manifested for a really long time and I am hoping to prove myself with that.

QUICK WITS

I cook: Killer beetroot hummus, musk melon ice-cream

Bombay or Delhi: Goa 

Features I loved: Bulbul, Sir, Bombay Begums, Sacred Games

BEHIND THE LIMELIGHT

Your strength: My special four people who keep me rooted 

I live by: If you don’t ask for it, you won’t get it

Currently working on: Deviating from pessimism, because I am inherently like that

shefali shah Raw Mango ‘Pumila’ silk twill blouse with ‘Incana’ silk organza sari; Earrings, Slow Studio; Ring, Antarez Jewels (Picture: Neha Chandrakant; Make-up: Pallavi Symons; Hair: Sandhya Bellarae)

Shefali Shah: The respect I’ve always got is finally translating into work. People are writing roles for me now

Smart, strong, unapologetic and full of heart hones it all 

From Dil Dhadakne Do and Juice to Delhi Crime, which character of yours do you resonate most with?

A film I worked on last year will be released this year. I think that’s the character I’m most like in my personal life.

Do you think your characters can bring change in the perception of society and men’s minds?

I doubt that one character, one role or one project can bring about a big change. The first time I did see change was after I did Juice in 2017. A young guy wrote to me saying, “You made me realise what my mother went through. I’ve done this and watched my mother serve and cook. I’m going to change it now.”

Do you regret any past roles of yours?

I don't regret decisions I take professionally because there's nothing you can do about it now. It's something that has already happened and it does shape you in a way.

How do you think we as a society can establish gender equality?

By raising our sons right. You need to start from your home, because only then will there be a change in the society. A lot of people from older generations have not changed but that doesn’t mean it has to be the life for the future generations. Of course, education as well. I strongly believe that our daughters will be safe if our sons are raised right. 

shefali shah family

Is there anything you've learnt from the millennials?

Kids today know how to enjoy their lives. Our generation was stuck between our parents and children. We always kept thinking, “Once our children are settled and their future is secured then we can enjoy ourselves.” We didn't, however, realise that once you reach that stage, you don't have the physical capability to enjoy so much. I sometimes still feel like that and tell Vipul (Shah) about that when we find ourselves delaying leisure. I appreciate the sense of responsibility we have but millennials today are more aware of their own needs.

How do you think OTT platforms have changed the roles written for women?

Streaming platforms have opened the horizon for all creative people! Content is king now. There are more stories to be told in depth. The same goes for characters. There are characters here — full-fledged, nuanced, complex, with so many layers — not just for women but for men as well. OTT is welcoming women of any age group... they’re flawed, complicated, and not the simple “Sati Savitri.” They are actually the heroines of their shows and lives. This change is missing from mainstream cinema. I can’t think of a single feature that would take flawed, dark women as the centre of the film. If they do anything that is against regular norms, if the sense of morality is lacking, women often become villains. But in life, and in the way we see these characters form on OTT, they’re not just black or white. There’s a lot of grey in between and they own it unapologetically. 

How would you describe your 2021, given that you've delivered a total of 6 stellar projects in a year where most of the world was at a standstill.

My entire professional career was at a standstill for the longest time, but 2021, oh boy! I haven’t done as much work in my entire career as I did this year. Finally, I am getting the kind of work I want to do. The respect I’ve always got is finally translating into work. People are writing roles for me now and I am getting fantastic scripts and amazing characters! 

What’s in store for 2022?

I can't confirm anything yet, but I have always been very choosy about what I accept. I only do work that is equally good or better than what I've done earlier.  I love working but I can't select anything that doesn't churn me from inside and so far, nothing has.

QUICK WITS

Want to travel to: Anywhere in nature, cities are plastic

Beaches our mountains: Beaches 

If you had to relocate: Never... Mumbai is home

Your take on your Dil Dhadakne Do character: Full of facade. I’m not driven for power like her

BEHIND THE LIMELIGHT

Every project is challenging for me because: I’m terrified that the director will say action and I wouldn't know what to do

On playing contrasting characters: It’s exciting that you become somebody else completely with new roles

Starstruck moment: Working with the great Bachchan Saab!

prajakta koli Raw Mango ‘Anisa’ silk organza blouse with ‘Daana’ silk organza sari; Earrings, House of Shikha; Rings, Tanzire and Kassa Jewels; Heels, Cai (Picture: Neha Chandrakant; Make-up: Sahitya Shetty; Hair: Rupali Dhumal)

Prajakta Koli: Women are now finally telling women’s stories. Our characters are more real

Is refreshing, funny, humble and warmer than one would think an individual of her stature would be

All the roles of your life are very creative. Were you always inclined to arts since you were growing up? 

I always knew this was the space I was most confident and comfortable in. Academically, I was very average.

You played a soon-to-be tech wizard Dimple Ahuja in Mismatched. How close are you to the character in real life?

My life has been very different. I met this boy when I was 18 and I’ve been with him ever since. So that's never been like a struggle, thinking “oh, do I want to focus on my career first.” But I do relate with Dimple on the whole “doing what she’s doing but later on realising it's not as easy as she thought it would be,” so I relate to that with her.

Even though Rohit Saraf's character Rishi Shekhawat was a sweetheart in Mismatched, do you think men get intimidated by opinionated women? 

Thankfully, I’ve not come across any men like that in my life. I have the most amazing men in my life. My circle is very precious to me, it’s been the same for many many years now. I do make new friends but that’s extremely rare. My friends are the only people whose opinions matter to me, whom I open myself up to, around who I put my guard down. Vahi log hain jinke opinions se mujhe farak padta hai, rest it doesn't bother me.  

When did you first feel like you had arrived?

Honestly, I don't think I've experienced that yet. It's such a vast place with a long way to go. I feel like I've barely scratched the surface. So I don't think I have yet, that's yet to come. 

prajatka koli with parents

What's your fondest childhood memory?

Visiting my grandfather’s weekend home in Mussoorie with my entire family for the winter!

What’s on your bucket list for career and personal life?

I don't have one. I grew up all my life with one master plan and that didn't work out for me! So one good thing that happened when I started creating content was that I gave up on being hell-bent and chalking the map of my whole way ahead. So I don't have a bucket list for my career. Except, I really want to work with people I’ve looked up to all my life like Jackie Chan and Meryl Streep. I want to collaborate with new people and learn more. On the personal front, I want to see Anne Frank’s house museum in Amsterdam, the Northern Lights, be a professional dog walker. I want to travel as much as I can, eat lots of food, meet new people, have new experiences. 

How do you think streaming platforms like Netflix are changing the way female roles are written? 

So many artists are hopeful because of OTT platforms. Women are finally telling women’s stories, our characters are more real, we're unlearning the unrealistic standards set for women and we’re coming down to more relatable characters. It's long due and Netflix has a huge part to play! I’m pretty new to the whole acting thing but when Mismatched came to me and I read about my character Dimple, I loved that it had nothing to do with how she looked!

With so much happening around you, of course, it gets chaotic. What's a quote you live by or a saying that centres you amidst the chaos.

I always believe “it’s a process.” Even though it’s very cliched, I keep telling myself this. Even if something bad happens, I’m always like “trust the process.” It's even my phone wallpaper!

QUICK WITS

Books I love: Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, Anne Frank’s Diary, Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood and Killing Commendatore, Harry Potter Series, Michelle Obama’s Becoming, Hussain Zaidi’s Dongri to Dubai

Favourite features: Sherlock Holmes and Modern Family

Love: Travelling 

Describes herself as: The queen of ‘foot in mouth’

BEHIND THE LIMELIGHT: The day you got a spot on Forbes 30 under 30 Shaking shivering, fumbling the whole day! A mad day at work 

The day you met Michelle Obama: One of my top three favourite days at work 

The day you won an Emmy: Surreal

Biggest career milestone: When a meet and greet with my fans got sold out within minutes

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