Alive with irony is the fact that Sanjana Sanghi’s first film in a lead role is an adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars. Her smile is like warm sunshine and her skin is luminous, but it isn’t enough to dispel the dark clouds and terrible turbulence that shroud the 23-year-old talent’s big break. Sushant Singh Rajput’s tragic suicide looms over everything, so instead of the narrative being led by Sanjana’s lead debut, headlines tell the tale of Sushant’s last ever film.
It seems like an impossible cross to bear, but this petite young star has a special gift when it comes to navigating storms. A Delhi University gold medallist, there’s an academic tint through which Sanjana appears to view the world. She embraces emotion as an actor, but rationalising everything is her scholastic superpower. Sushant’s passing is still “too raw” to rationalise it, she confesses, but fame, nepotism and the maladies that ail society today are subjects she aces.
“I don’t consider nepotism a topic of debate really, because I think it’s a given,” says Sanjana. “I have dealt with it in school and college. People deal with it in the companies they work at. (People who are the apparent beneficiaries of nepotism) I have too much empathy for their challenges too. Just because, let’s say, I have had to give 500 auditions to bag the one big thing — and that may take 6 years — I am nobody to say that when they get what they do get, it’s any easier. The pressures are different. I’m not at loggerheads with this situation at all. I am all about doing what I know I want to do. So, when I know that this is my path, I just look at everything else as factors that exist, and I focus on how I can navigate them. If nepotism were a problem — which I don’t think it is; it’s more of a circumstance — you’d have to look for a solution; like one does with all problems. Now what’s the solution? There is none. Tomorrow a parent isn’t going to stop
caring about their child (because of the nepotism debate). My parents care about me. They may not be in the film industry, but they are doing whatever they can, within their means, to make this journey easier for me.”
So, while the Kangana Ranauts of the world cry foul, Sanjana Sanghi simply moves on. She’s had neither too much, nor too little, growing up as the only daughter in a family of four. Her parents have been lifelong “hustlers” — “a young couple in love who have tried their hand at several enterprises” — as a result of which Sanjana has always felt “comfortable and happy, without too much money.”
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She’s ambitious, but her motivation isn’t monetary; she is driven by the need to excel. “It was my biggest dream to go abroad to study and I did everything in school to have that CV. But it was very clear that we couldn’t afford it,” Sanjana recalls. She made her peace with this early on and committed herself to maximising an education in India itself. From Modern School Barakhamba Road to New Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College, Sanjana immersed herself in all things curricular and co-curricular — dancing and debating included. “I want to always be able to say no to certain things because they don’t align with my sensibilities (irrespective of a huge potential pay cheque),” Sanjana explains. Unlike so many beautiful young debutantes, she doesn’t have a wish list that starts with Armani and ends with Zuhair Murad — which certainly makes things easier!
“I love fashion and I am obsessed with experimenting, but my choices are always driven by design. I won’t buy something because of the label. I love handbags as much as the next girl, but my idea of a nice bag is a backpack or a fanny pack. I’m certainly a shopaholic. I love having things — new gadgets especially. And I love wearing amazing clothes, but if I am going to support a label, I’d rather it’s local.” Dressed in a Siddhartha Bansal jumpsuit with matching bomber jacket and hairband, Sanjana walks the talk when it comes to being vocal for local. But with social distancing and a lockdown in play, she hasn’t spent hours dressing up for our interview. “I did try to tong my own hair,” she laughs, “so this is me making an effort.”
It doesn’t take too much of an effort though, because Sanjana is genetically gifted. “I’ve spent hours having my makeup done for screen tests and then the director has decided that he prefers a minimal look on me,” she says. It’s the same story when it comes to her petite frame as well. She has just eaten a paneer paratha, with bhindi and channa, and neither pizzas nor burgers are off the menu. “I love food but I’m not a junk addict,” says the actress who alternates between yoga, Pilates and dance daily. “I do something fitness-related every day, but I never feel like it’s a chore. Have I had to make sacrifices for this body? The honest answer is no. My fitness regime is a little chaotic, but there’s structure within the chaos — which is like my life in general.”
Chaos has certainly been a key theme to contend with over the last few months. By the time Dil Bechara was ready for release, theatres across the nation were in lockdown mode. Coming to terms with the loss of a traditional big screen debut later paled in comparison with co-star Sushant’s passing. Still grappling with his death on a personal level, Sanjana then had to get on an airplane in the middle of a pandemic, to be grilled for hours at Bandra Police Station — where Sushant’s suicide is being investigated.
“People don’t know what another person means to you, nor do they know about your experience together, but they judge you anyway,” Sanjana rues. “So many horrible things have been said since Sushant passed away. Even expressing my grief has been interpreted as something I am doing for publicity. I can’t imagine anything further from the truth! This whole thing is so raw for me, I haven’t been able to attach it to other themes — what does this mean for me; what does fame mean to a person? It’s too sudden. It’s too much at my age. And then to shoulder the responsibility of releasing this film while keeping it together! Honestly, my thoughts aren’t coherent at all right now, with respect to Sushant and the effects of his passing.”
The topic has Sanjana tearing up, but she still manages to address it. “What happened with Sushant has certainly perpetuated a perspective that I already had. I do think we’re getting certain things wrong in general — as a society. For one, blind items bother me. And I am glad that people like Kriti (Sanon) are speaking about it; I know I will for sure. I don’t think it is something that deserves a green pass. You don’t get to protect your identity while you rip someone else to shreds. That’s just not how it should work. I get that we are the ones who create the illusion of stardom and we are the ones who create this feeling that stars are unnatural human beings, but people need to understand that actors are as human as any normal person. In fact, we are far more vulnerable and far more exposed. Because our job — which is acting — requires us to literally be emotionally naked; we have to strip ourselves of all and any inhibition. The sad thing is that through our work, we are giving millions of people so much love, then why can’t it just be that?”
A bit more love and kindness would be particularly welcome in these times and, hopefully, Sanjana will be a beneficiary of both. There may be a fault in her stars today, but her long term prospects are promising. Irrespective of the fate of this film, there is something undeniably compelling about Sanjana Sanghi. And it isn’t just her pretty face.
Stars in her eyes: Sanjana shares her story
From killing it at Kathak to being obsessed with Dil Chahta Hai, this young talent has quite a tale to tell
You were shy as a child?
I was the kid who used to cry before going to dance class or before a performance, but I am definitely not that person anymore!
Did you grow up with acting aspirations?
No. Acting happened by accident. I was pushed into auditioning for Rockstar while I was in school and landed the part. That said, I’ve always been a child of the performing arts, but I was always a dancer.
What kind of dance?
When I was six, I started learning contemporary jazz with Ashley Lobo’s The Danceworx. A few years later, I started Kathak.
You love dancing, but you also fear it. Don't you?
I had a horrible injury while performing on stage in school. When I think back to when my knee snapped, I can still remember that pain in my body. So, yes, there’s a constant fear. I can still dance, but not like I used to.
You've worked on a film that no one has seen...
Sadly, yes. Apart from Rockstar, Hindi Medium and Fukrey Returns, I acted in a film called Banana, directed by Imtiaz Ali’s younger brother Sajid and produced by John Abraham. I did it in the twelfth grade, while preparing for my board exams. My mum and my principal thought it was a good idea because they were worried I might over-study if I didn’t have anything else to do (laughs)! Unfortunately, the film was never released.
You studied journalism in college?
And I even worked 15-hour days as an apprentice with the BBC for a while!
But you were destined for films...
It’s possible (laughs). I even did my college thesis on Dil Chahta Hai and while I gave the idea academic validity, it did stem from my love for films! I may have got on to a set by accident, but once I was there, I loved it. The camera doesn’t intimidate me. A crew of 300 doesn’t intimidate me either. I love how performing makes me feel — the nerves and the adrenaline!
If you could star in another book adaptation, what would you choose?
The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Anuja Chauhan’s books are great too — Those Pricey Thakur Girls is an amazing, amazing story. I could definitely place myself in that world.
Is there a book that you've read over and over again?
Becoming by Michelle Obama. I adore her and everything she stands for. I treat this book like my bible!
Sanjana Sanghi on Sushant Singh Rajput: A friend to lean on
"I am still very raw. I look at my phone thinking he’s going to text me. We are dealing with the film every day, so I feel like he’s here. Dil Bechara has been the most shaping experience of my life so far, and Sushant was the biggest part of the film for me… We were very similar — this language of academia that appeals to me appealed to him. Our approach to the craft was very similar. I knew that I had found a partner for life. We had decided that every script I get, I would bounce off him. When you find someone like that, you know that’s something you want to hold on to."
Singularly focussed: Her path to success
I am all about doing what I know I want to do. So, when I know that this is my path, I just look at everything else as factors that exist, and I focus on how I can navigate them.I want to always be able to say no to certain things because they don’t align with my sensibilities.
Accepting nepotism:The empathy angle
I don’t consider nepotism a topic of debate really, because I think it’s a given. I have dealt with it in school and college. I have empathy for the challenges of people who benefit from it too.