Sushant Singh Rajput's Dil Bechara co-star Sanjana Sanghi made her big Bollywood debut albeit in the most unfortunate circumstances after Rajput's unexpected death in June.
"It is too disorienting" (without the leading hero around), says Sanghi, who plays a young woman suffering from thyroid cancer in the film (released on Disney+ Hotstar on 24 July), an adaptation of John Green's 2012 book, The Fault In Our Stars. And when she meets fellow cancer survivor Immanuel Rajkumar Junior (Rajput), the two embark on an epic romance.
Being on set was a sort of getaway in an otherwise studious life of Sanghi, who began stage performances when she was merely six. She went on to do Imtiaz Ali's Rockstar as a teenager, followed up with smaller roles in Irrfan Khan's Hindi Medium and Fukrey Returns.
Sanjana Sanghi as Kizzie Basu with Sushant Singh Rajput's Manny | Image from Twitter
Excerpts from the chat with the actress below.
It must be a strange feeling talking about your debut film without your co-star around and the moment steeped in tragedy. And that, too, in the midst of a pandemic. How did you cope with all this? You must have had many plans for your debut film?
It is too disorienting because the world around you has changed. I mean the way the country looks at me has changed, but my physical world remains the same because you are locked down at home. Sushant and I always envisioned going from city to city dancing to 'Taare Ginn'. When we would listen to (A R) Rahman sir's tracks we would get too excited to perform them in front of huge crowds. I love crowds, I love interacting with large public gatherings, and that is something I have always enjoyed. So the fact that I couldn't experience all of that is really breaking my heart but the last few months have made me a lot stronger and a lot more resilient.
What was the last interaction between you and Sushant?
The production team had told us about the OTT move because we were soon into the pandemic and theatres weren't opening for a while. We got to know about the OTT move back in early May itself and when that happened all of us as a team, Mukesh (Chhabra, director), me, and Sushant were so excited because we just wanted the film to finally be out for people to see. We were all discussing how we should do e-promotions, how we should get it out to the people and all of those talks we were having.
There are many theories doing the rounds since Rajput's passing. As a co-actor, who worked closely with him, did you ever feel that something was amiss?
So many people have asked me this question and there is no answer to it. I say this because if I had a precedent to Sushant before Dil Bechara, if I knew who he was prior to the film, then I could have compared how he was then to when we met. I only met him during the production of Dil Bechara, and the person I met was so committed, so passionate. You don't go thinking, 'Oh, something is wrong', because both of you are telling an amazing story and all that is going well so there is no reason for your mind to deviate. One is always chatting about the character, the script, the story; it is not like I would sit and talk to him about anything personal. The set doesn't allow that kind of thought process to come in.
The Fault In Our Stars resonates with teenagers, what was your reaction when it was offered to you?
It was a 'yes' instantly because I was a teenager when The Fault In Our Stars came out and I was one of those fanatics of the book. When Mukesh first gave me the script and asked me to read it, and realising that it is going to be his directorial debut, it was a big thing. And if he wanted me to do something I would give it special importance anyway. Then the fact that it was an official adaptation, I read the script in one sitting in his office and was crying through and through. So that was a no brainer, there was no doubt in my mind that I will be doing it. It was such a beautifully written character. Kizzie is one of the most special characters written for a woman in films in a long time. Now that I have played her and I read more scripts I see that, that kind of nuance and depth is always there for me to play.
A still from Dil Bechara | Image from Twitter
While Kizzie is a mellow character, Manny is a flashy one. How was it prepping for the role?
Immanuel and Kizzie are as poles apart as can be, those distinct energies to come together we both really needed to be very true to our zones. I couldn't afford to get charismatic and bubbly as Kizzie and he couldn't afford to get as mellow and as reserved as her. I honestly had a longer prep process because as a debutante you have the luxury of putting in more months into prep. But there were many hard facts what we call in theatre training as a character. The fact that she has an illness, the fact that her body language cannot be of a regular 18-year-old girl because her breath starts wearing out.
I spent a lot of time at the Indian Cancer Society with actual young cancer survivors and understood them emotionally, psychologically. Many of them are my friends now and we even did a virtual launch party together. I wanted to not make the illness her defining factor. I didn't want you to first see an unwell girl. I wanted you to first see a girl who is so full of life and so full of hope but is forced to grow beyond her years. She is forced to face death at such a young age. I had put in six to seven months and I also learnt Bengali fully and not just learnt the dialogues by rote, so that I could improvise with Swastika (Mukherjee) and Saswata (Chatterjee) [her screen parents].
You and Sushant seemed to have things in common with both of you academically inclined, well-read, nerdy, isn't it?
Everyone keeps asking how did you guys break the ice, but there was no ice to be broken because the perspective just aligned so much that both of us would treat that script like a textbook. Both of us would approach the script in a structured and in a similar way. If I had a question about Manny, he would answer it in a way that I could understand because I would approach Kizzie in the same way and because of that it was always a level playing field. He was doing his thing and I was doing mine and we respected that about each other. We never once tried to get into each other's artistic space.
You are a gold medallist from Delhi University, a student of journalism. How did you maintain a balance between academia and acting?
Growing up my interests have been a mix of academia and performing arts. When Rockstar happened I was in the ninth grade and since then I have been doing ads and smaller parts in films along with studying and debating. When my 12th Board exams were approaching, for those four months my life was only about that. Then, for two years my life was only about Kizzie Basu. For a certain period of time I just make certain things my sole focus. Sushant used to love that. It used to excite him so much that there is this Delhi University topper who is leading this film, and she also does humanitarian work. He used to find all this very interesting which is why we used to discuss so many collective plans and things one could do. Finding someone who gel like that is so rare.
I remember, I got the news of getting a gold medal while I was with Mukesh and Sushant in a reading. I can never forget the absolute joy and excitement on both their faces. Mukesh knew that I was a nerd but this was just the third time Sushant and I were meeting. He didn't really know me at that time and just the fact that these things used to happen, Sushant would generously celebrate my victories. He used to have that childlike excitement most of the time.
What is the best compliment you received for your performance in Dil Bechara?
The best is when the adjectives used are so rare that you have to look up a dictionary though I boast of having a pretty good vocabulary. But when I read such poignant notes that we found the new female actor we have been waiting for, that is really heart-warming. But for me I know that when Imtiaz (Ali) called me after the trailer. He has been my first director and what he says means a lot to me. He told me that he had to watch the trailer three times to realise that my character had an oxygen pipe. He said his attention didn't go to 'pushpinder' or the pipe, or that I had cancer in the film and that meant a lot to me because I actually put in a lot of work to make that illness invisible.
What are your career plans? How do you go about establishing yourself in the industry?
We stopped shooting over a year ago and I realised that the word, 'Sanjana has done well..' that word goes around pretty fast. So, soon after I wrapped shooting last year, I read many scripts. Some I have liked, some I am excited about but then four to five months back when the pandemic hit and the entire industry went into a tailspin we just don't know what kind of stories we will be able to tell once things come back to normal. But my filter is very simple. My next character has to be very different from Kizzie and it has to be a greater challenge. Kizzie was an enormous challenge to portray and whatever I do next has to challenge me more so that I am more excited. And I don't see myself being able to do too many films because I like to put in a couple of months into prep. I rather give one film instead of strewn and stripped across multiple characters and do a half-hearted job.