Bhumi Pednekar: The Accidental Actor

Priyanka Pereira is a Mumbai-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Open magazine
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Bhumi Pednekar is still discovering herself

THE CORRIDORS OF Yash Raj Films have witnessed the creation of many a star over the decades. The place exudes a sense of competition and contentment. The same energy is evident in one of the studio’s recent protégés, Bhumi Pednekar, 28, who made a name for herself in her charming debut film Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015) as an overweight bride.

Just one film old, and two films ready for release, Pednekar is raring to go. While most actors complain about the promotions of a film, she seems to be revelling in it. “When I imagined I would be an actor, I imagined all this. I imagined walking the red carpet at Filmfare [Awards]. I imagined doing interviews, stage shows, promotions, interacting with audiences. In fact, I have been preparing for this for years now.”

Pednekar has toiled her way into the industry. By any standard, she had the most extraordinary debut. She played the role of a female protagonist who weighed around 100 kg in her debut film. Where most heroines try to look their best in their debut, Pednekar chose the route less travelled. “I was so happy to have got a film. I just went with the flow,” she says.

She talks about her new release Toilet: Ek Prem Katha and upcoming Shubh Mangal Saavdhan with similar fervour. She wants you to like the film and she wants you to like her in it. “This is my relaunch,” she proudly states. “In Dum Laga Ke Haisha people saw me as this overweight girl. But in this film, they will see me the way I am. This is what I am going to be for the rest of my life,” she says. She stars with Akshay Kumar in the Neeraj Pandey-directed venture Toilet, which deals with the topical subject of sanitation and the importance of having a water-closet in the house. The trailer of Shubh Mangal Saavdhan with Ayushmann Khurrana has already garnered interest as it addresses the common but unspoken problem of erectile dysfunction.

Pednekar knew early in life that she wanted to be an actor. “I was absolutely clueless about how I was going to achieve this dream, but I was very sure that this is my end goal.” Rangeela was the first movie she watched in a theatre. It mesmerised her and she wanted to be a part of the movies more than ever. As a teenager, films like Ab Tak Chappan and Rang De Basanti motivated her further.

However, hailing from a family of academically inclined individuals, Pednekar’s father wanted her to join the Indian Foreign Services. They were not easily convinced about her career choice. “I come from a lovely, socially and politically aware family. The discussions at the breakfast table were on world economics and politics. So when you come from a family like that, obviously, acting as a profession is going to be a shocker for my parents.”

When I imagined I would be an actor, I imagined all this: walking the red carpet, interviews, stage shows, interacting with audiences. I have been preparing for this for years now

When she was 16, her family planned to send her to England for higher studies. In order to escape that, she chose to join Whistling Woods International, a film school in Mumbai. However, due to lack of attendance, she had to leave.

Pednekar now had two choices—to either listen to her parents and be sent abroad for further studies, or take up a job here. A friend told her that Yash Raj Films was looking for assistant casting directors. “I was only 17 then and decided to apply for the job. Abhimanyu Ray was the casting director then at Yash Raj. After a week of waiting, I was hired as an assistant to Abhimanyu,” she recalls. Back then, Pednekar had no idea what she had actually been hired to do. She did all her learning on the job. “I started doing creatives for Y Films and did cast for a few films.” During that time, casting director Shanoo Sharma took her under her wing and she did secondary casting for films at the studio. Pednekar recalls, “I have done around 14- 15 films as a secondary casting director. In fact, Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year [2009] was my first film here.”

Yash Raj Films became a film school for Pednekar. She used to audition around 150 people a day from whom she learnt a lot. “I used to queue them continuously one after another and I got to see actors of different calibre. There were things I learnt not to do as an actor from them too. Also, while auditioning others, I would subconsciously audition myself. I credit a lot of my craft to being a casting person,” she says.

But Shanoo Sharma proved to be her mentor. “She was the one who recognised that I wanted to be an actor. She could figure all that was going on in my subconscious. She even pulled me aside one day and told me that I had it in me to become an actor and I was just wasting my time here doing casting,” she says.

Sharma told her that she wanted her to audition for Dum Laga Ke Haisha. Pednekar was surprised. She had read the script already since she was auditioning others for the same role. The character, she knew only too well, had to be overweight. “I was told that the suggestion came from Maneesh [Sharma] and Adi sir [Aditya Chopra]. However, there was another hurdle to be crossed. The director of the film, Sharat Katariya, was just not convinced.”

Katariya was certain that a young Bhumi Pednekar, born and bred in Mumbai, could not pull off the role of a small- town girl. Pednekar then went through several rounds of auditions, before she convinced Katariya and bagged the role. Her next challenge was to put on weight while also making sure that no one knew that she had signed the film on. “It was so difficult because when I started putting on weight, people thought I was going through a difficult phase in my life. Everyone gave me all kinds of unsolicited advice and it was extremely difficult for me to explain to them what was actually happening with me.”

Dum Laga Ke Haisha did extremely well at the box office. She was lauded for her acting talent, and that’s what mattered most to her. Pednekar is still clueless about the ‘method’ that goes into acting. “I just leave myself in the director’s hand,” she says. But with each film, she is discovering a new side to herself. “With Toilet, I realised I could play a character who is strong-headed and opinionated. With Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, I have discovered that I have a comic bone too.”