SANDHYA MRIDUL IS full of stories. She’s got a story about how she made the move from a marketing job at KLM to acting in television shows; a story about entering Bollywood with Saathiya that features Yash Chopra; a story about a party and a haircut that led to her breakout role in independent cinema withWaisa Bhi Hota Hai Part II; and of course, a story about a train journey to Jaipur and a call from Nikkhil Advani that bagged her a role in one of Star Plus’—and Indian television’s—most ambitious shows, POW: Bandi Yuddh Ke, which hit airwaves recently.
In this TV magnum opus, an official adaptation of the Israeli series, Hatufim, that American TV series Homeland was adapted from, Mridul plays Nazneen Khan, the wife of Squadron Leader Imaan Khan, who comes back home after 18 years of captivity as a prisoner of war in Pakistan. For the role of the “fragile but internally strong” Nazneen, Mridul took inspiration from her mother. “I have always believed in the strength of a woman and over the years, I have realised strength has nothing to do with aggression,” she says. “Because I see my mother, who is 75 and a hero, man. She put her life back together after she got widowed so young and all she knew at that time was how to be a housewife. She’s the strongest, most resilient woman I’ve met and she doesn’t make a show of it. And that has carved out the way I have become,” she says.
She has channelled that inner strength into Nazneen, mother of two children on the show. And although she has to play Nazneen for 120-plus episodes, it doesn’t worry her as she’s now formed an emotional bond with the character. “Playing Nazneen has brought femininity to me and has made me feel more fragile than ever before. My only acting method is committing to a role. So I’m going through every emotion she can possibly have, and though it’s tiring, I love it.”
These stories she narrates at her favourite Versova haunt in Mumbai, Leaping Windows, have shaped her eclectic career so far. But one story is more important than the others for drawing her into the spotlight, where she belongs.
It happened when Mridul was, admittedly, “lost and messed up” for various reasons. She had long focused on non-mainstream cinema, but in the early-to-mid 2000s, there was little but serial kisser Emraan Hashmi, serial bhai Salman Khan and serial item numbers to go around. So there was rather limited place for the Manoj Bajpayees, Kay Kay Menons or Sandhya Mriduls of the industry. Five years ago, at another Andheri restaurant, Mridul was seated with a friend, when legends Waheeda Rahman, Helen and Nanda walked in together. She looked up to these actresses, and the former two were among her ‘heroes’. But now that they were seated close by, she couldn’t move.
“I felt so small in front of them,” she recalls, “They were two of the reasons I was there that day, and the reasons I was feeling like shit because I had wanted to be them and I had failed miserably [in doing that]. I felt like I was nothing.”
EVEN AS MRIDUL struggled to speak to them, they smiled and waved to her. Summoning every ounce of courage, she went up to them, and that conversation gave her life new meaning. “They got up and hugged me and said they were fond of me,” an emotional Mridul says. “Waheedaji blessed me and prayed that people would recognise how good I was. Helenji had seen me as a contestant in Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa and said, ‘Main tumhein khitaab deti hoon ki (I give you the title that) you are a brilliant dancer.’ And Nandaji mentioned that they all used to see and discuss my show Koshish: Ek Aashaa and felt I was all three of them combined.”
After that conversation, Mridul got into her car, called up her mother, and broke down. “I had started hating the industry and felt that the industry hated me back,” she says. “But that afternoon flipped it around. On that day, I promised not to walk all over myself again and not to blame anyone, including myself, for my choices. I said I’ll fight, I’ll make the most of the choices I have and I’ll keep going. Because what I got that day was bigger than any dream I had. I felt like Yuvraj (Singh), ki maine chhe chhakke maar diye hain, main nikal rahi hoon ab (I have hit six sixes, now I can leave).”
Playing Nazneen has made me feel more fragile than ever before. My only acting method is committing to a role. So I'm going through every emotion she can possibly have, and thought it's tiring, I love it
That incident boosted Mridul’s spirits. A star and a household name with Anurag Basu’s hit television show, Koshish: Ek Aashaa back in 2001, she had decided she couldn’t do repetitive work on television anymore. “I had done everything there was for a woman to do on TV, I had played every kind of bahu,” she says.
“Everyone was offering me only leads on television and I was turning them down because all the main leads were bahus,” says Sandhya Mridul, “I would have suffocated and died... It would have been death-by-television for me. I didn’t want fame, success or money, I wanted credibility.”
It was not a sudden change of heart that pushed her towards performance- oriented roles. The Mumbai-born, New Delhi-raised actor knew that was her calling all along. Even as a six year old, she would come back home from school, stand in her balcony and sing Lata Mangeshkar’s Yeh Zindagi Usi ki Hai and cry. Once when she was asked by her judge father’s friends if she wanted to grow up to be a lawyer, she recounts, she had responded, “No, I want to grow up and be Helen.”
“I only ever wanted to act,” she says with a smile. “I realised I didn’t fit in with the kind of films that were being made at that time, but I was optimistic and idealistic. Acting to me was as natural and as honest as eating maa ke haath ka aaloo ka parantha, or bathing with hot water on a cold night, or eating chocolate fudge from Nirula’s. It was the reason I existed.”
Shaad Ali’s Saathiya and Shashanka Ghosh’s Waisa Bhi Hota Hai Part II happened in quick succession after a rigorous and successful stint on television and her supporting act in Madhur Bhandarkar’s Page 3 got her critical appreciation and award-nominations, but post that, it was an upward climb for Mridul.
“After Page 3, I got offered a lot of commercial cinema as the ‘heroine’,” she says. “I was told, ‘Emraan Hashmi ke saath picture hai, chhe gaane hain, doh kiss hain, aap heroine hain (There’s a film with Emraan Hashmi that has six songs, two kisses and you are the heroine),’ and when I would ask about my character, I would be told, ‘How does that matter as long as are you are the heroine?’ And I wouldn’t know what to do. Every time an offer like this would come, I would get stressed because I would be shit broke and yet have to say ‘no’.”
So Mridul waited for good roles to pop up, even as she did every indie film that had anything to offer her in terms of acting, irrespective of the length of the role. From Say Salaam India (2007) to The Great Indian Butterfly (2010), Mridul was deemed by many as the ‘mascot of alternate cinema’. But that worked even less in her favour, as that cinema, as she says, “did not exist”.
“I became that person, the ‘gareeb picture ki actor’ (actor of no-budget films). It was written of me that I was arrogant as I would turn down roles. And then those indie film calls stopped coming too. There was a time when I had to sell my jewellery. But I stayed home and waited.”
In that period, Mridul started her own casting agency, Outcast, as a platform for other actors she admired, who struggled to find good work like her. But as the tide turned in the early part of this decade, and actors like Richa Chadda, Rajkummar Rao, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanjay Mishra came back in vogue, Mridul realised she must circle back to where she belongs because “I have too much acting left in me”.
It took her some ‘fundamental changes’ to get back here again. She became reclusive for a while, took to Iyengar Yoga, gave up smoking, focused on reforming her body and mind, and found herself turning into a calmer person. It was during this time that she got a call from Dilip Shankar, the casting director and associate director of Pan Nalin’s Angry Indian Goddesses . She took up that role instinctively, and the spectacular success of the film in the festival circuit (winning Runners’ Up in the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival last year) led to Nikkhil Advani’s POW: Bandi Yuddh Ke.
She gushes about Advani, and his passion to the project. And after a long time, as she has the freedom to play a character with depth, love and passion, she feels both vindicated and validated.
“There was this old interview of mine that I came across recently,” she says. “The journalist had asked me back then if I wanted to be a star. And I had responded, ‘No, I want to be an actor.’ I didn’t know the difference then. But today, all the pain of standing in the bylanes and waiting has paid off, and I feel hopeful, encouraged and victorious. Today, I know the difference and I feel so proud.”