Actors and actresses wait to play specially-abled characters to make it memorable. You play an autistic character named Jhilmil in Barfi!. Is it that film?
I don’t look at Barfi! from a great acting job point of view at all. I have always looked at myself as someone wanting to be an actor. I am not just a heroine. I am not just a glamorous face. And I have wanted to do that right from the beginning of my career. I have always taken parts which people would say unconventional.
Like Aitraaz. Everyone told me that you would be labelled as a vamp! But it won me all the awards that year. It was a big hit film. People loved it. When I did Fashion, everyone told me that people do heroine-oriented films at the end of their careers, nobody does it at the beginning. It will not even take an opening; why are you doing it? It was critically successful, commercially huge, I got a National Award for it. I was one of the youngest actors to get that. It was an amazing experience.
Even when I did 7 Khoon Maaf or What’s Your Raashee?, they have always been very different choices. I have mixed all of those films with Krrish, with Don, with Agneepath, with Dostana, with Bluffmaster!… the typical commercial films. So, I like doing everything. I want to be that person. And yes, some things I am great at and some things I am not. But if you don’t try, you would never know.
Where would you place Barfi! then?
It is one of the most difficult parts I have played. When you’ll see the film, you’ll realise. It’s not about going de-glam. I have done that many times. In Kaminey I wore no make-up. In Fashion there were more parts where I did no make-up. It’s not about that. It’s about becoming an autistic girl. People in India don’t even know what autism is. I didn’t know what autism is till I saw My Name is Khan, which was Asperger’s Syndrome. As in we knew about it but no one really knew what their world is like. So, when I started researching, it opened up new worlds for me.
When you’ll see Jhilmil, you’ll realise what autistic people think, what their minds are. Even though there’s a huge range of autistic patients. It can be very severe, it can have very minute symptoms. So we could do anything with it. What’s special about Barfi! is that it doesn’t show disability as a disability. It’s incidental. Jhilmil just happens to be autistic. She does battle her own battles but she creates this whole new world for herself and Barfi.
Did playing a character like Jhilmil bring about any change in your life?
Oh, it changed my life completely. It changed my perspective. It taught me that you don’t need too much to be happy. We complicate our lives ourselves. We confuse it. We stop trusting people. We become cynical. Because of the fast-paced nature of life. If we were somehow simpler, life would be really beautiful.
Why were both you and Anurag not sure of your ability to play Jhilmil?
More than me Anurag Sir wasn’t sure about me being able to do it (laughs). I think. When he came to me, he said: “Priyanka, I’ve come to you to narrate this film because I don’t know of any other actress who can even approach it. At least you can approach it; I don’t think anybody can do it. If you don’t do Jhilmil and we don’t get it right, this film will not get made.” That’s how important it was to get Jhilmil correct. Then he looked at me and he said: “You are so glamorous! How will you ever become this girl?” I said: “I don’t know; let’s embark on the journey and figure it out.”
So, what exactly happened in those three days of workshop?
It was not just three days. It was more than that. We did all our homework. We met autistic children. We spent the whole day… I just hung out with the kids all day. I met their teachers, I met their parents, saw videos, read books. We did a look test to see what Jhilmil should look like. There was no reference point.
But no one could have prepared for a role like this. When I walked on set and wore my hair, make-up and clothes, I was blank. I didn’t know what I should do. When the camera was on, I was scared; my hands were shaking. I didn’t know what to do. Anurag Sir and I talked about it, discussed it… Ranbir (Kapoor) was extremely supportive, he knew it was a very hard part for me. In three-four days, as soon as I stopped thinking what she should be, it happened!
And you were the only one talking between the two of you!
I was! But because I am autistic I speak differently. For me, I had to work on my voice… change my voice. I didn’t want anybody else dubbing for me. I never allow that. So I had to work on what I should sound like. I knew a bit of it while shooting the film anyway. But it was still an extremely focussed time spent on finding Jhilmil’s voice.
Are you worried that your last film with Ranbir, Anjaana Anjaani, didn’t work at the box office?
Anjaana Anjaani may not have been a blockbuster film but it recovered the money. It was a hit film; it wasn’t a super-duper 150 crore film but it did make money.
But it didn’t live up to expectations...
No, that it didn’t. Maybe the film wasn’t good... maybe people didn’t like the movie. But all I know is that if we are doing another film together, it must have been a jodi that was appreciated. Otherwise nobody would cast us. Also, I take a lot of pride in the fact that both Ranbir and I are looked upon as people who are considered to be people who take chances and who are expected to do more than just look great.
Working with him is amazing. I think he is one of the few actors we have today who are confident enough to lend their names to projects which are not so-called formula films. I remember when he did Rockstar — what kind of a film is this? But just like me, he also goes with his gut.
You are consciously trying to create this new entertainment brand called Priyanka Chopra, who like stars in the West, can act and sing and cut albums...
I am honestly doing what I just feel like but it’s turning into Brand PC. It’s not something had I aimed for. I have always been very eclectic in my mind. I get bored doing the same thing. I have attention problem. I need to keep myself occupied with a hundred things.
You know, when I was in school, I did every extra-curricular (activity) possible, except sports. Sports I didn’t like. It’s funny because I have always been associated with sports! I did ballet, I did drums, I did singing, I did theatre, I did everything. I want to be able to try everything and see what I am good at. And I think as a young person if you do not exploit your potential to the fullest, then it’s no fun in being young.
So, tell us about this single...
It’s so funny that it’s coincidentally coming on the same day as Barfi!. Can you imagine? The single’s called In My City and features will.i.am from The Black Eyed Peas. It is an English album but it will only come sometime next year. Because the way it works in America is you always have one single and then another single and then maybe the album. Depends on the label; how they want to do it. I’m not sure. The single has become the theme song for the NFL (National Football League) this year and it will be the theme song for two months.
Will there be a video?
There will be two videos. One is the official NFL video which will be just one-and-a-half minutes, which will be played during the Thursday night kick-off. And then the official video will be the whole song, which is about four minutes. That I am going to shoot once Barfi! releases. It’s a really exciting time. I wanted India to hear the single first; so a few hours before it’s played in America, I’ll be launching it here and Universal will be distributing a single CD.
Feels strange talking about your singing?
(Laughs out loud) I know, right! I have not come to terms with it. I don’t understand it. I am very nervous about all of you guys hearing it. I have never sung professionally except once on the Temptations tour. It’s all so new... it’s very scary actually!
What next? A Bollywood musical where you sing all the songs?
You never know! Filmmakers have wanted to do that over the years. I didn’t want to. I wanted the album to come out first. Vishal-Shekhar and Salim-Sulaiman have always wanted me to sing for them. So a movie song may happen soon.
They are calling you “the established newcomer”. How does that sound to you?
I am actually getting used to it now, given that everybody is now introducing me as “the established newcomer”. I mean, yeah, I am a new face for a lot of people in Bollywood. For me it is another film yes but also a big challenge that I am taking up.
Explain this contradiction — you walked into Anurag Basu’s office to bag the role of Shruti and then you took the longest time to say ‘yes’ to the offer...
(Laughs out loud) The thing is I heard that he was trying to get in touch with me. Which is why I met him. We had a casual meeting in a coffee shop. And he was like: “Can you come over to my office tomorrow? We’ll talk about the film.” I said: “Sure! I am in town; we can definitely meet up!” So, I went over to his office the next day and he told me the story of Barfi!. And then he takes out a handycam. I thought it was a screen test. And I was like ewww... a screen test!
A screentest after what, 20 films (down south)?
Exactly! It sounded very odd. But he was very honest. He said, I haven’t watched any of your films. And he said, we are just going to have a conversation. And we had a really intense conversation which spanned so many things and at the end of it he switched his camera off and said: “I have found my Shruti! And now you need to decide whether you want to do the film or not because I can see a lot of confusion on your face.” He was right! Because I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. It was a beautiful film yes but the role was so unlike what I had expected it to be in my first Bollywood film.
So what was your dream Bollywood debut role? Dancing in Switzerland with Shah Rukh Khan?
(Smiles gleefully) Oh lovely! Who wouldn’t want that? But I really think any actress who wants to debut in Bollywood wants to do something which will instantly catch everybody’s eye. Maybe, you know, play a bubbly college-going girl... a really exuberant character with lots of dancing and lots of powerful dialogues. Basically to catch attention. Everyone wants that attention.
Now, doing a role like this which did not require me to speak all that much, which did not require me to throw in a lot of antics, to dance at all or even lipsync any song... it was something unbelievable! Plus there wasn’t any sort of glamorous costume. So it wasn’t like those eyecandy images happening in the film. These are the kind of crutches you like to lean on to when you want to get noticed. I guess that was the biggest risk anyway. Plus pulling off a character like Shruti... she is such a dignified character, there is always so much grace about her even under pressure. She is vulnerable, she is helpless, she is innocent and at the same time she is very strong. And playing a Bengali on top of that, being so Westernised myself. I wasn’t really sure... I wasn’t really sure I would be able to pull it off.
So what made you say yes in the end?
Anurag had given me a little script. After three or four meetings, he finally gave me this little 20-pager thing. Each scene was written in three or four lines. He told me, go home and read it and try and understand it and if you don’t, it’s fine. I went back and I read it once, twice, thrice.... And the third time I read it, I actually stopped looking at it like a film with Ranbir Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra. It felt like they were characters who existed. It felt so real, so believable... it had this beautiful warm feeling about it, I suddenly wanted to be a part of it. I felt that this was a film where I could be noticed without all those extra frills added to it. Basically sense got knocked into me and I said “Yeah!”
And now Barfi! is really not just a Ranbir-Priyanka film. After all those trailers have been aired, it’s very much a Ranbir-Priyanka-Ileana film.
Thank you. The credit for that should go entirely to Anurag. I just followed him blindly. I put my trust and faith in him completely. I told him, you just guide me and I’ll be your Shruti. And good that I did that. Because the man really knows what he’s doing. He’s come up with such a beautiful film. I watched it just yesterday (Saturday) and I was overwhelmed. And it’s not just because it’s my film. Priyanka and Ranbir are fabulous in the film. The way Anurag has created this bond among the three characters, it doesn’t need anything else. That’s the beauty of his direction.
Did you do any homework or research to become a Bengali?
I didn’t. Honestly. I thought about it. I even asked Anurag if I needed to take reference from someone. He said no because Shruti is a very sheltered and protected girl and we went with it in our own way. We found her over time. We just talked it out every single day on the sets.
And Anurag styled your ’70s look on his mother...
Oh yes! I didn’t know it then. He hadn’t told me that he was making me look like his mother. We wanted to keep it very simple, very real. My favourite look for Shruti was after she gets married... those cotton saris... woohoo! I mean it’s so much easier to wear figure-hugging georgette saris that make you look nice and sexy but there’s such an innate sexiness in these cotton saris! And you have the shankha-pola with them. I think it’s such a beautiful touch.
All this must be lightyears away from your superglam avatar down south...
Unbelievably! Unbelievably! Which is why I didn’t say ‘yes’ initially. I couldn’t visualise myself. He could. And I kept asking him that. How could you just sign me to play this character which is not me at all? And till date he keeps saying: “It’s a gut feeling!”
When someone is as successful as you are in the Telugu film industry, why is there a temptation to conquer Bollywood?
I didn’t have a plan to get into films in the first place. And when south films did happen, it was a very comfortable spot to be in. It was a very tough journey getting there, that first film. But when the first film did extremely well, everything sort of vanished. The second film (Pokhiri) did even better and was remade into Hindi as Wanted. I was like wow! I was in a very comfortable spot but I did not enjoy my work. It felt like a chore to me. It took me about seven films for me to really start enjoying my work. I started taking it seriously. I started to respect it, get a kick out of it. Getting to play somebody out of character every single day... how liberating is that! And again there was no conscious plan to come to Bollywood. I thought if I do get a good film, why not? Barfi! was a ‘should I do it or should I not’ exercise and now it’s my first Hindi film.
What now? More Bolly films?
Hopefully! I have been getting quite a few offers but nothing has been confirmed on paper yet. I live in Goa but I am moving to Mumbai very soon.
Bye-bye south films?
No, I plan to balance them, if I can. It’s definitely not going to be a case of not doing anymore south films at all. But you don’t really know what’s going to happen. Do you?