Tina Desai — not Desae any more — has crafted an exciting journey from the pages of the Kingfisher calendar to the cast list of some big-ticket Hollywood films. The 27-year-old Bangalore stunner may not have made a mark in Bollywood yet, but she has bagged some big — make that huge — projects in the West. In February, Tina will return as Sunaina in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the sequel to the 2012 sleeper hit The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. And who will she have for company? Richard Gere, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. Later this year, Tina will be seen in Sense8, a sci-fi TV series directed by The Matrix makers The Wachowskis. This week, however, Tina is on the Bolly screen with Sharafat Gayi Tel Lene, co-starring Zayed Khan and Rannvijay Singha. A t2 chat.
A Bolly film after a long time.... What do you play in Sharafat Gayi Tel Lene?
My character’s name is Megha and I do what you do… I am a journalist. She’s very strong-minded and conscientious and always wants to do the right thing. She doesn’t believe in shortcuts. She wants to be this typical Indian woman who stands by her man and is understanding and supportive, but because of circumstances, she turns into this controlling and nagging girlfriend (of Zayed Khan’s character Prithvi) and she starts questioning every move of his. Typical Bolly heroines have to be ever smiling, affable and cute, but what I like is that I got to be the grouch! I loved whining and cribbing and complaining throughout! (Laughs) But then again, she’s not such a bad girl, too....
You played a grey character in your last Bolly film, Table No 21. Do you gravitate towards such roles naturally?
I think so. Based on my face, most people think I am this sweet sort of girl. I detest that because though I am polite and good-natured, I don’t want to give the impression that I am this person that anyone can walk over. So, naturally, I gravitate towards characters that are a little grey, but at the end of the day, what I look for the most is a well-defined character. Someone who’s got more than what’s required of a typical Bolly heroine is what I look for.
Is it paucity of time because of your projects in the West or lack of good offers here that has kept you away from Bollywood?
A mix of both. Yes, when I get the regular romantic heroine, I hesitate. For me, I need a film where the script makes sense and where my character significantly contributes to the drama. But I did get to do an interesting film called Dussehra in which I played a cop. All of 2013 went in me doing projects in the West, all of which will release now. So yes, I have been keeping busy.
Does so much of your focus on Western projects act as a deterrent for Bolly filmmakers approaching you with a film?
(Pauses) That’s something I am willing to deal with, because, touchwood, I consider myself very lucky that I can dabble in both industries. When I work in India, I am definitely more comfortable because the sensibilities match. We have all grown up watching Bollywood films. But when I work in the West, everything is very different — their lines, their themes, their characters…. So, I like doing projects there because it keeps me on my toes and challenges me every time and then again, I am very open to doing films here which I understand completely and whose themes and characters are so identifiable to me. I want to be able to work in both industries because that puts me in a unique position of being able to choose. It’s almost the perfect life!
On the Holly front, with big projects like The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Sense8, most people would kill to be where you are!
(Laughs out loud) Touchwood, touchwood, touchwood! See, I am playing an Indian in all these projects, but the best thing is that they are central characters that are integral to the narrative. I feel that I needed to establish myself as an Indian character first and then try and see if I could play other nationalities too. The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is an even bigger deal than the first film for me because in this film, Dev (Patel) and I are getting married and the whole gang comes back to India for our big, fat Indian wedding. I have an even more central part in this one with a lot many layers.
And the best thing is… I get to dance! (Laughs) It’s such a kick for me that my first dance in a film is in a Holly project and not in a Bolly film! (Laughs) I enjoyed myself… I loved doing the dance sequences, apart from the dramatic scenes.
The film has come out well… it’s a genuine sequel that takes forward the story of the oldies. The second film is frothier and livelier and is a genuine representation of Indian culture because the foreign cast and crew really started considering India as their own. In Part I, I was the local guide telling them where to eat and what to shop, but by the time we shot the second film, they were the ones who were telling me what to do! (Laughs) They genuinely love India… otherwise it wouldn’t have been possible for them to leave home for so long and travel all the way to India. They stayed back without going home in between and the fun we all had — Judi (Dench), Maggie (Smith), Bill (Nighy) and the rest — just shows in the film.
And did the addition of Richard Gere to this film make it all the more exciting?
(Laughs) Of course! We are all huge Pretty Woman and Runaway Bride fans, but more than me, my family was over the moon. The guy is extremely relaxed, not at all aware of his status. You can have a conversation with him on just about everything under the sun and every time he and I would have a chat, there would be a little voice at the back of my mind, saying: ‘Do you realise you are talking to the Richard Gere?’ But the conversation would be so casual, that I wouldn’t ever feel I was talking to someone of his stature.
And that’s true of all these people… Judi… Maggie…. My respect for them went up several notches after seeing how unaware they are of their status and stardom. The length and breadth of their knowledge — because they travel so much — is astounding. They can talk on everything — from food to architecture to history to life experiences. They are very intelligent people. Their world is a lot more than just films.
Working with The Matrix makers The Wachowskis on the TV series Sense8 must have been another major high…
It was! Sense8 is a project that’s very difficult to define. Imagine if I tried explaining The Matrix to you… it would take me an hour! Sense8 is about eight people from different parts of the world who are dealing with their own personal issues and one day, they realise that they are all ‘sensates’ — that is, they are all linked mentally. Even as they find that out, they realise that their souls are being hunted. It’s a sci-fi thriller drama shot in nine cities — from Mexico City to San Francisco, London to Chicago, Nairobi to Mumbai and also Seoul. It’s been shot on all live locations. It’s a very elaborate set-up and a very interesting and crazy story, like you would expect from The Wachowskis. I can’t wait for you guys to watch it because I don’t know how to describe it!
Every moment spent on the set of Sense8, being directed by The Wachowskis, would be about pinching myself. I grew up wanting to be a Bollywood actress and fate has brought me to a position where I am actually doing such major Holly work. If I get to work in a Yash Raj film today, it’s something I had always hoped for. But the work I am doing now, as an actress in the West, is not something that I had ever hoped for! When I tell people I am working with The Matrix makers, I almost feel like it’s someone else talking… it’s so unbelievable.
Finally, you’ve gone back to being Tina Desai from Tena Desae…
Yes, I have and the funniest thing is that after I have gone back to the easier spelling, the confusion about my spelling is even more! (Laughs) My mum had changed it, but at one point, I thought, ‘I don’t like the way I spell my name and I want to go back to what it was’, and that’s what I did. Now when I see ‘Tina Desai’ on my film posters, I finally feel it’s me! (Laughs)
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