Mixing it up at the movies
The first time I spoke to Sonakshi Sinha was in the autumn of 2010, two weeks before her big-ticket debut Dabangg, co-starring Salman Khan, no less, hit theatres. Being the daughter of actor Shatrughan Sinha, Sonakshi, of course, was no stranger to the arc lights, but she did come across as someone who had her feet firmly on the ground.
Dabangg, a desi take on the spaghetti Western with Salman owning the screen as the irreverent cop Chulbul Pandey, was a humongous hit, and Sonakshi — who also made an impression on debut, with her dialogue, “Thappad se darr nahin lagta saab, pyaar se lagta hain” making it to many a memorable lines list — had well and truly arrived.
Over the next few years, Sonakshi starred in blockbusters, ensemble films and has also left a mark in many films frontlined by her. The 32-year-old actress completes 10 years in the movie business this year, which will also see her debut in the web space.
In the middle of the lockdown on a lazy weekday evening, The Telegraph chatted with Sonakshi on the decade gone by, what works for the choices she makes and why she doesn’t expect awards any more.
It’s almost a decade for you in the business... Dabangg released in September 2010...
It just feels like yesterday, I really don’t know where all the time went! But we are not taking 2020 into account, okay? We are cancelling it.... so it’s actually only been nine years! (Laughs) I will celebrate 10 years in 2021 now... 2020 has been cancelled for me!
Do you remember your first day of shoot?
Oh, I do! It seems like a dream right now, it’s so surreal to even think about it. I was so new and had no intention of becoming an actor. But then Salman (Khan) and Arbaaz (Khan) and my family kept telling me that this is what I should be doing in life. And I was like, ‘Okay, I will go with it”. And when I finally reached the set and walked in front of the camera, I was like, ‘Wow! I like this, I love this! I want to do this!’ (Laughs)
My first day involved a very heavy emotional scene where I was supposed to be crying. I just walked in feeling so unprepared, but when the camera started rolling, things just changed for me. And that’s what happens with me even today... till the camera starts rolling, I can’t act.
You’ve mixed things up over the last year, with big-budget outings like Kalank, money-spinners like Mission Mangal and Dabangg 3 and then frontlining a film like Khandaani Shafakhana. How do you look back and do you have a formula to pick your films?
I don’t strategise really.... there’s not much thought that goes into choosing a film. Honestly, when I feel that I can play a role really well, that’s when I go and do it. All these choices have involved me imagining myself in the role and asking myself the question that would I want to watch this film in the theatre. So I think a lot like the audience.
Over the last couple of years, you’ve made the shift to being the face of some films, like Akira, Noor, Happy Phirr Bhaag Jayegi, to name a few. What’s propelled that choice?
I feel very fortunate that I was given these opportunities. The fact that producers and directors felt that they could mount an entire film on my name. It’s a huge compliment. For me, each of these were also lovely roles... I wouldn’t change anything if I had to, at all. These were all fulfilling roles and I had a blast doing every one of these films. Whatever they did at the box office was the fate of the film but I know that I put in a 100 per cent. My work was never trashed... it was always appreciated and for me, that’s the biggest compliment. I am going to continue doing the parts that challenge me as an actor.
How do you handle failure and has that process evolved from when you started out to now?
I think I just handle it by not thinking too much about it. Failure is a part of everyone’s life and my parents have always taught me that failure teaches a person more than success. By the time a film does well or doesn’t, one has already moved on to working on the next film. You put your energy into that, you put your positivity into that... I don’t dwell on failure at all.
Do you have a process?
My process is that I have no process! (Laughs) I really believe in being spontaneous because I believe that what comes out of you in the moment is what is usually the best kind of work, the most natural work.
You are the only actress to deliver box office worth Rs 1,500 crore in the 10 years that you have been in the business. Do numbers matter to you?
Is there even a Rs 1,500-crore club?! (Laughs) But yes, I am glad to have been part of films that have been big box-office successes. I have also done a lot of work in the last 10 years. I have worked continuously. It’s what I love to do, so it never really felt like work. The pace at which I work, the films that I have done... these are all the things that have worked to bring about this achievement. But I would be happier if the 1,500 crore was in my pocket! (Laughs out loud)
Do you think you have got your due as far as awards and recognition are concerned? Lootera was definitely a performance of yours that deserved to be feted much more...
Honestly, that was the first and last time when I felt bad when a film of mine was snubbed so badly at the award shows. More than for me, I felt that Lootera (directed by Vikramaditya Motwane and co-starring Ranveer Singh) was a brilliantly directed film and every technician had done work par excellence, whether it was cinematography, art design, sound design, costume, music... oh my god, Amit Trivedi! That soundtrack was gold! Even the actors were all so good. So I really felt bad for that one film and when it didn’t happen, I was like, ‘You know what? Bunk it! Just keep doing good work. These things are secondary’. Honestly, even otherwise, that’s not something I work for, right from the start. Most of the biggest stars in the industry don’t have very many awards to boast of. They let their work speak for themselves and that’s how I want to work as well.
What’s life in lockdown been like?
I think every day is different ya, and you don’t really know what the next day will be like. One can’t go out, so options to keep oneself entertained and engaged are anyway very limited. Honestly, there are different ways to look at it. For those who work non-stop, it’s a break of sorts. I am looking at it as a period of winding down, the time to take a breather. I am not really following a particular routine... I wake up when I feel like, I sleep when I feel like... I have been catching up on all the movies and shows I have missed out on. I have started sketching again, which is amazing. It really takes a lot off my mind and given the situation we are in, it just calms me down. I play with my dog, I am spending time with the family. Trying to stay positive at this time is very, very important. I am just doing that.
I’ve been catching up on films. I missed out on Tanhaji (starring Ajay Devgn), which I watched and really liked. I have also been rewatching old films like Blood Diamond and A Beautiful Mind. Then I watched this really amazing film called Saving Mr Banks, starring Tom Hanks. I also watched Sully. I finally watched Parasite... I really liked it! I thought all the hype was worth it. Pretty good film!
Have you acquired any new skills? A lot of people have taken to cooking and baking in a big way...
(Sighs) I try ya... but! (Laughs) I am just not interested in cooking, at all! (Laughs) And it’s traumatic for my mother (Poonam Sinha) because she’s such a good cook. She’s been trying to get me to cook for the longest possible time, but I just don’t take to it for some strange reason.
You posted a picture on Instagram of going out to the driveway and sitting in the back seat of your car, just for the feel of it. What are the things you miss doing the most in this period?
Honestly, when I am not working, my life is in a sort of quarantine only (laughs). I like being at home, I like to vegetate when I am not working (laughs). So my life is pretty much like this. But, of course, I like to have the choice to go out (laughs), whether I want to or not is up to me. But right now, with no choice, I am really missing my friends and hanging out with them.
You’ve just ventured into the digital space and were shooting for a web series called Fallen before the lockdown happened. What’s that experience been like?
I am really happy I ventured into this because just look at how big the digital space is, now more than ever. We had to leave our shoot midway because of the lockdown and I was actually thinking that if we had wrapped it, the show could have well released now when people are sitting at home! (Laughs) It’s a wonderful role and I can’t wait to get back to it.
There are a lot of restrictions when it comes to making movies for theatrical release, like the language you can use, the scenes you can show, the disclaimers for smoking and alcohol, which are sometimes a bit of a bother for filmmakers. These are not the things they want to stress about while making something that they feel is art. So, the web does come with that kind of freedom.
You are a multi-hyphenate talent. Does singing, that you did a bit of initially, figure somewhere on the list?
I should hope so. I have recorded four-five numbers and they are ready with my friend Vishal Mishra, who is a music composer. But we haven’t got down to shooting the music videos or mastering the songs, but it’s there... it’s been on my mind for a while, so I will go back to it at some point.
You were one of the early ones to make social media fun at a time when most of your colleagues were only just discovering it. How do you view social media today?
It’s been a boon and a bane (laughs). For me, it’s primarily a direct connect with people who like my work and who like me. But I also don’t like the fact that everybody has an opinion on everything. A celebrity just has to post a full stop and 50,000 comments will come for that full stop (laughs).
Ten years in the business, if we ask you to prepare a showreel of three performances which are closest to your heart, which would they be?
Lootera, for sure. The film is poetry in motion. It’s a film of mine that I can watch and I don’t see myself... I see Paakhi. I can watch it over and over again. Dabangg will always be special because it was my first film. Akira, because it was my first solo lead film and I loved doing action, I really enjoyed it and I want to do more.
8 Sonakshi acts that pack a punch
1. Dabangg (2010): Few debutants come with the poise and presence that Sonakshi did in her first film. And what an entry it was... a potential big-budget blockbuster with the biggest among the superstars, Salman Khan, opposite her. Sonakshi, whose eyes — and not just in Tere mast mast do nain — did much of the talking as Rajjo, aced the part of a village belle. She never seemed out of depth, whether it was the romantic scenes with a much older Salman or when she looked him squarely in the eye and went, “Thappad se darr nahin lagta saab... pyaar se lagta hai”. Dabangg turned out to be a Rs 200-crore-plus hit and Sonakshi entered the industry with a bang.
2. Rowdy Rathore (2012): Her next big film came two years later, opposite Akshay Kumar who had just started delivering his string of blockbusters. The Prabhudheva-directed masala caper was a remake that was criticised for its misogyny and its treatment of women, a lot of which involved and was directed at Sonakshi’s character Paro. But there’s no denying the fact that it was Sonakshi’s matured approach that made even the cringeworthy parts mostly palatable. Few others could have brought so much pizzaz to a song like Dhadang dhang dhang.
3. Lootera (2013): Her best performance yet was in this Vikramaditya Motwane-directed film, a poignant tribute to O. Henry’s The Last Leaf, but set firmly in the Indian ethos. As the innocent but spunky Paakhi — a young, privileged woman in 1950s Bengal who yearns to be loved — Sonakshi was a revelation. Her eyes mirrored her thoughts succinctly, her body language was spot-on and as Paakhi made the journey from a woman falling in love to one increasingly losing her battle with a terminal illness, we in the audience travelled with her. Lootera may not have been a box-office winner, but is today regarded as one of the best films of the decade gone by.
4. Akira (2016): She went boom-bang-whack-thwack... and looked totally convincing. Sonakshi led from the front in this A. Murugadoss action film, with Anurag Kashyap as her nemesis, effortlessly pulling off a role that demanded both physical agility and emotional depth. As Akira, she was a one-woman powerhouse, reaffirming the fact that she could not only shoulder an entire film, but also manage to keep the viewer engaged for the most part. “I am really dying to do a hardcore action film again,” she tells us.
5. Noor (2017): The film may have come and gone, but Sonakshi did make an impression as the irrepressible and honest Noor in this film that travelled the gamut from a fun film to a socially relevant drama. Sonakshi excels in bringing a touch of the real to her parts, no matter how outlandish they may be, and here most of us identified with her Noor — a fiercely independent yet flawed woman struggling to find her place in the world and mark her own corner in it.
6. Ittefaq (2017): The reworking of the eponymous 1969 film worked well as a neo-noir mystery thriller with Sonakshi ably playing the part of a diabolical woman whose intentions, at every point in the film, are laden with doubt. It was far from a showy performance, and the actress excelled in bringing an element of mystery to her character, keeping the audience guessing.
7. Kalank (2019): The big-budget, snazzy Karan Johar production may have been a huge box-office disaster and also failed to find favour with critics, but there’s no denying the fact that Sonakshi lit up the screen with her luminous presence. As Satya, a woman battling a terminal illness and determined to find her husband a partner after she’s gone, Sonakshi had limited screen time but managed to leave an impression.
8. Mission Mangal (2019): This was a film about woman power and Sonakshi’s Eka Gandhi was one of the women in this powerful ensemble that steered Mission Mangal to a haul of Rs 100-crore-plus at the box office. She played the part — independent, a woman with a mind of her own but with strong emotions — convincingly, making us sit up and take notice of her matured acting in quite a few scenes.