• Published 14.10.17
Zaira Wasim poses with her Secret Superstar cake from Paris Cafe and an autographed t2 mug. Want to win this mug? Tell in less than 20 words why you deserve it 

Zaira Wasim is unlike any 16-year-old we’ve met. Pretty and poised, the teenager has a very calm and composed air about her — “philosophical” is how she described herself to t2 during this chat. But for a moment the Kashmiri girl, who shot into the spotlight with her award-winning act as the younger Geeta Phogat in the biggest blockbuster in Indian cinema history, Dangal, became like just another 16-year-old. That was when she walked into the sixth floor lounge at Novotel Hotel and Residences last Sunday… and spotted herself on not one, but two cakes that t2 had brought for her!

“OH MY GOD! They are so cute,” clapped Zaira, pretty in a green slit dress, as she started taking photographs of the cakes (courtesy Paris Cafe) — one with Geeta the wrestler on it and the other with Insiya, her character from Diwali release Secret Superstar, strumming a guitar. “I don’t want to cut it, it’s so cute,” she mock-cried before slicing out a piece of the Secret Superstar cake while her mother enthusiastically sang Main kaun hoon from Secret Superstar.

The October 19 film by Advait Chandan rests on her young shoulders, with mentor Aamir Khan chipping in not only with a cameo but by producing the dream-come-true tale.

Priyanka Roy (Team t2): So Zaira, we hear this is your first time in Calcutta. Is there anything you’ve heard about the city?

Zaira Wasim: I’ve heard a lot about the Howrah bridge and the language, of course. I have heard a lot about the food too, especially the rosogolla. But I’ve never had any Bengali food.

Priyanka: Secret Superstar is about following your dreams. When did you know that acting was going to be your dream?

Zaira: I don’t think I would call acting my dream because I never wanted to get into it. I am a great believer of destiny. I have still not been able to register it. I’ve never been a Bollywood fan. I never watched a lot of films. I wouldn’t ever make a deliberate effort to sit and watch a film. It’s all happened so suddenly and it still feels surreal. I have now just discovered my love for acting.

Priyanka: Did you ever act in school?

Zaira: I took part in a play in my school on female foeticide and I played the protagonist. It was my first ever play… and my last! (Laughs) My principal discovered that this girl can act and I discovered that I could survive in front of a crowd (smiles). I have grown up with a lot of social anxiety. I still have it, but I am gradually overcoming it. When I took part in the play, it turned out great.

Sometime later, a casting director happened to be in Kashmir and he visited our school. He was looking for some girl for a film. That’s when my principal called me to her office and asked, ‘Do you want to give it a shot?’ And I said, ‘Why not?’ I went to their office, gave my audition and after six months, I got a call from their office. But it wasn’t for Dangal, I got selected for an ad. I shot two ads with these people and then the third time, I got a call for Dangal.

Chandreyee Chatterjee (Team t2): Insiya in Secret Superstar is the kind of girl who beats all odds to realise her dreams.

Does it resonate with your life in any way?

Zaira: No. Which is why I feel that Secret Superstar came to me as a challenge, personally, as well as an actor. Insiya has to face a lot of struggles… she is very passionate and dreams a lot. I personally do not have any dreams! (Smiles) I am still exploring and one day, I hope I discover a dream or a passion for myself. The second difference would be the environment she lives in. Insiya’s environment is very hostile because her father is absolutely against her… he’s not only against her career, but also her existence. For me, it’s completely the opposite because I come from a family where girls are really pampered and treated like queens! I have always been given the freedom and the trust to make my own decisions and my parents have always been very supportive.

Rushabh Shah (third-year student of The Bhawanipur Education Society College): This is the second time you’ve worked with Aamir Khan and in both Dangal and Secret Superstar, he’s played a mentor to your characters. Is he a mentor to you post-shoot too?

Zaira: Yes, absolutely! He’s a mentor, a guide, a friend, a father… (smiles). We’ve reached a point where he’s like family for us. When you get to spend a lot of time with someone, the relationship grows, but that happened during Dangal itself. All the girls, not just me, all four of us (Suhani Bhatnagar, Fatima Sana Shaikh and Sanya Malhotra) became very close to him. 

Priyanka: Aamir is a superstar and a huge actor. Did you feel intimidated by him at any point?

Zaira: Absolutely! He’s called a ‘Perfectionist’, but I would call it passion more than perfectionism. He’s dedicated and passionate. Everything about him is inspiring and intimidating at the same time.

Priyanka: But beneath the serious actor called Aamir Khan, there’s a huge prankster, right?

Zaira: I was a victim… we all were victims of his pranks! (Laughs) He has a great sense of humour. Especially in this film! Every time I would see him in his Secret Superstar look, I couldn’t stop laughing. His character (Shakti Kumar) is crazy! In Dangal, he was a father. In this film, he’s a weird guy who hits on every other woman! He is in tacky clothes and has the weirdest hairstyle. I had never seen him like that before. For me, mentally, it was a big jump to see him like this. Even in the most serious scenes, I couldn’t stop laughing!

Priyanka: While working in the film, did you think Dangal would become the blockbuster it did?

Zaira: Initially, I didn’t even know that I was being auditioned for Dangal… I only knew it was a film with Aamir Khan.... We knew Dangal would be big because it was a brilliant story, but we never expected it to do so well. 

Soham Chowdhury (third year student of Dinabandhu Andrews College): So what was the best compliment you got for being Geeta?

Zaira: At the premiere, Rekhaji stepped out of the theatre and immediately ran to me and hugged me. She took me to a corner and spoke to me for half-an-hour… and that’s something I am going to remember for the rest of my life. Also, all four of us received a letter from Amitabh Bachchan Sir. I think that is the biggest achievement for us! (Laughs)

Priyanka: Have you framed it?

Zaira: No, I’ve kept it in a nice box and I am not going to frame it… nazar lag jayega! (Laughs)

Soham: Was winning the National Award for Dangal a big surprise?

Zaira: I never expected it. I was sleeping when the news came out. I was staying with my naani in Mumbai. When I woke up, I found 30-40 missed calls on my phone!

There were so many messages saying ‘Congratulations’, but I had no clue why they were congratulating me! I was like, ‘What has happened?! Mera rishta taye ho gaya kya?! (Laughs) And then my cousin called and  scolded me for not telling her about it. I was like, ‘What award?!’ I even said ‘happy birthday’ to her for some reason! (Cracks up) I was so stupid that I had no idea what the National Award was! (Laughs sheepishly)

Then I turned on the TV and it was in the news. I told my naani and she went crazy! She wanted to call someone to share the news, but she couldn’t reach anyone. She was so desperate to tell someone that she caught hold of the waiter who came into our room with some food and told him, ‘Do you know my poti has won the National Award?!’ The waiter looked at us and was probably thinking, ‘Pagal ho gaye hain!’ (Laughs) Then I called my father and told him and even he had no idea what the National Award was about. He started calling his friends and that’s when he realised it was a huge thing. I told him, ‘Papa, I don’t know what it is, but it’s a huge thing’. 

Chandreyee: Dangal must have been a very difficult film to train for. Did you have to give up something you loved for it?

Zaira: I had to give up something that means the world to me… junk food! I survive on junk food and I had to give it all up. All of us had to.

Priyanka: Just like in the film!

Zaira: (Laughs out loud) Ya! That was one big sacrifice I had to make. Also, I had to cut my hair (shakes her head and smiles wryly).

Chandreyee: We read about how when you had that haircut, someone came up to you to take a selfie and called you ‘Bhaiya!’

Zaira: I was shattered! (Laughs and shakes her head) I really loved my hair… all of us did. For the longest time, I thought they were trying to trick us into thinking that we had to chop off our hair. Even though they mentioned it a million times, I kept believing, ‘No, no, no, they won’t do it!’ I was living in my fool’s paradise.

Priyanka: So when they finally did it, did you plead the way you do in the film?

Zaira: I went from thinking, ‘They are nice people… they won’t do it’ to ‘Chalo, theek hai, how short can they anyway cut it?’ (Laughs) I never expected it to be that short. I was in tears when they actually cut it. And then Mr Perfectionist (Aamir) walks in and he’s like, ‘Yeh kya hai?! Buzz it!’ And we were shocked! We kept pleading and even the others on set were, ‘Don’t do this to the girls’. But he was adamant and said, ‘Make it as short as mine!’ That’s probably the only time I’ve hated anyone in my entire life! (Laughs)

Priyanka: Unlike Dangal, the responsibility of Secret Superstar rests entirely on your shoulders, with Aamir featuring in a cameo. Does that scare you?

Zaira: Honestly, anything and everything scares me! (Laughs) And actually, the film doesn’t rest on my shoulders. There are other people in the film who are the real secret superstars. I’ve been asked a lot of times, ‘You are the hero of the film… how does that feel?’ But the secret is that it’s the mother (Najma, played by Meher Vij, who was mother to Shahida/Munni in Bajrangi Bhaijaan) who is the hero of the story. I have pressure on me all the time because I tend to overthink and honestly, as an actor, you need to have that kind of pressure to give in your best. 

Rushabh: Your mother came in here humming Main kaun hoon and that also happens to be my favourite song from the film. So who is the real Zaira Wasim and what’s her life beyond the camera?

Zaira: My life is nothing beyond cats… I am obsessed with cats! (Laughs)

Priyanka: How many do you have?

Zaira: I have three. I want to get more, but my mother would throw my cats and me out of the house! I have a black one called Dodo, a brown kitten called Jerry and a white one called Snow (smiles). But if you ask me to define Zaira… it’s very tough. (Pauses) I am very philosophical and I put others before me. I really can’t define myself. (Smiles) 

Rushabh: So coming back to the film, what social issues does Secret Superstar address and which are the ones you are personally invested in?

Zaira: Secret Superstar focuses on bringing forth the voice of women. We often tend to circle around the subject of feminism, but I personally feel we aren’t addressing the minor details that define feminism. We don’t even consider that the minor things exist. We are slipping them under the carpet. I don’t think there is a right term to define what I am saying, but this film touches upon how strong women emotionally are.

The second would be the struggles of teenagers. Every time we talk about teenagers, we tend to think of only the problems they face in a relationship. A teenager’s life is beyond having boyfriends and girlfriends (smiles). At this early age, teens face problems that make them question their own existence. That’s very sad. 

Chandreyee: You are a teen who’s leading a life that many of your age can only dream of. Do you feel the pressure of becoming a role model?

Zaira: No, I don’t. And that’s because I don’t get along with the idea of having a role model. I have never had one and I never will. I cannot comprehend the idea of someone dedicating their whole life and aspirations to just one person they don’t even know about. I am on a constant rant… I would rather build a path of my own than follow on someone else’s footsteps. 

Priyanka: You don’t watch too many films or follow many actors. So when acting, do you draw inspiration from your own life experiences?

Zaira: Since I’ve just worked on two films so far, I haven’t really figured out my method of acting. But on Secret Superstar, I was very spontaneous. I’m not that brilliant an actor who can get into the skin of a character and put things in perspective from her headspace. For me, I base my acting on my life experiences — whatever little I’ve had so far (smiles). What I do on screen is very immediate and instinctive.   

Priyanka: Everyone, your generation especially, is hooked to social media. You aren’t very active on it, but do you consider it a boon or bane for people like you who are constantly in the spotlight?

Zaira: Yes, I haven’t been very active on social media for the last six months or so. I think it has both pros and cons. Excess of anything is bad, but I wouldn’t call it an absolute disaster. Even in Secret Superstar, when Insiya can’t figure out a platform, she builds one. She makes music videos on YouTube. I strongly feel that the use of social media, like everything else in life, needs to be balanced. 

Soham: What do you like doing in your spare time? Are you like any other 16-year-old?

Zaira: (Smiles) I don’t understand this stereotype of a 16-year-old girl. All my friends are completely different from each other. So there’s actually no stereotype, so to speak. And about my free time, well I spend it with my cats (smiles). You can lock me in a room for a month with my cats and lots of food and I will be the happiest girl ever… I can survive like that for the rest of my life! (Laughs) I am a huge homebody. I am happiest at home in Kashmir. I am an old soul (laughs).     

Priyanka: So apart from junk food, what could you eat for the rest of your life?

Zaira: I’m actually a very picky eater, so I won’t be able to eat one thing forever! But something I can eat anytime, anywhere is French fries! 

Zaira is one of us because... Tell

B. Halder