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Bhumi Pednekar: 'As I get more successful, I realize how sexist the world is'

  • The actor, who had four releases in 2019, has made a mark for portraying strong characters
  • In a wide-ranging interview, Pednekar talks about gender politics and pay gaps, brownface and her selfie with PM Modi

Bhumi Pednekar
Bhumi Pednekar (Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)

With four releases in 10 months, Bhumi Pednekar has had a jam-packed 2019. The day I meet her at Mumbai’s JW Marriott hotel earlier this month, Pednekar has spent over 10 hours talking to print journalists and TV channels, promoting her film Pati Patni Aur Woh. It has taken nearly a week to set up this interview, but it doesn’t seem like a good idea any more. Won’t she be burnt out, I wonder. “Don’t worry," Pednekar’s PR manager assures me. “She has, like, a button."

Indeed, Pednekar is a chatty, quintessentially Juhu girl, raised in a “comfortable" apartment by parents steeped in politics. Her father, Satish Pednekar, is a former home and labour minister of Maharashtra. Her mother, Sumitra Hooda Pednekar, comes from a politically influential family from Haryana. It is because of them, says Pednekar, that she grew up to be ambitious, empathic and conscientious. In the time I spent with her, Pednekar came across as warm, sensitive and polite, almost to a fault. The two times we met—once to shadow her on the sets of TV show Indian Idol and then for this interview—she apologized at least six times. Once for the chaos that surrounded us, once for talking “a lot".

Her candour is refreshing, considering actors often build a fortress around themselves in these times of PR-regulated interactions. Five years and eight films later, Pednekar has successfully straddled the middle-of-road cinema that’s entertaining but not empty. From Sudha in Lust Stories to Latika in Bala, her characters are assertive, self-aware, and have a purpose beyond loving, and being loved by, the male lead. The idea, says Pednekar, is to play characters aligned to her conscience.

Still from Pati Patni Aur Woh
Still from Pati Patni Aur Woh

For all her effort to stand up for female empowerment, Pednekar has had her share of missteps on and off camera. In a 2-hour chat in her vanity van, she was ready to address them all: the casual sexism of Pati Patni Aur Woh, her incomplete advocacy of justice for rape victims, and how Toilet—Ek Prem Katha, one of her career highs, stank of political propaganda. Edited excerpts:

Why did you decide to do ‘Pati Patni Aur Woh’?

This was a good break where we are just having fun, just celebrating the frivolous things in life...

...including casual sexism?

As far as the certain dialogue (in the trailer, Kartik Aaryan’s character says “If you trick your wife into sex, they call you a rapist") is concerned, I think the makers realized (the mistake) and they rectified it. Most of the people associated with the film do not belong to this thought process. I wouldn’t be part of a film that would be lewd.

Did you not know about it?

As a character, I didn’t want to know what’s happening in my husband’s life. What happened after the first narration, I literally only know what happens with my character arc.

But you would want to know what you are signing up for.

I don’t know how I missed it. It was a blunder. I think it’s big on them to edit it out. But it’s not what the entire film is like ya.

There’s also that double entendre—“Kar diya uska?"; “Kaam, aur kya?"—in the trailer.

There’s a certain kind of commercial jargon that works. They are playing to the gallery. I am not going to shy away from that. The film has a lot of emotion and thought. But creatively how it’s treated is not in my hands. I can do my job and I hope it shapes up the way it has been promised.

Tell me about the time you first thought of wanting to be an actor.

I always had a natural inclination to the performing arts. I would love dressing up. My mom would dress me up for photo shoots, we would have the sessions to click pictures. It was something I was born with, I think.

Did your father want you to do the conventional STEM streams?

Uh, yes! He wanted me to be an IFS (Indian foreign services) officer too. He comes from an environment where everything is unidimensional.

So you signed up for (Subhash Ghai’s film school) Whistling Woods at 15?

Yes. My mom and her friend took the form for me. My dad didn’t know. He was p****d. The beauty of it is, I took an education loan.

You mean your parents took it for you?

Yes. But I paid it off. I started working within a year and a half of being thrown out of Whistling Woods.

Why were you thrown out?

In Bombay in (classes) XI and XII, nobody studies. They are only sitting and eating vada pav. I was thrown out for my attendance. I was just partying away. I am glad I was thrown out because that day, I was shaken. I was like, my father is p****d off, my mum trusted me and I f****d up. That’s when someone told me, in Yash Raj Films (YRF) they are looking for an assistant casting director. Once I started working in YRF, I realized that’s what I wanted to do. I worked very hard but I had no idea what I was doing. I was 18!

Did the people you would audition take you seriously?

They would. I didn’t fool around at my job at all.

When were you selected for ‘Dum Laga Ke Haisha’?

In 2014. I had never told Shanoo Sharma (the casting director at YRF) I wanted to be an actor. I was doing my job honestly. It was something I genuinely enjoyed and something that paid me very well for someone my age. I had told Shanoo I wanted to direct. She said one day, who are you fooling? You are an actor. Just quit lying to yourself. I said, I know I am but I’d lost the confidence to accept it.


I’d become comfortable in what I was doing. But I realized I’m meant to do greater things... Then Dum Laga Ke Haisha happened.

After ‘Dum Laga Ke Haisha’, it’s almost like you were typecast as this small-town spunky woman.

I disagree. I play a small-town girl (in several movies) but they are all very different from each other. It’s great that I am stereotyped in such a way and not the other way.

Was it a conscious idea to pick roles that speak strongly for women ?

That’s something I genuinely believe in. I have had a choice of doing commercial movies that have gone on to become enormous hits. But that doesn’t fit into my boundaries of morals. I have done work I can connect with. I have tried to make sure that everything I do entertains people.

Have you been to any small towns? What has the reaction been like?

They love me! I am the queen of heartland cinema! In rural, smaller parts, I am the Toilet... ki heroine.

Toilet...has also been criticized for its treatment ( of gender roles).

That’s where the director comes in. As actors, it’s only that much you can do. There was this controversy that he was stalking her...

Yes, followed by him gaslighting her (after stalking her for days, Akshay Kumar’s character tells her he is the best partner she can get, that she just can’t see it yet. Bhumi’s character falls for him soon after).

It’s a 2-hour experience. This man is someone who is not educated. He’s living with his father, working with his father. For this guy, open defecation is normal. That is his intellect! If there’s a certain change of heart by the end of it, I think it’s okay... It’s not the life you and I live. I don’t see it as gaslighting. Maybe she fell in love with Akshay sir’s character because she has never gotten attention. I have fallen for boys who have done crazy things for me. But if they are really crazy, you move on.

Another thing it was criticized for was its nationalism and how it was promoting the ruling party. It started off thanking the ‘Swachh Bharat’ campaign. It also justified demonetization

It was a part (of the film). We can’t ignore the fact that we are speaking of building toilets. The government is elected by a certain set of people. If the makers believe in the government, it’s their thought process. I’m not at a place where I can justify every dialogue because I haven’t written it.

You can have a take on it.

The only way I have seen it until now, it’s part of the Swachh Bharat movement. I don’t know if demonetization was right or wrong. The intention behind Toilet... was not to make a propaganda film. But do I think films as a creative medium should bring political intentions into (the mix)? No? I don’t go commenting on what my personal political belief is.

Yet you posted a selfie with Narendra Modi.

It was my Prime Minister. He had called a bunch of actors to discuss what the film industry can do to make an impact on things I am working on. I took it as an opportunity to speak about things I believe in. Climate is something I am passionate about. Two months later, I started Climate Warriors (an initiative Pednekar spearheads to raise awareness about global warming).

Do you think Indian cinema has been responsible for promoting misogyny?

It’s a reflection of the society. Until the mid 1990s, there had to be one girl (in a movie) that would be raped. The way a woman was shown on celluloid has changed. I hope through my films I can be a part of the progress. As I get more successful, I realize how sexist the world is. Even in an interview, if I’m sitting with a male actor, the interview will be a lot more about him. Sexism is so deeply ingrained in our society, sometimes I am like, was this sexist?

Could you explain?

Right from the pay gap, the fact that people will get up when the male actor is there but not when I do...

Still from Bala
Still from Bala

That has happened to you?

Sometimes. It could be like, the day is planned as per what the male actor wants. But that’s the thing. It’s not the actor but the people around them.

You once said you were paid 5% of what the male actor got.

And I did the film.

Are you on equal footing today?

I am not. I am getting paid a lot of money but it’s still not as much as any other boy who has achieved as much as I have.

Kartik Aaryan is almost as old in the industry in terms of number of films. So did you take care to minimize the pay gap in this film?

You should be paid as what you are capable of bringing in. This is business. You need to get return on investments. When I say the pay gap is ridiculous, it is from a place of logic, not spite. Kartik after seven years has reached a point where he has an audience of his own. He really owns it and deserves it.

I know you don’t put your politics out there. But you did speak about the Asifa rape case, in which the persons accused were patronized by the ruling party.

I will be honest—I didn’t get into the politics of the case. When I heard what the girl went through, or what Nirbhaya went through, my reaction is the same. I can start speaking about it, maybe do a film about it. That’s what I started doing. It might not be the most intellectually right thing to do, but that’s the way I am.

Still from Saand Ki Aankh
Still from Saand Ki Aankh

Regarding the ageing in ‘Saand Ki Aankh’ and dark complexion in ‘Bala’, I’m sure you have heard that your makeup in those films was distracting.

I am not going to disagree. But Saand Ki Aankh is a very small film. They have done the best they could. Bala mein toh mujhe samjha hi nahi (“I didn’t understand why they had to do it in Bala"). But it was the director’s choice. He wanted it to be this dark. The makeup went wrong. But I am thankful that eventually people saw beyond it.

Did you ever feel the privilege you have, the upbringing you have had, helps you get where you are?

I have worked hard ya... Obviously, I am at a place of advantage than a person who comes from a background that’s not as strong as mine. But Sharat (Katariya, director of Dum Laga Ke Haisha) auditioned me for three months. He didn’t take me because I’d conduct auditions for YRF. I was given an education. Do I come from a place of privilege because I am educated? No. Do I have more opportunities than someone who comes from a smaller town? Of course, that’s the thread of life. The fact that you are doing what you are as opposed to someone from Nagpur...

I am from Nagpur.

You know what I mean! A person from a Marathi tabloid isn’t sitting with me for a 2-hour interview. Your education does give you a certain edge. That’s the idea we need to spread. Everyone needs to have more opportunities.

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