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Blood is thicker

'Rotis', buffaloes and hockey sticks Sanya Malhotra and Radhika Madan on transforming into the leads of Vishal Bhardwaj's 'Pataakha'

The ‘Pataakha’ sisters Sanya Malhotra (left) and Radhika Madan. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
The ‘Pataakha’ sisters Sanya Malhotra (left) and Radhika Madan. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Vishal Bhardwaj’s forthcoming Pataakha, is based on a short story by Rajasthani writer Charan Singh Pathik called Do Behnein—a tale of two sisters who cannot stand each other. In Bhardwaj’s comedy, set in Rajasthan, Badki and Chutki are played by Radhika Madan and Sanya Malhotra respectively, with Vijay Raaz as their father.

Although she is older by three years, Malhotra (Dangal) plays the younger sister, while 23-year-old Madan (who will be seen in the upcoming Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota) plays Badki. Sitting with the two actors, there is no sign of the hair-pulling, cussing, vitriol-spewing sisters of the film. They complete each other’s sentences and giggle with the excitement of young actors poised at an important junction in their careers. Edited excerpts from an interview:

How did you get your parts and what was the audition process like?

Madan: While I was shooting for Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota in December last year, I got a call for an audition. I was told there would be a different dialect. So I gave the audition and the first response I got was “very interesting". That’s all. So I didn’t think it was going to happen. Anyway, I finished my first film and I was chilling in Goa when I got a call that this film was starting right away.

I flew from Goa (to Mumbai) and went straight to Vishal sir’s office, where I had to audition with four scenes they had sent me. I practised those scenes at Goa airport—shouting in that Rajasthani accent and gesticulating. After I got the part, they took us for prep. It wasn’t till I got the call sheet and saw the first newspaper article about the film that it hit me that I was doing a Vishal Bhardwaj film.

Malhotra: I was shooting for Badhaai Hoin Delhi. My manager called me to say Vishal sir was making a film on two sisters and wanted to meet me. I am a huge fan of his work and it was a dream to work with him. When I read the scenes, I felt it was really good. He was so gracious that he even offered to rehearse the scenes with me on phone. Fortunately the dialect is similar to Haryanvi, which I had to learn for Dangal. I am nothing like the character and I could see he was not sure if I would be able to pull it off, so I think he was pleasantly surprised.

What did it take to achieve that tension and build the dynamic between the sisters?

Malhotra: When we first met, I thought “She is so young, how will we gel?" But after the first workshop, where we did improvisations, activities and warm-ups, I felt that there could be a connection. Now we are very close.

Madan: It’s ironical, because she is not someone who lets people in easily. I really liked Sanya’s work in Dangal and I was very excited when I heard she was playing the other sister. The onscreen chemistry came naturally because she is Chutki in real life. And I am Badki at the core. As soon as we were in character, we could not bear to look at each other. On set we would be very irritated with one another. But as soon as the shoot was over, we were always together.

How did that happen—where you could just switch to that conflict state?

Malhotra: Costume...

Madan: And make-up.

Malhotra: As soon as we were in the get-up, there was immediate change.

Madan: The look helped. So did the dialect and the environment.

Malhotra: Also, the script is so beautifully written that, as an actor, there is not too much you have to do.

Your training involved dialect coaching and immersion into village life. Did you also meet the real sisters on whom the story is based?

Malhotra: Charan Singh came to Mumbai to work on the dialect. The film is based on his story about the wives of his brothers. They are about 60 years old now.

Madan: They are older and mellower, but we heard about their antics—which are all there in the short story. Meeting them really helped, especially with the dialect.

Malhotra: We went to Ronsi near Jaipur for our prep.

Madan: We woke up at 4am to begin the chores for the day, like milking the cows, washing the buffaloes, making dung cakes and drawing water from the well.

Malhotra: By 9-10am, work would be done and then we chilled till 4pm before resuming the tasks, like making tea and dinner. It was such a wonderful time.

Madan: It was the first time I cooked. I hadn’t even lit a gas stove before this.

Malhotra: She had never swept or cleaned the house either, or chopped a tomato or onion.

Madan: But I did it all there.

Malhotra: Yes, well, one day she took half an hour to cut one tomato while all of us were waiting to cook the meal.

Madan: By Day 3, I had made a decent roti. Now I can make them quite round.

You are both from Delhi, and have no connection to the film industry. What drew you to Hindi cinema?

Madan: I wanted to become a dancer. I had even enrolled for a professional dance course. But someone saw my Facebook profile and called me for an audition. I used to watch (TV serials) Gumrah and Crime Patrol at that time and I thought these people are conning me. So I took two of my male friends with hockey sticks to catch them out.

Malhotra: Hashtag Delhi girl.

Madan: I opened the door and saw lights and people with scripts, and someone called my name and the next thing I knew I was learning lines and giving a very, very bad audition. But then I got a call to come to Mumbai for the Balaji show Meri Aashiqui Tum Se Hi. They said, “She looks wealthy—cast her!" The show was a Cinderella story from a male point of view. So basically I learnt acting while on the job, and I fell in love with acting.

Malhotra: I think it’s the same story with a lot of Delhi people who want to become actors—since there is no Bollywood in Delhi, the default option is dance. While I was in college I trained in ballet and once I graduated, I decided to try out for (reality TV show) Dance India Dance season 4, thinking it could be my way into Bollywood. I got selected to the top 100 and came to Mumbai, but I didn’t get beyond that for various reasons, including the fact that I did not have a story. Anyway, I stayed back and fell in love with the city. It felt safer than Delhi. For a few months I didn’t have any work. Then the auditions began. I did quite a few ads before I was called for Dangal.

What’s next?

Madan: Vasan Bala’s Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota will release later this year. I am reading scripts, but I really want to wait.

Malhotra: I have Amit Sharma’s Badhaai Ho and Ritesh Batra’s Photograph.

Pataakha releases on 28 September.

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