Bollywood’s new bold: Why Bhumi Pednekar is being recognised as the face of strength and confidence in the Indian film industry
In the opening scene of Bhumi Pednekar’s last film, Lust Stories (2018), you don’t see her face, you just hear her moan. Her feet are up in the air, a man is on top of her and there is enough sexual energy in the scene to make the best of Bollywood viewers do a double take.
For those scratching their heads, or reaching out for Google search, Bhumi Pednekar is the “fat girl” from the 2015 Yashraj film Dum Laga Ke Haisha, where she stood up against the stigma overweight women face in the marriage market and in life.
In her next release, she played the rebellious daughter-in-law who fought to have a toilet at home in a part of rural India where they are considered “apshagun” (unsanitary) in a residence that also houses a temple.
Her third was a movie called Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (2017) that addressed erectile dysfunction: bold in content, hilarious and adequately sensitive in approach.
Lust Stories was her fourth release, where this Mumbai-born and bred girl from Juhu played another character that was totally unlike her in real life: a maid.
“Sure,” she agrees with a laugh, “that opening scene was full throttle! It had a really strong vibe! I first saw Lust Stories in a theatre seated next to my mother, and as soon as the moaning and grinding started, I slid deeper into my seat. Now, my mum had read the script – she always helps my decision-making – but as we watched the movie that day, we avoided each other’s gaze, and didn’t talk about it later.”
Sex on the screen
The Zoya Akhtar-directed short film may have started “full throttle”, but went on to showcase the nuanced emotions of a maid in an affair with her young, single employer, and how odd her situation was when she had to serve tea to his prospective bride.
“The scene was important to the movie; I had Zoya [as my director], and it was important to her. I would have been worried otherwise,” says Bhumi matter-of-factly. “I don’t have an issue with showing skin. I have an issue with vulgarity, objectifying my body parts and character assassination. If you are in the hands of a director of a certain school, you let yourself be.”
What Bhumi was more nervous about was the reactions it’d evoke from the audiences. “I was pleasantly surprised that once the film was out, nobody talked about it [the sex scene]. I was scared that some people would get cheap thrills and put clips of the scene on the Internet. Nothing happened. Maybe it’s the platform [the film released on Netflix], but it also shows how mature our audiences now are.”
However broadminded we are, watching a sex scene with family members is an embarrassing experience. “It’s awkward,” she says. “My cousin brothers don’t want to see their sister having sex. So I tell them, ‘skip the first minute of the film and then watch it.’ I remember showing Dum Laga Ke Haisha to my Nanaji (maternal grandfather) in Jaipur when the DVD came out—he is too old to go to the movie theatre. When the lovemaking scene came on, two of my cousins went and stood in front of the TV screen, then moved away when it was over!”
Just as with her performances, Bhumi’s earnestness draws you in.
Made for good cinema
Bhumi Pednekar admits she is fortunate to have grown up watching quality cinema. “My mom had great taste in movies, so as children we watched and enjoyed movies like Mandi (1983) and Khatta Meetha (1978) and
Hollywood classics like Casablanca (1962). The films were always high on content, and I was extremely lucky to have been exposed to them at a young age.”
She’d always wanted to be an actress, so at 17, when she faced the possibility of being sent to Manchester to do a bachelors in business administration, she took a job at Yashraj Films (YRF) as a casting assistant. “I didn’t know what casting was, and I didn’t realise the power of YRF and the scale,” she says.
Casting director Abhimanyu Ray took Bhumi under his wing. “He exposed me to good writing and brilliant minds, and moulded my thinking. This was the time we were casting for movies like Ishaqzaade, Rocket Singh, Band Baaja Baaraat. I enjoyed my work and nobody knew of my ambitions of becoming an actress.
“When Shanoo Sharma, who replaced Abhimanyu Sir, saw me read some lines while taking an audition three-and-a-half years later, she came up to me and said, ‘Stop bullshitting me by saying you want to be a director, you want to be an actor, don’t you?’”
Despite director Sharat Kataria feeling she was too urban, Bhumi got the part, put on 30 kilos, and became the female counterpart to Ranveer Singh in YRF: the city girl convincingly playing a rough-at-the-edges character from small-town India.
Willy-nilly, she also became part of Adi Chopra’s devious little plan: that of converting his film company once known for showcasing Switzerland and aspirations of the high life, to one that told stories of middle-India, colourful, rich in culture and tradition, thirsty with ambition and full of heart.
Real on reel
One film old, Bhumi took a year off to shed the weight she had gained. “I didn’t want to look like the overweight girl who had lost weight. I had taken a year to put on the extra kilos, I couldn’t lose them in two months,” she says. “Two and a half years later, I’m still at it. Fortunately, my physicality hasn’t stopped me from getting work.”
What’s with the social causes her movies tend to take up, we ask. “If Salman Khan changes his hairstyle, the entire nation follows. So we must accept that our movies are a mirror to society,” she says. “As a country, we are on the brink of a major change. Intellect has gone up, exposure is immense. I am aware of my social responsibility as an actor. But I’m not saying every film must carry a social message. A seemingly senseless comedy can also make a change for the better.”
Was Shubh Mangal Saavdhan one of those? No, says Bhumi. “SMS was a film that showed how erectile dysfunction was not just a man’s problem. In India, it is a family issue!”
Personally, Bhumi seems committed to the cause of sanitation. “As a Bombay girl, I never knew the stigma attached to having a toilet at home. I was shocked that women have to hold their urges, even eat and drink less, so they can ‘go’ only pre-dawn in the open fields. To prepare for the role, I controlled my bladder a few times, and gosh, was it tough!”
Bold movies (and moves) aside, does she realise she will always be remembered for her first role as a fat girl? What’s her take on body positivity?
“It’s the home and your support system that matters the most,” she says. “My sister and I have always been made to feel we are the prettiest. In real life, I am aware of my imperfections, but not so burdened with them. My message: Flaunt your flaws. Your body size is not going to determine how happy you are in life!”
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From HT Brunch, October 21, 2018
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