Lasyapriya Sundaram (BOMBAY TIMES; April 14, 2017)

There was a lot of hype and hoopla about her launch with Ranbir Kapoor in Besharam (2013), but with the film's box-office failure, her career fizzled out, too. However, Pallavi Sharda, a nonresident Indian who wanted to make a mark in Bollywood, didn't give up easily. In an exclusive chat with BT, she talks about her role as Gulabo in Srijit Mukherji's Begum Jaan. Excerpts...

Your beginning in Bollywood was rather bumpy. It hasn't been an easy ride for you. Do you think Begum Jaan will change the course of your career in Bollywood?
I didn't see it in that manner when I signed the film because I was working overseas when Srijit contacted me. I had an interesting kitty of indie and non-indie films, but there was something special about Begum Jaan. It's only after seeing the trailer that I realised that it is larger than life. It is very rare to see something transcending the script on screen. And that for me, is a fulfilling experience.

The film conveys a strong message...
It is about dignity, which women don't assert, fearing backlash from patriarchy. When you say 'my rules' in the context of India, patriarchy comes in - whose rules are they? It is a complex matter. I am still trying to understand how the conversation on self-determination can be taken forward. But I think aspiration is a great word and that's what women in this film stand for. Many young women who hail from less fortunate backgrounds don't have aspiration and that makes me sad.

Does the movie reiterate the idea that in reality, there is no country for women?
They are marginalised everywhere...We have had a male-dominated government and bureaucracy for the longest time and it's still a reality. Somebody recently asked me, 'Is feminism an overused word?' I said, 'We have the responsibility of keeping the flag flying high even if the word is taken out of context at times; we cannot be complacent'. Women's liberation started in the 1920s, which means we are only a hundred years into fighting for our right to equality. So for me, it highlights something which was and is still a reality.

Let's rewind a little and talk about your first lead role in Besharam. How did you deal with the film's failure?
I was not prepared for the business of cinema. My aspiration was to be a Bollywood actress and it's sheer determination and self-belief that has brought me here. I had no mentors. Even before Besharam happened, I was doing a musical and two plays. Then, I was cast in a film with Ranbir Kapoor. My director told me to leave everything else and concentrate on the film, because we were pandering to the business of cinema and the system of Bollywood. That changed the course of who I was as an actor, albeit for a short while. But after Hawaizaada (2015), I went to back to who I was. I am an actor and I am not necessarily here to work within a system... attend functions and dress a certain way because XYZ will see me and cast me. I don't understand that way of thinking. I come from a background where work begets work. It's been over three years and people haven't been able to get over my association with Besharam; I feel proud about it. But I don't think anyone else associated with the film gets asked about its failure as much as I do. That's a little unfair. I had to bear the brunt of Besharam a lot more than the others. After the film released, the media was very scathing. They even cast aspersions about why I got the role. While I was in New York, the media here wrote that I was spotted with the film's director in a Lokhandwala cafe. It was heartbreaking. But despite that, I did bag Hawaizaada and then Begum Jaan on my own merit.

Was it daunting for you to come to Mumbai and make a mark on your own?
I was optimistic and had self-belief. It got daunting only when I realised the reality of how difficult it is. I have lined up with hundreds of aspirants for auditions. Some of my friends and contemporaries cannot believe the kind of stories that I share about my earlier days because a lot of them haven't experienced that. I have turned up at a press conference pretending to be a journalist just to speak to a filmmaker. I would wake up in the morning and ask myself, 'What are you going to do today to make this happen?' Waking up in that state of mind for years together is hard. I have done it the hard way, so I am very comfortable in my skin today.

Do you think being an opinionated actress in Bollywood is a disadvantage?
I was 20 years old when I came here and people advised me not to tell anyone that I was a law graduate. Though I was very confident when I came here, I suddenly became unsure of myself. I am glad I went through that because it helped me realise who I am. There was an attempt to Bollywoodise me, but I resisted it. Maybe I have done a disservice to myself career wise. I guess my life would have been different if I had been malleable, but I am not. I don't want to try and please people. I have been told to keep quiet as I have not established myself, but if my process is not authentic, then my output will not be authentic either.