Rachana Dubey (BOMBAY TIMES; August 10, 2017)

Two years, two films, two performance-oriented roles. At 28, Bhumi Pednekar is clearly not making safe choices. She's running risks that will probably pay dividends when performers are sifted from actresses. The girl from Juhu's bylanes was starry-eyed about films since the age of 12. All that she wanted to do was act, walk the red carpet and win awards. And that's exactly what she is doing now, with aplomb! Quite unlike the characters she has played on screen, Bhumi loves her heels and style quotient. In an interview to BT, the actress talks about her upcoming film Toilet - Ek Prem Katha (TEPK), feminism, relationships and getting intimate on screen. Excerpts...

It has been two years since your debut. Isn't that a long gap, especially for a debutante?
I had to knock off 27 kilos, which I'd piled on for my debut Dum Laga Ke Haisha. I was mentally prepared that it would take about a year because I wanted to do it naturally. TEPK and Shubh Mangal Saavdhan were among the first films I signed after my debut. I was also shooting for Manmarziyan, which was stalled midway.

You have played small-town girls with amazing strength of character in all your films till now. Why do you think you attract such roles? Is it because you too are a feminist like them?
Yes, I'm a feminist, but not the bra-burning type. I'm not a feminazi. I love men and I believe in equality. I understand that we cannot exist without each other, but I want men to give women the same kind of unconditional respect that they get from us. I've seen evolved men right at my home and so, I don't want to bash up boys randomly. But yes, there is a large section of society, which is still stuck with the old mentality. I hope that films like ours help change it. The good part is, youngsters are becoming aware that it's not okay to follow old norms blindly.

Talking about TEPK, what made you choose it?
I chose it because it's not about one girl, it's about so many women who belong to a socio-economic strata jahan pe unke maa baap ne apna ghar girvi rakh ke unki shaadi karvayi hogi, but they had the balls to walk out of their husbands' homes because they didn't provide for basic sanitation. Not having a toilet is not okay, and people are becoming aware of that. We've woven it around a love story to make people aware of their rights. Akshay's character is a nice guy, but he doesn't know that a toilet is a necessity and a right. That's because like many other men, he too defecates in the open and doesn't know any better. TEPK is a prem katha where toilet is the villain, not angry parents and jilted lovers.

Are you apprehensive that your performances in your forthcoming films will be compared to your debut?
This is like a re-launch. I'll be happy if people compare my performances; constructive criticism is always welcome. I hope my performance has improved. If it hasn't, it will be heartbreaking to know that I haven't grown as an actor. It's the worst thing for one to stop evolving. Having said that, my performance is not above any film. If the film works, everything works. The rest is fate. You've had an unconventional start.

Were you ever mocked at for your weight or for the way you chose to begin your journey?
I thought that I will be stereotyped and I will only get 'fat-girl' roles because that is what happens to a lot of actors who play plus-sized characters. In India, if you are overweight, the roles written for you will mock you. Thankfully, I didn't get a single script like that. I was surprised that so many scripts were even coming my way; and it was an absolute shocker that I was being offered mainstream heroine roles.

So, you mean to say that weight had no impact on your professional prospects...
Nothing changed even when I became a plus-sized girl, and not just professionally. I dressed the way I did earlier and received the same amount of attention from the opposite sex, which was a revelation because you don't expect that from men in India. And I say this openly. Why do you think women get a complex about their weight and beauty? It's these very things that determine the interest they receive from the opposite sex. In my eyes, even with my weight, I was killing it. I didn't question my beauty or my sense of being. The fact that the scripts being offered to me were not stereotyping me made me believe that the industry is changing, too. I actually got a lot of letters from people suffering from image-related issues. Though I believe in vanity, I'm aware that it's a big problem in India.

You are living your dream by doing interesting, meaty roles. At this point in your career, are you ready for a relationship?
I am extremely career-driven. I've been working since I was 17. I need work to be sane; I need that rush when I wake up and I love it. Companionship is very important because a good partner motivates you in ways you won't even realise, but it's not for me right now.

You are one of those rare actors who is not seen at Bollywood bashes or functions. In an industry where socialising plays an important role, do you think your attitude may prove to be a professional hindrance?
It's true that I have not been very social within the fraternity. In fact, I have never felt the need to be so. Luckily, so far, I've associated with filmmakers who just make films. My social life is outside the industry. Every few months, I take off on a backpacking trip with my girl pals. Ayushmann (Khurrana) and Akshay (Kumar) sir are my only friends in Bollywood and they don't socialise either. So, my social circle is clearly not taking me anywhere (laughs). Also, I've got my subsequent films on the basis of my first. I believe nothing supersedes your work. Earlier, people didn't know much about each other. Today, everyone is an open book being read on social media. How much more can you tell the world about yourself ?

Were you ever intimidated while sharing screen space with Akshay Kumar?
In my mind, stardom has always had negative connotations, but Akshay sir is the exact opposite. He's extremely humble. He is aware that people can be intimidated by him, so he comes down to your level as a friend to make you feel comfortable.

Akshay told us that you are extremely courageous to have taken up the role in TEPK, as the story revolves around the issue of open defecation. Talking about being bold on screen, how comfortable are you doing intimate scenes?
For me, it's as technical as a fight scene. I would prepare for it as much as I would do for any other scene. A good director is crucial while filming such scenes. It was challenging to do an intimate scene in my debut film. I had to entice my husband (played by Ayushmann). In real life, I have never been in a situation like that. So, it was emotionally wrecking, but the director guided us step by step. There are some such sequences in Shubh Mangal Savadhan too, but they have been done so aesthetically, I wouldn't be embarrassed about watching it even with my mother.