In an industry filled with pretty faces, Amrita Rao surely stands out. Her sweet girl-next-door act in Ishq Vishk won her millions of fans and her funky avatar in Main Hoon Naa pleasantly surprised many.
Yet it was Sooraj Barjatya's Vivah that proved her acting prowess. Last seen in a cameo in Shaurya, Amrita is now all excited about her next release–Welcome to Sajjanpur. The pretty actress spills all on her experiences working on the film, her equation with her co-stars and her future course of action in this exclusive interview.
After a sensitive cameo act in Shaurya, you are back doing a light-hearted film like Welcome to Sajjanpur. How does it feel?
I am super duper excited [laughs]. Being a part of a Shyam Benegal movie is a high point for me. He is somebody who is liked and revered by everyone in my community. In fact, not many people know that we belong to the same community and we speak the same language (Konkani). So, people like Girish Karnad, Ananth Nag and Shyam Benegal have always been looked up to.
Then, of course, I saw Zubeidaa when I was studying and it is one I still count among my favourite films. So when Shyamji called me for this role, I didn't ask him any questions–I just said yes to the film. Because I so wanted to be on board under his direction.
Did you ever ask him why he thought of you for this role?
I did ask him and he said that he had seen me in Vivah and felt that I most appropriately suited the role in terms of look and age and all that he was looking for. So yes… I got lucky.
First things first, where is Sajjanpur? Does it exist or is it a fictitious place?
Whatever we have shown about Sajjanpur does exist, but at the end of the day a name really doesn't matter. The film is thoroughly entertaining and you will leave the cinema hall feeling good. Not only that, in retrospect, you will realise that some of the things you laughed about during the film are some of the grave issues that our country is facing. Even today, in the so-called modern India, there are villages like Sajjanpur which face the issues that the film portrays.
What is the film all about?
The film is a fascinating story of the people living in this village called Sajjanpur. Mahadev (Shreyas Talpade) is the protagonist and he's the common factor amongst all the characters. He is the only literate guy in the village and everybody comes to him to write their letters. Apart from being a lighthearted comedy, the film is a satire to some extent. We are supposed to play ourselves. Nobody is trying too hard to be funny or resorting to slapstick comedy. The village is full of mad-hatters and we want people to come and forget their own world and have fun with us.
The film was earlier called Mahadev Ka Sajjanpur. Why did the title change to Welcome to Sajjanpur?
Mahadev Ka Sajjanpur is a title you might like after you have seen the film and you've fallen in love with the characters. Only then would you connect with the title Mahadev Ka Sajjanpur. But Welcome to Sajjanpur for the layperson is more inviting and welcoming.
You are playing a village belle for the first time. Tell us something more about your character.
I play Kamla in the film. She is illiterate and cannot read or write. She plays a potter and it's a very rustic, earthy, rural Indian character. Sajjanpur is her world, she cannot see beyond it because she has never ventured out. She comes to Mahadev to write her letters and, of course, hilarious situation revolve around it.
How easy or difficult was it getting into the skin of the character?
There were aspects to my character that were not that difficult while some aspects were indeed challenging. For example, the costumes worn by my character in the film are extremely earthy and authentic. Pia Benegal has worked on the costumes and she worked very meticulously.
I had to work on getting the dialect right. We speak Bagelkhandi in the film which is a dialect from North India. It's a different dialect of Hindi just like Bihari or Bhojpuri or Haryani. We had Ashok Mishra, who has written the dialogues and screenplay, and is actually from that district, assisting us in getting the dialect right. It was an amazing experience speaking the language and very different from the usual, routine stuff.
You are paired with Shreyas Talpade for the first time. How was the experience working with him?
Shreyas and I bonded well. In fact, I remember the first time I saw Shreyas was on the sets of Om Shanti Om. Farah knew that I was supposed to work with him and she called him into the van and he came in his old man get up. That was my first glimpse of Shreyas [laughs].
After that we had a couple of workshops with Shyam Benegal, which is when I got to know Shreyas better. Post that, on the sets, when I saw him working, he was completely into his character Mahadev. He was not only effortless with his dialogue delivery, but was also improvising on the dialect. I was impressed and I felt that I should work very hard on my lines, too.
Did he play any pranks on you?
There were no pranks as such, but he is innately funny. He has this subtle sense of humour and because of that the scenes in the film are so funny. We were constantly improvising and he used to always come up with such funny additions that we couldn't stop laughing. It was indeed a really nice experience.
So where all have you shot this film?
We've shot almost the whole film at Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad. We had recreated the whole village in a set. The art director has done a fabulous job.
How has it been working with Shyam Benegal?
Mr Benegal is someone whom I have always looked up to and admired. In fact, the very name comes with certain pre-conceived notions such as an art-filmmaker or a filmmaker who only makes serious films. But I don't think that is true. I have always perceived Shyam Benegal as somebody who was ahead of his time, somebody who made wholesome cinema, which had profound actors with great scope for performances.
Each of his films touched upon a new topic. In fact, I think 20 years ago, during his time, everybody was adopting a safe & commercial formula. He swam against the tide and made films, which 20 years later, the young filmmakers are trying to achieve.
Today when I work with a Shyam Benegal, I don't see it any different from working with a contemporary young director. He may be vastly experienced, but is still young and contemporary in his outlook. He doesn't believe in wasting time on the sets and is thorough with his homework. He also gives his actors the scope to improvise, which makes the whole experience all the more enjoyable.
Have you been a fan of his films? Which is your favourite?
Of course… Like I said I loved Zubeidaa. I loved Mandi, Junoon was a nice film, Kalyug was good too and Ankur, his debut film as a director, too is one of my favourites.
Do you think a film like Welcome to Sajjanpur would appeal mainly to people in smaller towns and interiors or will it find an audience even amongst the urban multiplex going public?
I think it's a film that will be liked by everybody. The multiplex audiences are going to love the film and, at the same time, even the masses in the smaller towns are also going to adore it. At least, that's what we are hoping. It's a very normal, relatable, attractive, fun film presented in a contemporary fashion.
Talking about your career, your first film Ab Ke Baras sank at the BO, you were noticed in The Legend of Bhagat Singh, got your first big hit with Ishq Vishk, had some really big hits like Masti and Main Hoon Naa and then after a gap of few years you probably had your biggest hit with Vivah. Post Vivah, a lot of people felt your career hasn't gone the way it should have. Do you feel the same, too?
Well, to be frank, sometimes I do because post Vivah I immediately did a film down south and that took away my focus and also took away a lot of my time. I wanted to do it as an experiment and to discover a different experience of acting, mouthing lines and reacting to lines you don't understand.
I also got a chance to work with the biggest superstar of Telugu film industry, Mahesh Babu, so it was a good experience for me. The South Indian sensibilities are different from people in the Hindi film industry. But still, Vivah is a film and a role that's given me so much of positive equity among the masses and, ultimately, nobody can take that away from you.
Even today, when the film is aired on TV, the TRP is high. In fact, recently, when I was shooting in Jodhpur, I came out of my van and saw a group of people waiting for me and calling me 'Poonam, Poonam'. I think for them I will always be their Poonam.
But don't you think you could have cashed in on the success of Vivah and signed some big films?
I don't think that way, but yes the people who wanted to approach me for a role did do so. I was offered Anil Kapoor's Shortcut even before Vivah released. There was another film, too, which was planned but fizzled out because the maker made some other movie. So I have always had producers and directors approaching me, but it’s just that they looked at me differently after Vivah. After all, Vivah is one of the rare few heroine oriented films in the country which worked.
What are the other film that's on your plate? Are you also doing any more South films?
No, I am not doing any South films because like I said it takes away a lot of your time and your focus as well. You are completely disconnected from Bollywood. Doing a Telugu film is as good as doing a Thai film.
I am doing quite a few interesting roles this year. There is Anil Kapoor Productions' Shortcut which has me playing a very glamorous role. It's a thriller with a right mix of comedy, romance and some twists. Then I have Victory with Harman Baweja. I play a girl from Jaisalmer. She is a medical student from a small town, which is very highly influenced by tourism. There is this trace of modern yet ethnic element to her character.
Two of your biggest hits have been with Shahid Kapoor. Any plans to do more films with him since people feel you make a super pair?
Well, that's the best part about it because Shahid and myself also enjoy working with each other. To top it all, it’s very complimentary when people walk up and say 'Shahid- Amrita Super Hit jodi' because in this generation perhaps we are the only pair who have this 'Super Hit jodi' tag line.
We have grown up watching SRK-Kajol, Aamir-Juhi , Anil-Maduri and Govinda-Karisma. It is very encouraging for both of us because when your audience actually wants to see you on-screen together then I think half your battle is won.
The industry has seen a lot of new talent like Ranbir, Harman, Imran and Sikander. What do you think of the new, emerging talent? Any of them that you would like to work with?
I am working with Harman in Victory. I would certainly like to work with Ranbir and Imran. I think the Generation Next of Bollywood is stepping in and the young batch is just filling up.
When Shahid and I had stepped in, the Gen-next had just about shown its presence. There were not enough actors of our age to work opposite and we both faced that situation initially. Now fortunately things are changing. The more the merrier.
Lastly, give us three good reasons to watch Welcome to Sajjanpur.
One because I am in it, two because it's a Shyam Benegal film and, finally, because it's great film.