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Optimism is her forte

Sonali Bendre digresses from mainstream to niche cinema with Amol Palekar's period drama, "Anaahat". She talks to GOWRI RAMNARAYAN about it.

Sonali Bendre in Amol Palekar's "Anaahat" (Eternity), a period drama.

AT NO time in the history of Indian cinema have barriers between niche and mainstream films been so fluid as now, with crossovers among actors of both genres. The Aamir Khans and Aishwarya Rais want to work with a Deepa Mehta, a Rituparno Ghosh. Glam girl Sonali Bendre, distinguished for a whole series of box office flops, follows the trend in Amol Palekar's "Anaahat" ("Eternity"), slated for July 2003 release, a period drama set in the 10th century, though purporting to deal with contemporary issues.

Bendre will have to prove her mettle with seasoned actors, Anant Nag and Deepti Naval, in a film whose story is yet undisclosed, but commended by those-in-the-know for its singular script and subtext of dhrupad music. Censorship hurdles are predicted — doesn't the film raise issues on woman's sexuality?

Towards the end of the month-long shoot among the Vijayanagar ruins, Hampi, you watch Bendre in confident action before the camera.

Between shots she is relaxed enough to be interviewed, maintaining some areas of privacy (``HIV affected children? It's a cause close to my heart but I don't want to publicise it.''). Here are excerpts from the interview.

The first thing people say about you is, ``She's lovely!'' In the same breath they invariably add, ``What a flop star!'' How did you find the grit to go on despite continual failure?

Looking coolly at statistics, I don't think anyone with my kind of flops has ever survived in the film industry. The bigger surprise is that I kept getting offers — perhaps not the kind I'd want. Smooth transitions too — from modelling to films, films to television, and while finishing my TV stint I was listening to Amol Palekar's script in a different kind of cinema. So there was no quit-and-start-again process, no time to mope or brood.

The downslides did not depress you?

I am an optimist at heart. Besides, I could feel myself growing with every film I did — good, bad, horrible... (Thoughtfully) Learning what NOT to do was quite painful.

How did you learn that? After all, you worked with some established directors, and top stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan.

Obviously that was not enough. I learnt that I must never do a film unless I am convinced about the subject. "Zakhm"' and "Angarey" were not flops, but I enjoyed even "Tera Mera Saath Rahen" which didn't do too well at the box office. There was nothing to the story in "Jis Desh Mein Ganga Rehta Hai", but I was dancing with Govinda, and everyone was saying, ``My God, she can dance!'' Each film posed its own challenges so that I enjoyed learning.

You can learn and grow with one or two setbacks. But repeated fiascos?

I have this extra source of strength, a very, very middle class Maharashtrian family. I didn't know what an advantage it was until people around me started exclaiming, ``My God, she's so well grounded!'' It has kept my balance, my sanity.

My mother is a housewife, my father was a government official with a transferable job, which meant that we `roamed' all over India. My parents are not into films, half the time they don't know which film I'm doing. This is the first time they are with me on location, and "Anaahat" was the only film they said I must take up, and I thought, ``Wow! At last I've got a reaction out of them!'' I love reading. That helps too.

You were so spontaneous in "Kya Masti Kya Dhum", and got the participants — both star guests and youngsters — to interact naturally, making a mediocre TV show stand out.

I took it up because it was for kids and I love their company. I wanted a lot more in the show, maybe my ideas were not practical or commercially viable for the channel. But to be honest, by the end of the 52nd show I was going through the format with eyes closed. You can't fool around with TV deadlines either, which is fine, but after a while you need some flexibility. I had to do other things too. I got married last November — and now "Anaahat"...

Any reason to take up a Marathi film other than that it is an Amol Palekar project?

To be honest, it is almost solely because this is Amolji's project. At first it wasn't even decided that the film would be in Marathi. After reading the script I asked him at least five times ``Why me'' not because I lacked confidence, but nobody had ever approached me with this kind of role, because of my image, my flops, whatever...

You were noted in "Sarfarosh" even though it was Aamir Khan's film all the way. Maybe before this you didn't look out for different kinds of roles.

Yes, I've never gone out aggressively and said this is what I want to do. But Amolji told me that in spite of being a Bollywood star I have a certain vulnerability, which is what he wanted for his character.

Did you wonder if you were asked because you would look good in a period film?

Actually I never knew I had a good figure until I got into the industry. After that no one let me forget it. In "Anaahat" too I did think they wanted someone with a good figure to set off the costumes. But after the costume trial I realised that I was not here for `skin show' or titillation. That's when I said okay, now I truly believe that the director did not want me for glitz, but for whatever he found in my face — vulnerability or dignity... and not, NOT for the figure. It was a great feeling!

But you haven't yet done a role where you can be proud of having done something significant.

I always hoped I'd do it one day. The other option was to do totally deglamourised roles in niche cinema. I don't want to do niche cinema for the heck of it. I want to do a script I love, a role I'm happy about, a shoot that I'd enjoy. I have been approached earlier with scripts that promised to be different but I realised that they too wanted me for my looks. Or I may have been too young to play a serious, complex character. I suppose everything has its time and maybe my time is now.

Do you think a regional film like "Anaahat" will change things for you?

I don't want any drastic change! And regional film? That's no limitation. Don't you make the effort to see good foreign films?

Let me put it this way — has "Anaahat" changed your perspective in any way?

Oh yes. Now I realise I should have been doing this kind of film all along. I am happier, more comfortable as a human being, I enjoy talking to the people around me. It is lovely to work with someone sensitive and caring like Amolji. One has heard so much about Anant Nag and Deepti Naval, they have a body of work and high reputation. Working with them was just a little daunting... I feel this more at the end than at the start. I told Amolji I was insecure, and he said, trust me, you were right on cue first time so it's okay. All the same... Anyway, everyone has her own way of doing things and I'm discovering the way I work.

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