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Making an assured debut

following in the footsteps: Strong female role models at home, such as grandmother Usha Kiran, were a source of inspiration for Saiyami Kher. —Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

following in the footsteps: Strong female role models at home, such as grandmother Usha Kiran, were a source of inspiration for Saiyami Kher. —Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury   | Photo Credit: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Actor Saiyami Kher will soon be seen in her first film Mirzya, a retelling of the Mirza-Sahiban legend

Saiyami Kher would like everyone to know the correct way to pronounce her name. No wonder she greets us with a smile: “It’s good to meet someone who pronounces it properly. I’ve given up correcting people now.” Her name is rooted in the Hindi/Sanskrit word “Sanyam” (it rhymes with yum, not yaam), meaning different, yet somewhat related things as per the context: patience, moderation, restraint.

Dressed unfussily in a simple denim dress, her distinctive curls shimmer in the dimly-lit cabin at Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s office in Bandra, where we meet to discuss her Hindi film debut, Mirzya, a dual-universe retelling of the Mirza-Sahiban legend. The film also marks Gulzar’s return to screenwriting after 17 years.

Role models galore

Kher speaks casually, but deliberately — like a college kid who is at the brink of fame, yet completely self-aware of its trappings.

“I speak very little in front of elders in the industry. So Shabana mausi chided me that I must be very good with promoting the film. Thankfully, that’s not a challenge. It’s been a life-changing, two-and-a-half year journey. I can’t stop talking about it,” the newcomer says.

Actor Shabana Azmi is one of three female role-models through whom Kher is connected to the industry. Azmi is sister-in-law to actor Tanvi Azmi, Saiyami’s paternal aunt. The third, and perhaps closest link is Kher’s grandmother, Usha Kiran, who worked for over 40 years in the Marathi and Hindi film industries, and won the first Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress for Baadbaan in 1955. Says Kher, “To me, having such strong role models at home, such as my grandmother who earned while my grandfather couldn’t, is the definition of feminism.”

However, these connections did not help Kher land the lead role. Over six months, she went for ten ‘blind’ auditions before she was finally chosen.“I’m a huge fan of Gulzarsaab. I blush like a schoolgirl when I hear his name. I could not even turn the first page of the script for three days. I would keep staring at the first page with his name on it,” she says.

Moving through time

I ask her to quote a favourite line from the film and Kher asks if she can quote four. But first, she explains, “This is not a re-incarnation film. The story of Mirzya is told across two parallel universes: separate, but interwoven.”

One is set in a fantasy world, shot in Ladakh, and is a close retelling of the original legend of Mirza-Sahiban, where she plays Sahiban. The second is shot in modern-day Rajasthan, where Kher plays Suchi. A loharon ki gali [blacksmiths’ lane] serves as a third backdrop for the narration by Om Puri. It’s here that we hear the lines, “Chingariyan udti hain bhatti se, jaise waqt mutthi khol kar lamhe udata hai”. (Sparks fly from the furnace as if time is unfurling its fists to fritter away moments.) Kher smiles at the fine texture of the words as they roll off her tongue. “You know, Rakeysh sir is very possessive of Gulzar saab. I only met him after two years of working on the film. He praised my performance. I told him to please stop; I just couldn’t handle it.”

Sports to films

It’s easy to assume that she grew up in a world of films and glamour. That is far from the truth. “My favourite film is Abhimaan. But I watched my first film only when I was 13. My parents [both models] shifted to Nashik. They wanted to protect me from all this so I could have a normal upbringing. They still live there. Nashik is where I go to get my oxygen,” says the actor. So how did acting happen? “I was fond of playing sports. I played badminton at the state level and a couple of other sports. That’s how I ended up at Xavier’s in Mumbai. I love cricket! Even now, I play cricket every weekend.”

Eventually, Kher realised she couldn’t do sports full-time and took to theatre. A few modelling stints came her way, such as the Kingfisher calendar shoot, but it was acting that attracted her. “Modelling is simple. You just stand in front of the camera, go to nice locations and get paid well,” she says. Acting is difficult, she admits, but rewarding.

Working her way

Kher did three months of workshops in Delhi under the tutelage of theatre stalwarts Dilip Shankar and Adil Hussain. I ask her about the most challenging thing she had to do during the workshops. “Every day was intense, because we would do about four hours of workshops. But one day, Dilip sir said we’d do a shorter, but more difficult exercise. He told me to copy whatever he did and keep smiling while doing it. And then, without warning, he slapped me hard across the face. I was taken aback, but he asked me to heed the instructions,” says Kher. The actor had to then respond to the violent act. “I could only land a soft slap across his face. He asked me to slap him as hard as he had, or he’d keep repeating it until I could.” Eventually, after getting repeatedly slapped, she broke down completely. “I was crying and random memories were flashing in front of my eyes, such as my mom shouting at me in my childhood.”

I ask her if she’d do an issue-based film such as Pink, which has been in the news lately. “I loved Pink. You know, I have opinions but I like keeping them to myself. I’d rather be an agent of change. I hate armchair critics; I vote, I plant a tree every birthday, and I try to look at positive stories. Yes, it might be true, for example, that intolerance is increasing. But it would be nice if the media highlighted stories of those who are making a difference as well.”

What’s next, then? “I’ve signed Mani [Ratnam] sir’s next film, which will begin shooting next year.” Is there a list of things she covets that she will make good on, now that she ostensibly has the money to procure whatever she desires? “I am not really materialistic. I’d love to buy an expensive car. But for now, I’m planning to buy a Bullet.”

Shubhodeep Pal is a Mumbai-based freelance writer

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 7:38:34 AM |

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