Banita Sandhu Interview: Shiuli is a better person than I am

Finding the right Hindi film with the right director is always a difficult job for a newcomer, more so when she belongs to a world which has minimal exposure to Bollywood. Debutante Banita Sandhu feels lucky in that regard. She did not only bag a content-driven film like October but also got an opportunity to work with an ace filmmaker like Shoojit Sircar in her maiden Bollywood venture. Recently, our Mumbai correspondent, Mohnish Singh, caught up with the actress to know more about her experience with Shoojit Sircar, co-star Varun Dhawan, and a lot more.

What’s your first memory of Bollywood?

My first interaction with Bollywood was through my Mom. She is an avid fan. Hindi songs play in the backgrounds when she cooks. I have watched all the Hindi classics with actors like Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai, and, of course, (Sanjay Leela) Bhansali films.

How did you come to decide to take on the role of Shiuli in October?

When I was about 12 or 13, I started getting more independent. I started choosing what I want to watch and that’s when I diverted towards European and American cinema because of the language barrier. That is one of the main reasons why I never considered Bollywood as an industry I could have worked in because I didn’t think that I’d be able to do justice to a role. When October happened, I didn’t expect it at all but, at the same time, it just made so much sense and it would have been stupid of me to say no to this film because Shoojit Sircar was behind it so I knew I would do a good job. No matter what and when you see the film it makes so much sense.

What was the biggest challenge while shooting this film?

I think the language was definitely a challenge. That’s something we worked hard for. We were both very stubborn when I signed this film that we didn’t want someone else dubbing me, because there is so much in this performance that we did not want it to be taken away by something like a voice. There is also the matter of juggling University. I thought it would be easy. I am in my final year. It’s been quite difficult. I was studying before coming here, but if you give up your social life, you can manage quite fine.

How did dialogue delivery prove to be a difficult task for you?

Dialogue delivery was difficult in the sense that it wasn’t even the Hindi that was the worst part, but I think my British accent when I speak in English proved to be a bit of a problem. So, I would say a Hindi line and I would sound perfectly Indian and then as soon as I have one English word come after and that’s when the accent comes up. Kind of perfecting that was difficult.

Did you hire anyone to learn Hindi?

Yes, I was offered the film about a year before we started the filming, so I hired a tutor immediately, but when you live in London and everyone is speaking English around you, it’s pretty much impossible to pick up a language. I was practising two to three hours in a week and still, it wasn’t enough. I called Shoojit sir, quite worried, and told him that this isn’t working, I don’t know what to do. That’s when we started the Skype sessions. Even if it was just speaking to his assistant director and we weren’t speaking Hindi, just English, hearing that accent every single day, helps you get into that mindset and by the time I came to Delhi and we shot the film, I was the only British person and I was surrounded by everyone who was Indian and they were all speaking Hindi so I picked it up.

The trailer of October says that “it’s not a love story but a story about love.” What is your comment on that?

It also says in the October trailer to feel and experience October, so you have to experience October. This film does not have a single thread narrative story. This is about a situation, a small emotion between people and it gradually spreads through all the characters and slowly you start connecting with the characters and relating to that situation. My job is going to be, when you watch the film, to transport you to that world.

When was the first time you visited India?

The first time I came to India was when I was 18 years old. I came by myself and it was my first summer of University. I got the opportunity to come here to do some more advertisements in Mumbai. I thought I would get to do ads and explore my heritage. It seemed like a win-win situation. I came to do ads and left with a film, which I didn’t expect.

Have you seen any film of Varun Dhawan?

He hates me for that, but I had no idea who he was before. Like I said my interaction with Bollywood was through my Mom so the vision I had of Bollywood was her generation, but when I signed for the film, I did my research. I got to know who the young actors are and now I know who he is.

Do you see yourself walking in the industry farther?

Yes, for sure. I honestly think I have been so lucky and blessed with this film because not only do I have a great director, an amazing writer and a great co-star also. I feel like I hit the jackpot. So it’s going to be very difficult to find another film that is on the level, even worldwide. But I am very picky and I have a lot of faith that the industry is progressing towards good content films.

What’s your idea of love?

I am very young, so I haven’t really experienced. I mean, I have had crushes but that’s not love, that’s lust. I feel like the only love I experienced in my life is the one I have with my family and especially my Mom. You know, that unconditional love, especially on her part. I love her unconditionally too, but how much she does for me, I can never compare to anyone. That kind of love is portrayed in the film also.

How much do you relate to your character in the movie?

Shiuli is a much better person than I am (laughs). At first, I really struggled to connect with her. I remember coming to Delhi to discuss everything, and we were up till midnight – on the film with Juhi for hours, because I couldn’t connect with her. We have a lot of similarities too, as in we are both very focused, driven and quite mature for our age.

I was given Shiuli at the time of my life when I was ridden with anxiety. I was 19 and dealing with University at the same time. I didn’t know where my life was going to go and to be honest, I had a lot of teenage angst during that time. Shoojit spotted it straight away and advised me to calm down. He said you need to slow down and meditate because she (Shiuli) is such a centred, grounded non-frivolous character that to become her, I feel like I became a better person through the process.

Have you seen Shoojit Sircar’s previous work?

Oh yes, you see I did an ad with him before. And before that, I watched Piku, Vicky Donor and others. Even if I had not seen his films and I had to make the judgement on whether to do this film based on that week I worked with him, I would have said yes. Once you have worked with him, it’s a given that you would want to work with him again and again.

How was it working with Varun Dhawan?

Varun is the best co-star I could have asked for and it’s not because of his fan following or his success at the box office, but it’s genuinely because he is a very nice and humble person, and it was so easy to work with him because, for him, it was very much like a first film as well. He has never done anything like this. You are going to see a completely new side of him. That’s why I say this film is going to shock people. So for him and I, to go through that process together, the relationship we formed because of it is something so special and unique that no one else apart from us will ever understand it.