Yami Gautam: Why can’t we focus on creating better cinema?

The Indian actor has shot six films this year, got married, moved into a new house, and refused to submit unquestioningly to the celebrity culture that rules Bollywood

By Kaveree Bamzai

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Photo: @yamigautam/Instagram
Photo: @yamigautam/Instagram

Published: Thu 18 Nov 2021, 11:54 AM

2012 was a good year for Hindi cinema.

There was an infusion of fresh blood in the industry, a cluster of new directors, and some unusual ideas.

At one end of the spectrum were the big star launches in Karan Johar's The Student of the Year, which saw the careers of Alia Bhatt, Varun Dhawan and Siddharth Malhotra taking off.

At the other end of the spectrum was a tiny film with a refreshing new plot and two unusual leads from Chandigarh, one a former radio and TV host, and the other a soap opera regular who decided to give it up despite the steady money.

Both films did well and the careers of all took flight. Except Yami Gautam.

The actor, now 33, reflects on it. "Here I was expecting to be flooded with amazing opportunities.”

Instead, she was told, she looked too mature because she had played a divorcee in the movie.

"I didn't get it," says Yami, flashing her spectacular smile. "That was the character I had to play and that's what we're here to do, isn't it?"

Not quite, she realised, as she went from meeting to meeting, getting lots of advice but no work. Maybe you should do an item song, said someone. Perhaps you should do a photo shoot on a bike to look tough, said another. You need to do a more conventional film, said yet another.

She did all that, seeking and getting some good parts. There was a cameo in Sriram Raghavan's Badlapur (2015) and the role of a blind girl in Sanjay Gupta's Kaabil (2017) opposite Hrithik Roshan.

"Still, things weren't working out," she recalls. That's when she decided, she would go back to the Yami who had first come to Mumbai with dreams of finessing her craft.

In 2019, she showed her range, playing the short haired, no-nonsense officer working for Research & Analytical Wing (R&AW) — India’s foreign intelligence agency — in Uri: The Surgical Strike, directed by the man who would become her husband this year, Aditya Dhar, and becoming the flaky, superficial TikTok star Pari in Bala, who is all surface, shine and superficiality.

She hasn't looked back since, as she starts shooting for her sixth film of the year, with Maddock Films.

Bhoot Police, a supernatural thriller with Saif Ali Khan and Arjun Kapoor, has already been released. And the plethora of films is testament to her hard work and her hard-earned bankability.

There is Dasvi, a social thriller where she plays a Haryanvi police officer with Abhishek Bachchan and Nirmat Kaur; A Thursday, where she is a kindergarten teacher who takes her class hostage; Lost with Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, where she is a crime journalist; and Oh My God 2 with Akshay Kumar and Pankaj Tripathi.

"It's been a joy observing such great actors like Pankaj Tripathi and Pankaj Kapur in Lost, as well as Dimple Kapadia in A Thursday. These are actors whose benchmark is so high and it is so nice to collaborate with them to do something different," she says.

She wishes that Hindi cinema was all about that rather than the parties to attend, the red carpets to show up on, and the airport looks to be followed intently by the paparazzi. It's all so pointless and so expensive, she notes.

"It's a structure that is so strong that it can't be broken by just one person," she notes. "Today, with OTT, if you're talented you will get opportunities. But at the time we made our debuts in 2012 there wasn’t so much going on. It does play on your mind, puts every doubt in you. Are you in the right place? Is it worth it? What if I had remained in Chandigarh? Is it just me who is feeling it?" she thinks aloud.

She is relieved that she is not. She says when she speaks to her contemporaries most of them feel the same awkwardness around the extraneous things.

"Everyone is so simple," she says, "so why do we have a culture that makes it seem our work depends on these things? Why can't we focus on making more interesting characters, bettering our craft and creating more relevant cinema?"

Post-pandemic, she feels people are ready and open to having these conversations, about not creating complications, not burdening actors with the celebrity culture.

The less you know about me the better it is for me to play someone else, she says. Her patience has paid off, as has her confidence about her talent and her consistency at work.

"I realised I have to shift gears and come back to the same Yami I was when I was fearless," she says.

After all, she was doing reasonably well in television. But working 60 hours a stretch was gruelling.

"I took a conscious decision to go back home and reboot," she recalls, with work coming her way in print ads, in catalogues and a Kannada movie.

An audition that was shown to Shoojit Sircar got her the role of a divorcee in Vicky Donor with Ayushmann Khurrana, a family friend from Chandigarh - with his mother-in-law being her English teacher at one point in Maharaja Yadavindra Public School in Mohali.

Life has been good for both Khurrana and Yami, who also moved into a new house in Mumbai in a busy year.

As for those naysayers who gave her career advice all those years ago? She says: "They seem to have very short memories. Pouf!" We always knew you'd do well; they say to her now.

With source material like this, can an actor ever be short of inspiration?

(The author is a senior journalist and author, most recently of 'The Three Khans and the Emergence of New India')

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