Bollywood: Manushi Chhillar on going from Miss World to a princess in 'Prithviraj'

The historical film also stars Akshay Kumar.


Enid Grace Parker

Published: Wed 1 Jun 2022, 5:52 PM

Last updated: Wed 1 Jun 2022, 5:55 PM

When you win one of the most prestigious pageants in the world as a vibrant 20-year-old and literally have the world at your feet, what accomplishment could possibly top that?

In the tradition of famous beauty queens from India who have gone on to establish successful careers as actors, like Aishwarya Rai and Priyanka Chopra, Manushi Chhillar’s Miss World win in 2017 was just the beginning of what promises to be a long time in the spotlight, if the scale of her debut film is anything to go by.

Manushi - a former student of medicine - is starring alongside Bollywood stalwart Akshay Kumar in the much hyped Yash Raj Films’ big-budget historical film Prithviraj, releasing Friday, June 3, in the UAE.

She takes on the role of Princess Sanyogita, the great love and wife of 12th century Indian warrior and king Samrat Prithviraj Chauhan (played by Akshay), whose heroism and daredevilry made him one of the most legendary rulers in the country. Sanjay Dutt and Sonu Sood also play pivotal roles in Prithviraj, which is directed by Dr. Chandraprakash Dwivedi, famous for television series Chanakya and the multi-award winning film Pinjar.

In a Zoom interview ahead of the film’s release, the stunning actress said the opportunity of working in a film like Prithviraj (“you don’t get to choose a film like that, it chooses you”), was what tipped the scales in favour of an acting career.

“It was very clear when I started out that acting was not something I saw as a profession to pursue, because I come from a very different world. I grew up in an environment where all my friends and everyone from my family understood the life where you pass out of school, you get a professional degree through a good college, and then you pursue a profession in either medicine, law, engineering or maybe the civil services.”

Manushi shared how she was “very happy” with her initial ambitions of becoming a doctor and had planned her life accordingly.

“I think I was very sure what my life would be five or ten years down the line; it’s true that I never grew up actively thinking that I wanted to become an actor.”

A turning point

Winning the Miss World crown in 2017 was obviously a turning point in her life.

“Of course, things changed for me after I won Miss World. You get a certain level of popularity; I knew that I wasn’t going to be a ‘normal’ student again. A student requires some kind of privacy which I felt I didn’t have. It was also sweet that people were celebrating and showering their love… it’s very difficult to explain but once you are in that situation it (life) is not the same again.”

She explained how once the opportunity came it was so big that there was “no looking back”. She was advised by her family as well as former educators and others to seriously consider the options her newfound popularity had brought her.

And that’s how Princess Sanyogita came into Manushi’s life! How did she feel about playing such a popular and well-loved historical figure whose romance with a 12th century king was immortalized in an epic poem, Prithviraj Raso, by Prithviraj’s court poet Chand Bardai?

“Princess Sanyogita is a character that we have all grown up with, and we’re all very familiar with the story of Samrat Prithviraj Chauhan. We’ve listened to different versions of it (the story), certain versions more romanticized than the others. It was a very exciting story that I had read for the first time as a kid. There is a lot of love and understanding already of these figures; I think we all, as actors, want to do a few characters that live with people for a long time and I feel this is that character.”

Importance of authenticity

Audiences especially in this age of social media and the Internet, tend to be finicky about attention to detail when it comes to historical films. How did the Prithviraj team ensure authenticity in portrayals and did Manushi feel any pressure to get her performance right?

“I will give a lot of credit to our director as well as Yash Raj Films for that. They converted an entire floor into a research wing. And the strength of a director like Dr. Chandraprakash Dwivedi is the fact that he is so well read and so well versed with whatever he is doing. We all call him doctor saab because he also studied medicine; I feel he has still not left the habit of studying and reading that you pick up in college.

“And of course… none of us were present in the 12th century when all of this actually happened but our reference point is Prithviraj Raso; I think it’s an epic from Chand Bardai and everyone else that claimed to have been present during that time. And when you read a book like that which is so vast and detailed, there is a lot of understanding that you have to develop as well. So doctor saab has constantly researched every little detail, even what embroidery would be there on the clothes, what kind of a turban would be worn; even weapons… I still remember that there are certain kind of swords that were introduced later in India. They focused on every little detail, so somewhere that pressure was taken off from us as actors.”

However, she said, because people have a reference point in their heads it was important for her to match up to their expectations and play Princess Sanyogita in a “convincing” manner. “We all are living in a contemporary world but you want people to accept you as the character you are portraying. My aim was not only to become the Princess Sanyogita doctor saab has written and how he has visualised her based on Prithviraj Raso, but also the perception or image that people (who have grown up reading the stories) have of her. So to match up to that, was the bigger pressure here.”

‘Wonderful’ working with Akshay

Ask Manushi about her illustrious co-star Akshay Kumar (who debuted in the Hindi film industry way before she was even born), and she is all praise for his work ethic.

“It was obviously wonderful working with him! He’s very senior; today he is one of the biggest superstars in our country. He’s been around for 31 years and in an industry that changes so quickly, if you’ve managed to maintain a certain kind of standing for so long, there is something really commendable about that.”

She commented on how Akshay (by his own admission) has worked with the most number of newcomers in Bollywood and she happened to be the 22nd. “Because he’s so comfortable with the whole environment and so familiar with everything, somewhere that helps you as a newcomer because he understands your challenges; he understands that you are new on set and still trying to make sense of everything. He would always make sure that I am comfortable on set and not too confused or overwhelmed with so much happening.”

Manushi also revealed how Akshay, renowned for his professional discipline, likes to balance out work with having fun as well. “He always says, if you’re only taking back home stress and anxiety from your work, you will burn out very soon. Instead, if you enjoy your work, you will be able to do it for a longer period of time.”

In parting, Manushi expressed hope that fans in the UAE would accept her as Princess Sanyogita in Prithviraj and encouraged them to watch the film with their families. “I’m very excited and I hope everyone else is also excited! This is the first time I have attempted acting, so I am a little nervous but I hope that people love the movie and like my performance!”

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