Sanya Malhotra on tackling the perceptions of widowhood in her recent Netflix release Pagglait
The recent Netflix release Pagglait has received a critical nod and is a story of a widow who's unable to shed tears for her husband's demise
Surrounded by a household filled with devastated cries and mourning faces, yet, unable to grieve the loss of her late husband, Pagglait is a story of a young widow, Sandhya, played by Sanya Malhotra. Despite treading on the morbid realities of death and gloom, which make the central premise of the film, the makers eloquently capture the irony of life — and death — through a gracefully-embroidered sense of humour. When her husband from a five-month old marriage passes away, Sandhya doesn’t shed bucket-loads of tears or skip meals, instead, she finds solace in a comforting packet of extra-spicy chips and a bottle of Pepsi. It’s these quirks and nuances that make Pagglait a heartwarming social commentary on the celebration of life, while mourning loss.
'Pagglait' is an unusual word. What does it mean to you?
To me, it means taking a leap of faith and doing what you want to do in life. Finding your crazy.
What has been one such crazy moment in your life?
I think the day I decided to move to Mumbai and become an actor. That was a dream. Growing up, I was a shy kid. I never told anyone around me that I wanted to be an actor. When I told my father, he was very supportive. But my mother was like, “Beta, please do post-graduation first.” I had to tell her, no, mummy. Just like Sandhya, I took a train (instead of a bus), to pursue my calling.
Your character in the film goes through a gamut of unconventional emotions. She sees her world fall apart in front of her, yet, there’s a sense of disconnect from the chaos that unfolds. How did Sanya find Sandhya?
The director, Umesh Bisht, helped me come closer to Sandhya — not just physically, but mentally as well. It was really important to get her psychology right. She is going through a gamut of emotions but she is also not aware of them. Maybe, she is aware of them subconsciously but doesn’t want to come to terms with them. She knows that she was in a loveless marriage but projected otherwise. It takes Astik’s death for her to realise all that was wrong with her life. And I did not have a memory bank that could help me understand Sandhya, so it was very important for me to create that with Umesh sir. I used to write journals, as Sandhya, and create elaborate back stories. After a point, I even started writing poems from her point of view. And I’m not even a writer. I told Umesh Sir, that as Sandhya, I write much better (laughs). Through my journaling, what I discovered was that Sandhya is aware of the feelings she puts on paper but she doesn’t have the strength to face them in real life. I have no similarities with the character whatsoever, though I have to say I learned a lot from her. We finished the film last year in January, and then we went into a lockdown, which was definitely a time for introspection. But while I was doing the film, I did not realise the impact that the character had on me. As an actor, I try very hard to divorce my own life from the character’s. I don’t know if that gets translated on screen. But my motive is to completely live my character’s life for that duration.
The film unfolds after the demise of Astik, Sandhya’s husband. But we never get to see him in the film. Was it difficult for you as a character to establish a connect with a character that’s non-existent?
It was. I wanted a face for Astik. They are in a loveless relationship. In a scene with Akanksha, she says, “It’s because of you he never looked at me.” I actually Google-d a random guy’s picture and considered him as Astik. I imagined the character as someone who would constantly be on his laptop, never look at his wife and perhaps was still in love with Akanksha. Ashutosh (Rana, he plays father-in-law to Sanya’s character Sandhya) had an interesting theory about the character. He says Astik, which means a believer in Hindi, is a feeling. When that feeling goes missing from a household, how do family members cope?
Sandhya has an interesting relationship with Sayani Gupta’s character Akanksha, who was the ‘other woman’ in Astik’s life. Did you make a conscious effort to not portray that relationship stereotypically?
The two characters are written beautifully. They are emotionally mature. And it is in a very real space too. While she is angry and jealous, she also feels inspired by Akanksha. They find friendship in their differences. When she confronts the character, she is jealous. But when she is describing the character to others, she says Akanksha is so beautiful and thin. Once that friendship grows, she realises that Akanksha too has lost Astik and is grieving, but is still living life on her own terms. Sandhya looks up to these aspects of her life; she thinks that even she wanted to lead a similar life, but her mother never let her.
The film is centred on the idea of grief and how people experience it in different ways. It celebrates life even as one mourns loss. Is there a template to grief?
I felt a lot for the character. I have never experienced this emotion in my life. As Sanya, I know I would handle it differently. Keeping in mind all the circumstances she has been through, she wants to grieve, she has experienced it earlier but is unable to feel the same emotions again. She compares this situation to the time when she lost her cat and she cried and did not eat a morsel. She knows that something is wrong with her because she is unable to grieve in the same way. And there’s a whole pressure that builds up, adding a strange sense of humour to the whole situation. The beautiful part of the film is that everyone in the family is deals with grief differently, which goes to show that there is no set template for grief. We process it differently, at different times in our lives.
From Badhai Ho to Ludo and now Pagglait, you’ve been a part of many strong ensemble casts. What has been your learning from working with so many different actors?
I never learned acting. I am learning on the job. With every film that I do, I am learning something. I am extremely grateful that I am getting to work with such amazing actors. The one thing I have learned is when you are doing a scene with a very good actor, it never feels like you’re mouthing dialogues; you just feel completely present in the moment and simply react to them, with all honesty.
Arijit Singh has made his debut as a music composer with the film. Does music have an impact on an actor’s performance?
There is a sequence in the film where my character finds Akanksha’s picture in the cupboard. Arijit (Singh, singer) was still working on the music when that scene was being shot and he was working on the soundtrack of Dil Udd Ja Re. As an actor, it made all the difference to hear such a moving track. It helped me tremendously to get into the character when I would listen to that song. It was a kind of a psychological trigger for me to get into the character. It’s extremely special that Arijit has made a debut as a composer with this film. The soundtrack helps elevate the performances. It doesn’t feel like a copy-paste from other songs.
The film may have been made for a theatrical release, but is now screened on Netflix. As an actor, does it change anything for you?
It doesn’t. Honestly, it’s gratifying. 2020 changed our lives, and OTTs were a breath of fresh air. Two of my films released on OTT last year — Ludo and Shakuntala Devi. They received so much love. Obviously, theatre has its own charm and that won’t ever change. I never used to take the box office pressure anyway. Because if amid all the pressures you start thinking of numbers as well, then you won’t be able to do anything.
Do you consciously look for strong, female characters?
I am attracted to these characters. As an audience, I love watching such women on screen. As an actor, I think somewhere it is my responsibility to inspire young women who are watching films.
You are five years old in the film industry. What has worked for you as an outsider carving her way in?
Patience… a lot of it. To be honest, I never felt like an outsider. It may have something to do with the fact that I started with a film like Dangal, which was successful. It made things easy. I didn’t imagine my life panning out so beautifully after that. I definitely put pressure on myself as an actor, but apart from that, the industry has been supportive.