Neha Sharma shares, "You can't compare your life to another person and the advantage in their lives."
Nearly a year after her Voot Select web series Illegal, Neha Sharma has featured in a short film titled Vikalp. In the film directed by Dheeraj Jindal, the actor plays the character of Shivani, a survivor of sexual harassment at the workplace. She gets harassed by her boss in the hard-hitting film which has an open ending. Neha plays the role impeccably which leaves a lasting impression. Soon after the release, the actor exclusively spoke to OTTplay about Vikalp by Large Short Films, overcoming obstacles in the industry in her decade long journey.
Vikalp is a hard-hitting film that talks about sexual harassment. It has been a topic of discussion for years now, but not many survivors talk about it. What were your thoughts when the project came to you?
Honestly, when I was told that they are trying to do a film like this because it is a very sensitive topic, it needs to be made right. A lot of people are going to say a lot of things. But when I heard it, I was like, this is something that needs to be made. It can be a small effort from the outside, but this is just trying to make that little change in society, which is good. It brings about a certain awareness of what's going on and this is something I will do, no matter what. I know it's an open ending and there's a lot that could be said about it. People can be unhappy or happy about it. But the fact is, we are trying to make you think, we are trying to have the audience think about what's happening and the answer to what should have been done in the end. Pick up the call, go to the cops or go to her mother, all of those things. We wanted the audience who's watching it, to feel for her and feel that it's important that we talk about it. This is a change that needs to be brought about in society.
As you mentioned about the open ending, what would you have done if you were in the place of Shivani?
I'm an independent girl who has made it on her own terms, so it's very easy for me to say that, yes, I am going to go to the cops. I’d probably go to the office, create a scene and tell the whole world, slap him around or do something obnoxious in return and leave the office. I would leave the job because that could be one thing that happened at that point. But the thing is, for someone who is trying to make it, who is barely making ends meet and has left home, her comfort and everything to make it in life, in a big city, at that point might not be so easy. That's when we talk about encouragement from a close person or a friend or whatever, who could come in handy. You could be brave enough to talk about it later if you didn't have the courage. If you didn't muster the courage at that point maybe later go to the cop and tell them, take a stand because it's important to talk about it.
It's important to take a stand, hence for me, the open ending, it could go either way for two different people. But every woman should know what are the options. Then do what she could do later. Every woman will want to deal with it differently, but the point is to deal with it. You can't brush it and put it under the carpet. No, you got to talk about it, you got to figure out how you want to deal with it. There is no option of letting it brush aside, forget about it and move on. No, you cannot move on because these things tie you more mentally than physically.
Having a short film on this important subject needs to create a conversation among people. What do you have to say about the responsibility as an artist who's portraying it?
I know it could be a very small effort, it's not like it's changing the world overnight. Everybody's gonna talk about it, things are gonna change and people are going to even want to be in a better world tomorrow. No, it's not (going to happen). But at least it's a conversation starter, like how you said, we're talking about it right now. A few people, even if it's not a million people who are talking about it, will talk about it to the other few and that's how we make it a talking point. I see that changes don't happen overnight, but changes happen with all these efforts put together. So, it's a small effort but in the right direction. I feel proud as an artist that I'm trying to do that little bit that I can to make the world a better place. I see it as a good thing. Of course, responses will be making the call, people have different kinds of experiences in life. No two people can have the same experiences or the same way to deal with a situation, hence the open ending.
What are the challenges of having a runtime of 16 minutes to narrate a story?
People really don't have the time to sit through a whole film unless it's fabulous. But the short, it's a good thing, 90% of it, but like I was telling you if it was a longer film, then you probably show what her next step is. We can go like a Girl With A Dragon Tattoo route or we can go with her going to the cops, we can go with her talking to her parents explaining what she needs to do. She needs to be here, despite this, and maybe there could be another route where she gives it back to the boss in the office itself. The fact that people know that he is a scumbag and could never do this again to another woman and, of course, leave her job. It's a journey, right, which you can't show in less than 15 minutes. But the point was to convey the message and I feel shots can be very impactful as well. It makes you think because if you give an audience an ending already, there's nothing they have to think about. This kind of forces you to think about this girl and her journey. So, I feel that there are pros and cons.
Coming from a non-filmy background, did you face any obstacles in any way in these years of being a part of the industry?
I feel like it's part of any industry and every industry when you're starting from the bottom rug. You have those people trying to tell you - 'do this and I'll give you this'. But it's your choice as an individual, for me, it's very important because I'm also from a small town, so I've got my roots very intact and thankfully an upbringing where my parents taught me that the right means to the right goals are important. I have my self-worth and self-respect in my whole ideology, there's a belief system that I have. I know how I'm going to do things; it has to be on my own terms, keeping my dignity and respect, all intact. I know that this journey has been tough but looking back, I really feel proud. I feel that if you're not using things on your own isn't easy, but when you do, and when you look back on your journey, you just feel proud. And it's a great feeling.
I'm quite happy as over a decade in the industry has been good. I'm trying to do the best that I can with whatever I have to learn over the years. You learn from your own experiences, grow, make better choices and better decisions. It's not gonna be easy, because it's not only here, but everywhere. When you talk about networking, I know that word is abused - nepotism, I don't want to use that word. But when I say, even in any workplace you favour your people because it's just an instinctive thing. You're protective of your family, so those things will happen anywhere, you have to fight it, but you have to kind of do the best that you can with the opportunities that you get. You can't compare your life to another person and the advantage in their lives. They've got what they brought, and you've got what you've got and have to make the most of it.
There are going to be troubles in every industry. So you go through all of that as an actor when there's rejection and you feel bad, but it's okay. There could be other opportunities and even create opportunities that would come your way. I'm just saying that it's overall not an easy line to be thought of. But I'm glad that I'm part of it because I believe in cinema, I'm passionate about it, I enjoy going to the set and working. It's been a lovely journey and it's been a lot of learning experience too.
You are among the first few to feature in a short film with Kriti back in 2016. Back then did you have any inhibitions on starring in a short film?
Like I was discussing earlier, maybe someone from the industry could get 20 opportunities but I'm not that lucky. If I get five things that I get to pick from I pick the different one. Whenever an opportunity comes, which I feel is very interesting and there's an interesting story to be told like doing a music video. When I did it, music videos were not a thing and even with Kriti, no one was doing it short at that time. But we decided to do a short which was talking about that particular story, and I felt it was a great story to be told. When Shirish (Kunder)and Manoj (Bajpayee) were working on it and asked me to do the role, I loved to be a part of it. I've never shied away from doing something that's not the conventional thing to do because I feel everyone's got their own journey and there is no success formula. You just got to do what you believe in and honestly, that's the best thing to do because you enjoy doing it. At that point, all the choices that I've made, they've either taught me a lot or they just have been an amazing experience.
You play a lawyer who is fighting for women in Illegal and in Vikalp, you are a survivor. What do you have to say about the shift in dynamics of your character?
It's obviously a different journey for both the characters. When I talk about Niharika (in Illegal), she's an independent girl from Delhi and Bengaluru. She is someone who can muster the courage to fight a guy like JJ even though she's an employee. She believes in herself; she has a mother who believes in her. She also has a best friend who she lives with as her support system. Her journey is very different from Shivani's journey because the latter was all concerned about a small town and probably doesn't have parents who sat with her and encouraged her every minute. It might have been a big struggle for her to leave the small town and come to a big city, try to make her ends meet, share a room with a roommate. I don't know if they can afford the place, they're trying to work and somehow do what they believe in.
So Niharika and Shivani have totally different journeys. But both these women honestly, one of them is a fighter while the other wanted to survive, it's been a real joy playing such different women with such powerful narratives. I have really had a good time, it's never easy, playing a survivor because shooting for those two days left me shaking for a few days. I felt really vulnerable, it is traumatizing to some extent. You become that person, so getting over that is one thing. Then again, when I was dealing with Maher Salam case in Illegal, every time I was in the prison room, sitting with Kubbra Sait's character, I was asked to go through the pain and trauma that she had gone through. The process is very different for an actor because you have to feel all those things, you become that person. It's never easy, but it's very fulfilling in the end when people watch it and when they say that they really enjoyed it, they found it real, and they felt the emotions.
Is Illegal 2 on the cards?
I am shooting right now for it, and we are looking at the end of October for its release.
You have been very choosy about your projects, what is it that you look at in a script before saying yes?
Honestly, I'm trying to make the best choices from the choices that are offered. This is something that I've believed in always, you probably might not be as lucky to get the best-written role with best-written scripts. But when the script does come to me, I go with my gut. Like if I feel that this story is amazing, this character is amazing, this is something that I want to give my sweat and blood to, I do at the end of the day.
I felt when I started, I had too many people telling me to do this and do that. There are a few films which I did, which I didn't believe in and I didn't like watching. When I was watching, I was like, 'Oh God, why?!' I then realized that I don't want to fail, I don't want to do stuff, which I am not proud of, or I will not enjoy watching myself. I want to do things at least, which bring me a certain sense of self-worth when I'm doing it and when it releases, I as an audience want to watch it. I've made a very discreet choice that I do want to do stuff that I as an audience would want to watch, distinctively.
What are your upcoming projects?
The one film that I'm really excited about is Aafat-e-Ishq which is a Zee production, and it should come out at end of the year. Also, it's a remake of Liza - The Fox Fairy and it's a very interesting film. It's dark humour and Indrajit Nattoji is directing it. It's a beautiful story about a woman who turns 30 and wants to find love, then how things just go all wrong in her life. It was so much fun shooting for that, and I can't wait for people to see it. That's going to be my next release. Or maybe after Illegal season 2. Timelines, I don't know yet. Of course, there is Jogira Sara Ra Ra with Nawazuddin Siddiqui which has been such a joy ride. It's a romantic comedy which is just like nothing else. We are waiting for the theatres to open and have a theatrical release by the end of the year for that.