The actress talks about her latest OTT show Chattis Aur Maina and why she considers her failures as blessings in disguise
For a long time in the early half of her career, filmmakers looked at Sandeepa Dhar as just another pretty face, offering her roles that had as much meat as a prop on a set. For someone who was an accomplished classical dancer, gave up a stable corporate career and took to acting only by chance, she wasn't quite prepared for the ruthlessness of the industry.
It took a lot of work, steep falls, a few risky decisions over a decade to help her become what she is today. Sandeepa is still a pretty face now but has also matured into a fine artiste, rediscovering herself across OTT shows like MumBhai, Bisaat and her recent release on Disney+ Hotstar, Chattis Aur Maina. OTTplay talks to the Isi Life Mein actress about her latest show, her highs, lows and most importantly, the comeback story too...
Finally, you get a project like Chattis Aur Maina where you can showcase your dance skills to your heart's content...
You're right. I'm super glad that I got a project on a digital platform where I could explore my passion to the fullest. Most of my dancing skills to date have only been utilised across YouTube, Instagram videos and I'm happy I finally play a character to whom dance is an integral part of her life. Yet, many may think that just because I am a trained dancer, I would jump at projects revolving around dance. For a fact, I am doubly cautious when I'm offered anything to do with dance. I did the show mainly because it was raising the right questions in a light-hearted vein without being preachy.
Despite meeting one shady man after the other, day after day, Maina (the character you play in the show) is someone who still doesn't compromise on her dignity and self-respect. Did this facet of Maina draw you towards the character?
Yes! It was something I was particular about. When I was offered the series to play Maina, a girl who leads a group of nachaniyas (the dancers who go from town to town during wedding seasons in UP), we were in the middle of a pandemic and couldn't take that effort to meet them personally and understand them. Therefore, I used YouTube as my research ground; there's so much out there to know. I also watched movies based on their lifestyle. It didn't take me long to realise that most of the films portray them in a very crass manner, from the costumes to the rampant sexualisation of the characters.
I saw nachaniyas as artistes who deserve self-respect. It's an art they take up for a living; not everyone can do it and there's nothing disrespectful in it for them to be ashamed of. Being Maina, I wanted to bring out that side in her who takes pride in what she does. Maina has her dreams, even wants to shift base to Patna and work in Bhojpuri films. I didn't want her journey to get diluted at all. I was mindful of bringing that element of grace in my portrayal. I had a very capable team whose beliefs matched with mine and we made sure none of the songs in the show is titillating by any means. We made a conscious effort to change the perception towards nachaniyas, particularly of the men. If the ending wasn't what it is, I may not have done the show. The messaging of the show is bang on!
The very idea that the show had two characters who're neighbours but get to know each other through a dating site, truly intrigued me. It says a thing or two about modern-day relationships today...
I found that very real too, especially in the scenario that we are in today. Dating sites are a lot more than urban men and women and have made their way into smaller towns. The two characters here are neighbours who may see each other every day don't know about each other's lives. Though I've never been on a dating site, there was a time when you had social media friends whom you didn't know in person and began to judge them based on the conversations you've had with them. Maina too knows Chattis only by his username 'Ek accha ladka.' And to have a guy who likes a girl because of her feet in the display picture could've been creepy and lewd in any other show, but the writer and the director miraculously made sure that it looked sweet on screen. There's a Cinderella-like fantasy touch to their relationship where the guy tries to find her through the paayal in the display picture.
Do you think filmmakers are finally looking at you beyond the 'pretty girl' image?
I hope so. I feel OTT shows have been a huge game-changer. The digital platforms have allowed me to explore myself as an actor. Where else could I have played a cop, a middle-class Maharashtrian accountant, a psychologist and a nachaniya? I am relieved that I'm getting to live such parts fully and satisfy the artiste in me.
How do you look back at your first film Isi Life Mein today?
I just wonder what was I thinking back then? (bursts into laughter)... I didn't know anything about acting. Even today, I keep making fun of myself and joke with the director that I had no clue what I was doing. I wondered how even some of the shots were even okayed! I feel I could have done so much better. That's how it is when you look at your work in retrospect; it's hard to be satisfied. The fact that it was a Rajshri Productions film, made sure that we bonded very well as a unit. I only have fond memories about the making. So much that everyone associated with the project is like family to me even today. We all started our journeys together, the film and the team will always have a special place in my heart.
What if you didn't take up Isi Life Mein, continued your corporate job and did your MBA?
There are so many ifs and buts in this. Certainly, life would've been very different. But I'm someone who'll do something only if I am happy with it. Had I continued with my corporate job, I would have done my best to thrive in it. I was happy doing the job even when I gave it up too and it would've remained that way even if I didn't take up acting. Happiness is the only thing that counts.
Is it a welcome change that the industry has gradually stopped judging people who openly talk about their struggles, insecurities and anxieties?
I agree with you that the conversations surrounding struggles, anxieties and lows in an actor's life have become more vocal. Nobody was talking about this earlier and I'm happy that such voices are growing by the day. Has that changed the struggles of the actors though? I'm not quite sure. At least, whenever someone from the industry wants to talk about their struggle, there is someone who would listen to them today. Social media is another medium that gives them an outlet to vent anything out. I find that healthy because you need to find a way to express your mind and not bottle it up inside. I'm glad people have become accepting of it.
How did you make peace with your career, especially when you didn't have the best of starts?
There was one thing that my dad told me after my very first film. Isi Life Mein didn't do very well at the box office and I was very upset about it. I locked myself in a room and was brooding as a 20-year-old. He just came and told me that this was something I had to be prepared for if I were to take up a career in acting. His mantra for me was to not take success to my head and failure to my heart. He helped me develop a neutral approach to the profession and treat everything as a learning experience. It's a thumb rule that I apply for every project I take up. It's very difficult to handle success too. Failure helps you reflect on your choices. Whenever things don't work out for me, I consider it a huge blessing. All the heartbreak, disappointment will only help you become a better performer. Unless and until you go through lows, you can't become a good actor and grow as an individual.
You took a four-year sabbatical from the film industry to be part of a theatre production, The West Side Story, in Australia. What were your major takeaways from that stint?
I think it was my turning point as an artiste. I am not a trained actor, my first film fell into my lap and whatever I am today is a result of my work on the stage. Theatre has been the teacher for me. It hasn't only taught me about the craft but so much about life too. I spent four years of my life working with people from different parts across the world, living in a place I didn't know anyone. I've travelled across the world with the musical, performing in front of different audiences every day in multiple venues. Not only did I get to see the world but I got to learn about myself. I think it's one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. I feel that every acting aspirant needs to do theatre. Like how a movie is a director's medium, theatre is an actor's medium. That's where you learn the craft and I consider myself lucky to have got that opportunity very early in my career. It's this knowledge that I put to use across series and films today.
Even now, do you think it's important for actors to stay detached from their work once in a while to replenish their creative juices?
I think I still maintain that approach now. After completing every project, I distance myself from anyone in the industry for a few months. I utilise that time to do workshops, travel because I feel that you'll be able to gain experiences if you be true to yourself. As an artiste, I can't live in a cocoon of film people, parties. It's easy to get caught in the web and it can get into your head. Every day I remind myself to be careful and not get swayed. My best friends are still the ones whom I met in school and college who've got nothing to do with films. They are my reality check in life. They are my biggest critics who don't hesitate to pinpoint my mistakes.