ON MY JOURNEY IN ACTING
A decade back I think I had burnt out as an actor... I was being offered the same two songs. It was me just making a mess of my career, because I was just not in it anymore. It was very tiresome to not be able to learn anything or grow. Also, I was not able to spend time with my daughter Renee when she was born. So, when Alisah (her second child) happened, I was clear that I needed to see her grow because that part of her life would not come back.
I just knew that I did not have to sacrifice everything else in order to be an actor and that I could go back to doing films whenever. Of course, in the meanwhile, I continued working. We have a jewellery brand in the Middle East and a production company, so we had a lot of events and endorsements happening simultaneously. But I was not doing films because I did not have anything exciting to do.
Then, when Alisah turned eight, I revisited acting because there is so much more opportunity that has come in the last 10 years, including in the OTT space. So, I started meeting people and letting them know I was ready. But I was not going to just do anything. I wanted to get back as a student of cinema and not as someone who was coming with a 20-year-old baggage as an actor. Aarya (the series in which Sushmita stars in the titular role) to me has been like a manifestation of something I have been waiting for. I had been consuming a lot of OTT global shows and every time I kept thinking to myself, if I don’t get something like that, I am going to write it myself. When I went and met Ram Madhvani (who produced the show), in flat five minutes of him starting to tell me the subject, I just knew I had manifested it, and I was like, I’m doing it. It was my best decision ever because I ended up realising that for actual growth to happen, you have to take risks. It means having the courage to take on what you truly believe in. And so that is how Aarya impacted me. It has helped me grow as an actor.
I could write a book on the way I have lived my life so far, because it has definitely been quite a journey. We tend to believe that when we are established in our life, in any line of work, our problems are somehow easier to manage. Which is not always true, because human beings go through ups and downs. So, all throughout, I think the only thing that has been a huge part of my journey is that I have lived it with tremendous conviction. It is the only thing I can say for sure. My decisions have not been made by other people, because I have always believed that if you don’t choose, then a choice is made on your behalf by default. And then you are stuck in the rut of drifting along those choices made by other people. So, professionally, personally and emotionally, all my choices, whether good, bad or ugly, have been made by me.
THE BIGGEST LOW
Of all the lows that I have faced, my health has possibly been the one thing that did shake me up. I am suffering from Addison’s disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the adrenal glands do not produce enough hormones. I was diagnosed in 2014 and it has been pretty traumatising ever since. Having to be steroid dependent has a negative impact on you, but I thank God that at least I was in a position to get the best medical help and do what needs to be done. It made me question whether I would be able to sustain this long enough, how it would impact my kids and the responsibilities that I have. It made me question a lot of things and made me realise how health is wealth. It really is.
At present even as I am healing, I am definitely feeling better emotionally, knowing I have done everything that needed to be done. Looks and outward beauty aside, my feelings from within continue to say, ‘Picture abhi baaki hai, mere dost!’ Where the whole world is constantly worried that your time is running out, the other way of looking at it is that your time has not come yet. The idea that the world moves at a certain pace does not mean that you are left behind. It just means that your journey is on a different path. You cannot be chasing others to find that destination, you have to make your journey happen at your own pace.
Those close to me were very upset when my relationship with Rohman Shawl ended. When we try to hold on to something that no longer helps us grow, then we must have the courage to walk away from it and know that does not mean you are lost. It just means that the love of your life has not found you yet. I am not in my 20s. I am wise enough to know that it is not good for either person in the relationship to continue something that is not conducive for their growth. I was not shattered because it was not an overnight decision. It was a long time coming.
ON DEALING WITH INSECURITY, CRITICISM AND FEAR
Throughout my career I have had so many firsts. I was one of the first from the film industry to enter the OTT space. I was one of the first mainstream actresses to agree to do an item song way back in the day when it was harakiri to do that. And because of the many firsts, you are bound to get tremendous criticism at different stages. If you manage to do it gracefully and successfully, then you also get applause and credits of epic proportions. The problem is, a lot of us give up at the stage of rejection, or for the fear of rejection. But if you really hold on to that fear long enough, it turns to courage. In my early years, I had always been pretty fearless in terms of following my heart. And that may not always work for everyone.
- On life's truths and turning points that make us who we are
- I have been walking around with a letter of resignation, says Bibek Debroy
- Cricket and classical music are what have sustained me, says Ramachandra Guha
- I am now learning from people half my age, says Harsha Bhogle
- Ritu Kumar on how people mistook her saris for their ‘grandmother's bed covers’
- The softest pillow is a clear conscience, says Narayana Murthy
My business managers and those who represented me all had a problem with my choice of films and the people I worked with; they all felt I took too many risks. There was tremendous criticism because I was not the traditional Indian film heroine, vulnerable and soft-spoken. I was extremely direct. I had an agreement that said I would work for 8 to 10 hours a day, and that I would come and leave on time. So, I was the definition of a difficult actor, because I was asking for things that were ok from a man, but not from a woman. It may not always have served me well. A lot of people from my industry believe that if I had only played my cards differently, things would have been different. But that is not true because given another opportunity I would still be me. This would be exactly how I would do things.
So, it is wonderful that I have another go at it. And this time around, I am working with people and with critics who accept me the way I am, which has taken me 26 years. But it has been worth it.
ADVICE TO BUDDING TALENT
Make sure you have holding power. Today, it is a very competitive space, which, unfortunately, is also all about instant gratification. You will get sucked into a system that will chew you and throw you out fast. So, for longevity, you will have to have holding power. You will have to take it slow and not be in a hurry to get anywhere. But if you are in a hurry, your screen age—when you see an actor in multiple films and not necessarily your actual biological age—starts to scream at you. Very few people with screen age can survive. So, the ideal scenario is to not overfeed. If you are in every commercial, on TV, in movies and on OTT, it is overconsumption. Do not allow screen age and visibility to become too much. Find your balance. That balance is different for everyone.
I do not have a PR mechanism, out of choice; for me, an entourage gets in the way of direct equations. Be good at what you do to be able to dictate terms. But yes, you can dictate terms. I personally believe that not only can you survive, but you would thrive longer without the entire PR machinery.
Love is the most misunderstood concept. I think that it is important to recognise at least now that love is an action. It is not a theory or a feeling. I love my children. But if I were to just say that and not put food on the table, is it love at all?
—As told to Pooja Biraia Jaiswal