'Once you are successful, people listen to you': Sargun Mehta

Nobody was ready to invest in her films in Punjab


IT WAS WHILE filming Cuttputlli (2022), a big-budged Bollywood film starring Akshay Kumar, that Sargun Mehta, 34, first “grasped” the magnanimity of a Hindi film set. In her first Bollywood project, which is a remake of the Tamil film Ratsasan (2018), Mehta plays Kumar’s boss in the police force as they hunt down psychopath-serial killers. It was a relatively meatier role in which she had a voice of her own, something that is rare in a film helmed by Kumar.

Women talking business is unheard of in patriarchal, male-dominated regions of Punjab. But once you are successful, people listen to you. ―Sargun Mehta, actor-producer

Cuttputlli was shot in London and, on her days off, Mehta shot for a Punjabi film as well. The differences were quite stark. While the Hindi film set had vanity vans, a crew of 300-odd people, elaborate spreads that had everything from the exotic to the healthy, the Punjabi film set had none of that. “We visited the local neighbourhood pubs when we wanted to use the washrooms [and] ordered pizzas,” she recalls.

It is not really fair to compare the two industries. Until 2011, Punjabi cinema was the least noticed among regional cinemas in India, with no more than 10 to 12 film releases in a year on lean budgets. As Mehta puts it, “It was considered unusual for Punjabis themselves to watch Punjabi films. We were the Bollywood loyalists. People felt this was too small an industry to consider at Rs50 crore (annually) as against Hindi cinemas’ Rs4,000 plus crore. I don't remember the last time anybody in Punjab signed a [film] agreement. We don't even have legal people on our teams because there was never a paper to sign. We have no structure, and the process is simple―make a call, talk, discuss and finalise an entire film and fees on the phone.”

It was in 2011 that the wheel of fortune turned for the industry―17 films were released, with Jihne Mera Dil Luteya and Dharti becoming blockbusters and finding an audience among the diaspora in Britain, Canada and Australia.

When Mehta entered Punjabi cinema from the television space, her first film, Angrej (2015), was the second highest-grossing Punjabi film that year. In the next two years, she delivered two more blockbusters. With those films, she had established herself as the industry’s superstar. By the time Kala Shah Kala (2019) came to her, her rates had skyrocketed. And, she decided to take the big leap―become a producer. “Women talking business is unheard of in patriarchal, male-dominated regions of Punjab,” she says. “But once you are successful, people listen to you. I decided to be a producer so that I could call the shots. Otherwise, it was always the hero along with those who were financially involved who would get to decide on the dates, scenes, etc.”

After Neeru Bajwa, Mehta is the only Punjabi actress to venture successfully into production. Her third production Saunkan Saunkne (2022), grossed 058 crore worldwide within 45 days of its release―an unprecedented box-office hit for the industry in all these years. “When I asked people to invest in my films… nobody was ready because they were wary of a woman stepping in as a producer,” says Mehta. “After a lot of convincing, the team came together and I could finally hold the reins. I think success changes everything, especially people's perceptions about you.”