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Jehanabad actress Sonal Jha talks about her journey

This interview was first published in Cine Blitz by the same author.

Sonal Jha is receiving positive reviews for her performance in Sony LIV’s Jehanabad of Love & War. The actress has had quite an interesting journey starting with theatre, then TV, films, and now OTT. Sonal likes to keep it real on and off-screen. In a frank conversation with Cine Blitz, the Balika Vadhu fame actress talks about her journey, acting across multiple mediums, her 12-year break from acting, and being excited about doing a variety of interesting roles.

Tell me something about the character you play in Jehanabad.

I play the character of Kumud Mishra. She is the mother of Kasturi Mishra (played by Harshita Gaur) who is the protagonist of the show. Kumud is a loving, not complicated mother but at the same time a very forthright, passionate woman. She has a very good relationship with her husband.

How did you get the role?

I got a call from Rajeev Barnwal (director) in October 2021. He gave me a narration for 20 minutes. I liked it instantly because it is based in Bihar. I grew up in Patna and many of my family members were involved in the Left movement there. While growing up, I was part of the IPTA, the cultural wing of CPI. So, the whole narrative was fascinating to me and close to my heart. So, I wanted to be a part of this show. We started shooting in January 2022.

I didn’t have to audition for the role. Rajeev had seen my previous work and wanted to pitch my name. This was a substantial role and I think I have done a good job based on the responses that I have been getting ever since Jehanabad was released.

So, what’s the best feedback that you have received so far?

People are liking the authenticity that I have brought to the character of Kumud Mishra. Satyanshu’s brother Divyanshu who is also a writer-director wrote to me, “You’re the most authentic Bihari character in Jehanabad.” A journalist who comes from Jehanabad wrote in her review, “Special mention to Sonal Jha. She’s the most authentic Bihari character in the series. She’s that Bihari Maa we can’t ignore.”

You are from Bihar and know the milieu. So, was it easier for you to play this character?

It was not an unknown territory for me. But having said that, you have to prepare for every role. I left Bihar 30 years ago. So, my Hindi dialect has changed. I had to work on getting the Bihari dialect right. Also, I am an urban woman. So, I had to work on body language, tonality, and expressions of the character. What I liked about Kumud is that though she is a control freak and a decision-maker at home there’s charm and playfulness in her. This mother is very different from the mothers that I have played so far.

You have acted in all the mediums. What’s different in terms of what you can bring to a character?

In the television industry, we shoot every day. For the first 5-10 episodes, there’s definitely a discussion about the script and character graph. After that, we don’t have the time to do all that. It’s pretty much your own journey and how you shape your performance to the best that you can. There’s no variation or layers to the characters. Even if it happens, it happens with the lead actors, not supporting actors. The whole atmosphere on a TV set is not creatively vibrant. You have to shoot an episode and give it to the channel. But that’s the demand of the market, so I’m not criticizing it.

In films, you go through a creative process. You get the script in advance. You meet the director. Sometimes, there are workshops too. You’re working towards building a character. It’s pretty much the same thing in OTT. But the longer format of an OTT series gives space and visibility to the supporting characters as well. In films, because there are only 2 hours to tell a story, supporting characters sometimes get wasted, especially the mother characters.

In theatrical plays, you can work on your character and improve your performance with every show, right?

Absolutely. I have been a part of the musical theatrical play Mughal-e-Azam directed by Firoz Abbas Khan for 6 years. The best part of doing theatre is that you get to work on a character every day with your director and co-actors. You can bring in something new if something is not working. You don’t get to do that with any other medium. That’s why I enjoy doing theatre. The sense of collective growth that you get from doing theatre is amazing.

What have been the revelations for you as an actor after switching from theatre and TV to films/series?

My journey has been more internal than external. Although I have done a lot of theatre, I still get nervous while facing the camera. The camera sees you in very close proximity. Even if you blink an eye, the camera captures it. So, on the first day of my shoot, I’m still nervous. Initially, I used to be scared about it. My heartbeat used to increase. So, the sound guy would come and tell me, “Ma’am aapki heartbeat bohot zyada hai.” Now that has decreased significantly.

I have realized that if I get a loving atmosphere on set then I flourish. If I feel validated that a director has trusted me, I really flourish because I feel secure. The moment I feel that a director is not so open or respectful or loving, I struggle to give my best.

Jehanabad was an unusual set because both directors Rajeev Barnwal and Satyanshu Singh were respectful. I never felt that I have to restrict myself from experimenting with my performance. I have been acting for 12 years, but this is the first time that I have received so much love and appreciation for my work. So, the biggest revelation is that you become more and more comfortable with the idea of emoting.

What are your aspirations as an actor in the new digital/OTT era?

I would like to do all types of roles [chuckles]. I like to play grey-shade, multi-layered characters. But I’d like to do the kind of work that Sheeba Chaddha, Shefali Shah, and Neena Gupta are doing. Neena Gupta’s work is very inspirational.

In television, you’re known by the name of the character that you play on screen, not necessarily by your real name. Did that ever bother you?

Not really. Once I was eating at Haldiram’s in Delhi when an elderly man came up to me and said, “You’re Sonal Jha right?” I was doing Balika Vadhu back then. Even today, people remember me for Balika Vadhu. So, it didn’t bother me. But yes, it feels nice when someone knows you by your name.

Why did you choose to become an actor and what’s the most challenging part of the profession for you?

I started doing theatre at the age of 13 or 14. I was an extremely shy and underconfident kid. The stage was the only place where I used to get attention and praise. I liked the confidence that I got from the theatre. There was a long phase in my life when I quit acting. I studied, got married, went abroad, then came back and started doing a job. For more than 12 years, I didn’t act.

But the feeling that I had while doing theatre was so strong that I decided to try again after coming back to Mumbai. And it’s not like I like everything that comes along with this profession. For instance, I am not a social person. Initially, I struggled because earlier we had to go and meet people to get work. Now, there are casting directors.

As an actor, you’re always doubting yourself. You’re always dependent on an outer force for creative satisfaction. It’s challenging.

What do you do when you’re not facing the camera or performing on stage?

I do a lot of things. I love reading. I am not just a practitioner of acting. I like to read about the craft as well. I watch YouTube videos on acting. I learn from life as well. You have to live a life and gain new experiences which eventually help you in your performances. I watch theatre plays.

I have a strong inclination toward non-commercial content. I have done a few independent films in the last three years. There’s Kanu Behl’s Agra, Ajit Pal’s Fire In The Mountains, Achal Mishra’s next, and Kanchan Pant’s Dear Latika. I want to do commercial films too. But my stronger inclination is towards independent cinema. I am a big fan of Iranian films. I like director Achal Mishra’s work.

Would you like to play a real-life character in her biopic? Whom would that be?

I would like to play Kasturba Gandhi. I have started reading about her. We talk about Mahatma Gandhi a lot but not about Kasturba Gandhi. Other than that, I’d like to play Indira Gandhi, Mrinalini Sarabhai, and Begum Akhtar too. Any autobiographical character would be interesting to play because it requires a lot of preparation.


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