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Sanghmitra Hitaishi: “I will play characters that I think I should be playing”

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


Despite having all the odds against her, SANGHMITRA HITAISHI stayed undeterred in her pursuit of becoming an actor. She was the first female actor from India to get selected for Berlinale Talents in 2015. The dusky beauty already has national award-winning short films, a Spanish film, and successful web shows to her credit. But she thinks that this is only the beginning. In a no-holds-barred conversation with CINE BLITZ, Sanghmitra opens up about her acting journey and fame, insecurities and validation, wanting to work with geniuses, and being ‘ready & excited’ to do great work. Read on.


How did your journey as an actor begin?


I always wanted to be an actor. It is because I was an introverted kid and I think I was too mature for my age. I was sent to a boarding school, and it was difficult for me to fit into a group. So, films became my escape, my solace.


I remember watching Abhimaan (1973) when my parents were having a lot of fights and had a difficult relationship. You know, the young couple who have young children. That’s what I thought while watching that film. My mother is the more dynamic and more educated one and there were times when my father felt insecure about that. So, I loved the fact that in films I could find answers to the confusion that I had in my real life.


When did you get your first acting break?


I am a dark-skinned, dusky girl with curly hair. When I started out as an actor, they’d always tell me that there are no good roles for someone who looks like me. And even if there were roles, they were disempowered, unlikeable characters. But I always wanted to be an actor. I did not go to a film school. I just ran away from home and came to Mumbai to become an actor.


Also, I was very clear that I would never be Katrina or Kareena. I came to Mumbai thinking of Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi, and the films of Govind Nihalani and Basu Bhattacharya. I think casting directors sometimes don’t watch films other than mainstream Bollywood. I was discovered by an FTII student who was making a diploma film. I did a short film Fly, Bird (2014) that won a national award. That film’s director (Pranjal Dua) recommended me to the Lajwanti director (Pushpendra Singh).


When I went to Berlinale, I realized that there’s more to cinema than just Bollywood. I decided very soon after Berlinale Talents that I would design my career not according to what the casting directors thought I should be playing. I will play characters that I think I should be playing. Because I didn’t want a girl from a small-town India to think that she was unlikeable because she is dusky. I wanted to do more empowered characters.


You said you were an introverted kid. Does being an introvert help you observe people better and maybe use those observations in your performances?


All the time. My leisure time is people watching. I go to a park or beach or café and sit by myself pretending to read but actually, I watch people. How people walk can tell you what they feel or think. The moment you change your body posture and walk you will immediately get into the mind space of the person who is walking like that. People watching is very interesting.


And it’s been like that since childhood. I was a shy, introverted kid. And you know what it is like in our society, “She is dark-skinned, how will she get married and all that”. So, subconsciously, becoming an actor was sort of like revenge against the world [laughs].


Your public service campaign ad to prevent drink and driving went viral in 2014 but the big work happened in 2018. What did you do in the meantime?


I was doing short films and FTII projects. Then I did Lajwanti which after a lot of struggles started streaming on Mubi. I played small but significant roles in Feast of Varanasi, B.A. Pass 2. I also shot for a couple of films that didn’t get a release.


So, from being ‘that girl in that short film’ to now people recognizing you, how does it feel?


Now when people recognize me at an airport or restaurant, I feel like digging a hole and hiding in it. Because when they approach me, I find it difficult to reject them because I know how it feels. They have taken an effort to come and talk to me.


My career is still growing and when it becomes really big, I don’t know how I will handle that but I will make sure that I will be kind as much as I can to the people who approach me.

Like Irrfan said, “The best part of being an actor is just before you become famous. You’re going to look back and those are going to be the best days. Because there was less at stake to lose.”


Were there insecurities when Dahaad got delayed because of covid?


2019 was one of the years in my career. I had shot for Out of Love (Disney+ Hotstar). And while I was shooting for Bombay Begums (Netflix), I got a call from Karan Mally who is the casting director of Dahaad. He called me for an audition saying, “I can’t tell you much but it’s an important role.”


My character in Dahaad was still being developed while they were casting. After the first audition, Karan told me that it was Tiger Baby Films’ show and Reema Kagati is the showrunner. I was surprised. Apparently, Alankrita Srivastava who directed Bombay Begums recommended my name to Karan.


So, I got the part after auditioning. It was supposed to be a four-month shoot starting in March 2020 and going till June. My bit was going to be shot in May. They shot for 20 days and then the whole world went into lockdown. Nobody knew when the shoot will start again.


So, when Dahaad shoot stopped, I had a concern, what if this gets shelved? Because I always wanted to be a part of productions that make great stories. And finally, I was getting a chance to work with Zoya and Reema’s production company and act with Vijay Varma who was all over the place after Gully Boy’s success.


The thing is that if you have not been captured on camera, you can easily be replaced, so that was also scary for me because my character was still being developed even when the shooting had started. And you also hope that something like Dahaad comes out and it opens more doors for you as an actor.


But I would call myself lucky that even when covid happened, I still had work. I was shooting for Out of Love Season 2 at that time and Bombay Begums had come out and was trending.


How did you land a role in the Spanish film El Desentierro (2018)? Were you actively seeking opportunities abroad?


At Berlinale, I met actor Sarita Choudhury who had watched Lajwanti. Sarita works between London and Los Angeles. She said, “What are you doing in Mumbai? They will waste you in India. The way you look and the way you are, you’ll get so many opportunities in the UK.” But I was like, “Mujhe India mein hee rehna hai aur naam kamana hai.”


But then a year later, at Berlinale Talents, one of the casting directors put me in touch with an agent in Spain. Because at that time, Europe was giving filmmaking subsidies to foreign productions. So, the agents were looking for actors from different ethnicities. My agent did not have many South Asian actors. My agent when she signed me said, “You know, I was looking for you.” That was very sweet. Then I did El Desentierro where I played a Pakistani woman. It was a secondary character but a significant one.


There was a director in Berlinale Talents with me who was writing a script on immigration and wanted to cast me. When I read the basic outline, I told him that it was a very European point of view of looking at the Pakistani community which is not how it is. So, he asked me to come on board as a writer. I co-wrote that script with him. It has got producers on board in Spain and Luxembourg. We’re also looking for a co-production with India. We will prep in 2023 and start filming in May 2024.


While acting, is it difficult to mean what you say in a foreign language?


Absolutely. Because you think in English or Hindi, right? Initially, with Spanish, it was about getting the rhythm of the language right and making it usable on my tongue as if I’d been speaking the language for many years. I used to feel anxiety when they’d give me lengthy dialogues in auditions. Although I can speak Spanish, I think in another language. Every language has different music.


What were the revelations for you after working on big shows such as Dahaad, Bombay Begums, and two seasons of Out of Love?


Independent films are more collaborative because there’s a lesser crew. But one thing that I have learned is that every set is a chaotic space and there’s going to be a lot of screaming and other factors such as light, lenses, food, etc. There will be distractions while performing. You have to be better prepared so that when the director says “Action”, you can go back to the character. That was the biggest lesson that I learned.


The second revelation was that actors are just vulnerable people. We are all insecure and have inferiorities because we are judged in real-time (while filming). So, we’re constantly seeking validation and validation doesn’t come because everybody is busy doing their job. So, your self-esteem has to be very healthy otherwise you’ll get sucked in.


I think people need to be kinder to actors because we are so open with our emotions. Actors carry their emotions under their chin because it’s their toolbox. So, I learned to be kinder to myself and to the crew as well because sometimes we, actors, tend to forget that those 200 crew members are on set for us to give our performances perfectly.


What have you learned from other actors?


Some of the best actors bring the character closer to themselves. They, the character, and the medium they’re in meet in the middle, which Irrfan used to do perfectly. I don’t believe that there’s a good actor or a bad actor. There’s only honest acting or dishonest acting. A good performance is an honest performance.


What I do is try to understand the background of the character and the sociological background. We are what our environment was. The other thing I do is to feel, “What would I feel if I was in that situation?”


Who are the filmmakers on your wish list to work with?


Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bhardwaj, Anvitaa Dutt, Zoya Akhtar, Neeraj Ghaywan, Pedro Almodovar, and the French filmmakers Dardenne Brothers.


The reason I am an actor is for the process of being an actor – being on a set, and working and learning from geniuses how they tell stories. I love acting. Fame is just a by-product of it. I want fame so that I can get more work.


I want to win an Oscar or be famous just so that I can get the accessibility to work with the genius filmmakers that I want to work with. I want to call genius writers whose books have made me feel great and tell them that I would like to have tea with you and talk about life. That’s success for me.


Are you happy with the work that is being offered to you?


The Indian film industry has not even touched my potential. There’s so much to show and create. I have not even started, yet I’m absolutely ready to take the plunge and play some great characters.


But I’m glad this didn’t happen before because I was not emotionally intelligent enough to portray complex characters. And as I’m growing, learning more about life and myself, human behavior, emotions, and psychology, I think now I’m ready and excited to do some really good work.


What are your upcoming projects?


I have a very unique and one-of-its-kind show created by MTV Studio and Colosseum Films who recently made Ray for Netflix. I have an incredible character in that show. Then there’s my Spanish feature, La Última Víctima (The Last Victim).

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