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Nobody can accuse Bhumi Pednekar of playing it safe.

The actress — who made a blazing debut with ‘Dum Laga Ke Haisha’ as an overweight bride and propelled her career with breakout films such as ‘Toilet: Ek Prem Katha’ and ‘Shubh Mangal Saavdhan’, doesn’t shy from getting her hands truly dirty.

“When I go to sleep, I want to know that I have experimented as an actor and I am constantly seeking to evolve,” said Pednekar in an exclusive interview with Gulf News tabloid!.

And, who better than director Abhishek Chaubey — who made avant garde films such as the controversial ‘Udta Punjab’ that took a nick at the substance abuse rot in Punjab — to help her top her acting credentials.

“Abhishek is a director who’s an actor’s delight. He upped my craft and took me to places that I didn’t know existed,” added Pednekar.

The two have joined forces to make a Western-style, adventure-dacoit drama ‘Sonchiriya’ which sees Pednekar as a gun-toting, weary villager battling for self-preservation. She will get under anyone’s skin and her toughness would rival the arid landscapes shown in the grime-addled thriller.

Sonchiriya, out in the UAE cinemas, also features a supremely talented mix of actors including Sushant Singh Rajput, Manoj Bajpayee, Ashutosh Rana and Ranvir Shorey. Excerpts from our interview with Pednekar who is leading the way for Bollywood actresses ...

Q: Tell us about ‘Sonchiriya’?

A: ‘Sonchiriya’ is director Abhishek Chaubey’s world and his voice. On its script level itself, it’s an action-driven dacoit drama set in the 1970s in Chambal [in Madhya Pradesh], a place that has rarely been explored in Bollywood films. I can count the number of dacoit dramas in my fingers — say ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ and ‘Bandit Queen’. ‘Sonchiriya’ speaks of the consequences of societal bias and the bloody consequences of revenge when human lives become casualty. Even though it is a hard-hitting film, it has many quirks. ‘Sonchiriya’ touches upon issues that existed in the 70s era like gender discrimination, caste divides and class disparities. What I love is that the narrative that Abhishek adopted is very quirky, making it a commercial film by default. You will feel that adrenalin rush, even as an important comment is made.

Q: There’s a scene in Sonchiriya’s trailer that highlights casual casteism when a bandit blatantly asks you about your caste, while pointing a gun at you?

A: As an actress, it was liberating… While ‘Sonchiriya’ is a fictional story, it’s steeped in reality. We don’t pretend that there was no caste bias. We are showing that we lived in a time where the status of women and men in a society hinged on their caste, creed and colour. My character is at the lowest rung in the food chain. While the situation was disheartening, playing that woman was so empowering. This film has hardened me and taught me how to question things around me.

Q: How did you survive filming in the arid Chambal landscapes?

A: It was a physically demanding role, but ‘Sonchiriya’ was a well-organised shoot. In my first meeting with Chaubey, he warned me that I may crack and may be unable to withstand the terrain. He asked me to become mentally strong and we worked on it extensively. I went through some rigorous physical training because I had to play this woman who walks eight to 12 kilometres a day with a lot of weight like water being carried on her head. She would walk barefoot. When I began filming, I was this urbane girl hooked onto my manicures and pedicures in an air-conditioned space, but by the time I was done with the shoot, I could be bleeding after getting a cut while walking and I wouldn’t care about it. You somehow become immune to your surroundings. I even learnt a new language called Bundelkhandi, something that took two months to master. It was an emotional journey.

Q: Your Instagram feed is flooding with your self-created memes on your rustic character… Is this novel way of getting back at the trolls, before they get you?

A: After an intense job, sometimes you feel tragedy is comic and comedy is tragedy. When your intent is strong, you somehow find humour in it. For my role in ‘Sonchiriya’, I set up an entire village in the office and a chulha was even installed. I learnt how to light a fire and carry several kilograms of aata [wheat flour] on my head to look authentically rustic.

Q: As an actress who has come a long way since your debut Dum Laga Ke Haisha. How do you look back on your own progress?

A: I am proud and happy. While commercial success is very important, what is truly gratifying as an actor is when I get to play characters that are going to be remembered. I want to be a part of films that will be watched even after twenty years.

Q: You seem to be the only woman in a male-dominated film like ‘Sonchiriya’. Was that weird?

A: Yes, you are right but at no point did I feel left out. I was surrounded by evolved minds. At the end of the day, we are just creative people with active thinking minds.

Q: You are an actress who has starred in films that dealt with touchy subjects like erectile dysfunction in ‘Shubh Mangal Saavdhan’... Do you gravitate towards such unconventional scripts?

A: While entertainment is priority, I want to be part of films that have stories you can remember. We live in a time where you cannot ignore what is happening around you. Something as complex as erectile dysfunction had never been spoken about in a Bollywood film. It showed that machoism is a mirage and that a lot of pressure is put on men too. My character was a part of that narrative. I want to be a part of films that have some kind of social comment and that will help people evolve.

Q: Lastly, you play a woman who doesn’t hesitate to take up a gun for self-preservation. What’s your take on gun violence, that’s a burning issue in this world?

A: I don’t think guns should be easily available. Having a gun gives the power to someone to take away a human life. Nobody should have that kind of power — unless you are in the armed forces or a trained personnel. A layman shouldn’t be holding a gun. Any kind of violence erupts from power play.

Quote Unquote:

“There would be at least 3kg of dust, sand and mud after a day’s shoot… There was no escaping it. We all look unwashed!” said Pednekar on filming in tough terrains of Chambal.

Abhishek Chaubey:

Abhishek Chaubey makes films that rattle you. If his drug-fuelled Udta Punjab showed a state rotting with addiction, his thriller ‘Ishqiya’ was wicked. He can be easily credited for changing the landscape of Bollywood films with unconventional stories ... As a filmmakers, he wants to tell stories that have been rarely told. Here’s his take on ...

Creating morally ambiguous world where all characters seem depraved: “In ‘Sonchiriya’, most of my characters are all bandits. If you don’t get into their psyche, they are all criminals who rob or kidnap people. They are people who you won’t call for dinner. So in Sonchiriya, these guys played by Sushant, Ranvir and Manoj, play bandits from the same gang. Ashutosh Rana is trying to nab them, but they are difficult to catch and he begins to think like them. He’s equally ruthless. We watch to watch movies with characters who are fascinating, regardless of their morality. What’s fascinating here is that these bandits aren’t psychopaths. They don’t kill for pleasure and they look at themselves as rebels, not bandits. These rebels take on the unjust system and are fighting for justice and peace. A large number of bandits were pious. They won’t indulge in mindless violence. These are people worth making movies about.”

Tackling casual casteism in this film:

“During that era, gangs were formed according to caste. Sonchiriya is essentially about the caste warfare. Caste plays a huge role even today. Even in cities like Bombay [Mumbai] where it is Westward looking, caste still plays a role. So you can only imagine how in Chambal valley, caste was everything. Every aspect of your daily life was determined by your caste. If you belong to a particular caste or gender, that divide brackets you. You have to live your life in that bracket.”

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Don’t Miss Out!

Sonchiriya is out in the UAE now.