Former Miss World and activist Manushi Chhillar, who is all set for the red carpet call for the Filmfare Middle East (FFME) Achievers Night in Dubai on October 28, was studying to be a doctor when she switched her career paths dramatically. But here’s the deal. The self-proclaimed geek24, tells Gulf News that she found cutting into cadavers easier than acting in front of the camera. Both are laborious, but medicine was familiar territory for her.
“My parents were both doctors and I knew what to expect. I was always academically oriented and I knew that if you studied hard you can survive ... Being an actor was tougher because it was new,” said Chhillar in an exclusive interview ahead of her appearance at the Bollywood star-studded night at The Meydan Hotel.
Chhillar is poised to make her Bollywood debut with actor Akshay Kumar in the period epic ‘Prithviraj’ in January 2022. Due to the global pandemic, it has been a long wait, but it will all be worth that wait, promises the Yash Raj Films talent. “I am living the dream,” she said.
As many as 100 celebrities from Bollywood and beyond, including Kajol, Sunny Leone, Shefali Shah and Arab singer Mohammad Ramadan are expected to attend the glittering extravaganza that aims to honour the best in Bollywood, Pakistani cinema, and the Arab entertainment world.
Excerpts from our interview with Chhillar as we discuss nepotism, Akshay Kumar, and more.
It’s been at least two years since Dubai has seen a star-studded event like the FFME Achievers Night and it seems to be the first Bollywood ceremony of its kind in the COVID-19 era. Your thoughts?
We all thought that it would probably last till 2020, but we are now at the end of 2021 and COVID-19 is still around. But this is a good opportunity for people to understand and accept that it’s going to be there for a few years at least in our lives and that you can’t stop everything. The vaccines have helped, but we now need to find our way to lead our normal lives by keeping all safety precautions in mind and work around it. We can’t stop living our lives or be confined to our homes. Now that we have begun going for our jobs and award functions are back; this normalcy is likely to return to every field.
You were supposed to make your acting debut in Bollywood in Diwali 2020 with ‘Prithviraj’, but it got stalled due to the global pandemic. Has the wait been frustrating for you?
I don’t think I would use the word frustrating. COVID-19, for a lack of a better word, ruined it. But I can’t complain because it has done a lot worse to other people. But when I am in my own room or with my family, I do whine about it. If COVID-19 hadn’t been around both my movies would have been released right now. But if you keep that aside, ‘Prithviraj’ is not a film that can be shot quickly. I never saw movies as my next step after winning the crown. But halfway through, I realised that Bollywood was worth exploring and I began enjoying being in front of the camera. All of 2018, I was travelling and wanted to focus solely on doing my Miss World duties and I couldn’t have signed a movie back then. But in the beginning of 2019, I signed ‘Prithviraj’ and I knew that this was not a film where you shoot for two or three months and you add a release to your career. And since I was doing this film, I wanted to do it the right way.
Frankly speaking, I am not really used to the whole process of filming because I was a medical student who knew that if you prepare for an exam, you can sit for it and pass.
So acting was an alien territory for you…
I wasn’t an actor and I never acted in a film before nor was I around actors to understand the nature of this job. It took eight months to prepare and I attended workshops on understanding scripts too. A period film like ‘Prithviraj’ requires a lot more work than any other film. But it was worth it. I have already dubbed for it and I have seen snippets of the film. I am excited. All that wait is going to be worth it.
What was your life as a medical student as fun as the fictional medical show ‘Grey’s Anatomy’?
That’s pure fiction. Let me tell you, it’s the least glamorous of lives but it was a lot of fun.
Every day was a new day in medical college and I loved it. I was an introvert while growing up and I know that I found medical school easier than acting. Both are laborious jobs, but med school was something which came to me naturally … But in life I have always believed that it’s not about what I am doing, but how I am doing it.
If you give me a task, I want to do it in the best possible manner. I enjoy the process of doing my best and I enjoyed doing my first film of my career. At first, working felt like I was banging my head against the wall because I didn’t know what to do. Acting was so new for me and it took me one or two months to understand what this job requires of me. Outsiders like me don’t always get this opportunity to get launched by a great production house and platform like Yash Raj Films and I would be unhappy if I didn’t do a good job.
If I were a doctor, I would want to be the best doctor around and now that I want to be an actor, my goal and aim is to be the best actor. I was always passionate about medicine. I loved my clinical postings, talking to patients, taking their history and making a diagnosis. When I got the diagnosis right as a student, it felt like a big achievement … Even if I am organising my wardrobe, I want to be the best in it.
You will be making your acting debut with Akshay Kumar, who’s notoriously disciplined and a stickler for time. What was your experience working with him?
He’s a great example for someone who’s starting out in this acting industry. When you look from the outsider, there’s always this perception about those in the industry. We see them dressed up in awards ceremonies and looking glamourous during press events. But what you actually don’t see is them showing up very early morning on the sets and shooting every day for 12 hours.
As an actor, I learned that you have to maintain a disciplined lifestyle. Our body matters to us because our body is our tool. Our work is also physical because it involves being in front of the camera. So he was a great person to learn from. As you said, he’s never late to arrive on sets. We had to shoot major portions of ‘Prithviraj’ during the day break … So it was always an early morning start and he was always on time and early.
As a medical student, I was an early riser too. And because of our early start, I was in bed by 8.30pm and was up at 5am for the shoot. When you are young and new, it’s nice to be around actors who are the best at their jobs. He’s the biggest superstar today and when you see him put so much discipline and effort, you understand why he is who he is. There was a lot to learn from him for a person who’s just starting out.
What’s your take on this industry being hostile to outsiders?
A: Consider it as a risk/reward ratio. Since childhood I have been trained to think that the society doesn’t exist, but you and your dreams exist and how you achieve those dreams is up to me entirely and you have to do it on your own. Even when I was giving my medical entrance exams, my parents being doctors helped in knowing what to expect and my options that were available. But at the core of it, I had to crack the entrance exam on my one because nobody would give me extra marks for being a doctor’s kids.
Whether it was winning the Miss India or the Miss World crown or Yash Raj Films picking me, it all came down to what I had to offer. Perhaps, they had no reason to pick me. After all, I am just a normal girl. But it all worked out for me. I count my blessings and I feel privileged to get an opportunity that not many youngsters get. I have never been trained to think that I will get something in my life because of my parents.
There’s a whole debate going around nepotism and when I am asked to given opinion, I feel that I am not trained to understand this phenomenon and it’s not my job to do so. But I hope youngsters can draw my life as a worthy example … The best think you can do for yourself is to exercise your right to choose on where you want to go.
“My red carpet look for Filmfare Middle East Achievers Night is a surprise. It has been put together by my whole team and I hope I will not disappoint you on the 28th … We have not had red carpet calls for such a long time now and it’s so exciting."
Did you know?
Manushi Chhillar didn’t grow up on a steady diet of TV shows or television as she was busy studying.
“I attended my first Filmfare Awards ceremony in India in 2008 and I got to be on stage with two of my favourite actors — Shah Rukh Khan and Ranveer Singh. And that was great and brilliant.”
Activism runs in her blood:
During the pandemic, Chhillar joined hands with United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to raise awareness about the novel coronavirus. In a video, released by UNICEF India, Chhillar was seen urging people to stay home and practice social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus.
When: October 28, The Meydan Hotel
Tickets: Dh157 and above