Ankita Lokhande
Ankita Lokhande Image Credit: Zee5

Bollywood actress and former girlfriend of Sushant Singh Rajput, Ankita Lokhande was acutely aware that her new web series ‘Pavitra Rishta 2’ will be met with steely resistance from fans of the original series.

Rajput’s tragic death in 2020, where he was found hanging from his ceiling in his Mumbai home, meant that the reboot will disturb and possibly mar the collective memory for his fans who perceive the original series as the turning point in his career.

How can you tamper with a piece of sacred art that’s now been immortalised as Rajput’s early oeuvre?

But Lokhande, 36, understands the emotional triggers behind the severe backlash. Actor Shaheer Sheikh takes on the legacy of playing Rajput’s revered role Manav Deshmukh in the new instalment, while Lokhande plays his love interest Archana.

However, even Lokhande agree, “nobody can replace Sushant.” The actress made the revelation during an interview with Gulf News over Zoom ahead of the series premiere of ‘Pavitra Rishta 2’ on September 15 on Zee5.

Just like the fans who are rejecting the idea of another actor playing Rajput’s revered role, Lokhande also struggled with the grim reality that he was no longer in her scenes and was constantly trying to attain closure from that irrevocable tragedy.

Sushant Singh Rajput and Ankita Lokhande Image Credit: IANS

“When you are shooting, you are on set with thousands around you. And if I start to think about Sushant, I knew I would get very distracted and wouldn’t be able to work on my character. I had to prepare myself before every romantic scene saying: ‘Ok, it’s Shaheer’ … With Sushant, it was all organic and those feelings for him came out organically in any scene. But with Shaheer, I had to prepare,” said Lokhande.

The actress said she had to constantly coach and remind herself that she was just doing her job and that Sheikh is the actor she’s in a fictional relationship with.

“I have to act and I have to move on,” said Lokhande.

Ankita Lokhande and Saheer Sheikh in 'Pavitra Rishta 2'
Ankita Lokhande and Saheer Sheikh in 'Pavitra Rishta 2' Image Credit: Zee5

The long-running ‘Pavitra Rishta’ (meaning Sacred Bond) holds a special significance in Lokhande’s life as the series altered and defined her career and her personal life forever.

This self-made star famously fell in love with her on-screen lover Rajput on the sets of their break-out show in 2009 and were in a seven-year-relationship before they called it quits in 2016. There were fan clubs dedicated to this handsome pair who kept cheering for their relationship on and off the screen. Rajput quit the show mid-away, but he’s still beloved to Pavitra Rishta fans.

And, Rajput’s sudden death at 34 unleashed a nation-wide frenzy in India with his fans clamouring for justice, while transforming the actor into a deified idol. While his post-mortem report revealed that the actor died by ‘asphyxia due to hanging’, the investigation is yet to be concluded by India’s federal agency Central Bureau Of Investigation,

Sushant Singh Rajput
Sushant Singh Rajput Image Credit: Twitter

“Manav [Rajput’s on-screen character] has been with me for the longest time … You know, Sushant used to always say that you have to convince the audience that your romance with the other person is real. He said: ‘even if you have to romance a tree, you have to make them believe the tree is your actual partner’,” said Lokhande. She applied his words of wisdom to her new show too and tried her best to be professional.

“When I started with the new ‘Pavitra Rishta’ web series, I prepared myself as my character Archana and when I look into Shaheer’s eyes, I look at him as his character Manav … But honestly, I miss Sushant somewhere in between,” said Lokhande.

The actress, who made her Bollywood acting debut with the warrior epic ‘Manikarnika’ led by Kangana Ranaut, describes herself as someone who’s impossibly sensitive.

Ankita Lokhande and Kangana Ranaut

“I am the kind of person who gets connected to things. I can’t detach myself easily from people. When ‘Pavitra Rishta’ was ending, I remember I did not eat anything for days. I was just crying for 10 days and I did not know what to do with myself … Since I have always loved ‘Pavitra Rishta’, I think I asked God for this. I used to tell him [God] to take me back in time. I was really happy doing that serial … it felt like ‘apna ghar’ [my home],” Lokhande.

While she grappled with an avalanche of emotions during the filming of the limited web series, the reboot helped her gain some closure. She began to understand that Rajput’s fans had every right to feel short-changed and reject the reboot.

“I came to the realisation that nobody can replace Sushant and there’s no way to replace him. But remember, Shaheer is there and he’s also very good … I totally understand it [anger and fury of Rajput’s fans], that’s their love for him and you can’t help it … But being back on ‘Pavitra Rishta’ was the biggest decision ever,” reminded Lokhande, urging all her fans to give the new actor a fair chance.

Saheer Sheikh and Ankita Lokhande in 'Pavitra Rishta 2'
Saheer Sheikh and Ankita Lokhande in 'Pavitra Rishta 2' Image Credit: Zee5

Her call to re-visit the iconic classic, propelled by Rajput’s turn as the endearing mechanic Manav in episodes that aired for more than a year was her way of facing her inner-most, visceral fears.

During this interview, she confessed to Gulf News that she couldn’t even watch a single episode of ‘Pavitra Rishta’ after it ended due to the fear of becoming an emotional wreck. The series had the power to set off feelings that she was scared to explore and fathom.

“I knew what I am going to do was going to be very painful … But I am person who believes that if you fear something, the more you face that fear it mellows down … I want to face each and every thing that make me disturbed …. If I ever saw an episode of ‘Pavitra Rishta’, I used to cry so much … Now that I am in the show again, I am OK with watching those episodes again,” said Lokhande.

Pavitra Rishta
Pavitra Rishta Image Credit: Balaji Telefilms

She credits all her success, fame, and glory to this show, produced by TV mogul Ekta Kapoor.

While Lokhande was a huge hit on the television circuit, her transition to the Bollywood movie industry was far from seamless. Unlike her former lover Rajput who got acting opportunities with some solid directors and production houses in the beginning of his career before allegedly facing hostility from his peers, Lokhande is yet to find her groove in Bollywood.

“I give my 100 per cent, but I can’t ask for work … I can’t be fake and I can’t go around pleasing people. That’s not me. I am very upfront and I can’t do chamchagiri [sycophancy]. Everybody has that camp in Bollywood. I don’t have a godfather in Bollywood, but God is with me,” said Lokhande, adding that she’s tempted to create her own little clique. Bollywood is notorious for being clannish fuelled by powerful producers and acting dynasties joining hands to snuff out talents from outside their circles. One of the dominant conspiracy theories around Rajput’s death is that his mental health issues were triggered by the hostility he faced as a Bollywood ‘outsider’, with no powerful actor/producer-father bolstering his career.

While Lokhande seems disillusioned by Bollywood, the last two years have taught her to look at the bigger picture.

Ankita Lokhande
Ankita Lokhande Image Credit: Supplied

“I keep telling my younger sister Ashita to never take love for granted. You have to respect love. And love is not always about the opposite sex, it can be towards your family or your work. I work and believe in love.”

Lokhande is currently in a happy relationship with businessman Vicky Jain. On Rajput’s first death anniversary, she famously thanked him for being her rock in such troubled times.

“My biggest learning is knowing that whatever you have in your life today, be happy with it. Live in the moment. I have been telling all my friends and family not to fight for small things. Be grateful for what you have in life,” said Lokhande. She also has a word of advice for all those who spew hate. In the last two years, she has been at the receiving end of trolls with every post and movement of hers being scrutinised and put through a morality scanner.

“People should just stop targeting other people in a negative way. I believe that nobody knows the journey of the other person. You never ever know what is going through their minds or their heads.”

The loss of a loved one has also taught her to value those who are in her life now.

“Now if I miss anyone, I just pick up the phone to tell them I miss them because you never know if you will be gifted the time tomorrow … And I believe in love. You can be betrayed by people, but my trust in love is something that I truly believe in,” said Lokhande in Hindi.

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Ankita Lokhande Image Credit: Supplied

Don’t Miss It!

‘Pavitra Rishta 2’ web series will premiere on Zee5 on September 15

“Live for today … We don’t know what may happen tomorrow. So tell all those who are dear to you that you love them … I believe in everything which is surrounded by love,” said Lokhande.

- -- Ankita Lokhande

Did you know?

The ‘Pavitra Rishta 2’ web series gets a modern update. In the limited series, Lokhande’s character Archana is a working woman with a lot more agency than her character arc in the original TV series.