When you are lying in a hospital bed wondering if you will outlive your disease, you tend to make a checklist on all that you will accomplish if you are back on your feet.
For Indian actress and cancer survivor Sonali Bendre, a similar moment of reckoning arrived when she was undergoing surgery in New York in 2018 after being diagnosed with metastatic cancer.
“When you are in a hospital bed and when you think about what I would really like to do if I stay alive, I suddenly realised that I wanted to be in front of the camera. Until then, I didn’t realise I enjoyed being in front of the camera so much,” said Bendre in an exclusive interview with Gulf News in Dubai.
Four years later and cut to 2022, she made good on that promise and was in splendid form in the riveting web series ‘The Broken News’, out on Zee5 now. The second season of this engaging news procedural, in which she plays a feisty editor-in-chief Amina Qureshi, will be out sometime next year, she reveals.
“When I took the break [from acting], I felt I was entering a different phase of my life and felt I didn’t like what I was doing and I didn’t miss this acting job either … But that mindset changed, [and] I knew that I want to play a certain kind of character,” said Bendre.
She was on the lookout for age-appropriate roles that had grace and gravitas. She plays Amina Qureshi, a 40-something seasoned journalist who has weathered news cycles and is struggling to maintain the sanctity of her fast-evolving newsroom. Bendre, 47, plays her age and there’s no deliberate attempt to gloss over her real self or fine lines.
“I have these lines on my face because I have lived a good life and if it shows. I appreciate those lines because it shows character. And I am sure that there are people in the world like me who will appreciate those lines instead of just watching some unlined faces … Growing older is inevitable … From the time you are born, you are moving towards death,” said Bendre.
The series directed by Vinay Waikul, chronicling the drama behind two rival news stations in Mumbai, has seasoned actors like Jaideep Ahlawat and Shriya Pilgaonkar playing journalists ranging from jaded to idealistic.
The makers have adopted a warts-and-mole approach when it comes to their principal characters who are flawed and fearless. The women in the series are given a large berth to exercise their acting skills. For instance, Bendre’s career-defining role as Amina Qureshi presents a searing portrait of a women struggling to have it all. And, that was a big draw for Bendre who had previously rejected many roles which could have served as her comeback as it was too staid and predictable. She had a distinct idea on the kind of roles that she wanted to do after her battle with cancer.
“There are so many glass ceilings for a woman like Amina to have broken before she reached that position. She has worked really hard and it has taken a toll on her personal life… The series shows her clutching and trying to save her identity because her job is her life and losing it would mean losing that identity … My character exudes strength even while being vulnerable,” said Bendre. She loved the fact that her hit character wasn’t strong through and through.
“She believed in changing and adapting to the times … If you stop growing you stagnate or plateau and that’s equivalent to death,” said Bendre.
She seems to apply this philosophy of constantly changing to keep up with the times not just with her career, but also to shape her personal life. With her comeback series, Bendre — who is married to producer Goldie Behl — was particular about being seen in the right light as an actress.
“The challenge was to break out of the pattern set by an image of me as an actress in films. It has taken me a very long time to break out of that image … Getting people to look at me in a different way was the real challenge,” said Bendre.
Before her web series debut, she has starred in acclaimed films and blockbusters such as ‘Zakhm’, ‘Sarfarosh’, and ‘Hum Saath Saath Hain’ with actors like Ajay Devgn, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan, who are still lighting up the silver screens. But she withdrew from that acting landscape as she didn’t find projects that appealed to her. It was her producer-husband Behl who was convinced that the web streaming platforms would appease the artist in her. His prophecy wasn’t off the mark.
This actress, who found dancing in films ‘traumatic’, has found her groove this year. While she doesn’t come across as a person who dwells on the past, Bendre is candid enough to admit that she wished she had detected her cancer early.
“I wouldn’t have to go through the kind of treatment I went through. It needn’t have gone onto its fourth stage … If you find it early it’s not so scary. Yes, it’s a disease like many other diseases but if you catch it early it can be treated and is very much curable. The key is to catch it early,” said Bendre. While she has begun her new innings as an actress with ‘The Broken News’, she’s equally carefully about taking care of herself.
“I take care of my mental health very, very diligently … So if anything is dragging me down, it’s a thin line … I am at an age where I need to constantly work on it … Falling off the wagon and getting back on it is so hard,” said Bendre. Like many public figures, Bendre has been open about seeking therapy and nourishing her mental health.
“When I spoke about cancer and early detection, I openly spoke about taking care of your mental health because that’s what is you going to help you get through it. And I spoke about mental health of not just the patient, but the mental health of the primary caregivers. Patients get attention and everybody is there to help, but primary caregivers need counselling and help too,” said Bendre, who was surrounded by her husband, family, and loved ones.
Recently, during COVID-19 where the world sought refuge indoors during quarantine, Bendre took to therapy to adjust to her new reality. There’s no shame attached to seeking therapy, she adds.
“It’s important to identify it and seek help. There’s no harm in saying that I don’t think I can deal with it and I need help,” explained Bendre.
She’s now in a relatively good place. When she looks back on her career, she’s mighty proud of all that she has achieved.
“Come to think of it, I did a lot of South Indian movies and I have done Marathi films apart from Bollywood … I was truly the pan-Indian stars at that point of time long before that term was coined … But I didn’t realise I was panning in the 1990s,” said Bendre with a laugh.
Don’t miss it!
‘The Broken News’ is streaming now on Zee5.
Did you know?
Sonali Bendre is a bibliophile and prefers reading books to watching films.
“I haven’t watched many of my own movies,” reveals Bendre.