THE SINGLETON IN search of the perfect orgasm in her new film Thank You for Coming is miles away from the doctor serving Covid patients in Bheed (2023) who worries about girls having to use newspapers instead of sanitary pads or the politician’s daughter who cannot bear untruth in Afwaah (2023). Yet there is an unflinching commitment to the script and to life, which have remained unchanged. Large or small, fair skinned or dark, city smart or rural poor, Bhumi Pednekar has never shied away from the real and the raw.
“It’s very important that my work resonates with what I believe in. I want to represent different kinds of women who exist in the times we live in. Their ambition and drive may be different, but they are all aware, opinionated, have a mind of their own, and are strong-willed. That is the kind of representation I was shown. This is what I want to be,” she says, fresh from a triumphant premiere of Thank You for Coming at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Presented as a ‘chick flick’ but so much more, Thank You for Coming, directed by Karan Boolani (who helmed Selection Day for Netflix), celebrates the spirit of women in search of love and freedom. As she says, “I found this film’s concept liberating and empowering. I have constantly endeavoured to take up roles that are disruptive, that start a conversation. Thank You for Coming is a celebration of womanhood and is meant to smash patriarchy of the ideals of what a woman should be. When we have this conversation through a contemporary story on film, it opens space to discuss this topic socially and without taboo.”
This absence of coyness and the ability to articulate her choices make her stand out from her cookie-cutter colleagues as she makes a powerful statement with each of her films, whether it is as a physical instructor finding the love of her life in a young northeastern woman in the lyrical Badhaai Do (2022), or a young woman who refuses to let her life be circumscribed by culturally accepted notions of beauty in Bala (2019). And she does this while negotiating the needs of celebrity-dom with the requirements of an actor who wants to evolve, as well as a conscious citizen who wants to leave a mark on areas of climate change and healthcare.
None of the roles she chooses is without character. In Bheed, for instance, she says, she played “a small-town educated firecracker full of zest and courage” because she’s seen women like that. “One’s social strata doesn’t decide the fire in you,” she says. Or in Afwaah, she plays a young woman who comes from a political family with “access to the best things in life and a bit of a superiority complex. Yet her values and beliefs were about freedom. It’s very similar to the life I have lived,” she says, “even though I grew up with freedom, I always felt it wasn’t enough.”
Pednekar grew up in Mumbai, studying at Juhu’s Arya Vidya Mandir, with a politician father and anti-tobacco activist mother. When her father fell ill, the family went through a tough phase, and young Pednekar having been thrown out of film school (Whistling Woods) was in a bit of a bind. She knew her mother had taken a substantial loan for film school and so she started working right away in the film industry—since she had always wanted to be an actor. She was 17, and working, and was an independent young woman. Runner on a film set, assistant director, casting director conducting auditions—she did it all at Yash Raj Films for six years.
That was until she was cast as the overweight girl in Sharat Katariya’s Dum Laga ke Haisha (2015) with Ayushmann Khurrana as her recalcitrant, semi-literate husband. It was a seminal moment for her, seemingly forever freezing her in the small-town feisty female gilded cage, but also making the Hindi film industry realise the power of feminist films set in middle India.
Pednekar has had to struggle to get to a point when she can pick and choose her scripts. “I had access to nothing. The events, the parties. Financially it takes a hit on you. I can’t tell you how much my mother and I have hustled,” she says. “But I always saw the roadblocks as kind of motivators. And I met so many beautiful people along the way. Shaina Kapoor, my first stylist, who never charged me. Rhea Kapoor (Boolani’s wife) who has taught me so much,” she adds.
But success brought another kind of roadblock. No one was willing to see beyond the small-town girl in her, having seen her play that type in films such as Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017), Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (2017) and Dolly Kitty aur woh Chamakte Sitare (2019). In Sonchiriya (2019), as a woman on the run from the law who falls in with a band of doomed dacoits, she is gritty, grimy and anything but swish.
She is happy that Thank You for Coming has changed the narrative around her, portraying her as a young woman who is financially and sexually independent, but is in search of pleasure, glimpses of which we saw in her fiery Kitty in Dolly Kitty aur woh Chamakte Sitare.
Pednekar has built an enabling ecosystem around herself of friends who’ve been with her through thick and thin, and she has systematically worked her way up the industry, making alliances, or attaching herself to films with progressive ideas, whether it is anti-ageism in Saand ki Aankh (2019) where she played a shooter grandmother or in Badhaai Do which portrayed same-sex relationships with sensitivity.
“I found this film’s concept liberating and empowering. I have constantly endeavoured to take up roles that are disruptive, that start a conversation,” says Bhumi Pednekar, actor
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“Bhumi cast herself,” says Anubhav Sinha, who worked with her in Bheed. “When I started writing, it wasn’t a part as important as it turned out to be. But she insisted she would do it. By the time I finished writing, it had turned out well. This is the first time I was working with her and what I found most exciting about her as an actress is that she doesn’t take the process too seriously. Her performance is not based on artifice, it is very instinctive, in the moment. It doesn’t look like she has designed something. I don’t know her internal process but to us it seems she lives the moment. That’s the best part about an artist because the camera reads it the way you read it on screen,” he says.
Indeed, onscreen, as in Thank You for Coming, she throws herself into the role with utter abandon, whether it is undressing her fiancé (who is a bit of a snoozefest), romancing a much older professor who namedrops Gulzar, rolling her eyes at a much younger social media competitor, or giving a speech about smashing the patriarchy.
The list of directors she wants to work with is long. Having worked with Abhishek Chaubey (in Sonchiriya), Katariya, and Sinha, she says she wants to constantly challenge herself as she focuses on delivering strong and high-impact roles. “There is so much to learn and so much more to do. I would love to work with filmmakers like Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Karan Johar and Rajkumar Hirani and be a part of stories with a message,” she adds.
While on screen she wants to play women who will inspire other women to live their best lives, she is deeply involved in her work on raising awareness about environmental issues. She makes light of the relentless work she did during Covid to connect those who needed help with those who could provide it, as well as her work as an ambassador for climate change for the United Nations Development Programme.
For her directors, she is a gift. Badhaai Do director Harshavardhan Kulkarni calls her a team player. “She is like a positivity guru on set. She is extremely intelligent and very well informed. She can dig into details because of her prep yet she is intuitive. In Badhaai Do, she had a 6 am call but would be up at 3:30 am getting trained for her role as a PT teacher. She is hungry and competitive.”
And the best part is she competes only with herself. In an industry divided between Uppity It Girls and Earthy Indie Women where the twain rarely meet, Pednekar’s resolve to transcend barriers and vault over roadblocks needs to be celebrated.