It's 7:50 AM on a Wednesday. We've just finished setting up the studio. From expansive windows spread across the room, warm rays of sunshine pour in like a friendly bouquet of daisies, brightening everyone's morning. We collectively pray this weather lasts long enough to pull off the shoot entirely with natural light, silently acknowledging the improbability of this feat given how long shoots usually extend. Plus, while luck seems to have favoured us thus far, there's no promise of consistency during monsoon season in Mumbai. I flop into an office chair and slip off my shoes, taking a relaxing sip of hot chai. We're scheduled to start at 8 AM, which means two hours later celebrity standard time, so I pull out my laptop to get started on emails. Obviously, I'm shocked when Sanya Malhotra arrives two minutes before schedule. Being late, she later tells me, is her biggest pet peeve. She walks in alone, without the swarm of managers and assistants that accompanies an internationally renowned star, then humbly introduces herself to each individual on the floor with the kind of warmth that competes with sunshine. Immediately, I'm drawn to her expressive eyes, which seem to tell a story, and all at once, I want to know hers.
Chances are, when you hear the name Babita Phogat, two faces pop-up in your mind - one belongs to the 2014 Commonwealth Games gold-winning wrestler; the other is Sanya Malhotra. While the latter's contemporary and ballet dancing feet brought her to the city of dreams, she had to literally wrestle her way to prominence in Indian cinema, sans any relatives or contacts in the industry. From her childhood aspirations of becoming Miss Universe to carving a niche for herself with a genuine commitment to meaningful cinema, this self-made star has traversed a long path in a short five years. In fact, Sanya is one of few actors to have successfully transitioned to the OTT platform amidst the pandemic. In a candid conversation with Aza, the young actor opens up about mindfulness, her visions of becoming "that bride in sneakers," her collaboration with PeTA, her fangirl moment with Shakuntala Devi co-star Vidya Balan, and more.
"Pray that I become an actor or Miss Universe" If Sanya's mother had it her way, the actor would have been a doctor. "I always aspired to become an actor, but cinema wasn't an important part of any conversation at home. In fact, I don't remember going to a theatre with my family because we didn't do that often. I was quite reticent growing up, so I never told anyone I wanted to become an actor. As a kid, I mentioned it to my mother, and she told me, 'Main chahti hoon ke tum bade ho kar doctor bano' (I want you to become a doctor). The thought made me so anxious, I told her, 'Please don't pray for that. Pray that I become an actor or Miss Universe!' Well, clearly can't be Miss Universe," Sanya laughs self-depreciatingly before adding, "but I always wanted to be in this creative line; be an actor. And Dangal pretty much panned out the rest of my career. It was the perfect debut. Sometimes I can't believe that I am actually living my dreams. I am living what I manifested as a kid!"
"'Stop pointing your feet!' my wrestling coach would scream" Incidentally, Sanya, a trained contemporary and ballet dancer who hoped to get into acting through dance, was turned down by Dance India Dance on the grounds that she didn't have a sob, erm... strong backstory. Despite the initial setback, she worked hard to overcome the self-doubt that naturally resulted, and persisted, resulting in the serendipitous Dangal audition. While the moves seen in her #reels and #shorts have only increased her fanbase in recent times, the actor elucidates that when she finally did get her big break as Babita Phogat, her poise ended up being major hindrance. "Being a dancer didn't help me at all with the rigorous training. I remember, my coaches used to shout at me saying, 'You look too graceful! Stop pointing your feet. Yeh kya kar rahi ho apne pairon ke saath!' (What on earth are you doing with your feet!) It took me a lot of time to learn and master the wrestling moves. Yes, it was mentally and physically challenging. Mentally because it was our first film, and both Sana and I wanted to prove ourselves as performers," she explains, referring to Fatima Sana Shaikh, who portrayed her sister Geeta Phogat in Dangal. "We put tremendous pressure on ourselves to deliver our best because we both realized the film to be a huge blessing." And the rest as they say is...
"Mindfully working on going with the flow" I ask Sanya about the first movie she signed post Dangal, Ritesh Batra's Photograph (2019), which received rave reviews across film festivals. Consequently, The Hollywood Reporter named her as one of five breakout talents to watch out for at the Berlin Film Festival. So, does she see herself following the footsteps of Priyanka Chopra to secure a more global presence? "I haven't really thought about it, yet," the actor states in a matter-of-fact tone. "The year 2020 served as a great lesson for all of us, that planning doesn't always work. So, I am mindfully working on going with the flow, in my personal life as well as in my career," she continues earnestly. I wonder aloud if she has a secret for success, or a routine of sorts that she follows to get into the zone before shooting. "I do have a ritual that I follow on the sets," the Badhaai Ho actor reveals. "I do breathing exercises as soon as I am ready for a scene. I meditate for a bit. Then, I go through the script, hydrate, and just enjoy the whole filming experience." A lesson we could all use in our daily lives, I have to admit.
"A vegetarian lifestyle suits me better" As she munches on a simple breakfast of poha and coconut water between shots, Sanya confesses she's all about ghar ka khaana. Despite being a Punjabi girl from Delhi, she was never really a hardcore non-vegetarian. "At home, my mother did not cook too much non-veg," she explains. "I used to eat non-veg when I used to go out or visit my relatives. But recently, I decided to slowly but gradually move towards a holistic vegetarian lifestyle because it suits my body and my stomach better."
"I am an Ele-Friend now" Sanya's love for animals extends beyond her vegetarian diet and adorable cat Laila, whom, by the way, she selects to accompany her if stranded on an island, to championing a noble cause. On the occasion of World Elephant Day in August this year, Sanya collaborated with PeTA India on their 'No Elephant Ride' campaign. Elucidating on the move, she says, "It's an honour to be associated with PeTA and the campaign. Elephants are my favourite, so I knew I had to be a part of this campaign. It's vile what these animals go through - all the beating to 'train' them, the injuries caused by an ankus or even chains to make them 'surrender' for joyrides. Personally, I have never gone on such rides before, so I had little idea about the trauma these animals go through. But I hope to inspire people to say no to elephant rides. It's not a matter of joy for the elephant to carry people around!" she contends passionately, as she walks towards her next shot.
"I used to go for solo movie dates" 'Indispensable' is how many actors would describe the OTT platform in the wake of the Covid crisis. But the transition from multiplexes to OTT hasn't worked out all that well for several top Indian actors. Sanya, however' continues to win hearts regardless of the medium of content. I ask her about the transition, and how she perceives the platform in comparison to the glamorous silver screen. "The shift to OTT was necessary," she says affirmatively. "It suddenly became the only option for us actors. But what made me really happy was that I was still getting to entertain the audience at the end of the day. I am truly glad and grateful all my films did well on OTT, whether it was Shakuntala Devi, Ludo or Pagglait. The audience has been very welcoming. But yes, going to the theatres has its own charm, and I love that experience." Was she a movie buff throughout her life? "Growing up, we didn't much go to theatres, but after moving out, I used to go for solo movie dates!" Sanya confides.
"Awestruck and starstruck when I saw Vidya Balan working" In the last five years, Sanya has shared screen-space with noted names like Aamir Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Neena Gupta, and Gajraj Rao. So, did she ever have a fangirl moment with anyone? "I was totally awestruck and starstruck when I saw Vidya Balan in action. She's a fantastic actor and a brilliant co-actor. For the longest time, I just couldn't believe I was doing a film with her. I was so nervous around her, I used to hardly speak on the sets or talk to her! But I love Vidya; she's brilliant," the actor gushes.
"My Potter fan friends were extremely jealous Daniel Radcliffe wished me on my birthday" With a slim possibility of ever receiving a letter of acceptance to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, most Potterheads can only dream of making some sort of contact with those who depict the much-loved Harry, Hermoine or Ron in the film series. Sanya's dreams came true on her birthday in 2020. How? I ask in disbelief, truly wanting to know. "Oh, my friend Junaid was studying in London, and he went to see this Daniel Radcliffe play. After the production, Junaid got to meet Daniel. It happened to be February 25, my birthday, so he requested Daniel to record a birthday message for me and the actor obliged! All my Harry Potter fan friends were extremely jealous," Sanya chuckles in mirth, before adding, "It was really sweet of Daniel to do something like that. Actually, it was really sweet of Junaid to get that message from Daniel for me."
"I would be a bride in sneakers" As we zip through the shoot at mind-baffling speed and complete it before we lose any natural light at all, my intuition tells me that Sanya is destined for success. The singular focus with which she takes up each task, accompanied by her contagious positivity and relaxed demeanor is a winning combination. When it comes to her personal sartorial style and fashion choices, the actor has always been the poster child for casual dressing. So, even though Sanya aced six bridal looks for Aza Fashions - looking like a vision in designer lehengas, sarees, and intricate bridal jewellery - in one of her self-admittedly "fastest shoots ever," she shares that when she ties the knot, she will be 'that bride in casuals!, That sounds like an oxymoron, so I suspiciously prod for more information. "I think I would be a very casual bride," Sanya repeats emphatically. "I will probably opt for something very comfortable but pretty. I'll do my own makeup, that's for sure - I'll get ready on my own. I might wear sneakers under the lehenga or saree! Actually, I absolutely loved the maroon lehenga that I wore for the Aza shoot. I would love to wear that as a bride, maybe with sneakers or flats. Initially, I might wear heels because my mother keeps pushing me to wear heels. But I'll surreptitiously switch those with sneakers!" she giggles before signing off, her eyes alight with a mischievous sparkle that makes us all smile.