In a one-on-one with Aza, actress Sayani Gupta opens up about her upbringing in the creative space, her love for the fine & performing arts, and experience working with master storytellers
Abhinaya, the art of expression, aims to navigate an audience to a certain kind of experience and introspective state. While it is an integral part of all performing arts - especially Indian classical dance - in Natya Shastra, artists wield everything from facial expressions, body language, speech and delivery to costumes, props and makeup to evoke a desired emotional response from spectators. Ironically, a truly talented performing artist doesn't require an expansive colour palette, elaborate outfits or hard-hitting words to elicit the desired response - those additions are just cherries on the cake. It is their deep understanding of the character they are playing, and their ability to transform into a blank slate that allows them to transport viewers. When Sayani Gupta glides into the Aza studio in a white turtleneck crop top, hand-woven hooded poncho, mint shorts and pale pink Jordans, her face bereft of maquillage, she instantly reminds me of tabula rasa, a blank state that may be reinvented or renewed repeatedly. Quite aptly, our backdrop for the shoot is comprised of hand-stitched yardages of immaculate satin that morphs fluidly in response to the creator upon it.
Even if you haven't seen Sayani at the top of her craft in Margarita with a Straw (2014), Parched (2016), Inside Edge (2017-) Article 15 (2019), Posham Pa (2019), Four More Shots Please! (2019-), and Pagglait (2021), or aren't aware that she has been dancing (Bharatnatyam) since she was a year and eight months old, you would instantly know she's a performing artist. Her gaze is sure, her movements full of grace; she knows her best angles and she romances the captive lens to create drama as the Aza Cover Story muse for "The Contemporary Bride."
Prepared - it's the word that best describes Sayani, who's also trained in contemporary dance, Chhau and Kalaripayattu. I see it first-hand in her understanding of the mood-board; how she aligns her hair, makeup, accessories and entire demeanour to accentuate the impact of the individual couture creations. The perk of working with a graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) is that she leverages her mastery over the camera, lighting and props to channel more than you could ask for. With an amused expression, she explains, "I'm always prepared. I'm a spontaneous actor but then spontaneity can only work when you know your material well. All my co-actors make fun of me - very sweetly though - because I make sure everyone knows their lines when they do a scene with me! I go around ensuring everyone knows their lines (snaps her fingers) like that. So, obviously, all my directors love me (wholeheartedly chuckles)."
In the proscenium space If you're someone who has frequented Indian classical music festivals in Kolkata for a little over two decades, you may have crossed paths with young Sayani. The daughter of one of the founding members of the prestigious Dover Lane Music Conference, you could recognize her as the child always dressed to the nines ("with the best haircuts," she insists), roaming around Nazrul Mancha, self-assuredly mingling with the maestros. So, does her love for the performing arts stem from being bred in the proscenium space? Resembling a princess in the first look, an ethereal Shriya Som lehenga set with floral threadwork, Sayani shares, "I've been around art and artists all my life. Every year from the time I was born, we would go to these all-night Dover Lane concerts. Initially, my father would compère the events, but I was 14 when I took over. I spent a lot of time in the green room and backstage with musical legends like Pandit Jasraj, Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, observing every little thing they did. Looking back, I see that a large part of who I am today is because of the genius that surrounded me. It's also why I get irritated with all the mediocrity in the industry now."
The Bengali actress has an infectious glimmer in her eyes when I ask for an anecdote from her Dover Lane days. With giddiness akin to a teenager, she confides, "I had the craziest crush on Ayaan and Amaan Ali Khan - they were so cute! They would come to the conference every year with their father, the legendary Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, and very graciously they would chill with me. I was smitten!" (giggles loudly). Over the next few hours, Sayani and I connect over our shared love for all things classical, theatre at Gyan Manch, movies at Nandan, winter nights at Nazrul Mancha, bharer cha outside the Academy of Fine Arts, and all things Calcutta (yes, calling it "Kolkata" in English doesn't come easy to her either!) She's chuckling as she says, "I think we Bengalis are a little spoilt when it comes to the kind of art we’ve been expose to since childhood. It also makes the mediocrity around so much more pronounced - there's a serious lack of inspiration here now! It's why I frequently take off on trips around the country or across the globe for detox and to be inspired." A quick glimpse through her Instagram profile confirms her passion for travel and exploration.
Home is where the art is The actor's love for beauty extends to the fine arts, too; so much so that she opines she may have been an art connoisseur from a royal family in her past life! Speaking in a stream of consciousness, Sayani declares, "I think my love for the fine arts comes from growing up in Kolkata. My father and I would religiously visit the Academy of Fine Arts. My cousin, Probir Gupta is one of the most renowned modern artists in India. I love observing paintings, feeling them, letting them seep into my being... I can spend a lot of time, almost four to six hours, appreciating a single work of art. I like how paintings affect my disposition and demeanour. The way I walk changes sometimes when I step out of a museum. I'm fascinated by a lot of Renaissance paintings. I really wish to become an art collector someday."
While on the topic of art, I ask Sayani if she would buy a Matisse painting again for sole the purpose of gifting it to Shah Rukh Khan. Yes, she took one of her favourite artworks of the master painter to the screening of Fan - the film in which Sayani got to share screen space with her idol - but never got the opportunity to present it to SRK. She solemnly smiles as she says, "Actually, if I could, I'd buy the same painting for myself because I love that piece and I only have one print of it!"
'Fan'girling But what was it like meeting the superstar for the first time, I prod. Sayani can barely keep the fondness off her face as she says, "I was overwhelmed when I realized I'm going to meet Shah Rukh Khan and I got the film. But when I met him, it was very normal. I was on the floor, waiting for my shot, Shah Rukh was filming a scene with Waluscha (De Sousa) when I first saw him. And I quietly stood at a distance just watching him. After they finished the shot, the director, Maneesh (Sharma) called me to rehearse the next scene, so I went. I obviously expected Maneesh to introduce me, introduce us... None of that happened! (chuckles) Maneesh asked, 'Lines aati hai?' I said yes. He said, 'Okay, then let's go rehearse.' So Maneesh, Shah Rukh and I rehearsed the scene. After it was done, Shah Rukh said, 'Okay, let's shoot post lunch.' And I remember mid-sentence he turned to me and said, 'Oh, I didn't get your name, baby.' I said 'Sayani'. And he was like, 'Oh, very nice to meet you, Sayani.' And he hugged me." Obviously by this point I have the same gushing smile on my face as Sayani.
Mother knows best While Sayani was watching world cinema by the age of eight, Bollywood specifically was abhorred at home. We're half way through the shoot when I broach the topic and she shares, "My mother couldn't fathom why I wanted to study films. Bollywood was beyond mediocre to her. But I've always been quite independent and I quietly did whatever I wanted to do. I didn’t ask for money, didn't seek permission and worked my way through college to follow my dreams. When I came to Bombay (doesn't call it 'Mumbai' either!), my mother... I guess she just kept hoping, at least for the first few years, that I'd return to Calcutta. I think it was me doing a film with Shah Rukh Khan that changed things. Then, she was like 'Okay, she must be doing something right'. Only in the last few years has she come to terms with what I do. So, now when she calls me, she only asks, 'Khawar kheyechish?' (Did you have your food?) and tells me, 'Taka khorcha korishna' (Don't waste money)!" Sayani is whole-heartedly laughing as she says, "You know, I just sent her some woollies that I haven't told her about. I'm dreading the moment it reaches our house because she'll immediately start screaming, 'Why are you hell-bent on spending all your money!' So yes, things are extremely normal at home."
With eyes full of pride, the Lady Shri Ram College (LSR) graduate informs, "My mother is really, quite something - extremely loyal, very righteous, and brave. She worked in Calcutta Telephones, which later became BSNL, and was always respected as an extremely hardworking employee. You know the frequent politically-driven bandhs we used to have in Calcutta? She'd go to office even on those days! She'd walk 45 kilometres to her office. She would walk the same distance even during monsoon, when Calcutta would be waist-deep in water!" So, does Sayani get her determination and passion from her mother, I enquire as she emerges from the green room looking like a vision in an embroidered Mishru gown. "Yes, definitely," Sayani confirms, before adding, "But then, everyone in my family is like that. All my mamas, masis, grandmas, granduncles are in the education sector - most of them in English or History, one is in Physics and one is in Economics. So, everyone is quite righteous and egotistical in their righteousness!" She chuckles as she adds, "Basically, very Bangali, if you know what I mean!" and chuckles some more.
Six promotions and an exit Sayani is getting her hair done for the third look when I ask her if it's true she got six promotions within a year at the research-based firm in Delhi where she was working before foraying into cinema. With a fervent nod and a straight face, she says, "Yes, and they told me I'd become a GM next if I continued with that firm!" Say what? Sayani snickers as she explains, "I don't know, they just kept promoting me! But I'd work 19-20 hours a day. The office had two or three floors, and I'd be the only one in the building working all day and all night, in a city like Delhi. Looking back, I don't know why I wasn't scared. I guess I had immense faith in human beings. Sometimes the office help would come up to me and say, "Madam, abhi bahot late hogaya hai, sona hai. Aap jao." I'd come out - my office was in the Qutab Institutional Area - but there would be no transport to get out of that zone. I'd walk alone, waiting for autos in pitch darkness. I think I lived in a bubble. Touch wood, nothing bad happened. I believe that when you are following your heart, God looks after you."
Through the viewfinder In her decade-long career in cinema, Sayani has worked with some of the best storytellers of our times, including Anurag Basu, Anubhav Sinha, Suman Mukhopadhyay, Qaushiq Mukherjee (popularly known as Q) and Shonali Bose. Even as she declares that theatre is her first love, about working with such award-winning filmmakers Sayani says warmly, "I'm grateful to have had the chance to work with these geniuses. They have widely different methods of directing. Right after Shonali, I worked with Anurag Basu. Shonali would make you rehearse the whole script a thousand times. Basu doesn’t follow a script! Working with directors like them prepares you for variety, for improvisations, and you grow as an actor absorbing the best aspects of what constitutes them. I really enjoyed working with director Joyeeta Patpatia on Four More Shots Please Season 3, with Srijit Mukherji on Sherdil, with Subhash Kapoor in Jolly LLB 2. I'm the best version of myself when the director trusts me to do my thing. If I receive a little love and confidence from my directors, I can really fly, create magic, and make things happen," she says, gesticulating for emphasis.
I watch as she continues to create magic in our studio, flowing with the music, deftly utilizing the pristine satin backdrop to weave a chic narrative. I thank Damini, err... Sayani for her honest representation of a "real woman" - her needs, urges, aspirations, career and relationship choices - in the International Emmy Awards-nominated Four More Shots Please!. But what's it really like on the sets of the Netflix series? She's quick to reply, "Its great fun working with this bunch. We've gone through our ups and downs together. There's lots of drama on the sets, but we've come to understand each other on a personal level. I enjoyed shooting Season 3 the most although we had to shoot over 20 hours a day due to all the Covid restrictions.”
Love, actually If her Instagram posts are anything to go by, Sayani also shares strong bonds with noted names like Naseeruddin Shah and Kalki Koechlin, among others. The actress says, "Naseer I know from my FTII days. He's someone who's had a huge impact on my understanding of acting and everything I do - my approach, sense of discipline. We worked together in The Hungry (2017), but I want to do theatre with him because I think that's where his real love lies. I've watched Father, Father twice and cried buckets both times."
Kalki is more of a soul-sister it seems: "We met at an early stage in my career and she's still one of my closest friends. Earlier we would have frequent sleepovers. She was the first one to connect me to a stylist. She was also the first one to make me practice walking in heels. She would be like, 'Take these and walk up and down, in front of me'! (laughs) She's taught me a great deal. Even makeup, you know? I'd borrow her makeup. We still exchange clothes. Most of the sports bras you see in my closet are borrowed from Kalki!" Sayani informs with a chortle.
Jordans versus heels As we wrap up the shoot and before Sayani sits back to examine the images in her casualwear and Jordans ("I bought this pair because I genuinely love Jordans, but my God, are they expensive!"), I ask her if she has ever envisioned herself as a bride. Pointing at the various racks of designer couture strewn around the Aza studio, she replies, "Dude, I don't know about marriage but I want bridal couture like what I wore for this shoot! I definitely see myself wearing the Tarun Tahiliani outfit or the Jayanti Reddy lehenga. Of course, I'll wear my Jordans with the lehengas. If I wear a saree, I'll wear comfy heels. Personally, I don't think fashion has anything to do with labels, it's about the aesthetics. But having said that, I feel bodily discomfort when faced with garish clothes. Especially the kind of ethnic-wear Bangalis sometimes wear to weddings? Like blue Baluchari sarees? There's absolutely nothing worse than that!" Sayani announces. We cringe-giggle recalling the snug innocence of "monkey tupis" and "laal shaals" and yet we affectionately sigh, "Oh! Calcutta."