Actor Bhumi Pednekar channels the iconic style of singer-composer Bappi Lahiri and discusses her personal and professional transformations. Here, the brilliant and vivacious actor comes undone in an exclusive tête-à-tête with Bazaar India.
Nandini Bhalla: Let’s rewind to the ’90s... tell me about your earliest memory of cinema?
Bhumi Pednekar: “I remember it distinctly...my earliest memory of cinema was watching Rangeela (1995) in a theatre. And even though I was very young—four or five-years-old, maybe—I was absolutely mesmerised with the way Urmila Matondkar looked. Then I remember watching Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! ([1994) and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995). You know, that scene, when Raj Malhotra (Shah Rukh Khan) picks up Simran’s (Kajol’s) bra? I remember grinning so hard while watching it. I don’t think I really understood what it meant, but I found it funny, and that scene stayed with me. I also remember watching Raja Hindustani, and later, crying and throwing a fit because my mom wouldn’t get me the same outfit Karisma Kapoor wore in the film—it was a red, micro-mini dress with very interesting sleeves. I think my love for cinema was deeply linked to my love for beauty and fashion. That’s where it all began. Growing up, I remember my mom and my aunt being very inclined towards beauty and fashion. And because my aunt was the younger one, I would go through her wardrobe and try on her clothes and shoes. I would sit in front of her make-up vanity box and try on her lipsticks. And when we would visit my cousins, I would ask them to play dress-up. So I have always enjoyed experimenting with fashion and beauty, the power of transformation has fascinated me. And even in the films I watched, I always noticed the outfits and make-up."
NB: For this special issue of Harper’s Bazaar, you have been dressed in the bold style of late singer and composer, Bappi Lahiri...
BP: “Bappi Da was such an icon; he had such a unique and original personality. I remember watching him on television and being mesmerised by his distinct personality. Bappi Da created such an extraordinary identity for himself, through his art, through his craft. I am sure that wasn’t always easy, to be different... that comes from a place of extreme self-confidence. And that is why Bappi Da has left behind a legacy, a legacy that is unmatched. He was a fashion icon, undeterred by what people thought of him. Because in the time that he lived, people weren’t always that accepting of disruptive personalities. But he stuck to who he was, did what he wanted to, and that is why he’s such a legend.”
NB: From his music, are there any songs that you truly enjoy?
BP: “I love Tamma Tamma Loge...it’s a song that I dance to all the time. And even one of his recent hits, which I was completely obsessed with...Ooh La La. But I also enjoy listening to some of Bappi Da’s more mellow music, like Yaad Aa Raha Hai and Raat Baaqi, Baat Baaqi...”
NB: Bhumi, I have noticed a recent transformation in regards to your personal style and image. You are looking sexier, glamorous, more confident in your skin... There is a shift taking place, an evolution of sorts...
BP: “I made my acting debut in 2015 with Dum Laga Ke Haisha, and it was the best thing that happened to me. Like, I couldn’t have asked for a better debut. But that film, and the ones after, almost sealed my image and placed me in a box. I was doing serious films, socially responsible films, and that image became tough for me to break. But in real life, I have always made bold choices, and I am a modern, urban, city girl. But each time I tried to out my real, authentic self, people weren’t accepting that image...probably because I was awkward about it, too. I was trying to fulfil the image I was portraying in movies. So I was lost, I was really lost and confused. I loved the roles I got to play, and the audience loved those characters, but they weren’t who I really was, off-screen. It took me many years and a lockdown to finally reveal the real Bhumi. Not only did that build my self-worth and confidence, but the people around me also began to see me as I really am.
And, of course, a lot of credit goes to the stylists I work with, my gym instructor, my nutritionist. Because I am not a size-zero girl and I am not interested in being one. I am a curvy, voluptuous girl, but I have realised that I am beautiful and I need to celebrate who I am. I want to be the finest actor in the country, but I am also that girl who saved money for two years to buy her own make-up vanity. And I needed to balance both my loves, because while it makes me incredibly happy, acting is only one half of me. And the moment I accepted myself, and realised that my roles on screen can be different from my life outside my films, I became happier and more confident. Right now, I am putting out the most authentic version of myself."
NB: During this journey, did you ever worry that you will lose out on the ‘serious’ roles you had been offered in the past?
BP: “Honestly, no, and that’s not happened yet. Because I believe in the value of my craft. I am not a conventional looking actor, and I am aware of it, and I celebrate it, and I will never move away from that. I will continue to work hard on my craft and my success; I will continue to push boundaries and try to become the best actor India has seen. But the things I do off-camera, they are for myself, for my sanity. They are the things that make me happy. I feel like the only way I can protect that is if I am a little selfish. When I look at (actor) Rekha ma’am...by the way, I Idolise her! There are so many times when I am having a bad day, and I’ll just go watch an old interview of hers. She was so talented, she played such iconic characters, and she looked the way she looked. She worked on her performance, and she worked on herself.
And today, I am working towards being true to myself.”
NB: Do you think female actors continue to be typecast as either ‘pretty heroine’ or ‘serious actor’?
BP: “Female actors are often typecast. If a male actor has a good body, he is not typecast or only given certain, specific roles. But a woman is. As an audience, you have to differentiate between an actor’s film choices and their character. At work, I am offended when someone speaks badly about a co-actor. I don’t entertain such conversations. And that is feminism, to me...not listening to loose talk about another female actor.
I was lucky enough to be born in a feminist environment. My father was a feminist. But I did not realise that the life I lived wasn’t possible for many. I took feminism for granted until I started working. And then I saw how much inequality exists in the world. But what I have also learnt over the years is that you can’t just place your ideals of feminism on some other girl, because she may not have the same privileges as you. Instead, you have to help and support and guide other women in ways that make sense for them and their circumstances. I don’t demand that everyone should have the same courage to make changes because that is not always possible. I have become more compassionate, more accepting now. And I would love to be a role model for someone and improve their life in some way.”
NB: Let’s discuss the ‘good girl’ trope, which is also so popular in films... Are female actors still expected to play either the ‘good girl’ or ‘bad girl’ role, or are we making way for just multilayered personality types?
BP: I would like to believe that the ‘Sati Savitri’ complex in films is reducing. The roles I have played myself are mostly complex characters who make mistakes, who are a mess...and that’s okay. But has our perception truly changed? I don’t think so. We are more likely to accept a male bonding film, where the boys hang out and use foul language. But if women do it, everyone is uncomfortable. Men can talk about an orgasm, and nobody will bat an eyelid. But if a woman talks about her sexual desires, it’s a problem. Things are changing, little by little, but we have a long, long way to go.
NB: Bhumi, what kind of films are you most drawn to...and hope to work in?
BP: “If you had asked me this question a few years ago, I would have probably said I want to work on great scripts. But now I know that I enjoy films that I helm because I want to make a significant contribution. I am a pressure junkie. It’s not easy to make movies that are led by a woman, it’s even hard getting budgets to make those. But I know that I want to play complex characters. I want to play flawed characters. I don’t want to play whitewashed roles because I am not that girl. I want to represent different women.”
NB: Are you comfortable calling yourself an ambitious woman? Is ambition still viewed as a dirty word for women?
BP: “Oh yes, I am ambitious. And people are afraid of ambitious women. They’ll ask questions like, ‘When you get married, will you still wear such clothes?’. This is such terrible conditioning. Everyone is afraid of an ambitious woman because they fear that she will turn everything upside down. But I thrive on ambition. I love it, I love it.”
NB: What are you most excited about next?
BP: “I am extremely excited about several upcoming projects. I am ambitious about starting a new professional chapter this year. I am eager to essay roles that are closer to who I am in real life. I am expanding professionally...working on something incredibly exciting that I can’t reveal yet. I was lost during Covid, I was in a stage of transition. This is the first chapter of an exciting new life.“
Photographs by Vaishnav Praveen, Styling by Mohit Rai and Sohiny Das, Hair: Marcelo Pedrozo, Make-up: Sonic Sarwate, Production: April Studios