Apart from Banita Sandhu – the other actress who made her big Bollywood debut in Shoojit Sircar’s October was animation filmmaker Gitanjali Rao. Rao plays a IIT professor who has to shuttle between her teaching job and hospital rounds, to care for her comatose daughter. The role is a rather complex one – Rao has to convincingly forge a relationship with her daughter (Banita) with whom she has no speaking dialogues. Her grief stricken face remains with you much after the credits have rolled. 

It’s hard to believe that this is Rao’s first tryst with the camera and that she was busy working on her own animation film while performing it. She says her theatre training of many years ago under Satyadev Dubey came in handy. Here she tells us about her unplanned Bollywood debut. 

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ON HOW SHE LANDED THE PART

I used to do theatre really long back but this is my first role in the movies. I know Shoojit because I acted in one of his ads 15 years ago after he had seen me on stage. He called up for some help on animation directors and suddenly asked if I would act in his film. I said I can’t because I’m directing an animation feature that had just materialised. He said it’s a small role and won’t take more than 2-3 weeks. When I looked at the script I realised this is not a small role at all! But Shoojit would not take no for an answer. My producers also said ‘you must do a Shoojit Sircar film’. 

There was no audition or anything. Shoojit had tremendous faith in me. I told him I’ve never acted before. He said he wanted everyone in this film to be fresh, new and have base in theatre. I said if you have faith in me then it’s okay – mera kya jaata hai! 

ON WHY SHE IDENTIFIED WITH THE PART

It was not really challenging. In fact, it was very close to who I am and the people around me. My sister has an autistic child. I don’t have kids myself but I’m surrounded by mothers. 

The shoot went chronologically so we got a chance to grow into the role day by day. Even the first time we see Banita (who plays her daughter) with the make-up, it was a surprise for us. Shoojit made the whole family sit outside so when we saw her, the reactions were absolutely genuine. This was a girl you just met over dinner the night before, and the next thing you know she’s looking like that on a hospital bed.  

There was no audition or anything. Shoojit had tremendous faith in me. I told him I’ve never acted before. He said he wanted everyone in this film to be fresh, new and have base in theatre. I said if you have faith in me then it’s okay – mera kya jaata hai!  

ON PUTTING HER THEATRE TRAINING TO USE

Although I did theatre years ago, I trained with Satyadev Dubey. His basics are so strong that even 15 years later when I recall, I know what to do. This is also something we learnt in theatre – if you have to project grief, think of something that really makes you sad. For me it was really easy to do that. Also, just a week before my cat had given birth to babies in my house. I love animals more than I do humans. I stayed with her in the animal hospital because she was crying and bawling. 

Next week at the shoot I was just remembering those moments. I know it is a very non-glamorous thing to say but I was thinking about about my cats while doing those scenes! The tears just kept flowing because I kept thinking about my cats. Banita could have been anybody, the bond that you feel had to be internal. That’s what theatre teaches you. 

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ON WORKING WITH VARUN DHAWAN – THE ONLY SEASONED ACTOR ON SET

All the actors on the set were first-timers. They were nice to each other, no egos floating around. The only actor who had done many roles before was Varun (Dhawan). He was quiet and kept mostly to himself to get into the role. He’s a very easy person to deal with, very professional. I have not seen any of his films except Badlapur. I don’t watch mainstream Bollywood at all. I had no pre-conceived notions. Then when I saw the kind of fan following he had after ending up on the shoot I thought ‘Shit he’s a big star!’ We shot in the hospital but from there to the vanity van also word spreads so fast – young girls were screaming and fainting. The rest of us newcomers were like ‘Wow! Aisa hota hai kya Bollywood main?’ 

ON WHETHER SHE’S OPEN TO ACTING AGAIN

Ya I don’t mind acting again but it has to be something that I really enjoy. But also not for the next one-and-a-half years because I need to finish my film. If you tell someone that, no one is interested in waiting for you. But that’s how it is for animation – you have to think 3-4 years ahead. Someone on Facebook asked ‘Will you do my next film?’ I said I’m not doing anyone’s next – not even Almodovar and Wong Kar Wai’s till I finish my animation film! 

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