When actor Shriya Pilgaonkar received the offer for her first Hindi film, the world was at her feet. She was set to make her debut in a prestigious Yash Raj Films (YRF) production, opposite arguably the biggest Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan, and the film was far removed from anything one had come to expect from a YRF film. Maneesh Sharma’s Fan (2016) turned out to be partially admired for its ambition and also derided for diluting a fertile premise in favour of a more ‘entertaining’ film. The mixed response meant that the general public didn’t know what to think of it, and that reflected in the film’s less-than-glorious box office numbers. What initially looked like promised land for Pilgaonkar, turned completely desolate after Fan turned out to be a commercial failure. She’d been in talks for at least three projects while shooting her Hindi debut, but none of them ended up materialising. “This is where it was valuable to come from a family of actors, to give me perspective about how this was a part of the journey and to an extent, also necessary,” Pilgaonkar told Film Companion.
Daughter of veteran actors Sachin and Supriya Pilgaonkar, the Mirzapur actor stuck to her guns. Six years later, she’s found success, mostly owing to shows on streaming platforms. After a steady stream of work, 2022 proved to be a breakout year for Pilgaonkar with Guilty Minds, The Broken News and the second season of The Gone Game all showcasing her talents. “[I thought] she had the right mix of good looks, charisma and talent to carry a show on her shoulders. Also, she has an inner strength that was right for the character,” said Shefali Bhushan, creator of Guilty Minds. It’s taken a while, but good things have finally come Pilgaonkar’s way.
“How’s anyone supposed to know?”
When Pilgaonkar was growing up, her father was directing one of the most popular sitcoms on Indian television – Tu Tu Main Main – the cast of which included him, Pilgaonkar’s mother and Reema Lagoo. Yet acting was never on her radar. “I know it’s hard to believe coming from a family of actors, but I had so much going on in terms of my interests that acting never even crossed my mind,” said Pilgaonkar. While she was always in close proximity to performing arts – learning Kathak, participating in plays at her school’s annual day, singing and dancing for guests at home – she also spent a large part of her early life training to be a swimmer. It was only after she gave up swimming that the question mark about what she wanted to do with her life became apparent. “Looking back, I never had the pressure to have a ready, one-word answer for what I wanted to become. How’s anyone supposed to know?” asked Pilgaonkar. “As adults, most of us are lost, how can children answer these questions?”
Looking back, Pilgaonkar thinks her interest in acting may have its roots in her decade-long training in classical Indian dance, where expressing emotions is a key part of performance. “I did an advanced diploma in Kathak from Nalanda and even taught it for a bit, where abhinaya is such a crucial part of the Indian classical dance form and that’s when I touched base with the actor in me.” Her decision to become an actor came later.
After graduating in Sociology from Mumbai’s St. Xavier’s College, Pilgaonkar attended summer school at Harvard University in 2011 and studied screenplay adaptation. She also applied for a postgraduate programme in Language Literacy & Media at Columbia University, but despite getting admission, Pilgaonkar ended up not going. “I started to think if going to Columbia was a way of me trying to put off the conversation with myself about what I really wanted to do in my life.” Choosing to remain in Mumbai, Pilagonkar did stints producing documentaries, music videos and even took on second-unit direction for a project. She attended the Film and Television Institute of India’s film appreciation workshop and here, she was asked by a friend if she would like to take part in a play that would be staged at National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai. It was a 10-minute play, but Pilgaonkar spent an entire month rehearsing for it — and in the process, she came to the realisation that she wanted to be an actor. “At 23-24, I think I started late. Most actors start much earlier, no? But I’m glad it happened as organically as it did,” said Pilgaonkar. “What I discovered was that acting used all the skills I’d accumulated over the years – physically and emotionally. I’d never felt mentally stimulated like this.”
Approximately a decade later, the 33-year-old actor claims she wasn’t devastated when her Bollywood debut flopped and she’d realised early on that her role in Fan wasn’t like that of a conventional heroine. Pilgaonkar wasn’t a part of the film’s publicity, her name wasn’t in the official trailer and she wasn’t given an ‘introduction credit’ in the film. “While I don’t want you to overly highlight this, I remember being curious about why it wasn’t done. To this day, I don’t have clarity on this,” said Pilgaonkar. It’s evident that she doesn’t harbour much negativity about those early experiences. She fondly remembers a day when she spent a morning shift acting alongside Jean Dujardin (a couple of years after the Oscar success of The Artist, 2011) for Un Plus Une (2015), and doing an evening shift with Shah Rukh Khan. “I remember feeling really grateful, and that gave me an indication that I was on the right path,” she said.
Following Fan, Pilgaonkar was forced to recalibrate her strategy over the next three years. “I remember a casting director told me I wasn’t desirable enough to be a commercial ‘heroine’,” recalled Pilgaonkar. Naive enough to think just acting well would be enough to build a successful career, the learning curve was steep for Pilgaonkar. “I used to see people on magazine covers and wonder: How?! It’s not just skill and hard work. It’s also a mix of luck, timing and if you’re working hard then something is bound to happen.” She also learned about the mystical thing that is the PR machinery. “Today I’ve seen actors creating a perception about themselves even before they’ve made their debut. I didn’t know perception is such a big part of an actor’s life. I realised it has to go in tandem with acting – all of this is part of one ‘job’,” she said.
‘I want to keep myself relevant’
The turning point for Pilgaonkar was the Mirzapur audition, during which she tested for the part of Sweety Gupta. “I remember coming back and telling my mother that even if I don’t get the part, it’s fine because I enjoyed doing the audition so much,” said Pilgaonkar. The first season was a monster hit and made Pilgaonkar an instantly recognisable face in India. One of her most-cherished compliments was from fans who were surprised to learn she was actually a Maharashtrian. “Mirzapur gave me the kind of pan-India fame that I’d hoped for from a commercial hit,” she said, recalling how her father, a veteran actor with six decades of experience, was often asked, “Aap Sweety Gupta ke Papa hai na? (You’re Sweety Gupta’s dad, right?)” The road to her current success was paved by Mirzapur.
Having starred in three projects this year — Guilty Minds, The Broken News and The Gone Game — Pilgaonkar says she’s also shot for three projects in 2022, making it one of the most productive years of her career. “A lot of people keep telling me how women have five-six years, but I’m looking at working for at least 20-30 years. It’s going to be challenging, but I want to keep myself relevant.” Taking a note from her colleagues like Ali Fazal, Radhika Apte and Priyanka Chopra, Pilgaonkar said she doesn’t see herself as only a Hindi film actor – but as one who is open to regional films as well as international films. She’ll soon be seen hosting a bridal show on Hotstar. “I’ve always harboured dreams of hosting my own travel show,” she said, adding that she hopes to try her hand at direction in the future.
As Kashaf Quaze, an upright lawyer in Shefali Bhushan’s Guilty Minds, Pilgaonkar delivered one of the best performances in an Indian streaming show for the year. As the principled-but-not-dull Kashaf, Pilgaonkar shares terrific chemistry with her co-stars, Varun Mitra and Sugandha Garg. Making great use of her first role as a protagonist, Pilgaonkar rarely puts a foot wrong while bringing a wide number of facets about Kashaf to life. Bhushan has nothing but praises for her protagonist: “She’s super hard working, always prepared with the lines, punctual and most of all, extremely receptive to the vision of the director.”
Pilgaonkar followed Guilty Minds with the uneven, though interesting, The Broken News on Zee5. Pilgaonkar’s sincerity as the star reporter Radha Bhargava stands out in the otherwise limited show and is a sign of how self-assured the actor has become. “I was a little concerned after Guilty Minds and The Broken News that I might get typecast as the virtuous actor. I pre-empted it in a way, so in my next film with Bhuvan Bam, I’m playing a spunky sex worker, far removed from anything I’ve done till date,” said Pilgaonkar. In another upcoming project, she’ll be playing a butcher.
The struggle now, when she has established herself, is to convince her industry peers to think of her for more ‘commercial’ parts and to cast her against type. “Maybe even I should start making dance reels!” Pilgaonkar said, laughing. Considering all the projects she has lined up and the success her shows have enjoyed, her reel life promises to be for far more than 30 seconds.