Sanjana Sanghi sums up her Dil Bechara role in two words: Emotionally demanding. "It shifts from extremely happy to extremely romantic to extremely tragic," she says. "There's a huge meter that I had to oscillate between."
The film, an adaptation of John Green's 2012 book, The Fault In Our Stars, stars Sanghi as Kizie Basu, a young woman who has thyroid cancer. When she meets fellow cancer survivor Immanuel Rajkumar Junior (Sushant Singh Rajput), the two embark on an epic romance. Sanghi and Rajput reprise roles played by Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort in the 2014 film adaptation of Green's novel.
Dil Bechara marks Sanghi's debut as a lead performer, but is also Singh's last posthumous performance after his death last month. Ahead of its release on DisneyPlus Hotstar on July 24, Sanghi talks about coping with Singh's death, how theatre taught her to hone her craft and the advice from Imtiaz Ali that has stayed with her over the years:
The Fault In Our Stars is a beloved book and for many people, one of their favourite teen movies. How do you make a well-known part like that your own?
It's tricky. I was 16 when The Fault in Our Stars released and I'd bunked school to watch the movie. I'd read the novel several, several times. For me, it's a romantic modern classic. When Mukesh (Chhabra) sir told me that we were going to do the Hindi adaptation, I was equal parts excited and frightened. But Suprotim Sengupta and Shashank Khaitan's script gave me confidence and all my doubts just went out the window. They picked up the soul of the story and dropped it into the beautiful cultural context of Jamshedpur. They wrote lines for Kizie and Mannie keeping the soul of Hazel and Augustus intact. The moment I read the script, everything was sorted and there was no pressure for me during prep.
There were certain hard points to Kizie's character that I knew I had to get right at the outset. The first was that she's a Bengali girl, while I'm north Indian. I was brought up in Delhi and I'm half Punjabi, half Gujarati. Playing a Bengali character was a challenge because Mukesh said, 'I want you to reach a state where you can converse in fluent Bangla with Swastika Mukherjee and Saswata Chatterjee.' They're legendary actors. It sounded simple but meant months of diction training and cultural training, which I did with the help of an NSD graduate called Sushmita. We'd spend many hours together breaking down the language and the culture.
Secondly, Sushant and I play characters who are unwell. The thing about cancer is that it could become your defining factor — we sometimes end up looking at cancer survivors and making that their main characteristic. It's actually not. I wanted to make Kizie first, a girl who is full of love and life, and then, a girl who is also suffering from an illness. Making that illness something that she has grown up with meant that I had to go to the Indian Cancer Society and Tata Hospital. I joined cancer support groups and spoke to many young survivors to understand the psychological and emotional impact such an illness can have on those who got diagnosed as schoolchildren.
What's your mindspace right now? It's your big debut as a lead actress but it's also a moment steeped in tragedy.
I've not been able to cope with it. That's the honest answer. The best way I can put it is that I'm trying to move on with what I need to do. We need to bring our film to people the way it deserves because it's an absolute labour of love. But there is an immense stomach-churning sense of grief that I'm also carrying along with this. I would have associated happiness, excitement and a positive nervous energy with the fact that my debut film is releasing in a day, but the fact is that I'm unable to experience any of those things and that breaks my heart. But it has also taught me that life is tough.
How are you coping with the ugliness that's unfolding around you? As a newcomer, is it disheartening to see how brutal the industry can be?
I have to say that it's extremely heartbreaking to see some of these things. I'm a studious person. I went to Delhi University and graduated as a student of journalism. The journalism that I learnt and revered was one of objectivity and honesty, and I wish that was the case here. As artistes, we're so passionate about our work, we give our films so much, that this is not encouraging. But it doesn't mean that my passion reduces or that I won't continue doing this. At the same time, I also know that I will do my bit to try and change things, to usher some kind of positivity into this culture. Whatever little I can do.
At 13, Mukesh Chhabra saw you performing in school and then cast you in Rockstar. What were those initial days of being on a set for the first time like?
That was unreal. I've been a child of the stage since I was six. I started training with Ashley Lobo at a young age and then I started learning Kathak. The stage was where I was comfortable. Performing has always been comfortable. Mukesh sir came to look for a Kashmiri-looking girl for the part of Mandy and I had to fly to Dharamshala overnight for the shoot. I didn't think it was real but I felt comfortable so instantly and so organically.
The 300 people on set didn't intimidate me, the camera didn't intimidate me. Imitiaz (Ali) sir would always tell me that there's a message to be found in that. He said that he had hardly ever seen someone so at ease in front of the camera. Growing up, I didn't understand what he meant for so many years, but his remark is why I stayed a semi-professional actor and did as many ads as I could and got onto as many sets as I could through school and college.
There was a gap of five years between your first and second film, how did you nourish the actor in you during that time?
I hadn't looked at it like that. I was growing up and living a normal school life. I was a debater and a studious kid. That was my childhood. All these ads I did were just bonuses. After that, I went to Delhi University where the theatre culture was extremely strong. That's where I learned everything I know about the craft. Those were my years of nourishing myself by doing plays and dance performances.
What has the lockdown been like for you? Has it given you time to work on your craft and read more scripts?
I came back to Delhi in March and so the lockdown has given me some time at home. Playing Kizie taught me so much but also drained me so much. When you're 21, you're figuring out yourself as an adult and what your perspectives are. Lockdown has just taught me to find my centre a little bit. It helped me figure out who Sanjana is when you take Dil Bechara out of her. I was a college graduate when I got the film and now that it's releasing, I'm a 23-year-old adult. I didn't know who Sanjana was minus university or minus Dil Bechara. So it's been a time of self-discovery. In theatre, we were always taught that there is no end to honing your craft.
I write a lot and so I call my friends at Terribly Tiny Tales and tell them that I've written something and that I'd like to perform it. They helped me collaborate with a musician and create a whole piece. There have been a lot of shoots going on from my house, which has been fun. I've been reading tons of scripts. Finally, directors do video meetings. It's exciting.