Some faces have a distinct hold on you. For anyone familiar with the television boom in the early 2000s and the emergence of long-form serials in India, Sakshi Tanwar is one such face. Such has been her strength as a performer that she continues to be recognized as her on-screen characters. In a career spanning over two decades, she has, quite literally, seen it all – right from TV and films, to short films and now the OTT. With the release of her new Netflix series, Mai, the distinctness of her persona, of her versatility as an actor, is yet again on display, for everyone to see and admire. And her humility is such that when you talk to her about her consistency, she, almost awkwardly, laughs it off, saying, 'Bas, ho jaata hai.'
Along with the co-director of the series, Anshai Lal (Phillauri), the actor talks about entering the dark world of her character Sheel – a heartbroken mother channelling her grief into seeking the truth, at all costs, after her daughter is killed in front of her eyes – dissects her process, the way she gets into the skin of her characters and how she hits the nail on its head when it comes to complex emotional scenes.
Sakshi, you had once said that you had auditioned for the role back in 2019. What attracted you to it and do you remember what the brief was like?
Sakshi Tanwar (ST): I had gone for this mock shoot, which was also my audition. It had gone to Atul Mongia [creator and co-director of Mai], and they'd given me two-three of the most difficult scenes from the show to perform. There was a one-line brief: the daughter dies in an accident and the mother comes to know that it was anything but an accident. That was it. Then they gave me the script and said, 'Kar lo. Let's shoot it the way you want to.' I had basically gone with the intention of doing the workshop and coming back. I had no expectations of getting the role, I just hoped to learn something out of the workshop. I wanted to experiment and try something new.
One of the scenes was when I go to seek an admission for my daughter while chasing the truth, and the other one was the 'Kisne maara meri beti ko?' scene [where I keep hitting the goon with a wooden rod]. I had no clue what I was doing, and this too was after we did a few exercises on emotions. All I remember was that I was so drained. In fact, I remained drained for another two days after the mock shoot was over. I kept thinking, 'What was that?' I was completely exhausted. But they really liked what they saw and that was it. It was more their choice than my own but then it really worked for me.
This was a chilling, extremely layered role. Anshai, to get Sheel's character right was extremely important. What did you have in mind for this role when you came on board as a director? What was it in Sakshi that you knew that she was your Sheel? She's a supremely talented actor but we hadn't seen her in a role like this before. How did you see it?
Anshai Lal (AL): The first time I read the script, I had a long discussion with Atul. The instinct was how a person goes through the five stages of grief. For me, I could never see Sheel go beyond denial and anger. Bargaining is your third stage, but then she was constantly at loggerheads with her own family that never quite backed her emotionally. That was the starting point of Sheel. While shooting, it was amazing how Sakshi would perform. She would ask so many questions, some of which would include, 'What percentage is my denial? What percentage is my anger?' And then she would actually amp it up and tone it down accordingly. It was stunning.
Sheel's character is a very dark space to enter. There's an eerie quietness in her where even if she's straight faced, you know she's wounded – so much that you can't predict her next move. What did it take to get into the skin of this character? Were you able to detach yourself from the darkness?
ST: There were scenes where I would be in the moment for a little longer even after they were shot, but majorly, I was able to detach myself. It's very important to not be attached to what you're playing, otherwise, it can be extremely draining. The subject was very dark and heavy, so it would completely drain me anyway. The process, though, came organically.
AL: She does stay in the character though. When we were shooting in Lucknow and would pack up and come back to the hotel, she would obviously smile and be there with the people. But the day the schedule wrapped, it was a different Sakshi Tanwar that I saw for the first time. I asked her what happened, and she said, 'Now I've let it go.' A part of the character stays inside her for the entire duration of the shoot. That's what I observed.
ST: I think on set, I just keep the focus on my work. That helps me because there I don't indulge in any conversations outside of work. That's the discipline we've come from – when you're on set, you're on set. That does help.
Just to get into the headspace of this, every single day, were you doing anything in particular that was helping you with the process?
ST: We did a lot of workshops. I remember my first few readings were a disaster. We had the entire cast around and I was coughing very badly that day. Somehow, I just wasn't convinced that this [the readings] was going to work. My character was going to meet most of the other characters for the first time in the series. So, except for the immediate family, I felt that I needn't know who's doing what to keep it more organic. It should happen like it's happening for the first time. I'm not for overfamiliarity; I like surprises on the set while a take is happening. I like it when a co-actor gives me a feed and I have to respond to it. But for this role, we did a lot of workshops with other cast members and I feel that really helped me to understand Sheel. We also discussed and worked on her backstory, which again was very helpful for me to create a mapping that this was where the character's graph was going. So while shooting, Anshai sir would tell me, 'Sheel of Episode 3,' and in my mind, there was this graph where Sheel of Episode 3 would be at a certain point, while coming from a different point. I had to channel that mental mapping to get there and play the character accordingly.
Also, the team was very specific when it came to the emotions. There were times when I would perceive a scene in a particular way when they would tell me to explore a completely different emotion, which I wouldn't have even thought of. They would make me do a completely different take on the whole situation which was at times, not as emotional as I would expect it to be. You don't want to lose your vulnerability as a character, after all. So, my performance has been a product of team work. I was doing what they were instructing me to do.
Let's talk about the emotional sequences. When Sheel breaks down, your heart goes out to her. In the scene with a school clerk, the way you break down is astonishing. It's not easy to get crying so right. How do you get it so accurately?
ST: I have never been able to answer this. Somehow, I just manage to connect to the character. In that moment, I stop being Sakshi and I become the character. I start thinking like them and then I just let go – I let myself be.
AL: While shooting for that school scene especially, I remember it to be a very hectic day. When we were ready to shoot it, she walked up to me and told me that she wasn't ready for it at that point, going by the way she was mapping it in her head. So, it became the last scene she shot on that day because her mindspace was, 'Once I reached there, I wouldn't be able to do anything else.'
From Parvati in Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii to Sheel in Mai, from leading the TV space to now making such a solid foray into the OTT space, how would you describe your journey so far? And how much have women's roles evolved alongside?
ST: It has been beautiful. I was very fortunate to have experienced all mediums and play characters that were always strong. Right now, with the advent of OTT, we are all in a very good space. We are getting to explore, experiment and experience newer things and newer narratives. I think this holds true not only for female actors but even male actors. No more a leading actor is of a typical type. They're far more real and relatable, their stories are much more interesting. I think we are in the best phase right now as actors. I've said this when I was doing television, and I say this again now. I can see that, I can feel that, because as an actor, I'm getting so many different things to do. I'm sure even for the storytellers and directors, it's a much better space to be in.