Seema Pahwa is having a crazy day. It's lunch time at Drishyam Films, her current office in Andheri. As she serves herself a plate of dal-chaawal and bhindi, she calmly informs me that she rushed her mother in law into the ICU less than an hour ago. In the next conference room, a bunch of youngsters wait for her to join a meeting on shot division for her first film as director. It goes on the floors in Lucknow in 3 weeks. Pahwa is also making plans to go see Sui Dhaaga in which her daughter Manukriti has a small role. In the mean, her son is packing bags to go to London for a year to study film direction. She blurts out all this information in the 20 second journey from the office pantry to her cabin. Settled into her chair, plate in hand, she smiles proudly and says, "Mujhe dekh kar koi kahega main abhi ICU se ho kar aayi hoon?"
In films, however, her life is one-dimensional. On screen her characters have only one problem – beti ki shaadi. It's to her credit as a performer that she imbues these thinly written parts with so much colour, often becoming the best thing about the film. Remember the 'Ali Baba aur chaalis chor' scene in Shubh Mangal Saavdhan last year? "I've been on a few sets now where I've got incomplete scripts, and when I'd ask the director what my character does, why she's a certain way, they never had an answer because they never thought of it," she says. This will not happen when she's in charge, she declares solemnly. That would defeat the entire purpose behind writing and directing her own movie. "I have a synopsis for every junior artist also. The man passing through the road, the neighbour, someone with just one scene… everyone."
I've been on a few sets now where I've got incomplete scripts, and when I'd ask the director what my character does, why she's a certain way, they never had an answer because they never thought of it
In interviews earlier this year, Pahwa mentioned that she had written a script of her own in 2016 but it sat locked in her cupboard because she had abandoned hopes of it ever being made. "I met a couple of producers and they all complained that there's no star in this film, and I wanted actors. If actors aren't enough to make a film, I thought keeping the script at home is a better option. Kharaab banane se behtar, na banana hai," she reasons. In just a few months, Drishyam films, that has backed movies like Newton and Aankhon Dekhi, came on board, and granted Pahwa exactly the cast she wished for. "Mujhe laga ki bhagwan kaan laga ke baithe hain," she says. That said, her producers felt it was too early for her to speak about her movie so we agree to not get into details.
Pahwa began acting in 1968, making this her 50th year in the business. "I think I auditioned for television even before I got enrolled into school," she says. A life in television, theatre and films has taught her that constant learning is non-negotiable and also a lot of fun. Yet a part of her misses the days of live television where you couldn't cheat a performance. "Ab thodi si beimaani aa gayi hum main," she says.
Time pe limit hai, paison ki limit hai, actors ke waqt pe limit hai. When you take the same actors for theatre they give you 3-4 months. But the moment you cast them in a movie their dates have become limited. Director bandh jaata hai
She hopes to retain some of the truthfulness that was once key to creating art. So the 20-year-olds running the various departments of her movie have been forbidden from showing her references from other films at meetings. "I want every thought to be original," she says. Also, Pahwa wrote the entire script without venturing near a laptop. She used good old pen and paper and wrote on her kitchen table in the midst of cooking her daily meals. "I'd think of my characters while stirring and when a line would come to me and I'd quickly rush and jot it down," she says.
She was also adamant that just like in theatre, she'd workshop and rehearse with her actors for months before reaching the shoot. But that's when reality hit. "Time pe limit hai, paison ki limit hai, actors ke waqt pe limit hai. When you take the same actors for theatre they give you 3-4 months. But the moment you cast them in a movie their dates have become limited. Director bandh jaata hai," she says.
She's also been wondering if her vast experience as an actor could work against her. "Being an actress myself I know that over the years we create an ego that becomes too big and we can't break it. That could be a challenge for me – as an actress, how do I break another actor's ego, especially because they are my friends… I don't want them to think that just because you're an actor and have 50 years of experience, you know everything," she says, looking genuinely concerned.
Such thoughts are keeping Pahwa up at night, literally. As the days left for shoot are diminishing, so is her sleep. "I'm quite scared. I dream about silly things like losing my script and dialogues. Subah uthti hoon to hasi aati hain. Yeh kya bachpan laut aaya hain," she says with embarrassment.
And yet, she wouldn't have life any other way. "It's great that even after 50 years I get to learn something new. I pray to god that in every life, please make me an actor and let me lead this life over and over again."