Everyone has a different success story. Some might have to wait longer for it to arrive, but when it does, it feels like a homecoming. For Shreya Dhanwanthary – better known as the determined and gritty Sucheta Dalal in Scam 1992 (2020), or more recently, as the supremely competitive and complex journalist Mansi in Mumbai Diaries 26/11 (2021) – the path has been long and hard but finally, fruitful.
With some meaty performances in her filmography, and exciting projects in hand – including R. Balki's next – Shreya feels a sense of relief now that things are falling into place. Having moved to Mumbai alone in 2012 to pursue an acting career, she was a familiar face that appeared in several advertisements. Still, the big screen remained elusive and success remained out of reach until 2019, when she was seen as the fearless surveillance cell recruit Zoya in Raj & DK's The Family Man, and starred opposite Emraan Hashmi in her first Bollywood feature film, Why Cheat India.
Last year, when the world came to a halt owing to the pandemic, her career jumpstarted with the Hansal Mehta series that continues to be one of the top-rated shows across the world – its IMDb ratings are higher than even Game Of Thrones. Shreya hasn't looked back since. And why should she? Her journey has just started.
The actress reflects on her journey so far, her process of molding herself to her characters and what the future looks like.
Tell me a little about Mumbai Diaries 26/11. Your character, Mansi, is a journalist yet again, but is very different from your role in Scam 1992. How do you mold yourself to a flawed, layered character who is perhaps not even relatable in terms of your own sensibilities?
The fun part was that I was playing Sucheta and Mansi at the same time. The release of Mumbai Diaries 26/11 got delayed because of the pandemic but I was filming both shows at the same time. So, it took a sizable amount of conscious effort to understand that I was playing a journalist in both, but one is a field reporter and the other is a beat reporter. Mansi doesn't want to give out fake news or put someone's life in danger; she just doesn't realize the collateral damage her actions cause. She wants to be the first person to break the story. That is her driving force. Even Sucheta wanted to report the story first and the driving force for her too is the truth. However, she was patient, dogged with determination and wasn't unscrupulous. Mansi, on the other hand, has slightly looser morals when it comes to getting the story. But ultimately, the motivation for both of them was to get the news – just that one wanted to get it first and the other wanted to get it right.
There was a lot of prep that the actors had to go through before shooting Mumbai Diaries. What was your prep like?
We had a lot of readings that helped us get a better understanding of our characters and form a camaraderie with the team. There were workshops too, but only for the actors who were to play doctors. The funny thing was that my character, Mansi, was the only one in the show who shared screen time with all the other major characters. That sometimes made me feel like an undercover reporter.
Before coming to Mumbai to pursue acting, you did an engineering course from NIT. Was it a classic 3 Idiots story where you always wanted to do something unconventional but were afraid of taking it up with your family, or was it something you always knew?
No, it was nothing like that. I've always loved cinema and I studied it as a part of my education in the Middle East, where I was brought up. I also happen to love Math and Physics, so I'm a full nerd. I studied engineering because I wanted to. While pursuing my degree, I got the opportunity to be in front of the camera and that's when things took shape. I did a Telugu film during that time, Sneha Geetham, directed by an alumnus of my college [Madhura Sreedhar Reddy]. I fell in love with the process and thought: This is it.
How did Mumbai happen to you? What gave you that final push? And what kept you going till success came about?
It was as clichéd as it gets. I thought about going to Mumbai and that was that. I still remember the date – it was May 1, 2012, when I randomly made that decision. I had come very close to closing out a couple of auditions and a lot of casting directors, like Shanoo Sharma and Bhumi Pednekar back then, encouraged me too. That was the little push that I needed, and I took their advice.
I really don't know what kept me going all those years. Many times, I thought that I should quit and just do an MBA, or anything that allowed me a steady paycheck. I have been a fantastic student. Everyone who knew me in school thought that I would be a CEO someday – I was that nerdy. So this was a big detour. I think it was just a byproduct of being young, impulsive and just hopeful.
Do you remember any particular incident that stood out from any of your auditions?
Oh yes, I remember not speaking at all for my audition for The Family Man, which is so funny, now that I look back. They had given me a scene which had no dialogue. My audition for Scam 1992, on the other hand, was five to six pages long. It was the opening scene of the show. It was a great way to beat out the contenders. But both those instances were such a contrast.
You've worked with four well-known directors in the last couple of years. Scam 1992 with Hansal Mehta, Family Man with Raj & DK and Mumbai Diaries with Nikkhil Advani. They are known to make completely different kinds of cinema, very distinct from each other. How different or similar are they as far as your observations go?
I really like it. I like the fact that I'm getting to work with different people with different sensibilities who dabble in different genres and different types of filmmaking. To have these different filmmakers trust you with their stories is a huge compliment. I can't wait to badger them to work with me again as I had a great time working with all of them.
It usually takes me the first two days to get the sur right in terms of how the set works, what the director is looking for, the tone of the character that I have envisioned, how much it matches (their idea), how much I have to relearn and unlearn. After that, it just gets going. It's always been a mutual admiration society with these amazing directors. I feel I'm extremely lucky as they have always supported me publicly too. You don't see people do that for other projects but they do and that is so wonderful.
You've recently signed R Balki's next with Dulquer Salmaan, Sunny Deol and Pooja Bhatt. What can you tell us about this and your upcoming projects?
It's supremely exciting. I'm very grateful to Gauri Shinde – who is unbelievable and had a lot to do with it – and R Balki, for this opportunity. There's a very interesting story about how I got the role but I'll only talk about it when the right time comes. I also have a film called Loop Lapeta coming up with Taapsee Pannu and Tahir Raj Bhasin. I'm not sure when it's out but it should be quite fun. Aakash Bhatia, our director, had such a cool vision for this film and I can't wait for people to see it. It'll take people for a ride.
If there is one thing that has boomed during the pandemic, it's the OTT space. It's played a crucial part in your career too. How different or similar is it from feature films?
I think OTT has helped not just me, but a lot of people as the playing field has become a lot bigger, whether in front of the camera or behind it. There's just so much more work and so many stories. There are no longer just two avenues – either film or television. These are good stories and I'm really happy about this development. Other than the length, I don't see much of a difference between OTT and films because I follow the same process everywhere – be it in a 30 second ad, a 10-hour series or a two-and-half-hour film.
What do you feel about the kinds of roles that you are receiving and also about the kinds of roles that are out there for women in today's time?
See, there are all kinds of stories. There are the regular masala movies in which the objective is not much, beyond looking pretty and providing a romantic impetus to the protagonist, either by getting in harm's way or by falling in love. That's the same old trope but there's been growth in a lot of other ways. People are taking braver decisions, diverse decisions. I wish that a lot more characters inspire girls who are growing up. I hope we create more interesting stories and women that they can look up to. That'll be a very good thing that we can do as a society.
Do you keep that in mind while choosing your own characters?
No, that would be too much of a responsibility. Having said that, I don't usually get attracted to roles in which there's not much to do because there's no challenge. Not that looking a certain way and dancing is not a challenge – that takes a lot of effort – but it is something that has traditionally been expected of women. Honestly, I might want to do it at some point just to see whether it's fun. However, inadvertently at least, whether I like it or not, I always have a thought at the back of my head about whether this is a story that I'd like to tell to the wider world or want to be a part of.
One lesser-known aspect about you is that you're a writer too and have even authored a book. Tell me a little about your love for writing, where it started and if screenwriting is part of your future goals.
I've always loved stories in every form. They were my first friends and they still remain my closest friends, whether in the form of books, cinema, shows or songs. It's wonderful to get lost in the idea that you can create something just through your thoughts and emotions. So writing for me is a way to get closer to that experience of world building and magic. I have already written a web-show called Viral Wedding, which released last year, and writing is something I will continue doing. That'll definitely be a part of my future projects.
You've been very vocal about topical issues, ranging from the education system to the loopholes in the film industry. How difficult do you think it is to have a voice in an environment like today? Also, how important is it?
It is very important to have a voice, but it is useless. Something can be said only if there is solidarity. The strongest thing that anyone has going for them is unity. Even if the numbers are huge, the point is, when everyone stands together, it's difficult to break ranks. Most of the time, people are just happy that somebody else is talking, and that's where the problem lies. I hope my voice helps someone and makes a change but I also think it is a little foolish to think something like that will happen. Of course, it is important and does matter but how much it matters remains to be seen.