Actor Wamiqa Gabbi has always been a Bhansali/Barjatya heroine in her head, so it’s only fitting that a decade after she moved to Mumbai, one of her breakout projects turned out to be a magnum-opus period piece, directed by someone who assisted Sanjay Leela Bhansali (Vikramaditya Motwane’s Jubilee). The year 2023 has undoubtedly been what Gabbi has been working towards. She starred as a primary character in three Vishal Bhardwaj projects – Fursat, a short film commissioned by Apple; Charlie Chopra & The Mystery Of Solang Valley, an Agatha Christie adaptation, where she plays a detective who breaks the fourth wall; and the Netflix feature film Khufiya, the cast of which includes Tabu and Ali Fazal. Gabbi as Niloufer, the courtesan turned movie star, delivered one of the brightest performances of the year in Jubilee, which was released on Amazon Prime earlier in the year.
Gabbi was born in Chandigarh and her father was a writer. She can’t recall wanting anything other than to be a Bollywood actor. Having moved from the city even before she appeared for her final year college exams, the 30-year-old’s journey has been long and arduous. She spoke to Film Companion about the illusion of being an ‘overnight success’ and all the ups and downs she’d been through before she was selected by director Vishal Bhardwaj for Midnight’s Children (which eventually got shelved).
Here are the edited excerpts:
Do you remember your first memory of watching a film?
I’m sure I’d seen many movies even before this, but I had this big TV in my room, and I would watch Devdas (2002) on repeat. One day that TV (screen) stopped working, but I would still listen to the movie. Before I knew it, I’d memorised all the dialogues. Many years later, when I was rewatching the film in Mumbai, I realised that I even knew which music was going to play in what scene. I think that’s my first memory of me indulging in a film and being mesmerised by it. Devdas became the film that hooked me.
Was there a particular point when you were bitten by the acting bug?
Since forever. I don’t remember a particular moment when I wanted to be an actor. Maybe also because communication within my family has always been really easy, so I’ve never had to plan it and rehearse and tell my family that I wanted to become an actor. My father keeps telling me that when I was fifteen minutes old – usually when babies keep their eyes closed – he told me I had these big eyes open, and I had a peculiar expression on my face, and I was trying to take in my surroundings. He said he knew at that moment I would grow up to be this draamebaaz (someone with a penchant for drama).
My father is a writer, and he’s released a couple of songs. He would take us to Tagore Theatre, where we would go and watch plays. I learned Kathak for two years in Pracheen Kala Kendra (in Chandigarh), and also took up classical music. All this came from my father. It was almost the most natural thing, where I told him I wanted to act in plays and that’s how it happened.
I remember telling my father clearly that if I become taller than 5 '6, I’d enrol myself for Miss World. I got stuck at 5’4. In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t take part in pageants. The whole concept of beauty is totally different in my head.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a film actor, and not act in plays?
Absolutely. Like I said, I was mesmerised by Devdas. I was also watching these films like Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! (1994), Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) — I think I was attracted to these epic love stories. I wasn’t fully aware till this year — when all big projects came out in one year — how much I wanted to be a part of these kinds of films. It’s now, when I have some choice, when I can verbalise my preference for them. Even in my life, love is what’s most important to me. Fame, money, popularity, it all comes after love. Hence, I want to be a part of epic love stories.
You started very early – working in Punjabi, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu films. Was Hindi cinema always the destination?
I was in seventh grade, when I shot for Jab We Met (2007). I always knew I wanted to be a film actor, I just had no idea how. The plan was — bade hoke Bombay jaayenge, aur actor banenge (The plan was to grow up and go to Bombay, and then become an actor). I was in school plays, and took part in dance performances. I was leading all my school functions. I was also the head-girl of my school. By then, I was already an actor inside my head.
When I did Jab We Met, I had braces, I had no sense of attire. It was my first time on a film set, around Kareena Kapoor and Shahid Kapoor, and I had my fair share of insecurities. To be honest, I was quite overwhelmed and I remember thinking that I’ll never make it as a film actor. This is too difficult, I’m not this pretty. I’d not even begun waxing around then, and in front of you was Kareena Kapoor, who till this date I maintain is one of our prettiest actors. It was around then I think that I got a reality check, thinking for the first time that I might not make it at all.
There were other girls around me, who were older than me and were doing the same thing. And I knew even then, I didn’t want to be a part of a crowd. I wanted to do what Kareena Didi was doing. That’s when it hit me. Even during Mausam (2011) – where I was around Shahid Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor – my anxieties grew steadily. I knew I was growing up. I used to actively try to hide in the crowd, because I didn’t want to be seen. I’d become conscious of the fact that if I get seen as a junior/child artist, I might never be able to make my way beyond. I made the choice after that I won’t do crowd work. Around then, I got my first film – Sixteen (2013). My parents accompanied me for the audition, which happened in Delhi. The film was shot in Chandigarh.
When did you make the decision to make the move to Mumbai?
It was after I’d done Sixteen and it was ready for release, I decided to move to Bombay. I remember I made the move in December, 2013. I had my final exams in 2014. I’d told my family that I’ll come back to write the final exams. Through this Facebook group, I booked myself a room in an apartment. When I reached it, it was such a culture shock. I immediately recoiled, thinking, “I can’t be staying here”. I had this friend from Chandigarh, this writer called Rupinder Inderjit, I stayed at his place for a few days. I told my father that I couldn’t stay there. My father is so sweet, he came all the way to Mumbai, and figured out a tiny 1 BHK on Yari Road with me. He also helped me with the basics in the house – bought me a mattress, a small TV – which in retrospect feels like a luxury. He’s just the absolute best. It never happened that I asked him for money, and he turned me down. I’m sure he must have had to borrow from someone at some point — which I found out only later — but at that point I was never told about all this. He wanted me to be mentally at peace, he made me feel free. He set my house up, and went back.
A lot of people told him not to leave his daughter alone in a city like Mumbai. But I guess it’s because he’s a writer himself, he had a few progressive thoughts of his own. He was always my partner-in-crime, but also maintained that father/daughter line. I think I’d like to become a parent like my father. I never felt like I was given freedom at any point — I felt free growing up.
What were those first few months in Mumbai like?
Initially, I was like, “Freedom! I’ll live alone!”, etc. But then, once you start cooking your own food, you realise that the actual freedom was at home, where you rarely had to do any of the chores. I think my first set of upbringing was thanks to my parents, and then it was the city of Mumbai for the past 10 years. It just teaches you. Making me an adult, all kinds of self-doubt, insecurities, and then turned it into confidence and the person I am today.
You start by staying home…a lot. I remember I used to dance a lot around then. I was going to auditions, I was meeting people — because I’d done Sixteen, there was some interest. I never went from office to office, asking them to audition me. In retrospect, maybe I should’ve done that. I got a few calls, there were a few Punjabi films. I had a bit of a base. But then, once you lose out on one audition, and then a few more auditions, it starts to gnaw at your self esteem. I always thought I just had to show up in Bombay and I’d have a successful acting career. When I got here, I saw there were tens of thousands like me. And most of them were even better groomed than I am — they had better clothes. It was a strange time, my self-esteem was shattered after a couple of years. I used to feel intimidated by everyone else very easily.
Did self-doubt ever creep in? Were there dark days?
I always loved dancing, and I would do it everyday in Chandigarh. What happened after all the rejection, low self-confidence, was that I stopped dancing after a year or two. And I didn’t realise it until much later. It was a dark phase in my life, my confidence was just not there. In fact, in 2019 — I was working in Punjabi, and many South films — I was in front of the camera. But I wasn’t growing, the work wasn’t challenging me. It’s like a relationship, right? When you see no growth in your partner, you lose interest. I was that partner for my career. I was doing things that I wasn’t here to do, it wasn’t giving me joy anymore. So, I just thought of quitting in 2019. Maybe, this wasn’t my calling. Even though I had five releases that year – the most I’ve had in a year. I knew, after this, my fee was going to increase. I knew I would be paid well. I thought, “let me just do another 2-3 films” – because I’ll be well compensated, especially in the Punjabi films. And I’ll use that money to travel, and figure out what I really want to do in life.
You get your big break in Midnight’s Children. Tell me about that moment – when you found out you would be doing it.
It was around then — when I’d made up my mind to quit — when I found out about the audition for Midnight’s Children. By then, my confidence of having a career in Hindi cinema had practically evaporated. “Kuch nahi hone wala hai idhar (Nothing will happen here)”, I thought. I was doing regional films, but it wasn’t meaty work. I wasn't as good an actor too, and neither was I improving. When I went in for the Midnight’s Children audition, my brain had become so used to being rejected that I knew for certain it wasn’t going to happen. I think this freed me up. I’d come close with the auditions in Dangal (2016) and Phillauri (2017), but got rejected at the last moment. So, it wasn’t like Vishal Bhardwaj was suddenly going to give me a part.
When I got the pages for the audition – I really enjoyed the material. I knew I wanted to audition. The draw was not the part, but to just do the audition as well as I could. And the folks at Casting Bay are really good at making actors comfortable. I was already mentally on my way out of the city, I was just exploring what I wanted to do next. I was completely present and trying to do my best in every audition, but I also knew that I wasn’t going to get a call back. So I was relaxed and really having fun in my audition. I think that’s what made my audition better than the others.
I got shortlisted, and we were told that Vishal sir wants the shortlisted actors to take part in an acting workshop with Atul Mongia. Now, I learned that Atul Mongia is one of the most expensive acting coaches, and I just saw the opportunity of doing a three-day workshop with him for free. “Are you kidding?”, I thought. I knew the show wasn’t going to work out in the end — because that was my mindset at the time — I went in for the workshop with complete surrender, and that workshop changed my life. It’s not just about acting, it’s also about the self. I think that workshop became therapy for me.
Was this workshop when you began to differentiate between stardom, fame and the craft of acting?
When I was working in Punjabi films, I’d started to see various degrees of success. But I wasn’t happy. I had absolutely no idea what ‘joy of acting’ was. I just knew life wasn’t where I wanted it to be. After the Atul Mongia workshop, my whole perspective towards life changed. Even now, if I’m an actor, it’s only because I genuinely love acting. I don’t know what changed, but what I’d been doing till then felt like I’d been in a swimming pool, and the workshop showed me the ocean. And now, I was like “WTF!” — I realised that there’s just so much to explore, why am I even thinking of leaving it? Along with that, for my battle with my low self confidence and self-worth, I found new ammunition to deal with it. I got 2-3 gifts during that workshop, which really rocked my world. I remember I’d even almost stopped caring about the audition by the end of the workshop – I was just grateful for the day that went by.
And what was the feeling when you learned when Midnight’s Children wasn’t going to work out?
When I cracked the audition, there was a certain amount of disbelief that came with it. From doing nothing, to suddenly becoming a Vishal Bhardwaj heroine, was too much of a jump. I never celebrated cracking that audition, because I never truly came to terms with that it will eventually happen. This, so much so that, when we were called to Vishal sir’s office – a month before we were supposed to go on the floors, even the Netflix team was there – we were told the show won’t get made, and my reaction was, “Obviously!”.
There was absolutely no disbelief in that one. It didn’t make me especially sad – because I’d started on a completely different path by then. Just the time I got to spend in such proximity to Vishal sir – I was grateful. Going to Vishal sir or Rekha ma’am’s birthday party, listening to them singing live – I was just counting my blessings. When everyone found out that I’d been finalised for a lead part in Midnight’s Children – they started to take interest and called me for important auditions. That’s how I landed Jubilee.
Lockdown mein major transformation (There was a major transformation during lockdown). I’d done a couple of group workshops with Atul Mongia, and I was running around for my Punjabi films – and I suddenly got the time to apply everything that I’d learned in those workshops. It was a really productive time. Grahan (2021) was the first thing to happen. Then Mai (2022) happened. Vishal sir offered me Khufiya, I’d first gotten rejected for Jubilee, then it came back to me. In the midst of all that, Modern Love: Mumbai happened too. I’m glad all of this didn’t come to me three years ago, I think I would’ve lost my head. I’m glad the way things panned out eventually, when they did.
Another passion project – 83 (2021), where you played a small part, didn’t perform as well as you’d have liked to. How does that affect your morale?
I’ll tell you why I auditioned for 83. It was my first trip to England and Scotland. By then, I’d made up my mind to quit the business, so I was just trying to travel through it, lest it help find me my new passion. I’d resisted small parts till then; I’d been rejected a crazy number of times, and I’d also rejected a few things (when) I didn’t see myself doing those small roles. But I took it up just like that, and it was interesting.
I think you’re a spunky actor — who is more instinctive in their approach, rather than one who carefully studies or does meticulous research. Would you agree?
I’ve been instinctive till date, but I’ve recently realised that I need to add more skills to my craft so I have more to play with. I’m glad I’m aware – because I think what I’ve learned till date, I can manage to coast through a decent career with it. There have been actors, who are still making their way through a career with the same skill-set that they entered with, (but) I want to explore.
How hard is it for someone from the outside to make their way within this bunch of 14-15 actors who get invited on Koffee with Karan? Do you think about it?
I’m doing my next film with Atlee (with Varun Dhawan and Keerthy Suresh). Meri life mein woh doubts nahi hai (I don’t carry such doubts). I’m working with the best, and I’ve got an insane amount of appreciation for the work I’ve done. I never dreamed that I would be playing a lead in any project. Also, a place like Koffee with Karan is not like an annual roundtable, where people get invited for the work they’ve been doing. So, no — I don’t feel bad about not being invited to it. I’m not fanatical about being accepted by a certain group of people. I’m still in the midst of discovering my tribe. Work is taking me to interesting places.
How do you define success right now – when it could be anything from box office, a show being widely seen, social media following. How do you measure your success?
As long as I’m getting good characters, I think, that’s my measure. Now, when I see others approaching me with a character — that is success for me, considering that was the one thing I was deprived of. Having that choice is a measure of success.