A student in London who went to India to make ads because living in London is expensive, Banita Sandhu did not expect a big film to fall on her lap, literally, in such a short span of time.
Born and brought up in Wales, Sandhu was like any second generation Indian who spoke very little Hindi and had no family in India. Her grandparents migrated to England after World War II and both her parents were born there. But landing in India for modelling and subsequently getting a role in a big Bollywood film has not only established her connections to her Indian heritage, it has also given her an experience she says she will treasure for life.
It all began with Sandhu’s love for acting which she caught on very early in life. When she turned 18, she went to study English Literature degree at King’s College, London, but did not give up her ambitions for acting. Of course, she never imagined she would work in a Bollywood film but hoped to some day act in, say, Coronation Street, one of the longest running British soap operas. But when she went for castings In London, the unexpected happened. She got selected for a Vodafone ad in India which went viral in India with one million hits. “I had a lot of phone calls asking for me to work in Mumbai,” says Sandhu.
Next Sandhu found herself doing another chewing gum commercial directed by none other than Shoojit Sircar, popular Indian film director and producer. The next thing she knew, she was offered a lead role in his upcoming film October, slated to be released on April 13. It is a romantic drama film directed by Sircar and written by Juhi Chaturvedi. The film stars Varun Dhawan, Sandhu and Gitanjali Rao in lead roles.
Studying at university and getting a big role is sort of crazy, says Banita. “But everything aligned so perfectly that I like to think it was almost fated.”
It is said that Sircar did not hold workshops for the actors of his forthcoming film as he wanted raw emotions. “This helped us to explore ourselves and bring out our emotions in the most natural manner,” says Sandhu. Charming and talented, the media has called Sandhu a 21st century heroine. On a telephonic interview with Sandhu from her London home, the actor tells The Indian Weekly about her experience, the relationships she has forged, and more.
Tell us a bit more about yourself and how you got into October?
Basically I was born and raised in Wales. Since I was a child I always wanted to act. When I was 18, I moved to London for university and whilst I was there I went to castings and one of them was for Vodafone in India. It got a lot of popularity and a lot of hits in India. I had a lot of phone calls asking for me to work in Mumbai. One of the people who wanted to work with me was Shoojit Sircar himself who was at the time directing a commercial I was in and he offered me October.
How was it working in India?
I don’t have any family in India but it’s just a case of when I go, I have work and I travel there. I am so lucky to have worked with such a great team who are like a family to me now.
How did you master the language barrier?
The film was offered to me a year before it was shot. So I hired a Hindi tutor. I was learning the language along with my university classes. Learning a language like Hindi when you live in London and people around you speak in English, it is very hard to pick it up. I spoke with Shoojit who helped me improve my diction further by training through video calls.
Are you nervous about your maiden film?
Honestly, it has not hit me as yet that the film is getting released soon, which is so ironic because all I do whole day is speak about this movie to the press. I honestly can’t wait for it to come out because there’s so much to talk about on the subject. Once it is out I will actually start to speak about it because now I have to hold it back. I think the night before it will hit me but I don’t think I am nervous because I know that we have done a great film. Shoojit and the whole team are behind it and to me that is fulfilling and I am happy enough with that. So whether it does well in the box office or not, I know we have made a great film. That is what makes me most happy.
How was it working with Varun Dhawan?
I have said this before but Varun is the best co-star that I could ever ask for. Not only did I strike a chord with Shoojit and Juhi but I really did with Varun as well. He never patronised me or made me feel inferior. There is a vast difference between us, he is not only well known in the industry but he is incredibly experienced. And I think what was really great with Varun especially was the fact that he had not done something like this before. So we had that kind of journey and experience together and that is something that is so sacred to both of us because there is so much of a spiritual journey and it changed the both of us for the better. I think when we signed the film we had not been in good places in our lives personally, so going through this experience with Shoojit and Juhi we came out so much lighter and better at the end of it.
There are a lot of things which happened out of the ordinary which unfortunately I can’t speak about because that will give away the whole plot of the film. But one thing I can say is this film is so special to me. Apart from it being obviously my first, the relationships that have been formed while shooting this film is so special and so dear to me, the relationship that I forged with Shoojit sir and Juhi and Varun, the producer, cast and crew – all of them. What we all went through together in the film is something so vulnerable and we all opened up to deliver something that was… sorry it’s so late I can’t articulate myself… but we really pulled everything into this, no one really held back and it was such a team effort and that to me was the most enjoyable experience. Everyone had each other’s back and no one was made to feel left out – whether it was me or the extra, everyone felt like a good part in this film.
I could not have asked for a better debut than ‘October’. Having worked with him in an ad before, Shoojit Sir is par excellence. His style of working has not only made me grow as an actor but also changed me personally as a human being.
Do you think working in Bollywood open doors for Hollywood?
I think for sure. Bollywood is a great platform of exposure, we are a billion people worldwide which is unfathomable, it is crazy how popular and how such a great platform it is to be launched on. Just to say that I worked with Shoojit sir and Varun on an international level alone makes me so proud.
Moving forward what are your plans?
I am honestly not in the right frame of mind now to think about what lies ahead. Right now, I am really looking forward for all the British audience as well to watch October. It is an international film and a beautiful piece of art.
Any message for Australia?
I think Australia is a beautiful country and I would love come and visit. I have not been to Australia but I would like to, now that we have the first direct flight from London to Australlia. I would love to come. Maybe I can stop in Mumbai and fly from there (laughs)… So if you guys make enough noise on social media maybe my producers will let me and Varun come and visit. That would be an absolute dream!
Lastly, does the name Banita have a special meaning?
Banita in Sanskrit means woman but in Spanish it means pretty. Because it is half Sanskrit and half Spanish, my mom says its means pretty woman, maybe she just tells me to make me feel good about myself (laughs).
(The interview was conducted courtesy Mind Blowing Films)