Shahana Goswami who made a jaw dropping performance in web shows namely Bombay Begum and The Last Hour, released in 2021, talks of changing scenarios of women focused movies in Bollywood and the challenges that she loves to take while choosing a particular project. She has many awards including Filmfare Awards to her name for stellar performances in movies like Rock On, Firaaq, Under Construction.
Indian author and journalist, Meghna Pant gets in a candid interview for SheThePeople with Shahana Goswami on her views of how OTT has shaped the current viewing trends in the country, how audiences are getting to choose more from options provided, the choices they make in career and advice to budding female actors.
Interview With Shahana Goswami
Meghna Pant- How is it feeling to be back on sets after such a pandemic and two halts of COVID 19?
Shahana Goswami- It feels weird as I had shot all through the pandemic. In 2020, I did a short film in Nainital where the small unit took all the precautions and did the entire work. However, we all had a wonderful experience even though the most part of project was indoor.
In 2021, I shot until April for two projects and saw the entire spectrum of how COVID has hit, interrupted and come back. I feel about the "crazy will" that keeps the industry going because it is creative space. I also feel about the "magic of moment" created for the space. The strange mix of virtual promotions brought people even more closer than they could have personally. It has been an interesting facet for the entire episode.
Meghna Pant- OTT platform has given new lease of life to talented actor. Every month, we see 3-4 new shows with new actor who are impressing so much with their performances. It's like there is no system of stars on OTT because everybody is a star. Do you think OTT system have dismantled star system?
Shahana Goswami: When it comes to the viewership and how the contents are perceived, there is a democratic way of doing and therefore those who are hiring people to take a chance upon are seeing the results because of the people appreciating the story lines and getting drawn into narratives. The characters should be engaging to draw you more in the narrative.
Today, the OTTs are competing with other contents present on it varying in languages, regions etc., and for the time of people, as they have many options to choose from. I feel that it is the mindset that has crept into the established stars or producers of OTT platforms and they keep playing games of buying someone or not. Stars do matter, however, it also depends more on the writing and direction that is put in the work.
The time it takes to work on web shows, the budget, hectic schedules, its not possible for people having "starry attitude" and story line will never align to the star's comfort and needs.
Meghna Pant: Shahana you left Paris because you had good scripts coming away from India itself.
Do you think streaming services have busted the myth of audience not being ready for intelligent content. Do you think web shows have ushered in a better quality of writing and this is in turn creating hope of actors to showcase their talent and versatility?
Shahana Goswami: I feel the idea of audience not being ready is something that is not correct. Saying someone to watch one type of content is like equating someone to wear same kind of clothing for ever.
Viewers engage in different kind of cinema which provides different kind of fulfilment. This has shifted the ballgame as they have statistics with them on how people watch things, what they watch. Social media has busted the monotonous box office numbers and few movie commentators as being the parameter of success for the movie. The viewership, appreciation of common people about the work, creates larger understanding of how people are perceiving it.
Meghna Pant: How both do you know each other? Where did it began for you two as friend? Did you meet on sets or somewhere else?
Shahana Goswami: (Despite moving to Paris)We made it happen anyway. I am really fond of Rasika and even though we hardly had any scene in The Suitable Boy, we had a great time together.
Meghna Pant: Despite the fact that you both have come from outside the industry, carved such a string niche for yourselves. Shahana you are from Delhi and started from theatre. Today you have won awards, worked in films like Rock On, web series like Bombay Begum. What has it taken for both of you to walk your own path this way? What are the lessons that you have learned that all of us could be inspired by?
Shahana Goswami: I feel like for me it's been about knowing what works for me. I was given a very good advice early on and I feel it resonated because my natural personality is like that. I can't do anything that I am not excited about, that I am not instinctively. I can't plan or strategise regarding acting. I have had phases of not doing any work, not because nothing was offered. But whatever was offered was not my liking. I had been broken , and took money from my dad(laughs).
I don't have it in me to do something when it comes to acting or film making where it does not excite me. I am very happy to do any other work to earn money if it required but I cannot do this with acting, because I feel too much for it.
When I worked with Shabana Azmi, she told me - you have to know what you are capable of and where you want to be, find a middle path and just stick to it because one day it will be your day. But if you keep fitting around where everyone else's expectation of what you should be or what one should be, you will keep missing the boat". I think that is what happened.
We all stayed in our place and stuck to the kind of role that work for us and suddenly the time has come, when that kind of work is written, appreciated. People are looking for actors who can act and give you chunk of time, who are not difficult to work with, keeps creative process in the center. So all of it has come. When I joined the industry, I was total outcaste. I could not imagine how I managed to get in because I was the most ungroomed, non-heroine like person.
The work that I did somehow reached the gap and the boundary. It's still about being true to who I am and that's the advice that I would give to anybody that try and find the space that you believe in. That can keep shifting from your own insight. But let it not be determined from what is happening on the outside.
Meghna Pant: We cannot leave without talking about the evolving role of women, especially there portrayal over last few years. Shahana, you have played cop in The Last Hour, you have been harrowed working wife in Rock On. How do you think, roles have been recalibrated for women story. Do you think, women story have been told differently now?
Shahana Goswami: I think stories in general are being told differently. As a result of it, all characters are written in more realistic and authentic way. That's extended to female characters as well. However, same applies to male character. Now they are way more interesting character. Mirzapur had different age group in it and all age group-including the Pankaj Tripathi character is star, overriding presence, because it's written for him.
The younger view has its own space and others have its own presence. Writing is different, and the actors that can perform it too. Even today when I look at different categories of award like best actor, best supporting actor- I always wonder how you make this category?
Who is supporting and who is main? What determines it? Is it how you demand the track? In terms of views, there are character that appear for two scenes and stay in your mind for always. The writing has become much better and of course there is a movement where there is shunning away from any kind of female kind of story.
You had to be glorified into Mother India to become female character or one villain star. I want to say, this is about particular phase. If you got to 50s and 60s, 70s , there were more interesting female characters written, even much more than male characters- much more nuance at that time, with much better writing. The good thing is now women are allowed to be real. When I did Rock On, there was whole thing about who will play this grey character.
Stop calling people grey- they are all real. Nobody is black and white. You might think of someone as good or bad character or human being, but that's just your perspective. But that is not grey. The nuancing of all character, especially the women, when there is no pressure of making you "devi" or mother India, confused character. You cannot chose a protagonist who is likeable, you chose protagonist who is real.
Relatability is when you get to honesty of it, when you are not sure where you stand with them. We all are like that with ourselves. We constantly think of - Oh I hate myself, I am so messed up. We are dealing with this ourselves. This part has really shifted.
I love playing Fatima because I don't know her really or I don't get her entirely, but I get her. The minute you are an actor, it allows you to be less judgmental because you know you have to love the character, to portray it in a way to create empathy in others. That process to me is wonderful as a life experience. It allows you to question your own judgement.
When you are able to step aside and look at it objectively, it really helps that person should see the larger picture or context of why somebody has become certain way. Yeah, I am enjoying fact that audiences too are liking characters which are not likeable.
You see story like "Mind Hunter", you see the wonderfully enigmatic complex murderers. That's the whole point of story telling and fantasy and creating things that are not real. You can also be on the wave of experience that is not personal so it does not get entangled.
Meghna Pant: What are the three factors that you are looking for when you are deciding what project to take on- is it writing , or people you are working with. What clicks for you guys when you sign the project?
Shahana Goswami: For me, it's still really random. It's instinct driven because I cannot tell why I said yes or no. I think the only thing that matters if who is doing it or not, but that becomes secondary. If I didn't instinctively felt drawn to the material, it has happened that I met the director and felt that sort of connection to it. The process has been rewarding and I am thankful about it. But it is very instinctive choice which is literally made in moment I say yes or no.
No is as instinctive as yes and it does not have any formula. I can be aware of the consciously and actively greedy for great collaboration and things that help me grow as actor. So anything that I feel is not challenging enough or that has already been done by me is less exciting. That's not t say a particular type of character.
I mean the nature of role, what is it expecting and demanding of me, the personality and character. This has become a thing that I do care about. I am not concerned about length of role. I am growing more aware of what I can give and what i want to be part of. As an actor, I want to feel like Head of Department. I want to feel the sense of collaboration and that is the reason I do films. I don't do theatre, because I am conscious of being on stage. About film making, I like the magic of 180 people holding their breath.
I love playing team sports and games, because I am a team person. The team part is important to me. I have worked for long and want to put my energy where that team feeling comes up. In that moment of creating the character, you are able to collaborate in a way that is meaningful. It's not only about director, but great cinematographer, art director, great makeup, hair team, all of them learn and grow and develop something with them.
That something is important to me. I would say No to a part in big project with director I would love to work with just because I don't feel to right now. I'll wait for opportunity so that I can grow, wherein it allows us to come together and grow closely. This is the kind of thing I would choose from.
Meghna Pant: What will be the kind of advice to budding actors, particularly female ones. Should they make extremely smart choices, not getting complacent, being prepared on the set? What is the one factor that makes it really a tick for an actor today to become as popular, successful, well loved as two of you?
Shahana Goswami: It's the same because everybody has different process. I know actors who want to prepare a lot and then there are actors, who will come around easily. There is constant things of being in the "now"- it's different as each people's way of engaging is different. Their personality is different. Be as true as you can to yourself. This is because the game you are in is about persistence or long run.
You burn yourself out if you try to be somebody else. Only thing that helps you to sustain is to find what works for you. Be open to the fact that you are also growing and that thing will also change, but it will be a part of natural change of your own being. It does not have to be affected by things outside you.
One more thing I would like to add to it is, you have to be flexible. Because at the end of the day, you are working with the director and a team that functions differently. There are many who prefer one scene a day and which is unheard of and is great luxury. You are doing 20 shots for each shot and sometimes more. But that process is great, as you are taking up a day to explore more.
Each time new instruction is given, you can work more on it. There are other type of people who take three shot and move on. So, you have to be flexible in this case. If you are rigid doing one shot, and you have to do 20 shot, then you need to find a way to invest yourself in all 20 takes and vice versa.
The reason I say, I love cinema is because you have 20 constraint and still you have to make it look so real, that you forget about anything else. When job is about playing with all challenges and obstacle, it's same for everybody. As an actor, you have to make it seem seamless.
Meghna Pant: Is there any book you are currently reading? Any books at all?
Shahana Goswami: I am reading many simultaneously and I am always doing this and put pressure on myself to complete all the books. I am reading a book called Natural Brilliance, which I came across in Ladakh. It is a kind of book on energies, the five energies that create everything in the world. There is another book called Her Body And Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado.
Meghna Pant: What was 2021 like for both of you and what are you looking forward to in 2022?
Shahana Goswami: 2021 was great actually. I was having a discussion about how it has been different. I had great 2020 as well. I learned a lot, grew a lot, did two projects and had lot of time to sit and sort a lot of thing. 2020 was precursor to it. It was about finishing bunch of good things and take a retreat, go inwards, take time including the mental time as well. I engaged in all of that.
Plus there was many travel. 2021 was about doing new work, reflect parts of yourself and cleaning pipes little bit more and coming to point in circle to sort out. I did a solo trip after a long time, It was amazing and I had gone to Ladakh. I am ready for unknown or unexpected and excited for 2022. I know that it will be nothing that I imagines, and yet it will be amazing. That kind of faith in universe- what we plan for ourselves is little version of what universe has planned for us.
Watch the video interview by author Meghna Pant with Rasika Dugal and Shahana Goswami at the Bombaywaali Summit &t=2243s">here. The summit has been conducted by SheThePeople TV, to celebrate women who built the city of Mumbai.