Shivani Raghuvanshi is like a breath of fresh air. It’s easy to forget that you’re talking to the latest find of the Yash Raj Films banner, when the conversation and laughs come as easy as catching up with an old friend. The Delhi-bred debutante of the universally acclaimed ‘Titli’ nurtures dreams of stardom but she isn’t wearing the rose-colored glasses from her teenage years anymore. Unrehearsed and refreshingly honest, she surprises you with the pearls of wisdom springing from her young mind.
You graduated in Botany. And you had no background in acting. Tell us about your journey.
Until I was 12 or 14, I wanted to be a doctor. Then one day I went to watch Devdas with my family and suddenly everything around me just changed. I felt this deep curiosity about everything that was created at such a massive scale on that film – the sets, lighting, costumes -they had created magic. The next morning I woke up and told my mom, “I’ve decided, I want to be a director”. She thought that my ambition changes every year, and this too would pass. But between that day and today, nothing has changed. So hopefully I’ll direct some day.
“At first, I thought it was a prank because since when did YRF do auditions? They cast only big stars.”
After high school, my father brought me forms from various colleges and I asked him why was he not taking me seriously, when I was so focused and knew exactly what I wanted to do. My mom would point to some pretty girls and tell me “Look at her, she is even prettier than you. Why doesn’t she become an actress? Why do you have to be one?” They convinced me to finish my graduation. In my second year, I was cast in a TV commercial for Vodafone. Then as soon as I graduated, an agent I’d met earlier, called me and said they were casting for this Yash Raj Films production and asked me to audition. At first, I thought it was a prank because since when did YRF do auditions? They cast only big stars. So I thought maybe they needed someone for a character role like the hero’s sister. I don’t consider myself extremely pretty, but I always wanted to be the star. Nevertheless, I went to audition for the learning experience.
Clearly, it wasn’t a prank! How was your experience before you landed the role?
On the first day, I felt things were quite positive, but as time passed, the process became more and more difficult. In my mind, cinema was this fantasy world where everything is rosy. But their film was so serious. People were so serious on set, nobody laughed! I was shortlisted and called to Bombay, and I kept laughing during the workshop. After a while, director Kanu Behl said that he could not handle me and he was done with me. I felt so humiliated! I realized that I wasn’t working with complete focus. At one point they told me that I cannot be an actor because I was too non-serious. From that day onwards, I am an absolutely changed person when it comes to work. I take it very seriously now. I become someone else on set.
“I want to keep (my Facebook profile) personal and continue to have just 200 friends who are people I actually know. In fact, even 200 is a stretch.”
Going from being a regular girl in Delhi to someone who is going to be recognized on the streets, how has your life changed?
Actually nothing has changed yet (laughs). You know, the publicists told me that my Facebook profile is not open to the public and that’s not ideal because people are looking you up. I said I’ve already created a fan page and they said that you’re not big enough yet for people to start following you. So the way you start is, you first add 5,000 friends and then you can turn it into a page. I said I’m not going to do that because I want to keep this personal and continue to have just 200 friends who are people I actually know. In fact even 200 is a stretch. And since the trailer launched, I’ve been getting so many unsolicited friend requests from strangers. I can’t handle these things, I’m a regular person. I don’t consider myself a star. Shahrukh Khan is a star. Salman Khan is a star. I meet so many young actors who are arrogant and full of attitude and I feel that they have not even earned the right to be that way.
Tell us about Neelu in Titli. It looks like an intense role. Did you identify with her in any way?
I think every girl on the planet can relate to Neelu. She’s a girl with different shades and many layers. So it wasn’t difficult for me to feel connected to her. She is very innocent and she marries Titli under pressure from her parents, even though she doesn’t like him. But just when you think that she has surrendered to fate, she is defiant towards her husband. She is strong and tells him that she’s not going to give in to his advances. She is also very manipulative, which I think we all are, at some level. She has an older boyfriend in whose company she behaves like a baby. But with the younger guy, she acts more authoritatively. We are all so different with different people. For example, if I ask 4 of your friends about you, I will get 4 different answers, because you’re different for every person.
“We are all so different with different people. If I ask 4 of your friends about you, I will get 4 different answers.”
Initially I had this grand vision that I would be the typical Bollywood heroine singing and dancing in fancy costumes. So when I was first offered the role, I wasn’t very happy with it -ordinary costumes and no makeup. But now that I’m here in Bombay, I’ve realized that people here really don’t trust female actors. At least now, there’s a trend where they’ve started trusting a few actresses to carry a film on their shoulders. But nearly all the films are still male-oriented. You know, we are more than just arm candy! Why is the actress just there to sing and dance, be the love interest and that’s it? She is not doing anything on her own, she is not driving the story. That’s why I am proud of this role and I will be forever indebted to Kanu because he trusted me with such an important character.
“Nearly all the films are still male-oriented. You know, we are more than just arm candy! Why is the actress just there to sing and dance, be the love interest and that’s it?”
Your first on-screen kiss was also your first kiss in real life. Is that true? Wasn’t that pretty awkward?
It is true. I was very conservative and judgmental when I was growing up and I thought that if I wasn’t a good kid, my parents would be disappointed in me. But practicing that behavior has kind of turned me into that person where I consider a relationship to be a very serious matter. I cannot take it lightly. So just 4 days before we were to start shooting, I realized that I have a kissing scene in the film. That just threw me off. I was so worried about my mom’s reaction. I considered that I could just close my eyes and get it over with, but it still seemed impossible. So I called up my mom, crying, and said that I don’t know if I can do this. She told me that as an actor, I wouldn’t be the first one to go through this. My options are to either give up and come back home, which they will be totally fine with, or to appreciate the opportunity that I’ve been given, especially because it means so much to me, and treat it as a part of my job. Maybe I won’t have this opportunity again. That gave me strength.
The film brings up various themes like organized theft, dysfunctional families, patriarchy. What is the most important theme that speaks to you personally?
Patriarchy is an important theme, but the film is more about ‘circularity’. It’s about how sometimes when we are trying so hard not to become like our parents and we’re running from it all our lives, and then somehow we become exactly what we’re trying to escape from. We sometimes detest a person for behaving in a certain manner with us, but when we are put in the same position as them, we behave just like them because we are reflecting what happened to us. That is the circularity that the film talks about. For me, Titli has changed my life. Like I said, I used to be a very judgmental person. Now I feel that we cannot comment on someone’s behavior unless we know and understand their journey. A man could be a thief and we can simply see him as one, or we can consider that he’s also a man who is living in conditions where he has no water, no electricity and he makes too little to feed a family of 4. And as soon as he gets out of his surroundings, he sees large houses with sprawling lawns, big cars driving in and out of them. Why wouldn’t he be tempted to steal? So nothing is black or white, everything falls into the grey.
“I used to be a very judgmental person. Now I feel that we cannot comment on someone’s behavior unless we know and understand their journey.”
You are still very young and your life is full of choices. 10 years from now, where would you like to see yourself? Directing?
Yes, I want to direct. Also, I want to be a good actor. My role model is Deepika Padukone because aside from being a star, she has grown so much as an actress. She keeps improving and she is still learning. I want to be where she is.
Shivani Raghuvanshi won the Best Actress Award for ‘Titli’ at the Gijón International Film Festival (Spain) in November 2014. Titli released on October 30th 2015 in theaters nationwide. It was nominated for Caméra d’Or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and won Best Film at the Seattle South Asian Film Festival and SAIFF, New York.