Phillauri has been one of the most empowering experiences of my life – Anushka Sharma By Ayesha Babar

Anushka Sharma is back in the producer’s seat with Phillauri, an endearing love story about a ghost, Shashi, played by Anushka herself. Also starring Diljit Dosanj and Suraj Sharma, the film looks all set to win hearts and minds alike. Anushka and Suraj spoke to British press recently and we bring you the details of all that happened!

Ayesha (Asian Style Magazine): My question is for you, Anushka. It is so inspiring to see a young actress chartering into the rather unusual territory of producing films. Both the films that you have produced so far, NH10 before and now Phillauri, are slightly offbeat and based on interesting concepts. And both would be interesting projects even if you had taken them up as just the lead actress.

As a producer your money is on the line and you have the responsibility of not only delivering as an actress but also making sure that the whole project is a success. Is that a difficult situation to navigate because in a sense you are taking double the risk?

Anushka: See, I think for me, I have never seen a risk in these things because as long as you are putting out good content out there for audiences, the risk is not there. You are right, I could have done the films as just the leading lady too. Actually with Phillauri, the whole concept and script was developed in house so I was involved from the idea stage. It is challenging to work both in front of and behind the camera but very rewarding as well.

As an actor or as a producer, if you think that you are putting out the right films, with unique and different stories, then that element of fear is very minute. You are then as nervous or fearful as you would be before the release of a film that you have a cameo in! Producing  Phillauri has, in fact, been one of the most empowering experiences I have had.

Ayesha: Phillauri’s has had a clever promotional campaign on social media where you have been using the hashtag #Shashiwasthere to create funny situations where your character, Shashi, who is a ghost is made a part of situations that have happened in the past. If you two could choose one place each, where you could be present as a ghost, what situation would it be?

Anushka: I work very, very hard every day so that people see me more so no, I don’t think I would ever want to be invisible (haha). Maybe the one place where I would like to be invisibly present would in the same room as Rajkumar Hirani and Abhijat Joshi when they are writing a script. I could steal all their ideas!

Suraj: There are millions of places where I would like be present so very difficult to choose one. I would have liked to see a real life woolly mammoth actually!!

Ruby (Dil Se Radio): Question to both of you – your star cast is very diverse – so you have yourselves, Diljit and Mehreen. How did you decide on such a diverse star cast for your movie?

Anushka: The idea is to always cast the right personality for each role. Starting with Diljit, I knew he was a huge singing sensation in Punjab but I did not know of him as an actor till recently when I discovered a film called Jutt and Juliet on a flight. Diljit’s performance really struck me in that film as he had great comic timing yet brought an emotional depth to the character and that stayed in my mind.

Later on when we discussing casting for his role, his name came up but we knew that he doesn’t shoot with a turban. You know when you have lived with a film for so long, you develop an image or an idea of how the character needs to look like visually so at that point we let the idea of casting Diljit go. After a few days, we all sat down to discuss it again and we put it to the director and writer if they could see the character differently visually, and as producers we would always put that question out to the director because ultimately it is his vision and that is how Diljit came into the film. I am glad it worked out because Diljit is very correct for this role – he brings in the honesty that his character requires and that is how Diljit is as a person too.

With Suraj, I had Life of Pi and some other stuff before and was really impressed with his acting. There was actually another film as well that we were speaking to him about. Somehow, at that time we were under the impression that he could not speak Hindi! We decided to take a chance anyway, and sent him the script to see how it goes. He called us back straightaway and said that he liked the script and would love to do it – and best of all, he was speaking in Hindi! He is from Delhi and actually has a Delhi accent, which worked perfectly for us because the character he plays is that of an Indian student who was studying in Canada and has now returned and Suraj had that ‘desiness’ that we needed for the film. We were pleasantly surprised that our man here can speak in Hindi!

Mehreen is a rank newcomer who auditioned for the film and we picked her because she brings a certain amount of freshness to the character. She is not a trained actor so she doesn’t have any preconceived notions about how to approach a scene or anything. With her, we really cast the person more than anything.

Haroon (BBC): Suraj, this is your first mainstream, out and out, commercial Bollywood film. What were you looking for in a Hindi script and secondly, we talk so much about representation of Asian characters in Hollywood films – do you think that you were given nuances in this film that are perhaps lacking from the Asian roles that you have seen in Hollywood?

Suraj: I had been looking for something exciting  that would be shot in India. Some sort of a bridge where I could bring my own sensibilities to the role, whatever I have learnt so far. When I first read the Phillauri script, I thought it was a beautifully told story.

As far as your second question is concerned, yes, I think we all know that there are not enough roles of the kind that we would want to play. I do think that is changing though and that filmmakers are trying. I think the audiences are still not used to seeing such characters and roles yet but things are going in the right direction!

Haroon: Diljit recently said in an interview that you had an acting coach on the set and when Dijit found out, he said that he couldn’t work with an acting coach and pretend to act in a room to practice and that if you would insist on the acting coach then he would rather not do the film.

Anushka: Actually, he has never spoken like that at all. There wasn’t really an acting coach but rather we had workshops before so that the actors and the director could all get to know each other and develop the characters so that when we finally go on set, everyone is on the same page. It is a common practice that a lot of people do and that helps things flow better on set.

When Diljit was introduced to this concept, he was a little taken aback and said he didn’t want to do it and that was that. It never got to a stage where we tried to push or force him to do it against his will. Everyone has different ways of approaching their characters and their films and as producers we respect that.

BBC (Tommy Sandhu): Anushka, you play a ghost in the film so my question to both of you is – when was the last time you ‘ghosted’ somebody? As in went on a date and then didn’t like the person so cut them off completely in terms of communication.

Anushka: Thank God you explained what the term means because I was about to tell about the last time that I was spooked (haha). I have not been on a date in a very long time so I can’t really say much.

Suraj: I am a really nice guy! (haha) I don’t think I have ever ghosted anyone actually!

Shabnam (Sunrise Radio): Suraj, you are being billed as the star of Life of Pi but to me you are the big star of Homeland – you stole the show and nailed it! So good to see your transition from Homeland to mainstream Bollywood. How does that feel?

Suraj: I am really excited and thankful that I have been getting all these different opportunities. I feel very close to the stories that I am a part of and the people behind them. I am really looking forward to how Phillauri is received and performs at the box office and what happens after that.

Anusha, you are so young and have ticked so many boxes already! You have been a trailblazer for new actresses dreaming of Bollywood as a career – you are an actress, a producer, you live life on your own terms. You are unapologetic on social media. Tell us then, how do you choose a film? Is it the cast, or the story, or the people making the film? What is it that you look at when a new film is put on the table?

Anushka: The only thing that attracts me towards a project is the story. Is the project saying something new and different? Is it saying something in a new voice? The story comes first and foremost and everything else follows that. Even for our own production house, we put together the script first and only then do we look at the cast to find people who suit those roles. There might be a script where for example, I am not suited to the part so then we would look at other actors to play it. The script and the story you are trying to tell always have to come first.

Natasha Kundi: Is there any social message in the film and why should people go and watch the film?

Suraj: I don’t want give anything away about the story so I can only really speak about my own character. The one dilemma that my character faces, which I think is a problem faced by most of my generation is the over saturation of options which leads to the inability to commit to one thing fully. I think that’s his primary dilemma and most people my age have the faced this at one point or another.

Anushka: It doesn’t really have a social message as such but it is a very entertaining, fun film. There is no jarring message but there are things that you would discover along the way and that is the beauty of a good story.

Even with NH10, the concept of honour killing wasn’t really spelled out as such – there were no long speeches or anything and yet it stayed with you even after you finished watching the film. I always think that the messages have to be part of the narrative.

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