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indiantelevision.com
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An Interview with Vaishnavi Mahant

"Though I love acting, I want to take the spiritual road to where there is lasting happiness."

Posted on 12 October 2001


Playing the lead in Choti Maa.. Ek Anokha Bandhan, Vaishnavi finds herself on totally new ground.

The big budget and strong team aside, it is the challenging title role that is giving this young actress her much needed toehold in the fickle television industry.

This Madhya Pradesh-born, Hyderabad-bred 25-year-old is deeply spiritual. The turning point in her life, she says, came ten years ago when she had a unique spiritual experience, which changed her from being a ritualistic Hindu to a devout Christian. This strong believer in God goes to church regularly, contributes half her successes and failures to destiny, although she is a disciplined worker herself.

We meet her on the sets of Suraag-The Clue, the Adhikari Brothers' hit thriller, being shot at Andheri, suburban Mumbai.

It has been hectic for Vaishnavi the last few days. She has been shooting continuously and the previous day's dubbing had stretched till two in the morning. Still, she was on the sets at eight in the morning.

Excerpts from an interview held recently with indiantelevision.com's Harish Patil:

Excerpts:

You look quite refreshed inspite of a hectic schedule ?
My priorities are quite clear. I don't mull over unnecessary things, and I don't lose sleep over trivial matters. I also practise meditation, whenever I can. Of course, if such schedules continue for a while, it reflects on my face. Sleep is the only solution then.

How did your acting career take off?
I started my acting career at the age of eight, as a child artiste in Ramsay Brothers' thriller Veerana and a couple of other films. Veerana was a medium success and my work was appreciated. It was like a picnic for me as everything was new and interesting, and there was hardly any pressure. Then I went back to Hyderabad to pursue my studies. I was set on studying to become a scientist. The desire to do films surfaced in my mind again when I visited Mumbai during a long vacation. With the support of near ones, I prepared a portfolio, which was shown to producers.

Around that time, Bharat Kapoor was looking for fresh talent for a big budget film Barsaat Ki Raat. I was selected for the role. Inspite of having the best of talent availabale, like choreographer Chinni Prakash, Saroj Khan, cinematographer W B Rao, music composers Laxmikant Pyarelal, it did not work. For some reasons, the schedule stretched on for four years taking the film's budget to nearly Rs 4 crore (Rs 40 million), and the film turned into a flop.

Personally, it was like a school. I made mistakes but also learned a lot. This was the first time that I really looked and tried to understand the art of filmmaking. I started looking at it seriously and enjoyed every moment of it.

During the same period, I received offers for a few other films. Bambaika Ka Babu, Ladlaa and Danvir … But nothing worked, except that they added to my confidence and maturity.

My role in Chingari is that of a very strong woman who believes in herself. She knows she is right and so stands for what she does. I like to play such roles, which convey some message to viewers.

What happened next? How did you turn to television? Was it with a kind of negative mindset?
No, not at all. True, there was pressure from people around that I should continue only in films and that I would get the right role sometime. This was over four years ago, when moving from films to television was definitely taboo. But I am not the kind of person who will just wait and watch. More importantly, I could not adjust to the kind of atmosphere and "demands" of some of the players in the film industry.

Luckily or otherwise, I was not branded in films, which would have otherwise been a problem for me while doing television. So I was as good as new for TV audiences. That was the time I got an offer to work in Shaktimaan (Vaishnavi replaced Kitu Gidwani in the fantasy serial).

It must have been a novel experience to work in a tele-serial after doing four films. What difference do you observe in the two media ?
The scale is totally different. The budget, time, resources don't have any constraints in a film. There can be any number of retakes if the director feels that the shot is not ok. Television is very different in that sense.

But as far as creativity or characterisation goes, I feel television is no lesser than films. It also gives you much needed space and time to settle in the character. On television, you have to be more like what you are unlike in films, where you are larger than life. Even the environment here is much better than in films.

How was your experience working in Shaktimaan (on national broadcaster Doordarshan's DD1 channel) as firebrand journalist Geeta Biswas? Does technology overshadow acting prowess in a fantasy serial?
True, special effects do rule in a fantasy serial. But viewers' attachment with Shaktimaan and Geeta is intense because the human angle has been developed well. The director keeps hammering into us the fact that we have to be careful with our portrayals since a majority of the audience is children.

Even in the interior parts of the country, I am known as Geeta Biswas. A few months ago, when my character was put off air due to a change in the storyline, there were thousands of calls and letters to the producers demanding my return. After eight months, they had to call back my character. These are definite receipts of your efforts.

Vaishnavi has appeared in a couple of episodes of Saturday Suspense on Zee TV, and has co-anchored the show Awaz Ki Duniya (DD1) with Rohan Kapoor, as well as acted in a couple of other serials like Chingari, Gharana and Dushman, which are now either off the air or no longer feature her. In Chingari, she etched a crucial role of a woman of substance.

What about serials like Dinesh Bansal's Chingari where you played a strong woman?
My role in Chingari is that of a very strong woman who believes in herself. She knows she is right and so stands for what she does. I like to play such roles, which convey some message to viewers. The serial did well on Zee TV and my role was appreciated.

But sometimes, it so happens that you just can't understand the character. You don't get the soul, in which case it is very difficult to do justice to that character.

And how you did you get Choti Maa?
There were nearly 100 aspirants trying for the role (well known actress Tabu too had been considered at one point). The director, Mohena Singh, had seen the pilot of Naqab made for Ashok Shekhar, in which I am playing a strong character.

I think my Indian looks and eyes helped me getting the role. I was initially confident of clearing the audition, but got the jitters when I realised that even the channel and the producers would have to approve of me.

Eventually, I got a call from Mohena asking me to find time for the serial's shoot, which was already on in Pandharpur (where the early episodes are shot). At that time I was doing Gharana and Shaktimaan. I had a tough time convincing the producers of Gharana. Eventually the character in Gharana was replaced. And I landed in Pandharpur for the shoot of Choti Maa.

What was your initial reaction when you got the role?
Frankly, I was not even aware of Chithi, the original Tamil mega hit serial on Sun TV. So it was like getting just any other role. But eventually when I read about Chithi and heard about it from people, I could understand the magnitude and importance of the project.

Did you prepare specially for the role?
I was like a clean slate. I had decided to be as spontaneous as possible. Sharda (i.e Choti Maa) is a unique character. She does not believe in God, but in human power. She believes in the strength and purity in human beings that makes it divine. She is against rituals.

I had to take much care while portraying her character. My voice is very high and thin, which sounds like a young girl. Sharda is a mature woman with a lot of authority in her voice though she is young, so I have to deliberately keep my voice low, firm and with a strong base. At the same time, it has to be clear and should not sound fussy. For this, I literally take my pitch/voice to the ground, and physically take my hand towards the ground and take it up to the level I want from there. It was a bit difficult initially. I try to feel the character while dubbing too.

I have no ego problems. I am always ready to change. My director and others give me a lot of tips, which help me understand the character better.

There was a courtroom scene in Chingari that was 14 minutes long with three changeovers, totally focused on me. I had the dialogues by heart and I needed only one retake.

Do you look to Radhika (who played the title role in Chithi) for inspiration or do you have other role models?
I had not seen the original Chithi even once before I started shooting. The reason was we wanted to do it our way, taking our target audience into consideration. Radhika once came to the Choti Maa sets in Bangalore. She congratulated me on my performance, which I think was very valuable to me. She also gave me some crucial tips on posture and carriage. Such tips are very important for perfect characterisation.

And I have kept Jesus Christ as my ideal person, because the way he carried himself is quite amazing. So I can identify Sharda's character with him.

Who are your favourite directors?
I like Mani Rathnam and Sanjay Leela Bhansali for their sensitivity in handling the subject. On television, among my favourites is Ravi Rai for the way he handles emotional scenes. Anurag Bose is another of my favourites. I like the way he handles drama and perfect characterisation.

Do you follow any particular acting pattern?
I don't follow any particular school of acting. I have not taken any formal lessons in acting. If the character is close to my nature, it is easy for me to play that. But sometimes, it so happens that you just can't understand the character. You don't get the soul, in which case it is very difficult to do justice to that character. And whenever it happens, it puts me off. I compare acting with singing. Each Avatar (character) is like a raga, there are different sur (tune) to play different characters. If you can't find that sur, the singing is useless.

Do you believe in living the role?
Not to a great extent. Whenever I am on the set, I feel like I am playing that character. It is the case with strong characters like Sharda, especially when I shoot continuously. I feel that impact even when I leave the set. Normally I don't read the script before going to the set. But in the case of Choti Maa, I read the whole story beforehand, which helped me understand the character.

I have no ego problems. I am always ready to change. My director and others give me a lot of tips, which help me understand the character better.

Do you take special efforts to remember dialogue?
My memory is quite good. Most often, I easily remember dialogues. There was a courtroom scene in Chingari that was 14 minutes long with three changeovers, totally focused on me. I had the dialogues by heart and I needed only one retake. Everybody on the set applauded.

Who are your favourite actors?
Renuka Shahane, Sachin Khedekar and Pallavi Joshi are my favourites because of their natural and intense performances. I also liked Shefali Chhaya in Hasratein.

Which channels do you usually watch?
I watch Zee and Sony. I particularly watch Hum Pardesi Ho Gaye on Sony and Sarhadein on Zee.

How do you spend your leisure time?
Reading is my passion. I read anything that gives knowledge. There is no specific genre that I go for but I am interested in philosophy and spiritualism. I like religious books that deal with spiritual experiences.

Acting, I feel, is making me a self centred person. Everything is me, my, mine. I think we should also look at the people outside our periphery. There are so many people whom you can help to improve life.

So what is Vaishnavi all about?
I don't know. I am very difficult to understand. At times, I behave like a kid. I like to laugh a lot. I don't have ego problems. I am a down to earth person and vibe well with similar people. If I don't like somebody, I just withdraw from the conversation.

I am very close to my mother (who handles her career) and my younger sister is my greatest pal. And of course my fiancé (who is in the navy). Whenever I get time I like to spend time with my sister.

I believe in God and destiny. I feel every success is 50 per cent hard work and 50 per cent destiny.

What are your plans for the future?
I will be pursuing acting as a full-time career for the next two years at least. I am simultaneously working on another project, which might make me give up acting after two years.

I may take up some acting assignments in between. Acting, I feel, is making me a self centred person. Everything is me, my, mine. I think we should also look at the people outside our periphery. There are so many people whom you can help to improve life. If you can do it, I feel one can really live his life.

So what is this plan of yours?
All I will say is that it will not be related to media. (In an interview three years ago, she had spoken of her involvement in church activities, related to slum development and literacy).