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Cover Story
September 18, 2017

Athiya Shetty On The Importance Of Living One’s Dreams And Just Being Herself

Text by Udita Jhunjhunwala. Photographed by Taras Taraporvala. Styling by Divyak D’souza. Assisted by Zenia Daruvala, Shikha Porwal and Riddhi Vartak. Make-Up by Daniel Bauer, Hair by Florian Hurel. Both from Artist Factory India

“When I thought about being an actor I thought about going to Switzerland and dancing in the snow with my sari flying in the wind”

Interior designer, fashion designer, chef, architect and waitress in a New York cafe were just some of the career options Athiya Shetty dabbled in before following her true passion. Now that she is an actor in Hindi cinema, there’s nowhere else on earth that the 24-year-old Mumbai girl would rather be. It’s been only two years and two films for the young performer since her debut in 2015, but the daughter of actor-entrepreneur Suniel Shetty and designer Mana Shetty is blessed with abundant patience, confidence and a head that’s firmly attached to her elegant shoulders.

A self-confessed tomboy, Athiya may have had scant exposure to the world of moviemaking during her childhood, hardly visiting her father’s sets, but the allure of Bollywood found its way home to her anyway. While other six-year-olds were watching the American TV series Barney & Friends, Athiya was absorbed in the glossy song-and-dance of Dil To Pagal Hai. “That was my all-time favourite film. I loved Madhuri Dixit in it. But Kajol is my absolute favourite,” says Athiya, her eyes lighting up as she speaks of her acting idols. “I was a very filmi child. When I thought about being an actor I thought about going to Switzerland and dancing in the snow with my sari flying in the wind. I would take my mom’s sarong, tie it like a sari, turn the AC to full blast and mimic the heroines in the privacy of my room. Obviously my parents had no idea I was doing this,” recalls the 5-foot-10-inch-tall actor.

After graduating from the American School of Bombay, Athiya enrolled in the New York Film Academy (NYFA). “At NYFA I learned the entire process of film-making because I was very unaware of what goes on behind the camera. Not only did New York teach me about acting and film-making, but also about myself. Sometimes you need to get out of your comfort zone and meet new people to grow.”

A sporty child who played football, basketball and badminton, and was on the swim team, Athiya was also involved in dramatics in school. But now besides swimming and occasionally playing football with her brother and his friends, she works out at the gym. “Actually it was while I was working out in Yasmin’s (Karachiwala) gym that Salman’s (Khan) sister Alvira saw me. I don’t think she knew who I was but she found out and then I was offered Hero. It feels like a dream when I look back at it now,” says Athiya of the time after her return from New York when she landed a headlining role in her very first movie.

Amiable, grounded and content, Athiya shares that she has been most influenced by her paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother. Her mornings often included visiting the market with her grandfather, and spending the evenings chipping in at her grandmother Vipula Kadri’s NGO. “The impact my nani had on my life is extreme and supreme. She started the NGO Save the Children India. It was right next to my school so every day, since I was about 12, I’ve been working with mentally challenged and hearing-impaired kids and even with girls rescued from trafficking. My mum runs the school now and I am still involved,” says Athiya.

She describes her grandfather Veerapa Shetty as a non-judgmental and fair man. “He was a man of his word. When I started shooting, he was so happy that I had started working. He told me marry later; work now and be independent. I had amazing grandparents but also my father never brought home the stress of success or failure. That’s something I am learning — to not let the stress of a movie release affect my personal life or at least to find a balance.”

When we meet for this interview and shoot, Athiya is revelling in the positive reactions and love for her second film, Mubarakan (2017). And while she’s waiting to begin her third project, she’s making the most of the time available. “While it’s important to be patient, it’s also important to keep learning. I still do all the things I used to do before my first film. I still dance (she’s trained in Kathak), go for Hindi diction classes, do courses that I feel would help me grow as an actor and add to my toolbox. And now I am starting singing lessons…I was in the school choir,” she says.

Talking about where she sees herself in the near future, Athiya says, “If you plan too much, you miss out on the moments. I am always thinking ‘What next’ and not enjoying the moment. I think I need to change that. I feel that if you are enjoying yourself it shows on screen.”

One of the misconceptions about her is that she is a fashionista. In fact, Athiya is happiest in a white shirt, jeans and Keds. Her tall, lean frame certainly lends itself to couture but her preference is more high street. “I have realised that nobody is ever happy. If you are thin, they say, ‘Athiya, put on weight’, and the moment you put on a little weight they are like, ‘Oh my god, you’ve put on weight, you looked so much better skinnier’. It’s best to be happy in your own skin. There are always people who are going to suggest you change and do things differently. This is my body type. I can’t change it.” And this body allowed her to eat three McDonald’s burgers on the Mubarakan set while her co-stars were picking at salad leaves. “I can eat eight burgers,” she says playfully. “And I work out, so it’s fine.”

Her style mantra is ‘less is more’ and her favourite brands range from Givenchy, Anamika Khanna and Ahilya to Off-White, Top Shop and Zara. Remarking on the constant attention of the paparazzi, she thinks it’s unfair that every actor or actor’s son or daughter is captured wherever they are these days. “Not only are things very different from my father’s days, but they are very different to even two years ago when I made my first movie. Some people don’t want that exposure or are not ready for it, but social media has taken over and everything is everywhere. It’s already different for Ahan,” she says referring to her younger brother who is preparing for his Bollywood debut. “Look at the exposure they are getting through social media. But no one even knew who we were before our first film.”

In these two years, she’s already faced a gamut of comments about her appearance and her on-screen abilities. “Somebody called me a wax statue. Somebody else said I was extremely expressive and can speak with my eyes. So while I realise it’s subjective, I do take criticism seriously. It motivates me to work harder and prove
those people wrong,” she says.

Her father is her biggest critic, she says, adding, “Both my parents are extremely encouraging. They believe in working hard at whatever you want to do and being aware of what you are getting into. You just have to have faith in yourself, flaws and all. While they have always instilled that failure is our biggest teacher, they’ve also taught us to not take either success or failure too seriously. I am new in the profession and there’s a lot for me to learn, to grow as an actor and a human being…. It’s a journey and it will take its course.”

Idea of marriage “I believe in the institution of marriage. I have extremely high hopes and expectations from it. It is about sharing and being friends first. My parents tell each other everything and I have seen that that generates love.”

Timing “I think people rush into marriage without thinking about compatibility just because they want to be married before 30. I feel that you should know when you are ready, and I am not ready right now. I definitely see myself married though, with lots of children. I want five children, but I don’t know which boy will agree to that.”

Romance “I saw this amazing quote which made so much sense to me: ‘To find someone you can talk to and share silence with comfortably is rare….’ It’s really important for me to be comfortable with the person, to be myself without feeling judged. Silence is really important too, to be able to sit with someone and not have to speak.”

Dream wedding “I want a destination wedding which is casual, fun and memorable. Perhaps a beach wedding in the Maldives with very few family members and friends present. And after the wedding ceremony, I will get into my swimsuit and jump into the ocean. I don’t want a perfect wedding though. I want an imperfect wedding that you remember, with lots of stories to tell.”

The groom “Everything else is planned; only finding the right boy is left! I don’t have an idea of what my ideal man is like but I hope to find someone I can share silences with, someone who is honest, can make me laugh and is himself.”

Colours and costumes “I want to be an Indian bride on the beach, wearing a white or ivory lehnga. I imagine everything in pastel shades, such as beautiful white and baby pink flowers. I don’t mind what the groom wears as long as it’s not shocking parrot green, and he sticks to the overall colour palette.”

The celebrations “Everything will be very calm and soothing but the music and the people won’t be! The music will be full-on Bollywood. But it will definitely be a more private event than my parents’ wedding. They had nine functions. That’s not a wedding, it’s a festival! I want two functions — a sangeet, at which I will dance, and the wedding.”

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