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Cover Story
April 27, 2017

Sapna Pabbi On Following Her Bollywood Dreams

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photographed by Sushant Chhabria. Styling by Karuna Laungani. Assisted by Ruchi Kapoor. Make-up by Flavia Giu and Hair by Marcelo Pedrozo, Both From Toabh Talents. Location Courtesy: Anchaviyo Resort

The newbie talks about finding her feet in show business

(Click on any image to view in larger gallery and see styling notes.)

Colouring the picture-perfect landscape with its first rays, the early morning sun bathes the rooms of the riverside resort with a gentle hue. Having driven in the previous afternoon, our team has used the hours before sundown well — stepping out and soaking in the serenity of the surroundings. The next day, we are up almost at the crack of dawn for an early morning start. Sapna Pabbi takes the ministrations of the crew in her stride, seeming completely at home in the world of glamour and greasepaint.

Relatively new to show business — she was first noticed in the Colors’ action serial 24 that was front-lined by Anil Kapoor. And Pabbi is still to be drenched in the trappings that success brings with it. During the course of our shoot, the no-fuss girl slips into several changes, walking easily up and down the steps of the resort to give our team the frames we want.

Strolling down memory lane to her days in the land of high teas, the self-confessed nerd informs me that she once worked in a private equity firm. She is still keen on doing her doctorate in the future, even though she packed her bags and flew to Mumbai from London when, as she says, “Someone I had worked with during my ‘just for fun’ modelling days approached me for a TV show in India. And I’m still here. I’ve always dabbled in something creative my entire life — be it the school or college stage or the local drama club. The first time I got on stage was when I was six. I played Babushka in a small Christmas play at school, but I’ll never forget that chequered head scarf and that brown dress.”

Currently shooting for an Amazon Prime India show with Amit Sadh and R. Madhavan, she is continuing her tryst with the small screen that started with 24. She has also done several commercials and has recently been seen in the web series The Trip. Her one big screen offering, Vikram Bhatt’s Khamoshiyaan, did nothing to further her celluloid dreams. I wonder if her route to success would have been easier if she had been mentored by a godfather. She ripostes emphatically, “My motto has always been to just rely on oneself, and it’s working fine for me. Maintaining healthy professional relationships is enough to succeed in any industry. I would like to think I’m not actually in showbiz, as I feel that alone encourages the pressure to conform to a specific lifestyle. When I arrived here four years ago, it all looked breezy and glamorous but now I know that it’s just like any other profession. It’s demanding, requires hard work, dedication and some level of studying to grasp it. I’ve definitely learnt a lot in the time I have spent here.” On a humorous note she talks about picking up the lingo of shoots, especially on the technical side. Pabbi states, “On the sets I heard, ‘Baby ko yahan lao, baby ki mundi ko idhar karo.’ I thought that Baby was a person till the sound guy came and told me, ‘Baby light hai’.”

Luckily for Pabbi, the language and familiarity with Hindi movies was a given before she touched base here. This helped her with 24, for though she was first called in for the role of Shaina (the assassin Meher’s sister), her fluency in Hindi and the fact that she was not a firang was a major factor in her grabbing the eyeball-catching role of Kiran Rathod, the protagonist’s teenage daughter. “I had to audition ten times until they finally offered me the role,” Pabbi laughs. “Although I sneaked in a few episodes of Friends, I grew up watching Hindi movies and serials thanks to my parents. My knowledge of Hindi cinema is far greater than that of Western cinema due to my father. He is like Amrish Puri from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ).”

It is no wonder then that she calls herself a ‘desi girl’, seeing herself as perhaps more Indian than some girls who have grown up here. Pabbi mentions, “My family can be compared to that of Simran’s in DDLJ. I can read and write fluent Punjabi and cook any Indian dish under the sun. And yes, I can also recite the Mahabharata and the Gita. Living there, we have been more rooted to our culture as our parents wanted to retain it. They ensured we integrated our ethnic origins into our daily lives. We visited India every year to meet our relatives in our summer holidays. The memories I have of Punjab are the most beautiful. I loved the simplicity of life at the farms and their desi vibe. We used to have late night dholak-sangeets. And for me the best outfit is still a simple Patiala salwar kameez.”

She manages the outfit changes with a degree of comfort and cooperation — almost the perfect model for each shot. Which leads me to ask her whether the realms of commercials and campaigns are more her cup of tea, for her stint here so far has been dotted with more advertisements than films. She admits, “I have done more ad campaigns, but for me they were acting assignments. I go through the scripts before I even meet clients. I have to be doing something, playing someone or be in a character of some sort, or I’ll be grumpy by the end of the day. I really can’t model! I actually have a fear of the still camera. I avoid still shoots as much as I can.”

For Pabbi, it is the heroine dream that is fuelling her career choices. She has taken her first steps to achieve it, but has miles to go before it becomes a reality. The actor is willing to slog and admits that she is slowly finding her feet, “In the first couple of years everything took off for me quite fast; it was like a whirlwind experience, but far from reality. When you’re new, I guess it’s hard not to want to conform to a generalised formula, and that goes for any profession. After having tried out a variety of roles, I’ve understood I just love to act and perform, without considering the medium or the banner. I believe it’s a choice you make about what one wants from life. For me, happiness comes first, in whatever form it may be. My own sense of self and individuality is what I stand for the most; therefore projecting that in my work satisfies me.”

Navigating the ways of filmdom did not come easily to her, especially with the various comments — many uninvited — that float around in the business. Pabbi remarks, “Being able to differentiate what is healthy for me and my self-esteem and what is not was quite a task. Standing tall in my own skin was very difficult when there were too many ‘cooks’ and opinions. Finding a way to keep my confidence was challenging.”

Wooing the big screen, she admits, is proving slightly harder than she may have envisaged; she has been a tad stereotyped due to her role of Meera in Khamoshiyan. “I do feel in Bollywood the terms ‘bold’ or ‘sexy’ are given far too much importance. I am being approached for very erotically-inclined characters in films. I fail to understand how we even begin to stereotype actors when the main part of our job description is in the name itself — act,” she states a little impatiently. “I would really like to play a desi girl because I never get to unleash that side of me unless I’m with my family. In my secret life I’m more like a Geet from Jab We Met or a Kavya from Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania. And I really want to wear a paraandha and run through the khets of Punjab. I’m also itching to do a negative badass girl role with a couple of backflips thrown in, firing the odd bullet.”

Seeing her in the outdoors reminds one of her ‘womance’ for the web-series The Trip, in which she plays Sanjana, ‘the outsider’ among a group of friends, who slowly becomes one of their own. Pabbi says, “I had always wanted to do a girl gang project as I felt there wasn’t much of that in Indian entertainment. Sanjana was by far the easiest character to play because my co-actresses were superb. We had a great time and I think it showed.”

On the petite side, Pabbi can carry herself well; she keeps her body in shape with her exercise and fitness routines, even though she says she is a complete foodie. “I binge on McDonald’s burgers very proudly. There isn’t anything I don’t eat — the good and the bad-for-you stuff. But, I also practise Hatha yoga whenever I can. I am an ex-Olympic squad gymnast and have just got back into it now after 10 years, so I am seeing how that goes. Other than that I’ve never trained at a gym in my life because I plug my headphones on every morning and dance in my room to my favourite tunes. That has been my wake up mantra since I was 10!”

As our interaction draws to a close, her parting words reflect on who she is — or sees herself to be — as a person. They unconsciously echo what first appearances have hinted at: “I would like to believe I am a free spirit. I do have my moments of explosion; however, I always apologise for my behaviour if I ever cross my limits. I never hold grudges; my mantra is to let go and let live.”

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