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Verve People
November 30, 2014

Haute Shades of Grey

Text by Jayashree Menon

After playing the iconic titular role in Heena more than a decade ago, she is now, as Sakshi Goenka in the ongoing soap Ek Hasina Thi, creating an all-new fan following with her effortless rendition of an obsessive mother. Stylish actor Simone Singh talks to Verve about the manipulations and her metamorphosis

Circa 1998.  Even as you listened to Jagjit Singh’s soulful voice singing the title track of the TV serial Heena – Koi ye kaise bataye ke woh tanha kyun hai… – montages of the utterly lovely, but forlorn Simone Singh suffused the screen, with the last shot being Singh in the title role as a bride with a tear trickling down her cheek.

Cut to the present. Just the imperious way in which Singh utters the name of her small screen alter ego – Sakshi Goenka – in Star Plus’ serial, Ek Hasina Thi, has lesser mortals stuttering and stumbling to do her bidding.

Naturally, then the first question I ask Singh is about her transformation from ‘ronewali Heena to rulanewali Sakshi Goenka’.  She agrees, “It’s been quite a transition. A day before shooting began for Ek Hasina Thi, I went shopping for my make-up, and through force of habit picked out water-proof mascara. Heena and Sakshi Goenka are polar opposites, but part of the challenge for me as an actor was to make my character believable. Whether in dress or mannerisms, I wanted to make Sakshi as authentic as possible – and not just the usual television version of a rich person.”

Indeed, the stylish Goenka with her chiffons and pearls is in appearance more Maureen Wadia than say the usual over-the-top accessorised and dressed ‘rich’ ladies, that our serials so love to show off. And obviously, Singh, long known for her impeccable dress sense, must have been responsible to a large extent to the styling of the character. “It was a collaborative process,” she insists. “It wasn’t just my inputs, but also what the rest of the team brought to the table especially, our dress designer Sapna Malhotra, who contributed to the overall look of Sakshi Goenka.”

Singh looks every inch the imperious part, but appears too young to play mother to Vatsal Seth, unless hers was a child marriage.  I tell her so and she chuckles, “Well, sometimes you play a role older than your years, sometimes younger.  As far as playing a mother to Vatsal was concerned, I had no apprehensions about playing a mother. I didn’t look at my role on the show as the role of somebody’s mother. I agreed to do it because the character of Sakshi Goenka fascinated me. She is far from being a vamp. She has so many layers to her – on the one hand she’s a strong-headed and powerful business woman whom no one challenges and on the other hand, she is a doting mother. Her negative traits come to the fore only when her family is under threat. And she’s the only one who intuitively gets that the serial’s protagonist, Durga Thakur, is not what she claims to be.”

The interval between the two mainstream serials Heena and Ek Hasina Thi is indeed long, but Singh has not been idle. She’s done serials like Aandhi (2003) and Kasshish (2005) and also hosted talk shows like The Lounge (2004), Kosmic Chat (2005) and Leap of Faith (2010). She has also done a number of films, including Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003) and Being Cyrus (2006) among others. But for an actor of her calibre, surely this body of work is not much. “That’s because right from the beginning of my career, I have never taken on too much, because the work-life balance is very important to me,” she shares. “I keep getting offers every day, but I refuse. Heena was a weekly but for serials like Aandhi and Kasshish, I had to shoot four days in a week.”

So, she stopped doing fiction series on television when everything went from weekly to daily. “There was a period when I was being asked to shoot 28 days a month.  I stopped doing serials and began hosting talk shows on English language channels. I thoroughly enjoyed those…they have a different audience and viewership.”

She continues, “But now with Ek Hasina Thi, I am enjoying being back on a drama series, though I’m shooting 22-23 days a month. One of the reasons I signed on was because the producers convinced me that the serial would not continue indefinitely, so I’ve committed a year to it. Also, once you sign on, you accept that to play a character like this requires absolute focus and concentration and this kind of time.”

How does she cope with the long working hours? “With as much grace as I can muster,” she says with wry smile. As if maintaining her work-life balance wasn’t tough enough, Singh went on a gluten-free diet shortly after she started shooting for the serial. “Why did I start that diet?” she ponders aloud. “I really don’t know and it’s quite easy to manage as long as you eat enough fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and rice instead of chapattis.”

She rues the fact that her favourite gluten-free pasta is out of stock at the moment. And obviously she does not have the time or energy to go hunting for it. “Playing Sakshi  Goenka is utterly exhausting,  but the rewards of playing this complex, multi layered, multi dimensional character are wonderful. Wherever I go, people say Sakshi…Goenka… with the exact emphasis and intonation that I use in the serial,” she says happily.

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