In one fell swoop, Bollywood debutants Fatima Sana Shaikh and Sanya Malhotra have grabbed the attention of everyone in the film industry, from top producers to hard-nosed critics. The two leading actors of last year’s top-grossing film, Dangal, proved not just that they have serious acting chops, but also that they are capable of rigorous physical transformation. Their portrayal of Indian wrestling’s most inspiring women, Geeta and Babita Phogat, was pitch-perfect down to the almost sisterly camaraderie they share off-screen as well. They hold hands at red-carpet events, are fiercely protective and appreciative of each other during interviews and kept cheering each other on during the ELLE shoot too.
Before they first met at the Dangal auditions two years ago, they’d had very different journeys. You’ll remember Shaikh as the cherubic five-year-old in the Kamal Haasan-starrer Chachi 420 (1997) and then from smaller parts in films like Akaash Vaani (2013) and Table No 21 (2013) through her early twenties. Malhotra, who is a trained ballet dancer, moved to Mumbai from Delhi when she was shortlisted to be a part of a dance reality show four years ago. When that didn’t work out, she stuck around to pursue acting and auditioned for ads before Dangal came along. The two actors, who are currently interning with their co-star Aamir Khan, talked to us about the challenges of wrestling, films and overnight fame.
4 things you didn't know about Fatima Sana Shaikh
She’s a cat lady: “After the film’s shoot wrapped up, we started interning with Aamir. Just being around someone who is so socially responsible has made me more aware too. In the future, I want to do something for animals. I have a lot of cats; I foster them and find them homes. But Mumbai does not have well-equipped animal shelters. I would really like to do something to help out.”
She knows how to fake it: “I Googled Geeta Phogat before the audition and immediately called the casting team to tell them I wasn’t fit enough to play the character. They assured me it wouldn’t be a problem. During the fitness test, I was dead after running three rounds. I had never run so much, but I pretended I was totally cool and did another one. I obviously couldn’t let them know because I was worried they wouldn’t select me. Later, I snuck out and puked in a corner.”
She loves a challenge: “A few people told me I’ll never get a leading role because I have short hair now, but I’m very happy with myself. Female actors don’t often get opportunities like Dangal, where you get so much time to get into a character. I actually enjoyed the process of cutting my hair, putting on weight and even getting injured while I was training.”
She found a sister on-set: “I failed miserably when we were asked to speak in Haryanvi during the [audition] workshops, but Sanya was one of the few girls who did well. Afterwards, I asked [the other actors] if they would like to help me and, very slyly, they all walked away—only Sanya stayed and helped. From that day on, we started practising together. We would talk in that dialect while hanging out at cafés or over the phone. I knew then that if I didn’t get the role, I wanted Sanya to be the one to get it.”
4 things you didn't know about Sanya Malhotra
She’s an ex-introvert: “When I moved to Mumbai to pursue acting, I didn’t know where to go for the first four months. I didn’t have an acting background and I didn’t know anyone either—I only chilled with my five flatmates. I only knew where to audition when one of them told me about it. I was too scared to go for random auditions. I was really shy and an introvert, but after doing this film, I met and spoke to so many people on the film set that I have changed as a person.”
She gave up dancing to get tough: “When Dangal happened, I thought my background in dance would make it easier for me to learn wrestling—it didn’t! My coach would shout at me daily because I looked too graceful while wrestling. So I didn’t dance for six months before going on the sets. I would go to parties and just sit and drink water. I really missed dancing while I was training."
She almost quit: “Shooting for Dangal was physically and mentally exhausting. We would wrestle, then shoot and then gym. At one point, I felt that I couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t feel good about myself. I thought I wouldn’t be able to project my character well on camera. Then I started meditating on set. I would meditate for 15 minutes every day and it did wonders for me; it kept me going.”
Everyone needs a BFF like her: “Fatima and I got along from day one. She’d keep rearranging pens and notebooks at the audition and we got talking about OCD. We were both auditioning for the same role, but we helped each other and rehearsed together. We are so similar. I think I found a soul sister in her. We work out and hang out together almost daily. I know our relationship will stay the same no matter what.”
The striking duo from Dangal are the perfect models for this season’s bold make-up trends
Photographs: Sushant Chhabria; Styling: Rahul Vijay; Art Direction: Reshma Rajiwdekar; Make-Up: Richard Wilkinson; Hair: Jose Herrera; Assisted by: Amie Banerjee (Styling)