“Hum achhe dikhte hain’’. She is because she looks good. Yami Gautam’s sterling TikTok star Pari Mishra in 2019’s well received Bala suddenly alerted the world to her presence again, eight years after she first charmed them as Ashima in Shoojit Sircar’s Vicky Donor (2010). Congratulations flooded in but Gautam was unaffected. A decade in Bollywood, away from the certainty of middle-class life in Chandigarh, has put the steel in her spine. Success or failure, she has developed an equanimity that has allowed her to believe in herself.
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As she sits on the dining table in her sun-dappled apartment in Khar, Mumbai (appropriate given her name means daughter of the sun), she is the picture of contentment. Going into the kitchen to show the new help how to serve tea, she pads around barefoot, clad in a simple dress, and sporting new bangs; Yami is very much at home. Proud of the gluten free dark chocolate cake she has baked, she pours a cup of green tea for both of us and settles down for a chat. Daughter of a documentary filmmaker who is now a vice president in a television network in Chandigarh, Gautam was always a sharp, if shy student. The few close friends she had knew that she always wanted to be in the entertainment industry, but there was also the part of her that wanted to take the civil services exam.
Stardom won and soon Gautam was one of the many youngsters working in the relentless machine of television, starring in three soaps, living on her own in Mumbai. “I remember when I first began living here in 2009. The Ganesh Chathurti festival was on, it was raining, and everyone lived in apartments where the curtains were forever open, yet no one peeped. And here I was, my idea of Mumbai was influenced by Karan Johar movies of St Xavier’s College, sea facing bungalows and lots of open space,” she recalls. But she adjusted, especially to the professionalism of the city and that no one ever passed a cheap comment no matter what time of the day she was commuting.
But working 60 hours a stretch in television was gruelling and she felt like it was swallowing her individuality. “I took a conscious decision to go back home and reboot,” she recalls, knowing she would be sacrificing the financial security of television work. It paid off, with work coming her way in print ads, in catalogues and a Kannada movie. An audition that was shown to director Shoojit Sircar got her the role of a young Bengali divorcee in Vicky Donor with Ayushmann Khurrana, then a Roadies winner and well-known RJ, as well as a family friend from Chandigarh— with his mother-in-law having been her English teacher at one point in Maharaja Yadavindra Public School in Mohali.
Sircar remembers her from that time. “She was extremely serious about her Bengali character,’’ he recalls. “This was her debut and I told her you will mostly be in a sari onscreen.” In Bollywood-speak, it meant though the movie was a sleeper hit and she won several ‘Best Debut’ awards for her role, it also meant she was going to be typecast in slightly “mature” roles. Breaking out of that was difficult, forcing her to accept the best of some mediocre movies that came her way. She says, “Suddenly journalists call you, agencies start pitching to you. It’s a whole new world and no one tells you how to negotiate it. But you have to pay your bills.”
Yet, she says, she was passionate, never desperate. “I went back to the past, to the person I was before I came to Mumbai, and started working things out for myself.” A cameo in Sriram Raghavan’s Badlapur (2015) and the role of a blind girl in Sanjay Gupta’s Kaabil (2017) opposite Hrithik Roshan were bright spots. Her role as a RAW agent in Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019) changed the way Bollywood had looked at her—it’s a role she actively sought after reading about the film in a newspaper. Director Aditya Dhar says Uri… was shot in difficult circumstances. “We had 120 shots a day over 18-hour days. In such a scenario the performances have to be consistent, ready and on cue. Yami was flawless and really collaborative,” he says. He believes women have to work extra hard to be taken seriously in the industry. “They need to have a great figure, need to look extra special, need to have superb PR. There’s a lot more than acting that consumes their lives,’’ he notes.
Gautam is the first to admit that she doesn’t like to party or to network–” I can’t act when I’m not acting,” she says. She’d rather stay home and bake; or go to Himachal Pradesh where she’s bought a 100-year-old property and where she intends to start organic farming; or just make her special blend of odourless creams. If you ask nicely, she may even entertain you with her mimicry (her version of fellow Himachali Kangana Ranaut is top of the pops). This is the spark Amar Kaushik tapped into when he cast her in Bala. Kaushik recalls being in a meeting with Gautam for a film that was not Bala. “During the conversation Yami laughed about something and I suddenly realised this is how I want my Pari to laugh. Soon after we briefed her and had a script reading session. I was stunned to find how perfectly she understood the character. She played Pari with all her heart and I am not surprised that it was one of the best performances of 2019,” he says. And why not? Yami prepared for it by following Pari-clones on TikTok, internalising her attitude, imagining herself to be like her, and thinking like her.
Not everyone has seen it fit to appreciate it, and Gautam responded to it with an Instagram post addressing rumours that she was upset at being overlooked for a nomination at the Filmfare Awards. She has learnt to speak up for herself, and for her work. She has learnt to go for stories that matter, and work with filmmakers she admires—coming up, she has Ginny Weds Sunny with Vikrant Massey and an untitled Dinesh Vijan production with Abhishek Bachchan.
Yami Gautam finally has faith in herself, her talent, and her personality. Increasingly, so does the world.Invalid slider id. Master Slider ID must be a valid number.
Photographer: Sushant Chhabria; Styling: Divyak Dsouza/ Inega; Art direction: Prashish Moore; Hair: Mike Desir / Anima Creatives; Make-up: Akgun Manisali / Inega; Production: P Productions; Assisted by: Khushi Bhatia (Styling), Michelle Lobo (Intern)