Rarely has an actor emerged triumphant in roles as challenging and diverse as that of an overweight housewife from a small town in Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015), a bold, unapologetic domestic help in the Netflix anthology, Lust Stories (2018) and a crusader against India’s fair skin obsession in Bala (2019). In less than half a decade, Bhumi Pednekar has risen to become Bollywood’s unlikely disruptor, often going by gut to make unconventional career choices. In an interview for ELLE, the actor sits down with her mentor, confidante and BFF, casting director Shanoo Sharma, to talk about her many firsts, career milestones and their rock-solid friendship that has stood the test of time.
Bhumi Pednekar: The first time I met Shanoo [Sharma] was when I was working for a different casting director, Abhimanyu Ray. I saw Shanoo walk into the office and she was like a diva. I was so mesmerised. I remember thinking, “Oh, my God, who’s this woman?”
Shanoo Sharma: I, on the other hand, had heard that she was this feisty person, someone to just stay away from. Of course, in two days, I realised she’s not capable of doing anything but she was just…scared.
BP: I wasn’t scared, I was 18.
SS: She was young, scared, and would easily get scandalised by everything. She was really in awe of my cabin, because I had done it up really well. So, I think after about two days she walked in and asked me if she could have a cup of coffee in my room.
BP: Because I had done a very tacky job at decorating mine with magazine covers of film stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Anil Kapoor and Smita Patil. I think after the first two days and that cup of coffee, we killed it together.
SS: We became like best friends. She started dressing up like me. And, I was just watching this little kid wearing bindis, silver jewellery and dressing eclectic, and turning into a mini-me.
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BP: I couldn’t help it, you know. She’s the only one who had such an immense impact on my life. I remember when YRF Television was shutting down, she guided me through it, from getting me a job to even a salary hike. Till date, I think she’s the only one I want to constantly impress. I don’t know if it even makes sense.
SS: And she would never audition people in front of me. Then one day, I paid a surprise visit to the office when she was conducting an audition and what I saw was incredible. Bhumi was holding the camera, while giving cues as two different characters. That’s when I realised, “Wow, I want to watch her act!”
BP: I wanted to be a director.
SS: And I said, “Bhumi, if you wanted to direct you’d be taking a day off to write out a script by now.”
BP: I hadn’t even written a line (laughs). But the best part is that Shanoo didn’t rush me. She asked me to start preparing for auditions, and since I was overweight, she started urging me to go to the gym.
SS: The problem was whenever I even mentioned to people that Bhumi is a damn good actor, they’d react saying “Ha ha that’s cute”. I wanted her to be taken seriously, I wanted her to knock off all the unhealthy weight. Then I got the casting call for Dum Laga Ke Haisha (DLKH). I got asked, “Is Bhumi really a good actor?” I said, “I will bet my career on it.” When they told me they were looking to cast an overweight girl, my first reaction was to panic a little. Because exactly at that moment, Bhumi was ‘cross-fitting’ away at the gym, and that too at my behest.
BP: I was so upset that Shanoo wanted me to stop working out. I remember we had a little fight for the first time; a little siblings’ tiff. At one point she even told me, “I may have to fire you!” Yeah we tend to get a little dramatic (laughs).
SS: In fact, I didn’t even tell her she was auditioning for DLKH. I told her she was shooting a couple of template scenes for those who were going to audition for the movie. YRF had conducted several auditions across the country, but picking Bhumi was a no-brainer.
BP: I got to know on my birthday that I was selected for the part. Shanoo called me and she was howling on the phone and it took me a while to register that I had got my first break. It’s been such an emotional journey since then, and Shanoo has just been there always.
SS: Bhumi is a strong person and I am very proud of how she has managed everything on her own. Even when she lost her father, she held on, stayed strong for her family and has given them an amazing life. And she was always very comfortable in her skin.
BP: Here is something that I have to say about Shanoo. She has just always pushed me to be a better version of myself. She really nurtures her talent. If she has faith in somebody, she goes all out. I have always been more worried about her opinion of my films. I just wanted Shanoo to be proud of me. The thing is, a lot of people have put in their sweat, trust and resources into getting me here. And I was worried that if I publicly embarrass myself, I will be letting down the amazing support system I had.
SS: Bhumi has really stuck it out. She’s chosen content-driven films and that’s what I appreciate about her. She’s got big offers and I’ve said, “Are you sure you want to turn it down? You’re running a home.” And she would still stand her ground.
BP: Last year, I was working non-stop. I had like 90-hour shoots; I was so exhausted. In December, when I had three films, Saand Ki Aankh, Pati Patni Aur Woh and Bala, running simultaneously, it really felt like a big career milestone for me.
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SS: I keep telling her to not complain; this is a good problem to have. This is what we wanted. Although we don’t get to chill as much now, we are very tuned into each other’s lives. Otherwise her FOMO will take over.
BP: When I have time, I make it a point to spend it with my mom, my sister and Shanoo. There are just a handful of people I am very close to in Bombay and she is one of them. My mother and Shanoo are the biggest inspirations in my life. There are times when I come back to her now and say, “You know, I feel like I’m losing hold of my craft. Can you do a scene with me?” This is also how I want our equation to stay.
Editor-in-chief: Supriya Dravid; Photograph: Bikramjit Bose; Styling: Samar Rajput; Hair: Yianni Tsapatori/Faze Management; Make-up: Akgun Manisali/Inega; Production: P Productions; Assisted by: Rupangi Grover (Styling), Shrishti Kumar (Intern)