Payal Rohatgi is one of Bollywood's best paid actresses. Growing up in a middle class family in Ghujrat in the western state of India, the computer engineering graduate says she 'never really dreamed of coming into the industry. It happened by luck, by chance but I am happy to be in it.' She spoke to Weekend Magazine at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) about her career and more.
Weekend Magazine: How did your luck shine with getting into the film industry?
Payal Rohatgi: As an engineering student, there were more men going in for the course than women. As women among them we were 'expected' to have a certain dress code which mostly meant that we were shabbily dressed with spectacles. We were supposed to have a nerdy look. (Laughter) I used to love dressing and even in my school it was my own way of freedom. I used to stand out from the other females around me. I was chosen to contest as 'Miss Popular' girl, but they would make fun of me and all that. Eventually they sent my name for the 'Miss India' pageant in Bombay, which was a very popular competition. At the time, a lot of pageant shows were happening within India which brought the country on the global map in this regard. I was cautious not to get my popularity out of my regional college, but then they put my name in for the contest and that was how I went to Bombay and participated.
But I was still too nerdy for Bombay standards. Considering where I grew up, a small city which at the time was not as exposed and as developed as it is now, there was hardly any fashion sense as they have now. Surprisingly I made it to the top six finalists in 2002. After this, I decided that the experience was very interesting, a breather and a detour from my regular day-to-day lifestyle of just books and study and boring life. That's when I decided that I wanted more of it. I moved to Bombay and started my struggle just like any other newcomer by getting hold of all the directors, producers, actors and filmmakers I could reach and also going for auditions so that I could begin my journey. I was curious to see what the industry was all about.
What was it like as a newcomer in Bollywood?
I have been in it for like 10 years now and I have had my share of ups and downs. I still have a long way to go, but yes! I have a couple of good works in my resumé which include working with acclaimed Indian directors like Abbas-Mustan, Anil Sharma (Senior) and Shailesh Singh, a producer. I have also worked with Irrfan Khan who is very well known on the international map. He was a part of 'Slumdog millionaire', 'Our lifestyle'. I worked with him on an Indian film called 'Dil Kabaddi'.
Regardless of the challenges I encountered, I kept at it. For me the struggle keeps on going. All one needs to have is patience. Make sure that once you understand the industry, you pursue your goal, because there are good directors and producers, so that whatever you do with them, whether it is a short film or proper Bollywood commercial film, it will be released properly and will be shown to the right audiences and you will be portrayed correctly to the audiences. You need to have an abundance of patience to last in this industry. You also need to give it your very best, because there is very stiff competition in the market.
Do women have peculiar challenges with getting roles in movies in Bollywood?
I will not say that I will be diplomatic in answering this question. It is a male dominated world. When women step out of their houses whether it's to a media house or an office or to a set, as an actress or a technician, you have to show yourself as a professional. You need to know how to deal with the whole male hierarchy of people around us. Women need to prove their worth. I would say once we step out of the house and are not just homemakers, sometime we get this intuition of how to manage ourselves and be smart enough. I would say that doing sexual favours to get work is not the way to go. Filmmakers don't look at actors/actresses based on their outward appearances. He will not put his career at stake, because of one night's pleasure. There are sexual tensions everywhere. For a woman who wants to establish herself, there is a clear line as to where to set the boundaries, because nobody is going to cast you just because you slept with them.
You have to have dedication and focus towards your career. You need to be talented. So, I would not like to say that 'you do this so that you get this' or 'you don't do this so that you will not get this'. Ultimately it's your talent that will speak. If you think you have got your break and your survival struggle and you have met somebody who is going to give you that break under the guise of such favours, then that is your personal choice and no one should comment on it. But yes being a media person you do come across such situations. I have come across situations where friendships have been misinterpreted; I had learned in my own way how to put my foot down and be okay about it.
Of all the roles you have acted, which has been the challenging?
I have done a couple of films; when I am on a project I have my time on set and cut off time when I am by myself. I get time to recoup and get back on set into character. I found it really difficult to be in front of a camera 24 hours for the reality show, 'Big Boss' the Indian version of 'Big Brother'. Being constantly in front of the camera, with mics and constantly having your intimately emotional moments captured and not knowing what exactly is going to be aired was something very difficult. Living with different kind of people for those number of days and wanting to get angry sometimes (laughter) were so difficult. I had to remind myself to behave. 'Behave!' I would say to myself a lot of times. The sanity goes off after one month of being in the same circumstances. People try to understand, decode you, your character and behaviour according to their understanding. When you come back to the real world they are calling you all sorts of names. Some just hate you. You try to put your case forward after the show to correct whatever misconceptions may have occurred, but you are not always successful. Being a Scorpio, it is very difficult for me to be diplomatic. I am straight forward and like to be that way. I was also a part of the first 'Survival India' series in India and lasted two months on the show and ended in the top five.
Do you miss engineering?
No, I don't, because I don't think I am cut out to do a nine-to-five job. I have a house of my own in Bombay and can take care of my needs adequately. I am making money now and I am very happy and don't feel pushed to go back to the initial urge to make money off computers.
What projects are you working on now?
I'm here with my boyfriend whom I met on 'Survival India'. He is an international wrestler and we are contemplating the possibility of participating in some dance reality show. He is also planning to make his debut in Bollywood with a biopic of his life being an arthritis patient as a child and being in wheelchair for eight years before surpassing all of that to become a gold winning wrestler at the Commonwealth games. We're negotiating the shooting of a Punjabi film (a regional Indian film) after my IFFI trip. I will be playing glamourous girl from Bombay. I am trying to make a balance between television and film.
Who has been the most interesting to work with?
My shooting with Irfan (Khan) was very memorable. He is one actor who is well known on the international scene. For him to have such a humble nature and be down to earth, was very relaxing for me and made it easy to work with him. He is a very good actor and I was quite nervous of failing. I reminded myself to be on my best behaviour and learn my lines properly before going on set. I told myself, 'Payal, it's okay if he misses his lines, but you cannot miss yours'. But he made it all easy and fun for me to do.
In Bollywood we are usually not very organized with shooting, but with Irrfan involved, it was all very well put together.
How does the life of a single woman in India look like?
We are a country of many cultures and traditions and values. Families are close knit; children stay with their parents until their 20s and even 30s if they are not married. Nobody sends you away because you have become an adult. With women who have left their homes and want to sustain themselves in the 'big bad city', I would say it is an individual answer. In Bombay as a single woman it is safe, but I wouldn't say so for Delhi and cities in northern India. In many cases, what makes the difference is how you can build safe environment around you. If I have to travel out late at night I would venture so by myself. Even my mother would advice me against it. When you know this danger lurk around, it is best to do what you can to avoid them. Every now and again we read about abductions, kidnaps, rape cases and all; it is important to know our surroundings and do ali we can to protect ourselves.