Sangeeta Bijlani: Quitting acting and experiencing a new phase in life made me happy – #BigInterview! – Times of India

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Sangeeta Bijlani may have won the Miss India Universe title in 1980 but much before that, she had already started getting film offers. The beauty queen, however, chose modelling as a career first, till director Rajiv Rai convinced her and her mother that the film industry wasn’t such a bad place after all. Once she signed her first film though, filmmakers couldn’t wait to get her on board and she landed three projects even before the release of the first. In a tête-à-tête with ETimes, the actress, who was recently seen on a dance reality show, opens up on her career, industry friends, and the way ahead for her. Excerpts:

Your recent appearance on a dance reality show on TV was quite a refreshing sight. It seemed like you were perfectly at ease in front of the camera.

I actually just enjoyed myself; it feels like home when you are on a set because you have worked there for so many years. It felt like coming back home. In the past, we never rehearsed for films or songs. Ninety nine per cent of my film dances have been recorded in one go. So, I really enjoyed going on the stage and performing; it was great to dance with Jackie Shroff.

Should we expect your comeback anytime soon?

I have been getting a lot of offers and a lot of people have been approaching me for the last many years, actually. It’s not that I am shying away. I guess, if something really fantastic comes my way and clicks with my sensibilities… It’s not like I am shut, but again, I haven’t really put myself out there. I am not really looking for work at the moment nor have I been desperate for work at any point.

It was recently reported in the media that I am open to working again but I never said that actually. Somebody asked me if I was being approached with work and I said ‘yes’, but, of course, the way that story was put out was totally different.

OTT has provided the perfect opportunity for actors to revive their passions and find a new fan following. Have you been looking at the digital space as a career prospect?

A lot of people from the digital space have been reaching out, they have even sent me some scripts for web series, too. Let’s see. If something appeals to me, I’ll go ahead. I really don’t want to jump into anything just for the sake of jumping on the bandwagon. It’s not like I am desperate to get back to work or whatever. I don’t think the term comeback applies to me because I’ve always been a part of this industry. Just as when I came to the ‘Super Dancer’ set, I felt like I had never gone away. That’s how it is — Once an actor, always an actor.

What kind of projects are you looking out for?

I think something powerful, interesting, and sensitive will be perfect for me. OTT platforms have now swept the world and they are making some amazing content. It’s wonderful to see that they are not hung up on stars with big names. Everyone is getting a breakthrough. If I get a fantastic offer, I am open to doing it.

How do you look back at your film career now?

I look back on my days in a very happy way. I really enjoyed my time to the fullest. Right from my beauty pageant days to modelling, movies and, at some point, moving into another space and settling down. I was pretty content when I left.

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Did you ever think about coming back to movies?

Not really. I was happy and content. I started out when I was 15-16 and I was working for a very, very long time. I was quite happy to move out, get into a different space and experience a new phase of my life.

You had earlier shared that in the ’80s, acting was not considered to be a great profession. Did you face any challenges or stigma after choosing this career?

No, I didn’t. Luckily, for me, since I was modelling, I was already getting a lot of offers. In fact, I got my first film offer when I jumped off a moving bus. I was a tomboy in school and I used to accompany my mom wherever she went. We used to travel by bus or train. One such day, before the bus could even reach the stop, I jumped off the moving bus pretending to be a hero and started running.

Much to my amusement, there was a filmmaker present there who saw me and went, ‘Mujhe tumhare saath picture karni hai (I want to make a film with you)’. I was horrified. I was so small, only in the ninth standard. My mom told him I was a student and politely declined the offer but he insisted on giving us his card, in case we change our mind later. Back home we had a good laugh over it. I don’t even know which film it was.

How did you land your first film?

Rajiv Rai was the first filmmaker who offered me a film because he saw me backstage at a modelling show. Speaking of challenges, I was sceptical, because you hear so many things about the film industry and then you are scared about it. But he came backstage and met my mom. If you meet Rajiv Rai, you cannot say ‘no’ to him; he’s so sweet and warm that he just instantly changed my perception of the film world.

He groomed me, sent me to acting classes, gave me my first signing opportunity, and also helped me with my first audition. However, his film took longer to make, and in between JP Dutta approached me. Rajiv asked me to take Dutta’s offer and while I was shooting for that film, Salim Akhtar, who was also producing another film with JP Dutta, wanted to make a film with me. JP suggested that I take that film too. Salim Akhtar’s film came out first which was ‘Qatil’, then released JP’s ‘Hathyar’ followed by Rajiv’s ‘Tridev’.

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Rajiv Rai and JP Dutta have such distinct personas and sensibilities. How did you strike a chord with both?

With JP Dutta, initially, one gets very scared because he looks strict. I just kind of flowed into the whole thing. Nowadays actors have the benefit of so many workshops before making a film so that they can get into the skin of the character. During our days, it was all about programming and conditioning.

You won beauty pageants and had a prolific career as a model, too. How much do you think has the world of modelling changed now?

We used to dance a lot in fashion shows. None of them used to be staged. Earlier, the modelling industry was like one little family and everyone thoroughly enjoyed it. Now the modelling process is mechanical; they just display clothes. Earlier we used to display the fabrics and feel as well. The entire concept of fashion shows was very wholesome back then. That warmth seems to be missing today, but, in a way, the professionalism and technicalities are way better now.

What do you do to keep busy nowadays?

Well, I attend quite a lot of events. I travel. Apart from that, I meditate, practice yoga, and work out in the gym. I run my home; I am also refurbishing my farmhouse. I also paint sometimes.

What’s the secret to your ageless beauty?

I think it has a lot to do with my mother’s genes. My father taught me meditation, spiritual practices and yoga. Perhaps they have helped, I guess (laughs).

You and Salman continue to be friends…

It’s nice to stay friends with people you’ve known forever. ‘Dosti ki hai… nibhani toh padegi (We are friends, we will have to respect the friendship)’

Apart from Salman, who else from the film industry have you been in touch with?

Meenakshi (Seshadri) and I have been in touch; we’ve done a world tour together and have grown fond of each other. Honestly, I don’t get too much time to reconnect because everyone has gone their own way. From the industry… I don’t know; mostly I was working with the guys (laughs). Thanks to social media, Ive been able to reconnect with so many old friends, some of my long lost friends from the modelling days too. I look forward to reconnecting with these people because with them you don’t have to pretend, you don’t have to care, you can just be yourself. It’s great to go back reminiscing the mad old days and the mad fun we’ve had.

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Male stars are still very reluctant to explore the digital space but women have been more flexible and shown more initiative. Why do you think that’s the case?

I think it’s just conditioning that makes us believe that the big screen has an aura. That charm will always remain. But, the fact is that the small screen reaches out to a larger audience. I am pretty sure with time all our stars will come around and realise that. Shows like ‘Money Heist’, ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘House of Cards’ have proved that. Having said that, I have really enjoyed watching Pankaj Tripathi and Vikrant Massey on OTT shows. And I must also say that I enjoyed watching Taapsee Pannu in ‘Haseen Dilruba’. I enjoy the work of Gauri Shinde and Zoya Akhtar, who make lovely movies with strong female characters.

Do you think today’s generation of actors are more privileged compared to the time when you started out?

I think we were the privileged ones. There was less competition. Today, everybody wants to be an actor. Thanks to OTT the tribe of actors is going and it’s great. The more the merrier, because the new ones will help the craft evolve. But back in our days, there were a handful of actors. It’s like we were the true stars. The privilege was ours, for sure. Perhaps that’s why, the actors who became stars during the 80s and 90s have still been able retain the star aura.

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Do you agree that Bollywood has not been able to find a solution to the pay disparity between male and female stars?

I think it exists because the higher paid roles tend to be male-dominated. I don’t know why it is like that. Because I do feel women do perform more, they are happier with their work, and they feel that they deserve their part. I think it’s a global phenomenon. It’s happening at every workplace. There are few prominent women who have high-achieving positions and occupy a position of power. Again, this is all a part of programming and conditioning of years. When we were young, women were not ahead of the times; they were always bound to take care of their families. But now, the equation is changing. I feel the real victory would be the day when it’s not announced that a woman has been appointed to a position of influence and power. The day that stops becoming a big deal.

Do you think women have finally broken through the ceiling?

Women are no longer limited to domesticity and their homes and the responsibility of just taking care of their home and family. Today women can be cops, pilots, astronauts, CEOs and anything that they want to be. Yet, I will maintain that there are still very few women who are managing to do this. The world needs far more. But then, you also have to factor in the fact that when a woman bears a child, that really resets the clock on her career. She spends months away, taking care of her newborn and that’s not really an advantage.

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Do you feel pregnancy and motherhood dents the stardom of actors?

I’d like to believe it doesn’t. Look at Kareena Kapoor Khan. She’s out there, she is unapologetic about her maternity weight gain and she’s bounced back to fitness from two pregnancies like a pro. She’s really changing the mindset and setting the right precedent that motherhood doesn’t change your ability to work or the power of your stardom. More power to her.

Are you happy with your decision to stay away from films?

I am enjoying life, just flowing through it and amused with everything. Once you let go, you reach a place of contentment and you are not affected anymore, you are free and floating. I am content now. I feel liberated and I am in my own, private happy space. It’s not like it’s an escape. I guess I have evolved. The spiritual practices and meditation helped me attain bliss. What really changed my life was when my father gave me the book ‘Autobiography Of A Yogi’ by Paramahansa Yogananda. It really opened up my horizons. I might just want to try skydiving now.



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