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      EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW! Shantanu Maheshwari: I Look Up To Dhanush; He Breaks A Lot Of Stereotypes


      "I think that there are traces of Afsaan (character in Gangubai Kathiawadi) in me. I love old school romance and believe in it. That's definitely there. In fact, woh to kaafi hain mujh mein," Shantanu Maheshwari tells me and breaks into a shy laugh.

      Currently basking in the success of his latest release, Alia Bhatt-starrer Gangubai Kathiawadi, in which he essays the role of her love interest Afsaan, this Kolkata lad bagged his dream debut after a successful stint on television as an actor and a choreographer.

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      Shantanu Maheshwari in an exclusive tête-à-tête with Filmibeat, opens up on his liberating experience of working with Sanjay Leela Bhansali, his evolution as an actor and a person post Gangubai Kathiawadi, his crucial scenes from the film, how Dhanush inspires him and more.

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      Excerpts from the conversation...

      'Sanjay Leela Bhansali Believed In Me And Appreciated What I Brought To The Table'

      'Sanjay Leela Bhansali Believed In Me And Appreciated What I Brought To The Table'

      Q. To do a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film is almost in every actor's wish-list. You got that opportunity in your debut film Gangubai Kathiawadi itself and I am sure that it must have been like a dream come true for you. The film is currently having a successful run at the box office and there's praise coming your way too. Has the feeling sunk in yet? What's your current state of mind?

      A. (laughs) The feeling hasn't sunk in as of now. Yes, I knew that I was doing a very big project. But the realization doesn't hit you until the film releases and turns out to be a hit with people appreciating it. It's not just publicity that's happening in terms of marking. There's positive word-of-mouth for the film. People are really appreciating what they have seen despite the subject being something like this. It's a clean, family-oriented movie. Obviously, I am very proud of the fact that I got the opportunity to be a part of such a fabulous project.

      I will forever be grateful to Sanjay Sir for giving me this chance and believing in me to be a part of such a big project. He wanted to launch a fresh face and so, he gave me that opportunity. Otherwise, I don't think that I would have got this opportunity. I am just very happy that I got to be a part of Gangubai Kathiawadi.

      Q. Sanjay Leela Bhansali often says that as a director, he doesn't like to give direct instructions to people because it limits the actor's imagination. Alia Bhatt too had mentioned this a couple of times that he is someone who doesn't tell you what to do; instead he pushes you to find it. Considering this was your first film, did that freedom to channelize your imagination and contribute bring in a certain amount of pressure or was it a liberating experience for you to just go out and play there?

      A. Obviously, he gives you the briefs. He wants you to think like the character and see what he or she does in that situation and how they will react. That's what he expects. You explore your character in the movie in the best possible manner and he is there to help you out and guide you at times in terms of giving you instructions.

      As you said, he definitely asks you to explore your skills and try to bring in your X-factor into the character. When that happened to me and I had to explore that side of it, I was at so ease that he wasn't being very particular about giving mechanical instructions like 'Aise dekho, udhar dekho.' So yes, it's a very liberating feeling and it gave me a lot of confidence.

      It made me feel that my director believed in me and appreciated what I was bringing to the table. As an actor, it's the best phase to be in where you are not being controlled and given the freedom to explore.

      'Dancing And Having A Sense Of Rhythm Helps In Acting'

      'Dancing And Having A Sense Of Rhythm Helps In Acting'

      Q. My favourite scene of yours in Gangubai Kathiawadi is the one where Alia's Gangubai and your character Afsaan meet for the first time. You see sparks between the two. Afsaan is all shy on the other hand, you see Gangu playfully teasing him. Speaking about your character in the film, the depiction of it relies more on the body language and expressions rather than the dialogues. In fact, in both the songs 'Jab Saiyaan' and 'Meri Jaan' too, you ain't lip-syncing and the emphasis is more on the other two elements. Do you think being a dancer helped you in pulling off that process? I recall Madhuri Dixit saying in one of her interviews that abhinaya is all about acting and expressions and the art of dance helps you with that...

      A. (pauses) I didn't analyse that much. But yes, I believe that dancing and having a sense of rhythm definitely helps you in acting. It's for sure and I can't deny that. But how much it helped me in terms of performance, I am not sure. But, it did help me for the songs. I didn't have to concentrate too much on the rhythm or the beats because I could understand what Sanjay Sir wanted and what I was supposed to do for a particular beat. So yes, as a dancer, you definitely understand things in a better manner. Maybe, I must have achieved that body language and expressions because of my dance background (laughs). Also, you are briefed about your character so you know what is expected out of you.

      Afsaan is younger than Gangubai but at the same time when you are in your teens, you tend to think that you are cool and believe that your thought process could match with the older ones. That's a universal thing. You take example of a teenager in any era and this will remain constant. You feel that you are always right and are confident. 'Ladkiyon ke saamne ek alag swag aa jaata hain.'

      Q. Afsaan had very less dialogues and despite that you did manage to convey the emotions to the audience...

      A. That's the kind of intensity that Sanjay Sir wanted to show between Afsaan and Gangu. At times you don't need to have a long conversation to understand that person. Sometimes, you are a bit nervous but know that he or she is of my type. It's a feeling that we take for granted at times. People are like 'Aise kaise, yeh log aaj mile hai, kal kaise saath mein dinner jaa rahe hai.' But at times, things just click and you connect with that. I think Sanjay knows the art of how to do that successfully. That is what he wanted to portray on screen. Afsaan starts in a very shy manner and by the time, he has that 'hanswala safed' conversation with Gangu, he understands her in a very deeper manner.

      'When You Give A Shot From An Honest Place, You Get A Very Different Feeling'

      'When You Give A Shot From An Honest Place, You Get A Very Different Feeling'

      Q. Since you mentioned that 'hanswala safed' scene, the film's costume designer Sheetal Iqbal Sharma recently revealed that it was inspired by an actual conversation that had transpired between her and Bhansali when she was told by him that he wanted white color scheme for Alia's costumes. Sheetal said that when she had expressed her reservations about the same, the director went on to explain her the different shades of white by citing examples of clouds, salt from Rann of Kutch and so on. Were you aware of this?

      A. I didn't know this...Oh my God! (laughs). This is something new to me but I can believe this can happen. In fact, some portions of this scene weren't there in the script, but that's how Sanjay Sir works. He likes to add and subtract things on the go. There are a lot of incidents where we did on-the-spot improvisations. He has a lot of stories that he likes to incorporate in his storytelling to enhance things.

      For example, in the scene where Gangu brings a marriage proposal for Afsaan while leaving the house, you see that when she is not able to open the car door, Afsaan does it for her. Now that's something which wasn't supposed to happen. Actually, during the rehearsals of that scene, the car's door wasn't opening because it was old. So I just went and pulled it for Alia. Sanjay Sir liked it and asked us to retain that in the scene as well. He has this different way of thinking. It's amazing how he managed to incorporate his conversation with Sheetal in the film.

      Q. Was there anything new that you discovered about yourself both as an actor and a person when you went through Sanjay Leela Bhansali's process of filmmaking?

      A. I could see that while I was on screen. I learnt to be just in the moment and not think about anything. That's exactly what happened during Gangubai shoot. I didn't respond to anything while giving those shots. I was so focused. It felt very different. The dialogues and the expressions came from a very different place. There were no filters involved. It was coming from a very honest place. I was enjoying that process. When you give a shot from an honest place, you get a very different feeling. It's a gold-like experience. That is something what I tried to adapt to and will continue to do in my upcoming projects.

      As a person, looking at how Sanjay Sir approached a scene in different ways, I learnt that one should explore endless possibilities. If there is a situation, you shouldn't think about it in one way. Instead, you should take a step back and try to analyse it from every point of view to make things better. That's a lesson that I have learnt while working on this film.

      'I Had A Major Fear Of Public Speaking'

      'I Had A Major Fear Of Public Speaking'

      Q. You had mentioned that you hail from a middle class Marwari family where one pursues CA for stability. But you were always inclined towards dance. Was acting also a part of your ambition?

      A. No, not at all. Dance happened because of my mother. She believed in me and got me enrolled in dance classes. She made me participate in many dance competitions in Kolkata. That was more like 'ho raha hai, kar raha hoon, seekh raha hoon aur jeet raha hoon.' It was getting a bit monotonous. I had a major fear of public speaking. But then, you have to work on yourself. I still feel a bit here and there (laughs). But my mother believed in me that I had the potential to do good in front of the camera. On the other hand, I was more interested in doing something behind the camera.

      But then Dil Dosti Dance (D3) happened and I realized that it was super fun. By default, I had to be in front of the camera because I was getting to earn while being still in college and it was a dance-based show. I joined D3 thinking that I would get to learn more and I will not have to fail (laughs). "College mein thhe toh yahi sab sochte thhe." I was like okay, I am getting an opportunity and I will grab it. I had to act on screen.

      Once I joined the acting workshops to understand the character, I started enjoying and exploring. My father always says that whenever you are doing something, give it your 100 per cent otherwise don't do it. Slowly, I started putting in efforts in learning things and understand its nuances. I started enjoying the process and realized that this was my passion. That's how acting happened to me. So, I never came to Mumbai to become an actor and I never thought that I would be one.

      Q. Even before your big screen debut, you always said that you choose your work with a lot of thought and only pick up projects that challenge you as an actor. Does that hold true for your Bollywood journey from hereon as well. Which filmmakers feature in your wish-list right now?

      A. I don't want to restrict myself in terms of filmmakers or the genres. I want to explore and do something which is different and challenging. If that doesn't happen, then I think I am able to give my 100 per cent in that project. I am only happy.

      It's very important to be a part of a project where you can be happy and do challenging roles. Because then as an artist, it's only when you are being challenged will you grow and give more than 100 per cent. Right now, that's what I am looking for. I don't want to restrict myself or my thought process. Also now, I think I can reach out to Sanjay Sir and ask him for his guidance. I have someone who can help and guide me. That's a big thing.

      Q. As an artist, is there anyone who you look up to in the industry and whose work has influenced you a lot in your pursue of art?

      A. When I was kid, I never watched many movies. I was more inclined towards dance oriented stuff. I am inspired by Govinda, Jaaved Jaaferi and Prabhu Deva. I have grown up watching them. They have a very different energy when they perform. It's not just dance. Even their work is very different. Now, I really look up to Dhanush. The way he carries himself, the way he is, the way he acts and performs overall. I really wish I get the opportunity to work with him. I admire his work a lot.

      'If You Are Being Criticised For The Right Reason Then You Should Accept It

      'If You Are Being Criticised For The Right Reason Then You Should Accept It

      Q. While showbiz is all about performances, fame and love, there's also another side to it. Actors in today's times have to maintain a perception about them. That's largely also because the audience wants the actors to be picture-perfect and someone who can't go wrong. Are all these things and the constant scrutiny nerve-racking for you?

      A. It is going to be there. You can't change it. There's a certain kind of perception. You are being called a hero or a heroine for a certain reason, right? It's a personality tag that's given to you for people to look up to you. I am not saying that it's okay to pressurize people to be in a certain way. Like I said, I really look up to Dhanush because he breaks those kind of stereotypes. Even Nawazuddin Siddiqui Sir. It's fun that people are now accepting those who are not that so called picture-perfect personalities; be it female or male.

      It's good to know that things are changing. I know that it has been going for a very long time so you will not see a sudden change in it. But then yaa, you have to deal with it in this profession. In fact in any profession, there are going to be problems that require change. I am glad that, that change has started. Hopefully, those perceptions will disappear as well.

      Q. When it comes to an actor besides the adulation, he or she also has his/her share of brickbats. How do you deal with criticism?

      A. It totally depends on whether that person is important to me or not. I deal with it in that manner. I don't take anyone's criticism. Sometimes it's important to know whose criticism you should take seriously. 'Aap har kissi ki nahin sunn sakte hain.' You can't please everyone. If you are being criticised for the right reason then you should accept it. Otherwise, it totally depends on who is the person who is criticising me and how much I hold importance for that person.

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