INTERVIEW: 'I don't judge the characters I play': Taaza Khabar actress Shriya Pilgaonkar on breaking the mould, staying real and more

 The actress talks about her idea of beauty and happiness, why travel is a necessity for her and more.
Shriya Pilgaonkar in Taaza Khabar
Shriya Pilgaonkar in Taaza Khabar

Shriya Pilgaonkar is an artiste of many creative pursuits. Born to a family of legacy Marathi actors Sachin and Supriya Pilgaonkar, she was raised to pursue her many creative flairs. From being a gold medalist swimmer, getting trained in Kathak, playing percussion instruments with a natural rhythm, learning about linguistics to finally treading her heart’s calling — acting, she has outdone herself in every skill and practice.

She bagged her first role at the age of five in the hit Hindi sitcom Tu Tu Main Main playing the neighbourhood boy named Bittu. What began as an inherited love for stage and camera brought her several notable projects like the French film Un plus une helmed by Oscar-winning director Claude Lelouch and a stellar debut in mainstream Hindi cinema with megastar Shah Rukh Khan starrer Fan. Since then, there is no looking back. The Mumbai-born actress has aced every role since then bringing a labyrinthine arc of emotions, quite convincingly on screen. From playing the innocent and warm-hearted Sweety Gupta in crime-thriller Mirzapur, the fervent lawyer Kashaf Quaze in critically-acclaimed Guilty Minds to playing a rebellious and brave journalist Radha Bhargava in drama Broken News and many more — she’s proven to be a solid game-changer in OTT space.

Shriya Pilgaonkar
Shriya Pilgaonkar

In 2023, the actress had a heady start having just delivered another winsome performance as a sex worker Madhu in the Disney+Hotstar series Taaza Khabar. The comedy-drama portrays the story of a sanitation worker (Bhuvan Bam) who stumbles upon magical powers which leads to a riveting journey ahead in pursuit of a better living. Shriya particularly stands out for her portrayal of a vivacious and ambitious prostitute who dreams big. She also features as Bhuvan’s love interest and holds his hand in whatever may come. Shriya uncovers a multi-dimensional side of Madhu — she’s not the typical prostitute, who’s lost all the vigour in life, rather Madhu is zesty, cheerful and flamboyant. We speak to Shriya to know more about this character, how it breaks the mould and more. She also candidly takes her through what’s more to life than acting, her love for travel, exploring new lifestyles, staying authentic and more.

As Madhu
As Madhu

Taaza Khabar seems like an offbeat series. It has elements of comedy, drama and magic realism making it a multi-genre tale. What grabbed your interest in the project? 
The magic realism aspect of the storytelling is very refreshing to see in a comedy drama like this. Moreover, compared to the genres that I have done before as seen in Guilty Minds and Broken News which were mainly dramas and thrillers, this was completely different. I was excited that the makers visualised me as a sex worker because it’s extremely important for me to establish my versatility, which happened with this role. What I loved in the web series is how a sanitation worker and a sex worker, who are not seen from a dignified lens in society, have immense respect for one another in their personal life.

What attracted you to Madhu's role?
 I liked Madhu's character right at the script level. We don't see much of her life in a brothel. She has not lost hope for a better life. She has ambitions and even when money comes into her life because of a vardaan (blessing), she uses it to uplift the life of the girls at the brothel. She’s not defined only by the trauma or hardship of being in prostitution. Rather, she has a bubbly nature and reflects optimism. That somewhere was inspiring to me — a sex worker like Madhu wants to turn the situation around and is not always shown in a vulnerable light. While she is empathetic, she is very protective also. She doesn't mince her words and can put people in place if they cross a line with her. On the whole, she's someone who respects herself. The character was new for my audience as it's a little more glamorous, spunky, and bold — something I have never played before.

What do you keep in mind while taking up roles? 
I don't judge the characters that I play. I can't play them if I start judging (smiles). I have to have a certain acceptance and empathy towards them and that is the beauty of being an actor. 

The gamer-changer of OTT
The gamer-changer of OTT

You've worked in many OTT shows. Do you feel the space is pushing the envelope in entertainment by cancelling cliché black and white characters? 
Yes absolutely. OTT gives a free-wheeling playing ground to an actor to develop a character with more nuances. That makes them more layered and humane where there is a spotlight on their flaws as well as grey shades. There is no perfect good or bad role in OTT. There used to be a time in cinema when one character would be a hero and the other a villain but today, the characters are written pensively and are more eclectic. Moreover, the digital platform has opened a lot of opportunities for new-age actors, cinematographers, writers, directors and even technicians to work. It is incredible to see how good writing is finally getting its due worth where we are creating content that is matching the standards of international shows. For me, a show like Guilty Minds was career-defining because of how brilliant the writing was! It gave me the opportunity to create this beautiful character of Kashaf Quaze which otherwise, in a film setup, would not have got that visibility because of less time.

Speaking of content, what do you feel the audience prefers to watch today?
You can't fool the audience today. I think people are recognising good quality content now because the standards have been raised. There is no scope for mediocrity. What most actors like me want with the scripts is it to have a certain relevance and a recall value. 

Keeping it real
Keeping it real

Coming to personal life, tell us how was your life at home in the 90’s Bombay being raised by actor parents.
I am blessed to be born to two incredible artistes. Their experiences are so vast and there’s a lot to learn from them. But we were never a typical filmy family as our conversations would go much beyond cinema. At home, my parents always encouraged me to do what I wanted. Growing up, my focus was only on sports and swimming, but since I had so much art around me to pick on, that gave me ingrained confidence to be on stage. As a result, I used to take part in debates and elocutions at school and college. During my kathak training, my teacher would always tell me that you are very good at abhinaya (drama). That is when I started realising I enjoy performing as an actor. I used to observe how my parents are these multifaceted personalities — my father is a producer, director, actor, singer. That made me feel that there is so much one can do in life. I learnt many skills and it all enriched my experience as an actor. 

You were recently in Bhopal for a shoot and posted about exploring the arts, culture and history of the old city. How does being on the roads feel as a storyteller?
As an actor, pursuing other things in life is as vital and travelling is one of them. It nurtures my soul. When I travel, I meet new people, eat different kinds of food, stay at different locations, and observe new lifestyles — there is so much I can soak in that I can use in acting or storytelling. Travel is not a luxury, it's a necessity for me (laughs). I love the mountains and go there whenever I get a chance (smiles). I look for new experiences that challenge me and at the same time, replenish my soul. Last year, when I went to Australia, I did skydiving for the very first time. Jumping from 15,000 feet high was scary, but also truly enthralling! Putting myself out of my comfort zone boosts my confidence for sure.

Dazzling in ethnic wear
Dazzling in ethnic wear

In an age of instant gratification, you put out your raw and real side on social media. What’s your idea of beauty and happiness? 
I feel that a lot of people spend time today building perceptions.  People can do whatever they want on social media, but I don't spend time ‘overthinking’ on social media in that sense. I don't have a social media team and I post whatever I like to. I keep it authentic and would never give it the power to stress me. If I had been a content creator or an influencer, maybe my approach would have been different because social media is my bread and butter then. But I am an actor who feels comfortable in her own skin and that's what I like to portray.

Talking of social media, you recently wrote ‘actors should not be made to feel that they need a certain following to be considered for projects’. How did that thought come across?
I just generally Tweeted, it but it got a resounding response! It has not happened with me but some of my actor friends talked about how they did not get projects because of a certain following. I understand that social media is important but that should not be a prerequisite to judging someone’s calibre. Moreover, this requirement sends out the wrong message to chase followers more than grooming one's talent. The “following” will happen organically if you put out good work. That's why I always desire my work to speak for me.

Taaza Khabar is streaming on Disney+Hotstar.
Twitter: @ranapriyamvada

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