Remarkably, the Welsh student gets a part alongside one of India’s heartthrobs and says the UK film industry is still labouring under some terrible illusions…
By Tasha Mathur
HAVING to juggle university assignments while prepping to play the lead in a Bollywood film is not a common situation for a 20-year-old woman living in Britain.
But this is what Banita Sandhu has surreally found herself doing for the past year or so. While the everyday person sees her as an average British student, little do they know that this young woman is about to star as a lead actress in a Bollywood film, alongside – to use Banita’s own words – the ‘Indian Justin Bieber’, Varun Dhawan. The film is out today, and Banita while revising for her final exams, kindly spared some of her time for us as we asked her more about her first steps into Bollywood.
Obsessed with watching television from a young age, Banita always knew she wanted become an actress and moved from Cardiff to London for her degree while still pursuing her love of acting. Her first big break began when her agent suggested a Vodafone advert in Malaysia but Sandhu accepted it with careful consideration, “I was a bit reluctant at first because it would mean I would get categorised as a model and I didn’t want to become known as the model turned actress. But at the end of the day, when you’re a student and had the opportunity to travel and work with such a cool team, it made complete sense.”
Banita’s passion for acting shone through as it led to starring in a Wrigleys advert directed by Shoojit Sircar and eventually walking away with the lead role of Shiuli in ‘October’. And this time, Banita didn’t hesitate, “I pretty much signed this film blindly. I didn’t even know my character’s name and had a very brief outline of the plot. All I knew was that Shoojit Sircar was directing and Juhi was writing. That’s all I needed. It was a gut feeling that I had to do this.”
Despite spending little time in India, not speaking a word of Hindi and finishing her final year of university, an undeterred and determined Banita, began preparing for her role whilst all the way in the UK, “I’m not allowed to reveal too much but there’s a part to my role that’s incredibly challenging and it’s something Bollywood has never seen before. So we had to get it right. We did about three-months prep while I was still in London. I would record myself and send it to Shoojit sir and he’ll say ‘okay change this, do this’.”
Banita’s story sounds like a movie in itself, with this opportunity potentially changing the course of her life. But it seems October has already changed Banita’s life in more ways than one, particularly when connecting with her character, Shiuli.
“Playing Shiuli honestly made me a better person,” Banita explained. “She’s so centred, focused, mature and strong. She’s not frivolous and much wiser than her years. I was given Shiuli at a time in my life where I was 18 and dealing with teenage angst. I had university, I had this film and I was riddled with anxiety. So to be given a character who’s so self-assured and stable required a lot of work as I had to really calm down. I had to do a lot of meditation to prepare for this role and I honestly have become a stronger person because of it.”
Asking Banita of her prospects in the UK, led to an in-depth discussion on British television. With many British Asians making their mark abroad (Riz Ahmed and Archie Panjabi to name just two) – are we getting representation right on our UK screens?
“As much as I love British television, I think casting agents and directors need to understand the difference between diversity and representation. A lot of the roles here are so stereotypical that I didn’t even want to go to the casting. It was arranged marriage or an Asian girl who has to come out to her very backward mother that she was a lesbian. This is not the lived experience of British Asians in this day and age. I feel like the stereotype that’s being perpetuated is so out dated. A reason why I went to India is because they were offering me great roles that I wasn’t being offered here. They weren’t even available here.
“I grew up in a predominately white society and I struggled with my culture a lot. I hated my skin colour and I wished I was the blonde girl that all the boys liked. I do think it’s because I never saw anyone on screen who looked like me. I look back at all the time I wasted hating my culture and hating my skin colour. I’m so grateful for these opportunities given to me because I could not be prouder of my heritage and culture now. I love to show off that I’m Indian rather than try to hide behind this British façade. I really hope that October reaches an international audience so young British Asian girls or boys can watch me or Varun and say, ‘Oh my god, I’m just like them’.”
“Bollywood is changing thanks to filmmakers just as Shoojit Sircar or Amir Khan. And it’s so great in this digital age where borders are dissolving through social media. Language is no longer a barrier. So, I think it’s about time that Hindi cinema gets recognised as well. It would be great to showcase it internationally and be proud of it.”
Banita has clearly come to a reconciliation within herself. How can others do the same? She puts it simply,
“People don’t have to choose between a British or Indian side. Because we’re both. We are very much immersed in the British culture and I’m so proud to be British but I’m also never going to deny my Indian heritage. We don’t have to deny one or the other to fit in. I just hope that NRIs (non-residential Indians) around the world feel more accepted in the community with the way cinema is moving right now. I hope that’s what happens.”
October is out on general release worldwide today