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Had the good fortune of playing interesting characters on screen: Shalini Vatsa

The actress opened up about her latest film Ludo (2020), completing a decade in cinema, and learning from theatre artistes Habib Tanvir and Barry John.

Sonal Pandya

One of the most entertaining subplots in Anurag Basu’s Ludo (2020) is the story of Pankaj Tripathi’s unpredictable don Sattu Bhaiya and Shalini Vatsa’s Latha Kutty, the nurse who is assigned to him. The pair are well matched as they venture out, in Latha’s case unknowingly, to find those who have stolen money from Sattu Bhaiya.

Vatsa, who has worked with eminent theatre artistes Habib Tanvir and Barry John, spoke of the serendipitous way her career has shaped up, allowing her to explore some distinct characters on stage and on the screen. In a telephone conversation, the actress spoke about working with Anurag Basu and Pankaj Tripathi on Ludo, her journey so far in cinema and her experiences with Tanvir and John.

“It was a delightful experience working with Anurag Basu,” Vatsa shared. “Even working with Pankaj is a very assuring experience. He’s kind of a relaxed actor himself and keeps everything relaxed on set. He’s a very warm affectionate person.”

Tripathi and Vatsa had earlier worked together in the dark family drama Gurgaon (2017). “[That was] a different kind of a story altogether, a different kind of a relationship. But both the times, working with him [has been] absolutely easy. He himself brings so much to the table to play with,” she said, calling Tripathi a generous and supportive co-actor.

For Ludo, Vatsa had to learn Malayalam from scratch. Luckily she said there was a lot of help on the set, even if she wasn’t sure if she was saying the correct words.

“I worked on it, to get the pronunciation, the enunciation, [and] accent right. I also troubled some of my Malayalam-speaking friends to hear me out and to help me phonetically. Of course, that work had to go in,” she said.

Ludo (2020)

Vatsa’s first role on the big screen was with Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli Live (2010) where she played the wife of a debt-ridden farmer who plans on dying by suicide. Since then, she has acted in Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai (2012), Hansal Mehta’s National Award-winning Shahid (2013), and been a part of the popular Netflix web-series Sacred Games as Kanta Bai, the business partner of Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui).

“I feel it’s been quite a terrific journey,” she recalled. “When I look back now, I have worked with some of our best filmmakers, with some very interesting women to portray onscreen, and with a lot of appreciation from the audience. And these three things [have come] together slowly and steadily. One can’t chalk out and plan these things, they’ve happened wonderfully,” she said.

“I’ve had the good fortune to [have] the opportunity to play some very interesting women characters on screen. A big difference has been made by the fact the filmmakers who have been making these films and the writers who have written these characters,” she added.
Vatsa’s career began in school doing professional theatre in Patna, Bihar, and she continued in college and university with drama clubs and societies.

“Then also I had the opportunity to interact with the best in the country [in workshops with] Baba Karanth and Gursharan Singh from Punjab. There were some very exciting interactions. After that, I started working on [the] Delhi stage and in theatre groups, with Act One and Asmita. And in between, I went to Barry [John] and that is an association which has continued almost till date. I’m constantly in touch with him, sharing what’s going on,” she said.

Shahid (2013)

The actress was also a part of John’s Imago Theatre Group which performed a trilogy that comprised It’s All About Money Honey, It’s All About God Honey, and It’s All About Sex Honey.

“The writing is the writer and the director’s voice, so it started out with that discussion, and then it came down to what as we as a group of actors wanted to say, what is our voice,” Vatsa explained. From there we devised three plays, which we wanted to do as actors. That was quite an extraordinary experience, working in that environment for almost five years. Every single day. He’s such a fine teacher and a director, and his commitment to the craft and integrity are so tremendous. But the work with him is extremely relaxed and so much fun.”

“Then I worked with Habib [Tanvir] saab, and it’s a repertory so there are older productions like Charandas Chor, a play called Kaamdev Ka Apna Basant Ritu Ka Sapna based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Agra Bazaar, Zehrili Hawa on [the] Bhopal gas tragedy and Raj Rath which is based on Rabindranath Tagore’s works,” she continued. “He picked me up and I got to be part of all these iconic productions, with his actors were so terrific. They were like gods of acting, these folk actors and the tribal performances. That was again, like a terrific experience. I really feel I’ve been so blessed to have worked with both these masters, who seem to have come from two different worlds. But I have always felt that they say exactly the same things about the craft, about theatre, about acting. Their commitment and integrity are extraordinary.”

Both Tanvir and John shaped her as an actress tremendously, and Vatsa said she was very blessed to have those interactions with them.

“I always knew since I acted for the first time that I always wanted to act,” she stated. “But I was never thinking of doing films per se. Films seemed very far away. It was another world.”

In 2020, with lockdown firmly in place due to the coronavirus pandemic, Vatsa’s routine saw a change, but it allowed her to time to reflect on some old literature and catch up on plenty of films and series she didn’t have time for before.

“When it started, I was like everyone else: very lost, confused and scared,” she said. “Everything had to be sorted out, how to get your supplies, to sanitize yourself, a couple of months just went by figuring those things out and to keep oneself and one’s family safe.”

“All of us found a daily rhythm, and then I slowly settled down, then I got to reading some stuff which I thought I should [revisit], things I had read back in school, college and university. I got to watch some content on OTT which I had not seen forever, like House of Cards, the BBC production on Amazon [Prime], McMafia and The Crown,” she added.

Vatsa has also been doing some improvisational work online with some artistes before she eventually heads back to acting. “We’re all trying to figure out how to maintain that normalcy,” she said. “Somehow to bring it back into life, and all of us have stopped and reflected on things, in our personal lives and in the world, which we had not done earlier.”

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Indian cinema