On a role: Fatima Sana Sheikh gears up to play Indira Gandhi in 'Sam Bahadur'

To understand the political leader’s journey and get her mannerisms right, the actor read up about her, and watched footage and interviews.
Actress Fatima Sana Shaikh (Photo | Fatima Sana Shaikh, Instagram)
Actress Fatima Sana Shaikh (Photo | Fatima Sana Shaikh, Instagram)

Actor Fatima Sana Shaikh packed a punch with her first film, Dangal (2016), as Olympic wrestler Geeta Phogat. But what followed was nearly a knockout, one that taught her a lesson of a lifetime: an actor is only as good as their last film.

“I had one of the biggest hits (Dangal) and also flop (Thugs of Hindustan) in a span of just two years. That is when I realised how the perception about an actor changes,” says Fatima. Five years and five projects later, she finally seems to have turned the cards in her favour. Her next outing is Meghna Gulzar’s Sam Bahadur, a biopic of Sam Maneckshaw, India’s first field marshal. 

Fatima will be essaying the role of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.“I was not even sure if I was the right fit. My brief was not to emulate Mrs Gandhi, but to capture her soul,” she says. To understand the political leader’s journey and get her mannerisms right, the actor read up about her, and watched footage and interviews.

“She grew up in a politically charged environment. I tried to imagine the burden of expectations she must have felt as Nehru’s daughter. She had seen conflict throughout her life, so to be the strong woman who ran the country was incredible. She proved that you didn’t have to behave or talk like a man to command respect.” Sam Bahadur, which will feature actor Vicky Kaushal in the titular role, will hit the theatres in December.  

While the 31-year-old is all praise for her co-actors Vicky and Sanya Malhotra (with whom she is reuniting with after Dangal and Ludo), it is Meghna’s filmmaking that left an indelible imprint on her mind. “It was both exciting and unnerving to work with her. She is extremely sure of herself, and exudes a kind of confidence and inherent intelligence that is not usual. When the captain of the ship is self-assured, it puts everyone else at ease,” says Fatima, who recently appeared in the film, Dhak Dhak, alongside Ratna Pathak Shah, Dia Mirza and Sanjana Sanghi.

The October release told the empowering story of four women who rediscover themselves on a  motorcycle road trip. Fatima’s role was Playing Sky, a travel blogger and influencer trapped in the vicious web of content creation and social media validation.

“There is so much that the youngsters want to do, and it is overwhelming to keep up when everything around them is changing so swiftly. It is a challenge to find yourself when you are under the constant pressure to be someone else,” admits the actor, who began her journey as a child artiste in films such as Ishq and Chachi 420. Despite its strong message, Dhak Dhak did not set the box office ringing, but she is not deterred. 

“It’s important to keep telling these stories, and slowly there will be change,” she adds. Dhak Dhak was Fatima’s first theatrical release in five years. During this time, the actor made good use of the OTT revolution with projects in which she played well-arced, nuanced roles.

In the dark comedy Ludo (2020), she played a young mother; in the Netflix anthology Ajeeb Daastaans (2021), she transformed into a woman trapped in a loveless marriage; in Thar, she was the tortured wife, who finally has her revenge; and in Modern Love: Mumbai, she, in a way, played herself—a Kashmiri girl, who is on a journey to fulfil her dreams. About choosing her parts, she says, “Layered characters challenge me. I am subconsciously drawn to them.” And, who can be more complex than her next muse, Indira Gandhi? 

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The New Indian Express