Outspoken & Outstanding: Shalini Pandey

She became a household name overnight and truly deserves every bit of success that is coming her way. Meet Shalini Pandey, a powerhouse performer who shot to fame with her super-hit release Arjun Reddy. Extremely proud of the person she is, this actress speaks her mind like a strong woman of today. She has everything that is needed to make it to the top – and definitely could not have asked for a better start. In a conversation with the actress, we discovered that there was a lot more to her than just those 16 kisses she had during the movie – which had been doing the rounds. Read on to know her better…

Text by Anahita Ahuja

Tell us what exactly happened when you were offered your break?

I got a call from a coordinator about someone in Hyderabad wanting to meet me. I am not from this industry and did not know the way about – so to me, it all sounded like a farce. I assumed it to be a fake call and did not give any importance. Then I had a conversation with the director, Sandeep Reddy Vanga, and validated the whole thing. He asked me to come down to Hyderabad to meet him and I did so. Once I was here, even before I heard the script, I was asked to do a look test – they loved the shoot and while doing it, not once did I feel uncomfortable or out of place (as I was an outsider). When Sandeep narrated the script to me, I agreed for it in one shot. The conviction that he spoke with and the story just blew my mind.

Was it his story telling ability or the story that made you say yes?

His faith in it and the story, too. I believe that a bad director can spoil a good story and a good director can make the worst story look amazing. Anyway, I had best of both – a good director and a good story. I was sure he would end up doing justice to the whole thing.

Did you not consult anyone before signing it?

Nope. I did not. No one had a say in this. My folks back home were against me getting into this industry, so there was no one I could have asked,  or wanted to either. As a person, I am incapable of giving and taking advice, I feel one needs to take one’s decisions and evolve as a person. I went with my gut feeling and did not want to end up blaming anyone for the decision, if it went wrong.

I want to do different characters and do justice to each of them as if it is my first and last role.

How long ago was this and how has it been ever since?

Since the day I got the call until now it has been two years. It has been the same! Nothing has changed apart from the fact that now I am a known face.

What do you mean by ‘nothing has changed’?

I have always treated myself like an actress. Even in college, during my engineering days – I considered it to be a movie that I was acting in. I played the role of the lead actress in life’s movie. I told myself that everything around me was a set with a script and would finish soon. That is how I survived my college days! Hence not much has changed internally ever since I started Arjun Reddy. The only change has been in the people around me. Suddenly everyone wants to know me. People who did not want to talk to me earlier are trying to get through to me. And of course, the unconditional love that I am getting from my fans.

What about the fame?

I never wanted to be an actress for the fame or money, I wanted to be an actress because I love the profession. I love the cameras, the feel of being in front of them. I love being a different character and love living different lives. But yes, the love that I am receiving now, is overwhelming.

You are one of those few actresses who have spoken your mind…

I have grown up following the film industry and watching interviews of other actresses. I noticed that everyone wanted to sound politically correct. Whether it made sense or not, or they wanted to or not, they would never voice their opinion. I have always been an opinionated girl – the only difference was, back then I was not quoted and now I am. I do not want to change who I am, this is me and I would rather be honest than be two faced.

But that is not something people digest easily…

Yes, I have been hearing news about myself where I am being accused of suddenly becoming arrogant after a hit – but no, they do not realise that I always had these views – the difference was that they did not hear me back then. This is how I am. But yes, on the other hand I am a rather shy person who does not open up to everyone and I like it that way. I would rather have a few friends who love me for the person I am than have loads of them who like the fake me.

I don’t want to be known as a pretty looking girl, I want to be known as a performer.

How has Arjun Reddy changed you as a person?

I think I have become a lot like Preeti –the character. She is strong and has her head in the right place.

What do you want to be known for?

I am aware and extremely proud of the fact that I am not a conventional looking actress. I don’t want to be known as just a pretty looking girl, I want to be known as a performer. To me, looks are secondary. I like it when people praise my performance and not the way I look.

I speak my mind because I want people to know who I am and what I believe in. I do not want to be sweet or correct, I am imperfect and I am very happy with that. You cannot be pleasing people all the time. I do not judge people, and expect the same from them.

Let us talk about your experience with television…

I really did not do too much television – just one episode on two shows. It was one episode that I did for Crime Patrol and one for Man Main Hai Wishwaas – that too because I had friends who were a part of it and I asked me to do it. I never wanted to do television. I am get bored very easily so living a character on a daily basis is not an option for me.

For someone who does not understand the language, you ended up dubbing for yourself? Why?

I do understand a little bit, but I am extremely shy to speak it. I know I will end up making mistakes and hence try and avoid it. Dubbing was difficult but that was something I insisted I would do myself. We had decided this during our narration only that I would dub for myself.

I wanted everything to be mine and I believe that the voice is the sole of a character – I did not want to give it away to someone else. I mugged up my dialogues – thankfully, I had time to do it so I could. I learnt the right diction as Sandeep was kind enough to send me voice notes of the lines, which I would keep listening to and then replicate – thanks to which I ended up knowing every word’s meaning, pause, stretch and emotion.

The setback of not knowing the language is that you cannot improvise as it is not your language – that was extremely difficult but then, it is done. I did break down in the middle as there was too much pressure, but then nothing comes easy. We ended up shooting the climax on the first day, which has the maximum number of dialogues. It was my first day, where no one knew me and I was under scan – as I not only had to prove to everyone that I could act but also do justice to the character. It was quite difficult.

What is your criteria to select a film?

I do not see who the producer, actor or director is – my main concern is the story and how passionate they are about it. I am looking for a team that is hard working and dedicated. I do not want to just be an eye-candy in a movie. I am looking for something that will give me ample space to perform.

What would be your dream role?

I think every role I do, I will live like it is my dream one. I want to do a lot of different characters and do justice to each of them like it was my first and last role. I have grown up doing theatre and that is what they teach us – to treat every role you play as if it was your dream role. Other than that, I wish I could do a sci-fi role, but in this industry, I feel there is still time for something like that.

What keeps you awake at night?

I am quite nerdy and geeky so I do read a lot. I am also a movie buff, so watch a lot of movies and series. I do not watch series episode wise – it has to be binge watching only. As an actor, I feel I need to be mature to understand the depth of roles and that experience only comes with reading.

Nowadays when I find time, I just sleep!

What are your favourite shows?

I am an all time fan of F.R.I.E.N.D.S. It is perpetually playing in the background if my laptop is around. Out of the newer ones I really like ‘Stranger Things’.

I do not want to change who I am, this is me and I would rather be honest than be two faced.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I do not think there is anything I would tell myself. I am who I am because of whatever has happened to me in the past. Or maybe… I would ask myself not to stress so much and chill a little.

What things in life are still a mystery to you?

Oh! A lot of things. I am very confused in life. Things like the hierarchy of a man and woman – I do not understand. It goes beyond me. Why using words like sex and periods are a taboo – is still a mystery. I am not angry about it. It is just that I do not know why it happens.

Another thing would be why women need to be perfectly waxed all the time? I have hairy arms and legs and that is not a secret. Why should I look perfect all the time? Why are men not expected to? This whole concept of being fair to be beautiful or thin to look nice is alien. Men are allowed to say what they want, but a woman cannot.