Thank you for casting Bhumi Pednekar in roles that are a far cry from her real, urban self
Role Call: Bhumi Pednekar is that rare actor who lends even more conviction to her non-glamorous, tier-2 city characters than she does to her real self.
There are some actors who find themselves in the characters they play on screen. They breathe life into them in such a way that their real selves get dwarfed in comparison. Bhumi Pednekar is one of those rare actors. Within the span of a year, she's gone from the glamorous Delhi girl, that she admits is closest to her IRL, in Thank You For Coming, to the de-glam, relentless Patna reporter in Bhakshak. And I would pay good money to watch her in the latter than in the former.
No thanks for coming?
Bhumi has referred to Karan Boolani's sex comedy from last year, Thank You For Coming, as a “massive therapy session.” She said it was a part closest to her with conflicts very similar to the ones she wrestles with in real life. And that it was far more vulnerable to play her than the de-glam parts she's championed throughout her career. “There was no padding, no layers to shield me. I felt very naked,” she said.
But maybe Bhumi is an actor who doesn't operate as well on vulnerability. Maybe she needs the ‘padding’ to deliver more felt performances. Contrary to her claim, I doubt I didn't enjoy her act in Thank You For Coming because of how she was dressed. Maybe it was the male gaze, maybe it was the awkward comic timing, but Thank You For Coming felt like a misfire because Bhumi was playing it up, when all she needed was her usual toolbox to convey her character's angst.
By ‘awkward,’ I don't imply the theme of the movie. Because we've seen her ace that part of Kajal Yadav in Alankrita Srivastava's 2020 Netflix India film Dolly Kitty Aur Wo Chamakte Sitare. She played a rural Bihar girl who moves to Noida and joins a late-night call centre under the name of ‘Kitty.’ Like Thank You For Coming, the film is also about a girl's journey to sexual empowerment. But the expression we see on Bhumi's face when she's having sex for the first time with Vikrant Massey's Pradeep says everything that two hours of self-pitying physical comedy in the other film couldn't: that a girl doesn't need a man to make her life sexually fulfilling.
Similarly, maybe Bhumi shouldn't attribute Thank You For Coming's failure to its wardrobe. Maybe it's her first time, and she needs another opportunity to hit the spot. If she needs to take cues from another actor who made gold of taking late-night calls on screen, she should see how Vidya Balan's career took off. Having made her debut as the ideal sari-draping Bhartiya Nari in Pradeep Sarkar's Parineeta (2005), Vidya was shamed mercilessly for her Western fashion choices in subsequent films like Hey Babyy (2007) and Kismat Connection (2008). But she turned the flak on its head by locating her own sweet spot and owning both her Indianness and sensuality in hits like The Dirty Picture and Tumhari Sulu.
It's true that even in two other films where Bhumi explored a similar glamorous, comic part, even if not as upscale urban, her attempts haven't been lauded as much. In Abhay Chopra's Pati Patni Aur Woh (2019) and Shashank Khaitan's Govinda Naam Mera (2022), Bhumi has upped her oomph factor and also flirted with comedy. Yet she doesn't seem as much at peace with herself in those parts. Maybe, by doing those roles, Bhumi is ironically trying to be something she is not. Ironically, because, that's exactly what an actor is supposed to be doing.
Dum Laga Ke Haisha effect?
Bhumi made her debut in 2015 as Sandhya in Sharat Kataria's Haridwar rom-com Dum Laga Ke Haisha, where she played a plus-sized, highly educated woman who marries a lanky shop owner Prem (Ayushmann Khurrana). No surprise that Bhumi was considered to be of that size outside of the film as well, just like Ranveer Singh was deemed to be a Dilli ka launda when the Bandra boy was introduced as Bittu Sharma in the 2010 hit Band Baaja Baaraat. Needless to say, people were taken aback to see him mouth impeccable English on Koffee with Karan and witness a lean, fit Bhumi accept the debutante award on stage.
Similarly, Richa Chadha, who made her debut with Dibakar Banerjee's Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008), got a commercial breakthrough as an old village woman in Anurag Kashyap's Gangs of Wasseypur (2010). When she was at an award show to receive a debutante award next year, a producer talked to her in Hindi, assuming the Stephanian wouldn't be well-versed in English. Stereotyping isn't new to Hindi cinema, especially if you start off in a role that's far removed from you.
Bhumi maintains she enjoys dressing up, even though her characters may have a more modest way to go about it. But I feel it's a good problem, if the same people who wouldn't watch her interviews because of either her myth-breaking ‘ultra-glam’ appearance or her upscale Juhu-infested accent, would actually pay for tickets to her movies where she's not playing herself, or a closer version of that. Like what Janhvi Kapoor said to be her epiphany: her 23.6M Instagram followers may ‘like’ her dolled-up pictures, but won't pay ₹200 to see her freeze herself to death in Mili (2022).
I reckon it must hurt terribly to be not accepted as who they are: a 34-year-old privileged Mumbai girl who loves to dress up for the red carpet. But does that take us away from unseeing her as a wife whose silent hurt makes her husband build a washroom for her in their village in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017)? Or not feeling for her when she desperately tries to seduce her fiancé who's battling erectile dysfunction in Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (2017)? Or make us less vengeful for her when she's relegated to the sidelines by her employer-cum-sexual partner because of her social status in Lust Stories (2018)?
Hell, she can pull off playing a gold medal-winning senior citizen shooter in Saand Ki Aaankh as convincingly as a lesbian physical education teacher from Dehradun in Badhaai Do (2022). If she's celebrated for parts devoid of vanity, such as Sonchiriya (2019), Bheed (2023), and Afwaah (2023), and overlooked for a singular character she felt most home at, it's not a bad deal. Maybe Bhumi Pednekar is still that casting assistant to Shanoo Sharma who would make auditions of actors like Ranveer Singh better.
Maybe Bhumi is that actor on whom all those auditions and rooted characters have rubbed off so much that she can't go back to owning herself completely. Maybe it's not as much to do with the audience's gaze as it's to do with her losing herself in women she isn't. If Thank You For Coming would've successfully altered audience's perception of her, they wouldn't have gone back to heaping praises on her for the recent role of a Bihari independent journalist in Bhakshak. Maybe Bhumi should not try so hard to find herself in the parts she plays, instead she should continue to lose herself in them.
In Role Call, Devansh Sharma decodes inspired casting choices in films and shows.
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