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Sanjana Sanghi: "Cinema, to a Degree, has Set an Unrealistic Standard of Beauty for Women"

In a candid chat, the actor tells Cosmo Editor Nandini Bhalla about her growing-up years, the power of sisterhood and male gaze in cinema.

In Dil Bechara, Sanjana plays the role of thyroid-cancer patient Kizie, who falls in love with Manny [Sushant Singh Rajput] who has previously battled osteosarcoma. Sanjana’s performance—natural, believable—has been greeted with much enthusiasm. And Kizie’s character stayed with the actor for months after she finished shooting for the film. “I was a 21-year-old, fresh-out-of college graduate when I began prepping for Kizie. I am someone who pours all her energy into the task at hand,” she tells me. “So I had got so deeply into Kizie’s skin that it had become impossible for me to get out. That’s also because I am developing my craft right now. Even though I have been a child actor, and theatre artist and dancer, acting in a full-fledged feature film is a different skill and craft. When I see how Kareena Kapoor Khan can switch on and off, I wish I can get to that place soon, too.” 

“I’m also indulgent,” Sanjana continues, “I like being in the emotional spaces of my character, because that’s an escape. So my friends would say things like, ‘That wasn’t Sanj talking to us’ or ‘That wasn’t Sanj who came on this trip...it was Kizie!’ And I don’t even remember those trips or moments; they are just fading memories in my head because I was in this world of Manny and Kizie in Jamshedpur, both mentally and emotionally.”

Kizie is a character Sanjana brings up often, and with fondness. When we discuss the pressures young girls face to look a certain way, she tells me, “I do feel that cinema, to a degree, has set an unrealistic standard of beauty for women, because for so long, our films have been dominated by the male gaze. Which is why playing Kizie in my debut film was so liberating. She was a girl rid of all frills and expectations of what a girl ‘should’ look like, especially in Hindi films. No blow-dried hair, no make-up, no fancy clothes... She embraced all her conceivable ‘flaws’, and the beauty lay in how she never saw them as ‘flaws’ in the first place!

Sanjana Sanghi

As a little girl, Sanjana was somewhat shy. “I wasn’t an extroverted kid who wanted to perform on stage or made prefect.” Then, when she was six, Sanjana’s mother encouraged her to take up dancing with Ashley Lobo. “For the first few years, I’d cry before every class,” she laughs. “And then, two years in, I would cry if I had to miss class. Dance made me discover so many things about myself!” 

By the time she was in the 6th grade, Sanjana had undergone a transformation...and found herself on the fringe of her future career. She was 13 when Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar happened for her—she played the role of Nargis Fakhri’s sister, Mandy. It was an experience that changed how the young girl saw herself, to a large degree. “At that age, to be thrown into a film like Rockstar was surreal in many ways,” she reveals. “So I’d say Sanjana, until 10, was a very under-confident and introverted and odd kind of girl. And Sanjana, a year or two later, became more confident and thought, ‘I’ll do what I want and stop caring about what people think!’ 

Growing up, Sanjana didn’t have many female friendships, and felt more comfortable around the guys. Then, she received an acceptance from Lady Shri Ram College for Women (LSR)—to study journalism-—and discovered the mighty power in sisterhood. “In college, I was surrounded by smart, strong women—all top performers from different cities. These friendships were built upon similar passions, a common worth ethic and desire to make the world a better place,” she says. “We partnered with each other and supported each other, and ended up doing some incredible things... I truly believe that’s what women should always do, whether it’s at the workplace or in life.” 

Sanjana Sanghi

Her college years were also when Sanjana began volunteering at a local NGO, teaching a group of under-previledged children. “It brought me so much joy, helping children, that I knew I wanted to continue doing this,” she says. “I was made the project head of the programme, and started training other volunteers. And from 50 children, we went to 2,500! Then, I started partnering with organisations to tour the country, and met students to take it to a bigger stage. I’ve been doing this for six years now, and it’s amazing!” 

I ask Sanjana how her friends and family would describe her, and she giggles before answering, “Probably as a disciplinarian. And also prone to being obsessed with whatever she is passionate about at the moment, whether it was academia in school and college or debating or performing!” 

“They give me my space, so there are no tussles anymore,” she continues. “They’re like, ‘If Sanj didn’t answer her phone, she must be doing something worthwhile’. And that, to me, is a testament of their faith in me because sometimes I am not the best friend or the best daughter because I get carried away. I was very selfish throughout our shoot for Dil Bechara. I went AWOL, and nobody could reach me.” 

Sanjana pauses, and then says with a wide smile, “But I’d also like to believe that I’m the heart and soul of their lives...” By the time she was in the 6th grade, Sanjana was more confident...and on the fringe of her future career. At the age of 13, Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar happened, and that changed how the young girl  saw herself. “It had been a tough month up to the launch of Dil Bechara. And when I watched the film on Day 1, I cried through the entire thing.”

Sanjana Sanghi