The last time I spoke to Athiya Shetty was more than two years ago...which now feels like a different time, a different world, a different dimension. And battling a pandemic is just one of the things that has changed between then and now. At that time, Athiya was coming into her own as an actor...but as an individual, she knew exactly what she wanted and how she wanted it. We discussed everything from her being a staunch feminist to social media, and even her career path...
This time round, though, on the outside, Athiya seems like the same person she was before. But on the inside, something has shifted. The best analogy I can conjure up is that she’s like a kettle: she seems warm and steady on the surface, but there is a bubbling storm underneath. “I am definitely more aware of the voice I have, and I feel more confident and comfortable in my skin... Like, I don’t seek anyone’s validation anymore,” she tells me. “When I started out, social media wasn’t as big, and it definitely wasn’t this important. Today, there’s so much hate and negativity on the Internet, but back then, it didn’t reach us because we weren’t as accessible. But I know now that it’s important to understand what’s important to you. And, for me, it’s knowing that I am a good person and that I have been able to help people in any way possible,” Athiya explains. I tell her that this fire in her veins is definitely a new look...one that suits her! “I just want to be true to myself and ensure that I have a positive voice...and that it is heard.”
The lockdown has been a transformative period for Athiya. “In the beginning, I was very conscious about using this time wisely. But soon, I realised that every day is a different day. Like, some mornings, I used to wake up with immense anxiety because I just didn’t know what was going to happen...we have no control over the future. And, as human beings, that is such a scary thought because we’re always planning ahead. So the past few months have been a roller coaster of emotions. I feel like I have really grown as a person, and my outlook on life has changed, too. Remembering and reminding yourself that each day counts is so important... It makes you realise how grateful you are to have a home and have food on the table every single day,” she says.
As Athiya discusses the unexpectedness of life, the 27-year-old reveals why she gravitates towards—and craves—the simple life. It is relevant to note that she grew up with a celebrity father [actor Suniel Shetty], and is part of the Bollywood frat herself. The reason, she tells me, is because very early in life Athiya was sensitised to certain causes her grandmother strived hard for, through her NGO, Save the Children. “My grandmother ran the NGO and she also started a school, which is bang opposite where I went to school. After she passed away, my mom took over. And I’ve been very, very attached to the NGO ever since I was young... The school is for children with cognitive and hearing disabilities. And through the NGO, we raise money for their surgery—it’s called a cochlear implant—which can give them a sense of sound,” she says. Being around the same age, Athiya spent a lot of time with those children and realised early on that “they were different. But I also knew that they were special in a way that we weren’t; blessed in a way we weren’t”.
At the NGO, Athiya also worked very closely with young girls rescued from human trafficking. “We help them build a life because when you come out of a situation like that, you’re so scared...and scarred. It’s important to make them understand that they don’t need a man to be able to support themselves, and how important it is to be independent. So yeah, I’ve been doing that since I was like seven or eight years old,” she shares.
As a little girl, Athiya soaked in the tragic experiences that the NGO’s young girls and women faced, and she admits they had an emotional impact on her young mind. “You know, I did my 10th grade paper on these little girls...and I went to a lot of red light districts with my grandmother to research for it. It didn’t feel normal, obviously,” she says. “I remember being acutely aware that this is something that happens all around the world. But my grandmother also made it a point to explain to me that this doesn’t happen everywhere or to everyone...”
“Sometimes, it felt like living in two extreme worlds. Like, I would go home from school, and then I would meet these girls who were suffering. And they are two completely different worlds,” Athiya adds. Did her experience at the NGO change how she viewed men, I ask, somewhat hesitantly... “No, it didn’t,” Athiya replies. “Some of the best role models I have had growing up have been men. My late grandfather is actually my greatest role model because he always encouraged me to work and stressed on how important it is for a girl to be independent. There was no chance of me ever looking at men in a negative light because of him, and my father, even my brother...who are all feminists. And growing up in such an environment is empowering,” she explains.