Before my interview with actor, dancer, and now director, Disha Patani, I had gone through all her video outtakes on the tube and was especially fascinated by the ease with which she navigated you through her rather intense ‘back-workout-routine’, without once breaking into a sweat, in her very first upload on the OG of streaming, four years ago. The effortlessness of making deadlifts look as simple as an easy Sunday morning, humbled me into acknowledging the work gone into her enviable ‘body-is-always bodying’ persona and her striking screen presence. Although she has extensively spoken of how exercise for her is therapeutic, the lens of cinema, social media, and news wires pins her down as a girl so comfortable in her skin that she remains resolutely unapologetic about her sartorial choices, despite the relentless trolling.
However, once you get to know her (as I briefly did) you realise she has a zen-like quality which is hard to come by in a hectic ‘always-on-the-go’ world, is experiencing Pandora’s box of life well entrenched in each moment, grateful for everything she has received.
Walking into the studio for our 27th anniversary cover shoot, bare faced, in knee-length basketball shorts and a fitted cropped tank top, no frills attached, a quick overview of selections later—followed by on point hair and make-up by her trusted crew—she turns on her performative charm on set, focused on getting the job done, as effectively as possible. For a girl with no film pedigree, in the eight years she has been in the industry, she has metamorphosed into a self-assured woman who knows what she wants.
Being singularly disciplined had to be then the cornerstone for her steady growth when the Bareilly-born actor decided to make the move from Lucknow to Mumbai—between changing looks, BTS (behind-the scenes mayhem) and her choc-a-bloc schedule, our interview on set was shifted for later—she was a curious mix of cool yet calibrated, giving a quiet cerebral energy I wanted to know better.
Where did Disha get this zeal to handle things on her own in a new city far away from home? Easily, it seems, when you have a father who is a police officer and a mother who is a health inspector. Disha tells me, “My father has always been extremely organised and growing up in this kind of an environment helped me a lot when I moved to Mumbai—being responsible came naturally to me and staying mindful of things like showing up on time made for a strong work ethic which others appreciated.”
Natural progression—digging a little deeper into what a regular day looked like for ten-year-old Disha while growing up...I can sense an incoming smile through the call, a pause later, she says, “You see...I was extremely shy and hated going to school, because I had no friends and would get bullied a lot because of my appearance—I had very short hair, was extremely thin, couldn’t speak, and on top of it, had no confidence in myself. I would eat alone, but my sister who was the popular one at school would come sit with me around lunch time...and honestly, it wasn’t something which was depressing or anything for me because I was fine and would look forward to going back home. Once I’d get back to my place, I would make imaginary games, would love watching anime, paint, sketch, do creative things. Evenings would be reserved for either dancing, playing some sport, and basically, just staying physically active.”
Not the kind of origin story one would expect of someone who is regularly topping the most desirable women index in the country, it turns out Disha never really harboured any dreams of becoming an actor. Growing up, it was her mother who pushed her to do well which academically paid off when she ended up with great grades in class 10th. Although she was very good in physics and math, she never enjoyed biology or botany. When she wasn’t watching Discovery or Nat Geo—fascinated by how electricity was created—she was a keen student of how the universe worked. And while she admits she was never a topper, she made it to engineering college, was a diligent student in the first year, but dropped out in the second year to pursue modelling.
So how and when did this cataclysmic change come about? Disha eloquently breaks it down for me—“Since I was a kid, I found my sister extremely determined and focused when it came to her pursuits, she was also physically and mentally strong...growing up, I saw her being always very independent. And even though I was bullied, I didn’t know I was being bullied at the time...in fact, I didn’t even care about it, and had a very positive outlook so wasn’t affected by it at all. I could keep myself entertained and was happy in my own bubble, doing my own thing. Also, it helped that I was always creative—maybe not amazingly creative...but I always managed to keep myself busy and never felt the need to be a part of a big group to make myself happy...and at some point when I did make friends, I made them for life.” She adds, “On top of that, my mom really encouraged me. She wanted to be an actress and is very beautiful. When she was younger, she was even more so...and I think she always wanted me to be something. This drive didn’t come from me—I wanted to be a scientist or something along those lines. While I was at Lucknow in university, a friend decided to suggest my name for a modelling competition and told me if you win, you will get to go to Mumbai. I lucked out and ended up winning, which brought me to Mumbai. It was funny but interesting for me to realise that while I was very shy and a bit of an introvert in front of the lens, I didn’t feel shy at all...the camera made me feel comfortable. I couldn’t see a human being; I could just see a lens.”
According to French philosopher and political activist, Simone Adolphine Weil, “Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can be obtained only by someone who is detached.” Not far from the truth Disha practices when I ask her about early days as an actor when she made her debut in the Telegu film Loafer (2015) and enraptured everyone with her small, yet meaningful role in M.S.Dhoni—An Untold Story (2016)—did it make her feel like she had a breakthrough moment of belonginess?
Quick to answer, Disha posits, “Honestly, I have never thought like that ever. I have always felt you need to work every day and while you can be great in one film, in another you could be not so great. I don’t indulge myself too much when it comes to the outcome...I really like being in the moment and experiencing things while doing films I truly connect with and maybe that’s why I end up not doing too many films. I really should do more though, but I must love something to sign up for it, otherwise, I can’t do it. When I started off, I didn’t feel any pressure, because I considered it work and was very grateful for the film. And since it was a very small part, I didn’t have any expectations from it...nor did I feel like I was going to be an actress because I just wanted to be able to work. I was very lucky that I got love from people and I got to act. One film though I really loved doing was Kung-Fu Yoga , because I got to work with Jackie Chan. That was quite an experience because I had the chance to be on the set with him...which was truly magical.”
Going by how dedicated she is to her Ninja-ish training we get to see from time-to-time on the gram, I am already imagining her as the Indian version of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider—which is an equally thrilling proposition for Disha on the other end of the line, although she gleefully quips, “You know I would love to do Mission Impossible with Tom Cruise...I absolutely love him! Or even a superhero film...even if it’s a small part, I won’t have a problem.”
For someone who spends so much time working on herself, her staying off-grid when it comes to frequent and intentional networking deserves a slow-clap—telling of a self-assured ‘girl boss’. Plus, Disha is a firm believer of ‘to each their own’. For her, if you are honest towards what you do, remain positive, and believe in yourself then nothing can change your destiny. And while it may take time, as long as you don’t give up, you just need to stay focused and know what you want. She believes it is important to trust yourself enough, explaining, “I remember when my film was coming out, I didn’t even think like I was working, I was just so happy with the whole experience...that was satisfying enough for me. The more pressure you put in, the more difficult things tend to get.”
It’s this good sense she applies to anxiety-ridden moments and remaining calm when the noise seemingly gets too much. She talks about how she wades through it prudently, “I feel like as girls we have a lot of issues which we deal with anyway, and while at a lot of times I can feel things weighing me down, I feel that when it happens it’s because I am losing my focus and sight of my goals. At this point and age, I think more about my life, instead of being here or being there. Things like...am I happy? I do feel very grateful for my friends now who come from all walks of life. One thing I have started doing recently though is I talk about how I am feeling. While before I would keep things bottled up, I am opening up to people I can talk to freely at the end of the day.”
Call it evolution, or journeying along to slowly find who you truly are and want to become, for Disha, this definitive shift in perspective has been major. Finding her purpose came with being fearless in the pursuit of it. This year, something truly shifted after her birthday, or perhaps, it was already in the works as the new year was beginning to unfold and she completely changed. She talks about this transition endearingly, “I have never felt what I feel now...like I feel a lot more in every way. On social media it’s just so easy to judge someone from a distance without understanding their experiences. And this year, I have decided to focus on being true to myself where nothing else matters...good, bad, however people perceive me, it’s okay...I am fine with that. Most of my life, in fact, most of us spend our time trying to be perfect for other people, but at a certain point you need to believe in yourself. Whatever I am doing now, like even directing my own music video—I am doing things...I am taking risks—all this is hundred per cent authentic to me.”
Little did she imagine she would get to direct a music video, a challenge she took head-on when she discussed the concept she had in mind with a dear friend and was encouraged to try her hand at direction. Made sense then to translate thoughts into motion picture with help from her Director of Photography, music label, producer—and as fate would have it—everything fell into place seamlessly. She acknowledges, “At the time I was working on the video, I was going through a lot in my head and I wanted to put out something for girls. The lyrics resonated with me which were about being yourself no matter what the situation. At the end of the day, creating this video also helped me a lot mentally.”
A firm believer in being all-heart, she is no different when it comes to love—an ‘all-in’ kind of a girl who can be extreme in her actions and really goes out of the way for the one she loves—when I nudge her on whether women can truly have it all, she unflinchingly shares, “I feel like for anyone, partnership is as important as having a job...you know they say, yin-yang...you need to have that balance. When you have worked extremely hard, you must come back home to someone, you can become a different person with...in a sense...you become yourself. I don’t think you can only work, or you can only be in a relationship—I feel that you need to have your own life. There’s a very interesting quote that Beyonce said once, “You need to have your own life before you become anyone’s wife”. It’s good to have your independent life where you do your thing and have your partner by your side, supporting you, like a best friend would.”
Still figuring out her creative process as an actor who must adapt to various character arcs as the role demands, while also working with some of the biggest names in the industry, Disha calls herself a director’s actor. She puts it down to her easily adaptable sun sign—Gemini—which compels her mind to be constantly active and demands reinvention.
On a present continuous timeline of staying fearless, purposefully—‘cause isn’t that the only way to evolve?—Disha shares, “I feel like I am getting over my shyness. Today, I am a lot more confident—my younger self had a lot of insecurities—and now, I feel like I am a lot more accepting of myself and others too. There are so many things I want to learn...I want to learn drums...which I started to, but stopped because it was very hard...and felt like I couldn’t fully focus given my schedule, but I want to check that off soon. Also, I want to learn some gymnastic moves for myself, and I want to be part of a superhero movie—that’s been my dream since childhood! Growing up, I used to like Spider-Man and I was a big anime fan. Of course, I watched superhero movies, but I thrived watching anime like Dragon Ball Z or Nardo...which was also extremely inspiring.”
Disha’s honest, no-holds-barred vibe, congruent with the lyrics of her directorial debut Kyun Karu Fikar (Why should I care for what others think anymore?)—a playful and upbeat song I was listening to on loop pre interview, makes it as clear as day that Disha is truly in her ‘Girl, you got this’ era—reiterating before we sign off, “You know one should go after what they want and just do it. Life is too short, so just stay honest to yourself.”
Styling by: Meagan Concessio; Photographs by: Sheldon Santos; Make-up: Séverine Perina; Hair: Humera Shaikh; Photography Assistant: Shivani Goel; Hair Assistant: Rohit Mestry; Make-up Assistant: Shagufta Siddiqui
On Disha Patani:
Look 1 (lead image): Knitted sweatshirt and woven scarf (worn as a skirt), both United Colors of Benetton; earrings, Viange; rings, Misho
Look 2: 222 Chenille Appliqué Bomber Jacket, Kanika Goyal Label; P-ZammyMon pants, Diesel; bralette, Disha’s own
Look 3: Tulle panelled knit top and tweed mini skirt, Keburia
Look 4: Denim jacket, denim skirt, and knit top, all United Colors of Benetton; rings, Anaash; shoes, Charles & Keith
Look 5: Knit skirt and tricot top, both United Colors of Benetton; earrings, Mahesh Notandass Fine Jewellery; rings, Ineze; Espionage Platform Pumps, Steve Madden