Sonakshi Sinha on playing an antagonist in 'Heeramandi' and working with Sanjay Leela Bhansali

In an exclusive interview with Cosmopolitan India, the actor talks about starring in Bhansali's very first web series, giving her her career’s first single-take song, her favourite Bhansali film, and more.

29 April, 2024
Sonakshi Sinha on playing an antagonist in 'Heeramandi' and working with Sanjay Leela Bhansali

In the world of Hindi cinema, few directors are able to push actors out of their comfort zone quite like Sanjay Leela Bhansali. The director, known for his grand sets and exquisite costumes, is all set to deliver his very first web series, Heeramandi, a period drama releasing on Netflix on May 1. 

Featuring a power-packed cast with Sonakshi Sinha, Aditi Rao Hydari, Manisha Koirala, Richa Chadha, Sharmin Segal, and Sanjeeda Shaikh, the series is set against the tumultuous backdrop of the Indian freedom struggle of the 1940s. It explores the cultural reality of the Heeramandi district as told through the lens of the courtesans and their patrons.

Sonakshi Sinha, who plays the antagonist, Fareedan, is fuelled by hate, anger, and revenge. And from the looks of it, she is an absolute scene-stealer. In an exclusive interview with Cosmopolitan India, Sinha talks about stepping into the world of Heeramandi, the time she took to get into character, her favourite Bhansali film, and more. 

Cosmopolitan India: An actor always has to believe in the director and their vision. When it comes to Heeramandi, how did you surrender to the world of Sanjay Leela Bhansali?

Sonakshi Sinha: I think I had to. I had no choice. There’s always a part of me in the characters that I’ve played before that I can relate to. There were no such qualities with Fareedan because she’s downright evil. I couldn’t relate to the things she was doing, which is why, I had no choice but to surrender to Sanjay sir’s vision. I’m thankful that he trusted me to play such a character and to be able to emote feelings such as anger, revenge, and hatred. The beauty of him as a director is that he’s able to justify those feelings. She’s (the character) not this person, just for the sake of it. That’s the beauty of how he portrays his female characters on screen. These are the roles an actor craves. Not many take that risk with you, and I’ve never played such a character in my 14-year career. He pushed me to my limits, and I’m so glad to be directed by him and to play this character.

CI: An actor learns a lot from the director that they work with. What did you learn from Sanjay Leela Bhansali during Heermandi?

SS: Sanjay Sir taught me resilience, patience, and the art of true surrender. I say this because this was a set where I had no control over anything. Sonakshi didn’t exist there; it was only Fareedan. I don’t think I’ve played a character where I’ve completely surrendered before. I am a director’s actor and love executing their vision, no matter the genre or scale of the film. My director is my captain, and I will do whatever I can to bring their vision to life. But this was the first of its kind. Sanjay Sir will go to any length to make sure that his vision is carried out. I love the way he encouraged and pushed me as an actor. I do believe that I am a better actor after working with him. 

CI: Do you think the way an actor works or carries themselves is different with different filmmakers? What is it like for an actor to work with Bhansali?

SS: I believe that I’m my own person and can bring something to the table. I don’t believe in being any different on set. I do come in as myself. I become the character when I get my hair, make-up, jewellery, and costumes done. I didn’t have to do much. Once you walk into his world and get into those 20-kilo-heavy costumes and jewellery and sit for hours getting ready, you become that person. That’s how I became the character Fareedan. 

CI: And since we’re talking about carrying yourself, how gruelling was getting ready for the scenes and songs in Heeramandi? You seemed to be having a blast in Tilasmi Bahein.

SS: The entire song is done in one take. It was the very first take. We’d rehearsed for two days, went on set, and were shooting till three in the afternoon. Sanjay Sir then decides to scrap what he’d thought of and shoot the song in a single take. He sat down, started calling all the assistant directors, and made them dance. We thought that we’d start shooting the next day. Till about seven, he saw people dance and realised that we could do certain things with the table and chairs. He told me to sit down in the centre of the couch with people pressing my feet, as I’m the queen of Khwabgah and everyone’s my slave.

I thought it was fantastic, and he’d shoot it in seconds. It was then that he told me that the entire song would be shot in one take. I’d never shot a song in a single take in my 14-year career. I knew that I had to forget who I was and become Fareedan. And that’s what happened when the song started playing. Everyone, including Sanjay Sir, got up and applauded at the end of the take. He was behaving like a child who got a dose of happiness. I’d never seen him like that before. He told me, “You don’t know what you’ve done. You don’t know what you are.” That was the biggest reward for me as an actor. We did a couple of takes after that, but what you see in the song is the very first take. 

No one on the set had to wait for us to arrive, as we used to come early to get ready. I used to take two to two and a half hours to get ready because I had elaborate hair and make-up. I’m very casual and underdressed. I hate dressing up. Here, I have to sit and get decked up with heavy jewellery and shoot for 14–16 hours daily. In the summers, it used to get very hot while five people were holding what you’re wearing during the monsoons. We’ve seen all the seasons during Heeramandi. It was an experience. But for something like this, it’s perfect. 

CI: When it comes to Bhansali’s films, everyone talks about the sets, the costumes, and the performances that are larger than life. But the story always stands out. What about Heeramandi do you love, and think that people will love the most? 

SS: I think it's just the fact that it’s so beautifully woven along with the Independence movement and the courtesans. He’s brought six of these characters to life, and each one of them is fleshed out so well. It’s not like anyone is sidelined. Every one of them contributes to the narrative and takes the story forward. It’s not an easy story to tell. It’s elaborate, and with there being so many characters, he’s made sure that everyone has their part to play. 

CI: Your character, Fareedan, is driven by hate. What do you like and dislike about your character the most?

SS: When it was pitched to me, I jumped out of my seat. I couldn’t believe that someone was giving me the chance to play a villain. It was something I wanted to do for a very long time. Playing Fareedan was very challenging since it was something I'd never done before. Her determination is what I love. She has one goal and will do anything to get it. 

CI: What’s your earliest and fondest memory of Sanjay Leela Bhansali and his films?

SS: My favourite Bhansali film is Khamoshi. It was a beautiful film that captured emotions so beautifully. I've loved Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Black, but Khamoshi will always be my absolute favourite. It’s so cool that I got to share screen space with Manisha Ma’am (Koirala) in Heeramandi, who starred in Khamoshi

Also read: Sonakshi Sinha reflects on playing a courtesan in 'Heeramandi', her career trajectory and more

Also read: "You are so much more than a number on a weighing scale or the size of your outfit" — Sonakshi Sinha