Actress Mita Vashisht on nepotism, discrimination, lost opportunities and her nervous breakdown

In an explosive interview with Subhash K Jha versatile actress Mita Vashisht talks about nepotism, siscrimination, lost opportunities and how the film industry caused her nervous breakdown

Photo courtesy- Ashok Salian
Photo courtesy- Ashok Salian

Subhash K Jha

It is such a pleasure to see you back in a meaty multi-shaded role in ‘Your Honor’. What made you take up this role?

Thank you so much Subhashji, words of praise coming from you mean a lot...I remember you as being already one of the revered film journalists from the time when I entered films as a young actress and cinema was a 35mm medium. About ‘Your Honor’-- You said it actually … “Meaty and multi-shaded role”. Yes, the cop Kiran Sekhon’s role is that. It has plenty of possibilities and many more that I knew I would find as I went along, shooting for it, when in front of camera..

The other positives that helped me to say yes immediately to the role, was that it was an Applause Entertainment project, and the production house was Sphere Origins (I had had an experience of them as producers with a TV show a few years prior and I liked them—they’re among the good people to deal with in the industry) Then there was Ishan Trivedi as the writer for adaptation so you know you’re going to get a good adaptation.The rest of the team (director E-Niwas, and the wonderful co actors) was revealed by and by, but it wasn’t a surprise---because you already know given the producers that they will get the best people…

Where were you all these years ? Why would an actor of your caliber go missing for so many years?

I was around actually …but not getting anything that would put me out there (except perhaps in the theatre)

Roles that in films like ‘Rahasya’, ‘Mujhse Fraandship Karoge’(YRF) and some roles on TV. …

Off and on over the last few years I would pause and in my daily routines and do a hisaab-kitaab of my screen roles (film and TV): and I was well aware that I had done nothing worthwhile, in the last ten years, nothing that did any justice to my talent. Even though I would give each role my best…and even if there was a financial crunch I would still turn down roles that I knew would simply weary my soul and my mind .I reminded myself of what I had proclaimed at the peak of my success as a young actress that ‘I would rather take up a job to repair cars in a garage than to do acting work that did not excite me’.

Your early performances in Mani Kaul’s Siddeshwari, Kumar Shahane’s Khayal Gatha and Kumar Shahane’s Kasba are still vivid in my mind

I am actually not meant for supporting roles. I’ve always been offered and played the lead from day one --- apart from the fact that I feel at home in a lead role --- the lead actress or actors attitude kind of creates an atmosphere for the entire unit---when I am in the lead I know the atmosphere is very easy on sets because I am not interested in anything except performance and the better my co- actor the better is my performance. The actor’s arena is a sacred space for me. I get uneasy when I see it become a space of ‘stardom’ and it’s allied hierarchies. The industry really protects its lead players--- especially when stars are in the lead.

Tell me about your experiences in this matter?

I knew if I’m not in a lead my best moments will be chopped off. Govind Nihalani’s ‘Drishti’ and a few other films being the exception where the director is very sure and very sensitive, Yes, even Mahesh Bhatt put his foot down during Ghulam and did not allow Aamir Khan to dictate a particular moment in my performance. He just ignored Aamir’s objection to something I did in a shot we had together by saying, “Ya ya I saw it---I don’t know what she did, but it was beautiful. okay next shot.” and he simply walked off to set up for the next shot. Directors like these make you feel ‘yes there is a God who protects acting moments’ But it is not always about protecting performances, it is sometimes about conventional thinking on the part of the director and editor---- like sad means tears, happy means laughter---so if I laughed what could be termed a sad, ironic laugh and the director says but you can’t laugh, you’re sad --- I know that moment has already gone into the dustbin (in today’s terms ‘into the delete bin’)

The lack of depth in the process of filmmaking put you off?

Some three four years ago I found myself telling God---‘Listen Dear God, if you have blessed me with a talent that I felt keenly enough as a 19-year old to make it my life path and if it is indeed phenomenal as everyone said, it’s your responsibility to give me the roles..YOU give me the roles…’But you know, something in you tells you also that maybe 2+2 isn’t how it adds up to 4. So leave it to HIM. You do what you have to DO. Like maybe I needed to find joy without the help of success, maybe I needed to figure out how to celebrate other people’s success, and be really peaceful in a deep way.The actor’s being is meant to travel the spiritual path of the Self---it is the only way you can continue to be an actor. Patience, acceptance --- giving up the Ego, and learning to grow and grow and grow…. So when I often would tell people not to cast me in lesser roles …you know a director or producer will say ‘I know Mam the role is not great but you will make it great that is why we want you--- such a really stupid logic actually, it wasn’t out of an Egotistic reason----because objectively speaking, I know now (from years of experience) that it’s going to be something we will both regret…I tell them ‘unless it has real meat, (the role), don’t cast me, because later you will be spending your time on the editing table chopping away at this role to ensure it is not overpowering, (because over-power it will)--so it’s not a win-win for either of us…

So the roles coming your way didn’t excite you?

I have been with the performance of my solo theatre performance ‘Lal Ded’, it’s a 60 minute theatre performance, which is in its 16th year of performance now, in which I am on a bare stage and I perform/ present nine characters in the course of the narrative. I played the lead in another play ‘Agnipankh’ which is available on Tata Sky zee theatre. Years before that acted in one play ‘August Osage County’. Theatre has given me some great evenings on stage and plenty of ‘no idle time’.The year before last was a sudden time of good work and accolades happening

One for the webseries Criminal Justice Season 1 a lot of people from the very highend law fraternity actually complimented me for getting them spot on. ‘How did you crack it so well…did you go and observe Indira Jaisingh in court’? they asked.Then there is an art house film called ‘Kasai’ in which I play the lead that has been garnering quite a few acting awards for me…

And now the webseries ‘Your Honor’.

From your stunning performance in Siddheshwari and Kasba to Your Honour it has been quite a journey for you. Do you look back with pride and satisfaction?

Ahhhh yes! The golden years of those fabulous films. I dwelt for a long time in sheer nostalgia of that time of magic: of being a young actress and coveted and so very very celebrated and having the best of films and tv roles with such varied and brilliant directors, each a phenomenon in himself…and the joy of performance—it was so profound and yet so simple---I was truly blessed… it was like the Universe had come together..Much later in my ‘nothing great happening phase” I actually got conned into doing a really stupid role in a really stupid commercial film, an Amitabh Bachchan starrer called Alladin because Shujoy Ghosh, the director told me how much he had loved the film ‘Siddheshwari’ and me in it. I couldn’t believe the crap I had landed myself in once shooting actually began. He went on to make some celebrated film with Vidya Balan, but I would still dunk him in the sea if I could. The roles that come my way are truly a blessing I believe, my performances being celebrated is the responsibility I have to nurture and do justice to the gift that God gave me. HE could have given made me a scientist but HE chose to make me an actress)---so I cannot take pride in these two things.

So do you look back without rancour?

My greatest pride and satisfaction when I look back is that I stayed on the straight and narrow, that nothing and no one could tempt me to go against my grain, that pride always came to my rescue and that even as a very young actress I had a deep and healthy disrespect for authority, I could admire enormously what you do as a director, or a creative person, but inside me sits another person who watches and observes constantly, what kind of a person you are, (it watches even me for that matter). So the subtext of my inner voice always was ‘you meet me at soul level, that is the only equation we can have—there can’t be another’ (not these exact words but it amounted to that….) So this allowed me to be really independent in relationship to my work, and in life it allowed me some deep friendships with some amazing people in the film industry, on an equal footing and for no ‘work reason’. In later years, it allowed me to continue being an actress and to not be scared of the lines appearing on my face. I have had a truly hilarious encounter with a lady doctor who got very nasty when I refused to allow her to sell me botox for my face--- I told her ‘God has given me these lines you know, you really cannot do better than HIM. ‘I’ll make you look 27 again’ she said--- I said sorry, no longer 27 years of age—been there, done that, life is meant to move on you know, not stay frozen in time.She then said something really nasty about my not getting roles, and I laughed and I felt really sorry for her---and she’s a big name by the way.

God bless her mind that’s stuck in her botox..The OTT platform seems to have opened up and entirely new avenue of expression for brilliant actors like you. Do you feel rejuvenated and reinvigorated on this platform.

Thank you for the “brilliant actors like you”... Yes, with OTT I feel blessed! Blessed and grateful for being given this space to expand, to be able to FLOW… become the river again–I am an actress, it’s a path! --- it’s like a river is meant to flow, it’s not meant to be a pond, if it can’t be a pond, it changes course but it flows…As an actress I am meant to be the river---always new, flowing, moving over, and into and through unknown terrains, creating by flowing, a space of nurture for the human spirit..OTT demands excellence in creativity ---for everyone involved---it’s a return to the Spirit, to the joy of expansion of that Spirit. I hope it fulfills it’s raison’d etre and doesn’t go the way tv went,

Have you been a victim of gender discrimination?

Gender discrimination is a part and parcel of every industry. But yes, it is more pronounced in the film industry. Even if the male actor is much younger and far less accomplished than you, he gets more prominence. It can be in terms of the facility. In a film called Agnipankh I was the main lead. But the male actors got the better facilities. It’s the way things are in the industry and you have to accept it. A lot of the discrimination in the film industry is hierarchical . If you are a newcomer you get neglected. But if you are a star-kid it’s another matter. I remember I was talking to a senior journalist at an awards function. He was raving about my performances in Siddeshwari and Kasba when he saw Kajol enter the room. He simply abandoned our conversation.In those days journalists were far more important to cinema than they are today. For someone of his seniority to ignore a reputed actress and kowtow to a star ckid who didn’t even have have a release back then, was strange. But then I never took the film industry that seriously to let these things affect me.

And yet you did outstanding work?

I think I’ve been really lucky with my roles. I got to give my best to Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahane, Govind Nihalani, Shyam Benegal..It was funny but sometimes I would feel so special because one of these director would tell me, ‘You talk more about other directors than me’. I’d say, ‘I’ve done only two films with you and 5 with him. Do 3 more with me then you will be on a par.’ It was all in good humour…I think I’ve loved all my roles. They’ve allowed me to live so many lives.Some of my best television work is now being revived during lockdown and audiences are going pretty crazy over them . I remember how busy I used to be in the 1990s. One day Shyam Benegal was dropping me from Film City to the nearest autorickshaw stand to reach my PG digs. I grumbled that I don’t even get Sunday off. He looked at me for a long time and said, ‘You don’t know how lucky you are to be working all the time.’I realized what he meant some years later.

But the job opportunities dried up after you worked with all the best?

I worked with the most powerful directors including Mahesh Bhatt who directed some of my most powerful scenes in Ghulam before Vikram Bhatt took over. Subhash Ghaiji also is a good director but he has this cute little ego which I’d keep puncturing. Then there was the iconic Mani Ratnam with whom I did Dil Se. It was like an avatar of God had descended to earth in Bollywood. I also did my one and only music video Mann Ke Manjeere. It was Shoojit Sircar’s first venture.I’ve lived amazing characters. I have loved all my characters including the one in Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki.A lot of inputs came from producer Ekta Kapoor. I always gave my best , even to what people considered to be trashy content. If I had to be trashy I’d be the best trash.

How did you prepare for your role in Your Honor?

I don’t over-think my characters. Of course I did my research. When I saw the original I decided my cop’s character could not be like her counterpart in the Israeli original series. My Punjabi cop Kiran couldn’t be poster girl for the police force. She has a regular job, is deeply committed to her work, she’s a single mother, no time to meet her son let alone go to the gym. I had spent years in Chandigarh that really helped me with the language of my character.After internalizing my character I just played it by the ear, literally at one point because someone bangs my car and I came out rubbing my ear. That was not planned. After a point it was not clear whether I was playing my cop’s character or the character was playing me.

Bitter experiences w in the commercial cinema?

Yes there have been roles that were chopped . But I never let these things get to me. Things were not exactly hunky-dory for me .At one point I lost three big films in a row. I remember going to Govind Nihalani’s house in the night at the age of 33 to have a meltdown. I had nowhere else to go.I knew I was very ill. But I never gave up. I was much larger than the problems posed to me.I believe there is a God,. He has given me talent and he will preserve it. There are people in the film industry who have been with me in my hard times

Future plans?

Lots of good work, I hope , in webseries. I think this is wonderful platform. I can feel a few thousand characters waiting to come out. I didn’t chase my best roles including Your Honor.

When do you turn director?

I did a lot of research for a film on traffic minors . I spent a lot of time in a remand home. Every delinquent had a story to tell, not fake stories but their real stories. I got 14 hours of taped footage with the kids. The editor suggested I make a film.I never released this film as I didn’t want these children’s lives to be affected. That’s it.For ten years I was married to a film director.I am familiar with the entire process of direction. I’ve scripts ready. I almost directed a film for Adlabs. But my main vocation is acting.I am proud to be an actress. I don’t like calling myself an actor. I am proud to be a woman and an actress.

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