How did you come on board for ‘India Lockdown’?
Madhur Bhandarkar sir and I have been wanting to work for over 15 years now. He had approached me for ‘Traffic Signal’ when I was 14-15 years old. It was right after ‘Iqbal’ in 2005. My parents had made a hard stop on cinema and acting because of my studies. They said no to Madhur Bhandarkar. They wanted me to lead a normal life, be a normal teenager and study. I am grateful to my parents for that. Madhur sir understood my parents’ decision and I respect him for that as well.
In 2020-21, he called me for ‘India Lockdown’. He had watched me in ‘The Tashkent Files’ and he really liked my work. He has always admired my work in ‘Makdee’ and ‘Iqbal’ as well. I was very excited to work with him. It was very sweet of him to approach me once again. In fact he met my mom when he came to my birthday party and jokingly asked her if he can work with her daughter as she has no exams and school anymore.
How was your experience working with Madhur Bhandarkar?
He is a fantastic filmmaker. For any actor, Madhur Bhandarkar offering a role in his film is a compliment in itself. It goes on the top of your CV because you are automatically taken very seriously as an actor. I also loved the subject. It is about the first 20-25 days of the first lockdown during 2020. It is the documentation of the time we lived in. Whether it is 26/11 or the holocaust, everything is documented in the cinema. I think it will be a great reference point for generations to come. It does not, however, trigger bad memories. It is a reminder of the human spirit and their never-say-die attitude. And we did conquer it.
Tell us something about the film and your character.
The film has four parallel stories; one is of a pilot who is locked up at home, played by Aahana Kumra. There is a track by Prakash Belawadi sir which is my personal favourite. It is about a father who wants to meet her daughter. Then there are Prateik Babbar and Sai Tamhankar’s characters who show the plight of migrant workers. This is something which was heavily exposed by the media and followed by everyone during lockdown. We have seen them very objectively in the news. But when you see them in the film, you connect with them.
Then there is my character which is that of a sex worker from Kamathipura whose livelihood is directly hit due to social distancing. She can’t do business and she doesn’t have money to survive. All she has is a spunky, bright firecracker of an attitude. She is not a bichari. She is not somebody you are going to sympathise with. It was very important for me to construct the character more than the job. I wanted the human that she is to be bigger than her work. Madhur sir and I were on the same page on this.
The people who saw the film also told me that my character was also a comic relief for the film. For me, it was a very interesting mix. I went to Kamathipura where I met real sex workers. I heard a lot of their stories. It helped me pick up on their mannerism, their body language and their lingo. I dedicate my performance to sex workers globally. Cheers to them!
How was it on the sets of the film while shooting?
Madhur Bhandarkar sir has a child-like energy and I think that also transpired into Mehrunissa’s character a lot. He is fun, warm and an affectionate person. He is also extremely sensitive. He is always joking and keeping the set environment very light. He is a very good mimic. He tries mimicking a lot of people. I am a team player. I am not somebody who sits in the van and shuts people off. I love being on sets and I love giving claps. Sometimes I become the assistant director on the set. This is because I love cinema. I have grown up here. It has been 20 years since I have been working in this industry. It is my home. For me, that comfort is very important and Madhur sir makes everybody feel at home. Of course, when we are working, we are working and are dead serious about it.
A great quality about Madhur sir is that he trusts his actors, their instincts and their intelligence which is amazing. Because of this, one is able to have healthy negotiations and discussions on sets. I feel that is a very healthy environment to work in.
Did shooting for the film bring back memories of lockdown?
Yes, it did. Working on the film made me realise how privileged I am and how much we take life for granted. I am almost ashamed to say this but I never thought about commercial sex workers during the lockdown and what they were going through. It was very brave of Madhur sir to go ahead and make a film about it. When I watched the characters of Sai Tamhankar and Prateik Babbar who play the role of migrant workers who walked miles to get to their home, I started counting the number of shoes I have. I was just counting my blessings and it made me very humble. I am glad that I got an opportunity to represent the sex workers’ community. I hope that I have done justice to my role.