With her chubby cheeks and her bouncing bob, little Anjali from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (KKHH) was one of the most endearing characters of Bollywood from the late 1990s.
The 10-year-old Sana Saeed, who played Anjali, seemingly came out of nowhere and became a worldwide sensation. Immediately after the film, however, the junior powerhouse vanished from the silver screen as swiftly as she had appeared.
Fourteen years on, the chubby cheeks have given way to chiseled cheekbones and the bouncing bob has grown into lovely layers. Sana Saeed is all grown up and ready for her Bollywood debut in an adult role.
"My parents didn't want me to lose out on a normal childhood, so they decided that I should focus on my studies. Shooting takes up extensive time and it's difficult to manage school alongside," Saeed says, explaining her long absence following KKHH, which was broken briefly by a stint on TV, first with Babul Ka Aangann Chootey Na and then with Lo Ho Gayi Pooja Iss Ghar Ki - both TV soaps that ran from 2008 until 2009.
"The TV offer came my way during my last year at college and I was hesitant because schedules are very demanding for daily soap shoots," she recalls. "They assured me that I would be allowed to leave the set by 9pm at the latest, would get a day or two off every week, plus more days off during exams. And so, I gave TV a shot."
Between films and TV, though, Saeed admits that she leans more towards films. "I believe that the best is extracted out of you as a performer when you do cinema. You get to play diverse roles over a longer period of time and you get to explore yourself as an actor. On the other hand, TV soaps have tight deadlines and work is rushed. It leaves you with little opportunity to extract your best.
"If you're interested in playing the lead then you'll always be playing the nice girl with very little to explore what you are capable of portraying as an actor.
"Plus, I fancy watching myself on the big cinema screen with my bucket of popcorn rather than at home on my own TV screen!" she adds jokingly.
This love for films is what made Saeed decide to take charge of the direction of her career. She had her portfolio shot and sent to casting directors. Soon she got a call to audition for a role in Karan Johar's film Student of the Year (SOTY) at Dharma Productions. She made it through the shortlist and eventually got selected. She admits she could not have imagined a better start to movies again as an adult.
"It was being directed by Karan Johar , who I did my first film as a child artist with. I was going to work under the K-Jo and SRK [Shah Rukh Khan] banner! That meant everything. I was very prompt with a yes after my selection," says Saeed, laughing. "Plus, playing a high-school diva in a Karan Johar movie meant an incredible experience and a makeover!"
Saeed didn't get to see too much of Shah Rukh Khan while shooting for SOTY, except for the one time when Karan Johar brought SRK to her room while she was waiting for a shot.
"It was so unexpected that the memory still sends chills down my spine," says Saeed. "Having Shah Rukh Khan walk to you is really a knockout. He was so affectionate and kind and it was great to see him after so many years."
Working with Johar again was a fabulous experience for Saeed. She admits that she was scared of him as a child because she was nervous about messing up her lines in front of him.
"When I met him for the first time on the set of SOTY, my heart was pounding in my mouth," she confesses. "But from that moment till now, I've had nothing but fun times with him. He is a great director - easy, fun and comfortable to work with, and one of the most amazing people I know today. I loved working with him in KKHH and SOTY and I would do it again blindly."
Between KKHH and SOTY, there has been a long gap. Saeed has grown up as a person and as an actor. How did she find the whole experience of being on a film set after so long?
"It was very different back in the KKHH days. I was too young to understand much and acting and filming was more fun and less work as a child," she says. "Of course, it's totally different now. I understand the whole process of filmmaking and all that it involves so much more in depth now. If anything, I love acting even more. After all these years, I am now finally certain of my professional and career choice because this is what I really am passionate about doing."
With SOTY almost out in cinemas, Saeed now plans to wait for "something really worthwhile" to come her way. She reveals that she is in no hurry and wants to take her time and wait for an interesting offer. She also wants to see how she is accepted back in the industry after all these years and is eagerly awaiting the release of SOTY, which will open in UAE cinemas on October 18.