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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 March 2019

Mrunal Thakur: the Indian actress recently plucked from obscurity has hit the big time

The actress tells us why starring in a gritty film about human trafficking has turned her life around

Mrunal Thakur has been offered roles on the back of her performance in ‘Love Sonia’. 
Mrunal Thakur has been offered roles on the back of her performance in ‘Love Sonia’. 

In a world producing more films than ever before, few visuals leave indelible impressions. But moments from Love Sonia, the widely acclaimed film on human trafficking by Tabrez ­Noorani, do, such as the scene in which the brothel owner terrorises a young girl into submission by letting loose a cobra. It’s hard, if not impossible, to keep still as the film plays.

It’s also become a vehicle for unknown actor Mrunal ­Thakur, who plays the titular role, to show off her acting chops alongside some of Hollywood’s, and Bollywood’s, best.

The film also stars Riya Siso­diya, Freida Pinto, Demi Moore and Manoj Bajpayee to name a few.

After all, Thakur had been picked from more than 2,500 aspirants over a period of six to nine months, after callbacks she’s lost count of. The perseverance paid off – at 25, she made her international debut with not just the role of a lifetime, but a performance which has left viewers reeling.

“I didn’t know what life was about before Love Sonia,” says Thakur. “I didn’t care. Now I’m a different person.”

How life has changed

The National caught up with Thakur in Mumbai during one of her rare trips to the city. She had been a Mumbaikar for most of her professional life, but these days she lives in ­Hyderabad, where she’s shooting for the Netflix series Baahubali: Before the Beginning.

It’s a massive deal; Baahubali is the highest-grossing Indian film franchise of all time. The web production is a prequel to the first film, based on the 2017 book The Rise of Sivagami, and stars Thakur as Sivagami.

It is one of several creme de la creme projects that have landed in her lap since Love Sonia. “I went from auditioning for roles to being offered films directly,” says Thakur.

She is also poised to make her Bollywood debut in the biographical film Super 30 opposite Hrithik Roshan, who plays Anand Kumar, the ­Indian mathematician.

The 26-year-old’s excitement about being part of a regular singing and dancing Hindi film is infectious. Later in the year, she’ll be seen in the thriller Batla House with John Abraham, in which she plays the screen version of the ­contemporary journalist Shobhna Yadav.

She’s soaking up every opportunity she gets, ­learning, imbuing, observing and making mental notes on sets and between shots. Thakur is determined to use her time well. It seems that there are not enough hours in a day for her, not because there’s so much to do, but because Thakur wants to do so much more than she is already.

Not an easy road

Thakur is not a quint­essential Bollywood star; she’s an actor by profession and the girl next door otherwise, impatient to test her ­boundaries and experience the world. It’s hard to reconcile Thakur with the traumatised Sonia.

“I was craving to perform,” she explains.

Her only experience before Love Sonia was on Indian television as part of soap operas, and Marathi films. To be cast in an international film produced by David Womark (Life of Pi) was a career break she wasn’t willing to let go.

But after she was plucked from obscurity, it wasn’t an easy ride – she was sent to Sonagachi in Kolkata (India’s biggest red-light district) for research, which shocked her out of cinematic reverie. “The Mumbai schedule was especially hard: “There was always a body double on standby just in case I couldn’t do a scene,” says Thakur.

This includes a scene in which she was raped in a car. So, with such a gritty story­line, was she worried about what her parents would think?

“My mother didn’t want me to do the film, but my father did,” she says with a smile. “In fact, the entire team had a sit-down with my father to explain how the film will be shot to put my family at ease.

“Now, my mother is so proud that I did it. To have brought about a change in mindset within my own family – that, to me, is a big achievement.”

What's next?

Noorani, who made his directorial debut with Love Sonia, couldn’t have asked for a better lead actress than Thakur. “She’s hard-working, takes direction well and her instinct is her biggest strength,” he says.

But it wasn’t all rosy. The film took inordinately long to release, eventually making its world premiere at the London Indian Film Festival in 2018. For Thakur, it was nearly two years of waiting, during which time she barely worked. “After a film like that, you can’t go back to what I was being off­ered,” she says.

Instead, her time was spent travelling with a fitness group, learning tai chi and kalaripayattu, overcoming aqua­phobia and learning how to swim, before moving to Indonesia for six months to work on Nadin, the Indon­esian remake of popular ­Indian show Naagin. “I was just spending time on myself,” she says.

My grand­father was a farmer and as a kid, I ­remember my father telling me about poor farmers compelled to sell their ­daughters. I couldn’t understand it then, but it stayed somewhere in my mind.

Mrunal Thakur

Thakur believes that her upbringing played a crucial part in preparing her for the character of Sonia, as did the trials that rural India faces on an ­everyday basis. “My grand­father was a farmer and as a kid, I ­remember my father telling me about poor farmers compelled to sell their ­daughters,” she says. “I couldn’t understand it then, but it stayed somewhere in my mind.”

Then there was the time she spent in Jalgaon, a district in Maharashtra, where water was scarce (her father moved around a lot as a government employee). “I would get only one mug of water to brush and wash up in the morning,” says Thakur. “I’m not fussy at all; I’ve been raised to adjust myself in any circumstance.”

For now, the tide is turning in her favour. Love Sonia had a special screening last October at the United Nations in New York, and had its premiere in the United Kingdom in Jan­uary. So after such an intense debut role, where will Thakur go from here? Her list of dream roles is diverse, to say the least.

“I want to play a character that would require a lot of special training, like in a full-fledged action film,” Thakur says, grinning.

She’s a huge Marvel and Harry Potter fan (her phone’s ringtone is the Harry Potter theme). She also wants to star in a Sanjay Leela Bhansali opus, share screen time with Meryl Streep, and play Batman.

And by the time our meeting is over, I’m convinced that she will pull it off – all of it.

Updated: February 21, 2019 02:18 PM

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