Her Own Woman
From IAS aspirant to becoming the country’s best- loved telly star, Sakshi Tanwar has had a remarkable journey.
When TV actor Sakshi Tanwar was first offered the role of Parvati Aggarwal in a new show that Balaji Telefilms was launching on Star Plus, she turned it down. “I thought a bhabhi’s role can never be the lead. And I was already playing one in another soap called Karam,” says Tanwar.
When producer Ekta Kapoor insisted she go for a narration, she went and said no again. “The original story had Parvati as the mother of a teenager,” says Tanwar. “I was not comfortable playing someone that old, so I had doubts,” she explains. Kapoor then agreed to reduce the age of the entire cast by 10 years. Delhi- based Tanwar turned down the part a third time, fearing that a gruelling daily soap routine may demand shifting to Mumbai which, at that point of time, she did not want to do. “Ekta then said ‘ tell me how many days can you shoot for?’ I said 15. And she agreed to shoot for 15 days every month so that I could be in Delhi for the rest of the month,” laughs Tanwar. Having run out of excuses to make, Tanwar says she then asked for an exorbitant fee and that demand, too, was readily accepted. “Till the day the shooting began, I kept telling them to keep a back- up ready because I wasn’t sure whether I could shoot for a daily soap,” says Tanwar.
The show Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii went on to become one of the most popular serials on Indian television and led to a barrage of family drama dailies soon after. It was on air for eight years ( 2000- 2008) and made Tanwar’s Parvati a household name and the nation’s much- loved bahu.
“It was a phase that started with Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi,” says Tanwar, 40, offering her analysis of the show’s magical popularity. “These were pioneer shows that took you back to your roots, to the whole joint family culture. People could identify with the situations, the problems and also the solutions that a joint family setup offers,” she says. “I think that clicked with the audiences not just in India but abroad as well. When I used to holiday abroad, NRI fans would tell me that our only connection to our culture is through your shows.”
Parvati and Tulsi Virani ( of Kyunki) became shining examples of good Indian daughters- in- law in the popular imagination. The loving, sacrificing yet strong women who come what may, held the occasionally- wayward- but- on- the- wholelovable family together. “Parvati was an aspirational character,” points out Tanwar. “The idea being if one was more like Parvati, one would be more acceptable in the family. All my fans used to say that they wanted to be like me,” she says.
The shows though hugely popular also received much flak for being regressive and conservative in their portrayal of women. The sweet, polite, accommodating bahu was a daughter- in- law, a mother, a wife before anything else. Tanwar agrees that it may seem regressive, but the idea was to subtly push for change. “These shows are a representation of our society. When you tell a story you have to show both the positive and the negative. I used to have many arguments with my creative team,
even Ekta. And she always said wait and see how your character will fight back.”
Tanwar’s Parvati was a paragon of virtue for her integrity and goodness in the last decade, her latest avatar Priya Kapoor ( from the telly hit Bade Achhe Lagte Hain) has been just as popular, bewitching viewers with her the- girl- nextdoor charm. “Priya is a more identifiable character,” says Tanwar of her insanely popular onscreen persona. “When the show started, Priya was this 30- something, unmarried, fiercely independent woman who supported her family and was not afraid to speak her mind. In the case of Parvati, fans used to tell me we want to be like you. And with Priya, they said we are like you,” she laughs.
The transition from Parvati to Priya, admits Tanwar with a hint of pride in her voice, has not been easy. Eight years of Kahaani had made her the poster girl of the good bahu brigade. It took a lot of effort ( and patience) to break out of that stereotype and find interesting roles. “I said no to whatever offers came my way if they were remotely similar to Parvati. I didn’t want to repeat myself. So I sat at home until, of course, Balika Vadhu was offered to me.”
The scheming Teepri that Tanwar essayed in the show was a complete change from the upright Parvati. “Teepri had shades of grey and a streak of madness. Though it was a cameo part, I preferred it over many big roles that had been offered to me. I wanted to challenge the actor in me by playing this character. Then I hosted Crime Patrol and that helped me reach out to my fans for a cause,” says Tanwar.
But it was Balaji Telefilms’ daily drama Bade Achhe Lagte Hain that marked her full- fledged return to the small screen. “There is a joke at Balaji,” says Tanwar, her rich voice dripping with amusement,
“my refusing a role at first brings good luck for the show eventually. Bade was offered to me right after Kahaani ended. But I did not want to work in another daily immediately. So I took a two- and- a- halfyear sabbatical. It was only when I felt that the time was right for me to reconnect with my audience, I went ahead with Bade,” she says.
Tanwar says she worked very hard to make Priya unlike a typical drama soap heroine. “To re- create another Parvati would have been the easiest thing to do. But even at the cost of fighting with my creative team, I refused to play Priya as ladylike, sweet and soft- spoken,” says Tanwar, stressing each word as she bats her eyelids in mock coyness.
When the show started in 2011, the independent, feisty working girl Priya was not elaborately dressed all the time, lost her cool when annoyed, argued with her mother, picked fights with strangers and told people exactly what she thought of them. She also stayed away from the daily puja routine and braved social disapproval of being unmarried at 30. “Priya comes out of the bathroom and flings her wet towel on the bed. She is late for work and barely has time to comb her hair. That is how it is for most women,” says Tanwar. “We are not perfectly dressed all the time, are we?”
Sitting in an oversized armchair by the window in the hotel room, Tanwar plays with the corner of her sari pallu as she speaks. With her mellow voice and courteous demeanour, she seems very much like the good- natured women she portrays onscreen. Tanwar says she views her success objectively, like “an outsider to this whole circus”. “The only thing that has changed in my life is the amount of time at my disposal. My work doesn’t allow me much free time.” And of course the fact that she cannot travel outside Mumbai without being mobbed. Wrapping herself in scarves or hiding behind sunglasses doesn’t help either. “My voice gives me away,” she points out.
And Sakshi Parvati Priya Tanwar does have a huge fan base. In just a short walk from the hotel lobby to her room, she elicits involuntary, benign smiles from bystanders if not outright requests for pictures. From a fan website that tells you pretty much everything about her to a twitter fan page that follows her career very closely, her fans, it seems, are everywhere. There have been those who’ve waited endlessly outside her apartment just to meet her and a Kolkata- based devotee who preserves every interview Tanwar has ever given in the past 12 years. Tanwar says she feels blessed to receive such affection, but she also finds some of it, well, a little bizarre.
“I wish people realised that TV soaps are not a real world. They shouldn’t get so involved. At the end of the day, it is just entertainment,” she says. “But what do I tell others when my biggest fan lives in my own house— my mother,” says Tanwar. “She gets hyper if she misses an episode, watches all repeat telecasts, doesn’t talk to anyone or take any phone calls while my show is on TV,” she says. “During the Dubai track on Bade, there was this episode when Ram finds out that I am alive and he is furious and he is yelling at me. My mother,” says Tanwar, exasperation writ large on her face, “got high blood pressure after watching that episode.”
“Daddy got very angry and there was great drama at our place. Finally I got Ram ( Kapoor the male lead of the show) to talk to her. He told her ‘ Aunty, I get paid for yelling, she gets paid for crying, why are you ruining your health over this?’ ”
Worrying though it may be for the Tanwar family, her mother’s behaviour is like that of every woman in India hooked to the Ekta Kapoor brand of TV shows. The TV remote becomes an object of contention in most homes at 10.30 p. m. every Monday to Thursday. Come what may, an IPL match, a city- paralyzing protest, or even the TV premiere of a Khan movie, that half hour at night belongs to the ladies and is reserved exclusively to watch the trials and tribulations of Ram and Priya Kapoor.
It comes as a surprise then when Tanwar tells you she never planned to be an actor. “I wanted to be an IAS officer, but destiny had other plans. A friend of mine was anchoring a show for Doordarshan. When her co- anchor did not show up one day, she called me and I got the part,” says Tanwar. While still in Delhi, Tanwar acted in a number of shows such as Dastoor, Rajdhani, Bhanwar before she bagged Kahaani and moved to Mumbai. Born in Alwar ( Rajasthan), Tanwar had a peripatetic childhood as her father was a Central government employee.
Despite her obvious mass appeal ( she is the face of 12 brands at present), Tanwar has not made the transition to the big screen though she has done a few cameos. She will be seen in a big role next in a film opposite Sunny Deol called Mohalla Assi. So are more films on the anvil? “Right now I am comfortable where I am. I have my hands full and there is no time to do anything else,” she says.
Tanwar with co- star Ram Kapoor in a
still from Bade Achhe Lagte Hain