Esha Gupta has never shied away from her bold and beautiful image. She's never let the trolls or negativity stop her from sharing her photos on social media. Likewise, she's never cried foul about a lack of opportunities in films, her flops and failures or her being typecast in grey roles. She's embraced her career and pitfalls with the same confidence as she's accepted her dark complexion and Indian features. She's unabashed about her choices and her looks. Having spent a decade in the movies, she doesn't mind a slow-paced but assured career graph. In this week's Big Interview, Esha talks about playing negative roles with aplomb, loving her body and not letting her outsider status break her spirit. Excerpts...
You’ve preferred to play female characters with grey shades in your films and projects. What's been the motivation to do so?
I believe it’s very easy to play the damsel in distress. It's tougher to play the grey character or the strong one. I think it's not because of any other reason, but the entire perception of what being a woman is like. I'm not saying this with respect to society - the entire world feels that a woman needs help. There’s a perception that a woman can’t reach anywhere status wise. She is considered physically weak because human society has taught us to think that way. If you look at the animal kingdom, things are different. It's the lioness, who actually goes out, preys and attacks to get the food. The lion doesn't do anything.
Being in the entertainment industry for almost a decade now, you’ve seen Bollywood change and now with OTT, do you feel an actor still faces the pressure of staying relevant?
Things have changed. Today, there’s a pressure of doing good and different work rather than putting out the same repetitive content. Even if there’s no consistency of having back-to-back projects, it doesn’t affect an actor all that much. Earlier, films and projects used to have similar plots: hero-heroine mein pyaar, they’ll either have a financial difference, or they'll have the class divide. The good thing is that now people actually want to see the reality or the different altercations that are being shown through web content. So OTT makes you want to be more relevant, be more audience-driven and give the viewers great content.
Are you discerning or extra cautious when it comes to choosing work? Why don't we see you in more films and projects?
Like I said, now there's a lot of work for everyone. Earlier, I didn’t have the privilege of choice, I used to keep taking up work. But now I can pick and choose, because making money is not my priority anymore.
I also come from the mindset that there are 20 other things one can do to earn. If you have to just make money, you cannot consider acting or films as the ideal career. Of course, I still want to be respected as someone who’s good with her work and I still want to be a part of great projects. But when big productions come to you with offers that don't have important roles and offer you no money, I don't want to do that.
But when I was offered Ashram, I don't think my agency even spoke about the money. We were just focussed on wanting to lock the deal. Because you just want to be a part of the project.
But money is important, considering this career gives you your livelihood. Why then the aversion to a good pay cheque?
Because I became an actor by chance. From doing my law, when my practice was going just to start, I got the opportunity of becoming an actor. But I also realised that in life you can do events, public performances and many other things where you make money. But when it comes to films, one must pick up good work.
The offers that I was getting weren't pleasing me or making me satisfied. I did not want that after 20 years my kids would watch my films and say, 'Yuck, what has she done?' or 'What is she looking like?'. If it looks cheap and I don't mean cheap in a sexual way, I just mean, it doesn't make sense. I don't want to be a part of that.
What's changed in your life and career over the past few years?
If you ask me, what is the best thing in my life right now? The focus is not about me having a relationship, because my life doesn't revolve around that. Today my life revolves around interactions, interviews and reflecting on how I have gone through ups and downs.
Have your choices in scripts evolved too ?
Yes, they have. But as I said, I’ve played a lot of grey and negative roles. When ‘Rustom’ was being offered to me, the casting director had called to meet me and was initially wary of offering the part because it was negative. They had expressed that they wanted to see me in that role, and it was the role of a lifetime, but they weren’t sure if I’d be willing to take it up. I was sitting there with my agent. I remember I just looked at him and I was like, 'I want to do it, but I don't know why you would think I wouldn't want to do it'.
A lot of actresses are still not okay, being negative and people hating them for it. When there's a hero, you don't want to be an antihero. You're okay, if you're the only antihero. It's like Batman, he's considered a vigilante. He's not a superhero. So not a lot of actors are excited at the prospect of playing him.
Going back to Rustom, I took a different approach to the offer. I was getting to play someone who was going to be screwing Akshay Kumar
's character's happiness throughout the film. I wanted to be a part of that.
Being an outsider, did it take a lot of time for you to gain acceptance from Bollywood?
With time, my perception has changed on this subject. What happens is, when we don't get things, we feel the situation isn't favourable for us. Like in school, when you've done really well in a test, you expect appreciation. When the result comes out, you can feel that the teacher could have appreciated you more. You don't realise that your answer was correct, but you could have probably explained it better. That's happened to me over the years.
I kept thinking, 'Oh my god, I'm not getting work, the industry is not accepting me'. Had I stuck to that notion, I wouldn't have been where I am today. Jannat wouldn't have been such a big hit, Rustom wouldn't have done well. Truth is, I was getting films back to back. It's then that you need to realise that the industry has accepted you. And they've given you a lot.
As someone who's not from the industry, what I can speak for outsiders is that you don't get a shoulder to cry on. And you do not have anyone guiding you the right way. Because from most people that I met, very few were real and genuine. My current agent is one of my best friends. But that's because I can trust them. There are very few who would want to see you progress and guide you the same way. Most of the time, they feel if not this person, we can cast another person. The reason behind them trying to guide you comes with separate intentions, too. Also when you're older, you need to have people to fall back on and people who would not want anything else from you. There should be someone to just take care of you when you're at your lowest.
At times, I really wish I was from the industry, I know I wouldn't have faced that. When you're from the industry, you could be nasty, you could have given a flop but it would be no big deal because you would still have another film. I remember when my first film flopped, I was really scared. I started beating myself for my choices. I felt it was the end of it and I won’t have work anymore. But then, after quite some time, I picked myself up. I was working, earning money, doing so much work and then you realise, that's life.
Do you think you’ve succeeded in carving a niche in this industry?
I want to believe, I’ve been successful in life. And I think that's what everyone should aspire for. It's taken me years to come to this mindset and realise that you don't need to compare yourself with other people. Inherently, we don't do that, but it's the society, it’s the people around that tell you to compare yourself with others. Look at their skin, they look so much nicer, look at their body, it's so much nicer. We're pushed into comparisons, we are all tuned to be in a rat race.
My first job was picking up tables at McDonalds because I had to pay my own tuition fees. It's really expensive to study abroad. I remember my parents couldn’t afford it. My dad was in the Air Force and he couldn't pay all of it. He told me, 'If you can afford it, go ahead, but if you can't, then study in India'. So I did that. When I did my first modelling job, this was after Miss India, I got only 1500. And even then, people behaved like they were doing me a favour. Fifteen hundred rupees is nothing nowadays, models won't even look at that fee. From that to now, I think I've made big progress. I walk down the road and people know who I am. I think that's success.
Were you ever cast in a project for all the wrong reasons?
Yes, but thankfully I didn't end up doing those projects. Either they wanted to show me the wrong way or they were only ready to give me the film, if I would go the wrong way.
There’s a lot of chatter about colourism, and there has been a notion in showbiz, that if you are fair-skinned you have an advantage. Has there been any point in your life when you have been made to feel insecure for your skin colour?
It happened with a brand contract once and it was actually my fault and that of my ex-agency. We did not read the contract properly, which said whitening and not brightening products. If I put cucumber on my face or eat the right food everyday, the brightness of my face will make a difference. But the brand decided to screw me and sue me because I wasn't ready to endorse their skin whitening products. That's when I realised that we come from a land where there's a problem. Some Indians have the mindset where we think like white supremacy. Americans are fighting it. White supremacy means people who have dark colour or dark skin, are meant to be slaves because those who are fair think God made them as the ones who are supposed to rule.
India's problem is far older, too. We still believe that fair skin is superior, fair girls are prettier, fair people get their way. That's what we show in our ads, too. You put on a cream and the guy will accept you. Who wouldn't want to marry you? You apply the cream and you'll get that dream job. But when you take your Indian skin tone, without makeup, with your real textured and voluminous hair, which is all Indian, and go anywhere abroad, in Europe and the people there will say, you're the most beautiful girl we've seen. That's when you realise there's a space for everyone all over the world.
You've always had the bold and beautiful image as an actress. That risque perception also attracts a lot of negativity and makes it easy for you to get trolled on social media. Do you agree?
When you can't change the world, you change yourself. I really believe in that. I don't think I'm here to change the world. All I can do is be a person who goes to bed with a clean conscience. I did well and I'm not a bad person. People will troll you no matter what and women are much easier to troll.
It's like in the old movies, when the woman would ask for a divorce they would say 'bachchalan hai (she's characterless)', but when a man got divorced, he made the right decision. Women have always been an easy target. And it's all over the world. Take the iron lady, Margaret Thatcher
in the UK. When she was the Prime Minister and she held the post for so many years, people only looked down at her. Even though she was the one who took the UK to a whole different level. But people still spoke against her. That's part of the world's history.
Would you agree that the handsome and the beautiful never go hungry?
People all around the world believe that good looking or pretty people will never go hungry. But that's because the world is becoming more and more foolish. Maybe I'm courting controversy but the truth is, today, people get famous by putting out 30-second videos rather than actually working hard in their life. They are earning from social media filters. I think most of them are good looking without those filters, but that's not the point. It's not like they are talking about what's happening in the world or actually working in an environment. And yet they're more successful than we are.
One piece of advice that you would give yourself a decade ago?
Maybe I would have told myself, 'Don't do the acting course, just follow your dreams and become a lawyer'. But even then, I think, I would have still become an actor, because I really believe what is meant for you will find you. Perhaps I'll just tell my younger self to be happy that you don't have a telephone. Just be happy that you have a real life. Be happy that you can go out and play games. I'd also say, 'Once you grow up, life is going to change, the world will change and never let anyone judge you'.