The Raid  actor acknowledges that nepotism does exist in the film industry, but outsider or insider, it is talent alone that will take one far
By Anannya Srusti
Sulagna Panigrahi started her career in her late teens when she was picked to play one of the conjoined twins in the Sony Entertainment Television series ‘Amber Dhara’ (2007-08). She later went on to make her Bollywood debut with director Mohit Suri’s psychological thriller Murder 2 (2011). The next few years were tough with hardly any films until she played a pivotal role in director Raj Kumar Gupta’s ‘Raid’  starring Ajay Devgn and Saurabh Shukla.
The Odia girl, who hails from an army background has lived across various states, that experience exposing her to different cultures. Beyond Bollywood’s Anannya Srusti is an Odiya too, but that wasn’t the main reason for her to have this conversation. The cherubic Panigrahi shares her journey, and opens up on the struggles of artistes like her to grow in Bollywood.
A little birdie has told me that Rameshwar Singh (Saurabh Shukla) is rotting in jail and still trying to figure out who was the ‘Vibhishan’ in the family?. Can you shed some light now?
[laughs]. Well, I think the audience does know it now. The ones who have seen the film know it. If you need the light thrown towards it, you need to see the film then.
Raid [2018[ was a much-acclaimed film and your performance too was appreciated. What’s been the impact of that film on your Bollywood career?
Each project is different from the one you’ve done already, right? If something is appreciated you tend to get similar kind of characters. Then you have to make sure that you say ‘no’ to them and move on to something different and something new. I was trying those characters which are very different from each other because that’s the fun in being an actress. You play characters which are totally different. You try reinventing yourself by trying different roles.
You’ve done the odd film here and there but you’ve largely remained an enigma in your film career. Can you explain the gap in between your few films?
We as actors are not creating things. We get selected for things which are being created. It’s not totally in our hands. We audition for roles and I guess everybody knows how difficult it is to get roles. Also, you want to do certain types of things. It’s like a marriage. When a character you want to do comes to you, it’s like a perfect match. That seldom happens. They (the filmmakers) should also like you and consider you for the character. It’s extremely difficult for that to happen. Plus, I did a lot of films that didn’t release because only the big banner films get theatrical releases [easily]. It’s much more difficult for us to make a mark because it’s eventually your choice to either portray a small role in a big film or nobody notices you. And more than your choice, it’s the options you get because it’s not like everybody is calling you to do a big film. I have hardly had the opportunity to get called for playing the main lead in a big film since that happens very rarely. Most of the time, it is already decided. So, when you choose what you have and do what you can do, I try to make the best of it.
Is it a challenge for an Odia person to make it big in the Hindi entertainment space? Apart from the language, what do you think are other barriers?
As long as you’re good in the language, it doesn’t really matter where you come from. I don’t think being from Odisha has been a hindrance. If anything, it enriches your overall experience. Thankfully I come from an army background, so I have seen these beautiful countries and have been to almost every state. It becomes easy for me to play a character, say from Punjab, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, or from Bengal. I can play all of them because I have been to and lived in those places. For an actor it’s very important to be well-versed with other cultures and languages. So being from a place which is not Bombay (now Mumbai), it has only helped me. No matter where you are from, the challenges are the same. Coming to Bombay and trying to live and make it on your own in the Hindi film industry is a challenge. Whether you are from Lucknow, Odisha, or even Maharashtra, when you come to a big city like Bombay, trying to make it big, the challenge remains the same.
Recently, Ollywood lost veteran actor Bijay Mohanty. What impression did he leave on you?
I recently got to know that he was the batch mate of Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri and he chose to work in the Odia film industry. He chose to enrich his own industry and I think that’s a beautiful thing. I think actors never die. They always live on in cinema. That is the beauty of being an actor. Even when you are gone, there’s a part of you still left behind with the people.
Looking back, what was it like working at such a young age?
I began working right after school. I think that was the best thing for me because I always wanted to be an actor but I had never said it. During my time it was all about engineering and MBA, which I think still exists. Back then everybody was studying and I was already independent and working, so I felt really good.
I never said it out loud that I wanted to act. The expectations from me were also the same as it were from every other kid. I was sitting for my AIEEE (All India Engineering Entrance Examination) [when Amber Dhara came calling]. While I dropped a year, that’s when I started working. I was like ‘Thank God! I straightaway came to acting without having to endure four years in engineering.
Although acting was something, I always wanted to do but I never said that out loud because it is a far-off dream. I remember in school, there was a friend of mine who said that she wanted to be an actor and then everybody started making fun of her behind her back saying, ‘what does she think of herself?’, ‘She thinks she is too gorgeous’. That was the prejudice connected with the word acting – that it is all about the glamour. But there is much more to acting than just glamour.
From television’s Amber Dhara to Afsos  on Amazon Prime, how would you describe your journey so far?
The journey has been beautiful. Every character that I have played is close to my heart. Every time a character gets over, I feel like (as if) I have lost a very dear friend. I have had my ups and downs but that doesn’t matter because the journey has been beautiful. I still am in the journey and I think I will retire on my deathbed. Being an actor is a perpetual journey, a journey within yourself.
Post Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, the word nepotism has been heavily debated. Would you like to comment on the raging issue and have you ever been a victim of nepotism?
I think if you are not from the industry, you are automatically a victim of it, right? Nobody can escape it. It is there everywhere. The only difference is when you say ‘Doctor ka beta doctor hai’ (The son of a doctor is also a doctor), it’s not like, because of his father that he too became a doctor. Rather he is one because he has qualified for it. Even for star kids it is difficult since they get judged because they got an opportunity. But yes, they do get much more opportunities than us. Like I said, you’ll never get a call for the main lead because the main lead is already decided. Their access and opportunities are much more than ours. But at the end of the day, if you’re good, you’re good, irrespective of being somebody’s kid or being from the industry. You cannot change that.
You started with the Hindi entertainment industry and we have seen you in other regional cinema as well. For an Odia girl, how was your experience of working in Tamil and Marathi films?
Being an Odia girl has helped me a lot. Odia has a lot of sounds and phonetics which helps you in learning other regional languages like Marathi and Tamil. They have certain phonetics which are not present in other languages but Odia has it and it became easy for me to learn them because it is generally not easy to pick up that phonetics for someone who has never spoken them.
Now that you have starred in Hindi, Marathi and Tamil films, do you wish to do a film or two in Ollywood industry?
Although I was born in Berhampur, I have never lived in Odisha. I have travelled all over the country. My summer holidays used to be in Odisha because my maternal grandparents are from Berhampur and paternal grandparents from Bhubaneswar. If the story is nice and the character is good enough, then I would definitely like to do an Odia film.
You Instagram is full of travel stories. Would you like to share some of your travelling experiences?
There’s a colloquial term, “Army BRAT”, which means ‘Born, Raised And Transferred’. All army kids are born raised and transferred so we have always moved from one place to another. Travelling is something that is in my blood. I have been in Bombay for so many years; otherwise we are used to be in a new city, every two to three years. I love to travel and would love to get away from Bombay. I love travelling and trying out new cuisines. One of my happiest memories, in terms of food, would be eating the Turkish breakfast. It’s delicious and has a huge platter and they keep serving you more. Their culture is a lot like ours, ‘just keep eating’, so it was a beautiful experience. Istanbul is another beautiful city and it was a lot of fun being there. Same goes with Japan. Everywhere I’ve been, people have been very nice. I feel when you visit new places and meet new people; it enriches you as a person. But sadly because of COVID-19, I haven’t been able to travel this year, so I just keep looking at my Instagram highlights and try reliving those moments.
If i may ask a personal question, you have many admirers, but has Sulagna lost her heart to anyone?
Do I? Well, how do I answer this question? I guess you’ll get to know the answer soon. I don’t know if I have many admirers. But I guess when the time comes the world will know.