With the pandemic on one hand and the rapid growth of web television on the other, the past few years have brought about momentous changes in the Indian film industry. Besides the content of films, the format and distribution too have changed in momentous ways.
Actor and human-rights activist Sheena Chohan has an insider’s view on the sweeping changes behind the world of cinema. The only Indian actor to receive the Human Rights Hero Award at the 2019 International Human Rights Summit at United Nations in New York, Sheena has used her position of power in the glamour world to raise awareness among the Indian youth about the Constitution and the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
During the pandemic, she spearheaded a podcast, Born Free and Equal, along with some of the biggest names in the Hindi film industry – including Sonakshi Sinha, Preity Zinta, Raveena Tandon, Alankrita Shrivastava, Sonu Sood, among many more – to help spread awareness of basic rights and equality.
She spills the beans on what’s been happening inside the world of film in this tumultuous period, and shares her views on working during the pandemic, the lack of censorship in streaming television, and using her profession as a way to achieve a larger purpose.
With web series now becoming more accepted amongst audiences, do you think filmmakers and investors will have greater scope for exploring modern, nuanced storylines and feminist themes?
Without a doubt, yes. Look at the change in what is being made now compared with five or 10 years ago – it’s night and day, and not all in the best ways.
Yes, giant strides have been made for female representation and, with groups of female directors forming and Netflix and Amazon content heads being women, so much has changed for the better.
But I do also feel that with the move to streaming and the removal of censorship, the content has become too focused on trying to copy the West and losing India’s own charm and identity. Film has such power to change minds and influence behaviour, so when we put people’s attention onto the worst, most violent crime, extramarital affairs and perversion, unfortunately we create that in society.
There are shows that have a character smoke marijuana in almost every scene – they have a major responsibility for the increase in consumption of this drug in our country. Weed makes existing mental health problems worse! And mental health is the subject I care most deeply about.
It’s true that web television has created a great and positive shift towards giving women a stronger role in society, but film is a double-edged sword. We have to ensure that we use its power to create positive change.
You’ve been busy during the lockdown and have worked in many films lately. What was the most challenging part of being an actor during the pandemic? And what was the most fun thing you discovered while on shoots?
It’s really been quite a time! So, during the times of the coronavirus I played alongside Madhuri Dixit in Netflix’s Fame Game, and appeared in Disney-Hotstar’s City of Dreams directed by Nagesh Kukunoor. My latest feature film, Justice, is being released to international film festivals this year – I play the co-lead alongside Rajshri Deshpande. I travelled to the US to shoot a Hollywood film called Nomad, directed by Taron Lexton. And I was cast as the lead in Lockdown Mein Breakdown, a comedy drama being released by Humara Movies – art definitely imitating life!
What was challenging about that? You mean apart from having PCR tests up my nose every day for a year?! Honestly, all the things I mentioned above were the joy. What was challenging was not being able to do them, which I am sure is what everyone else also felt.
What I learned was that if you are stopped from doing one thing, you can’t let that stop you completely. Many of my projects – plays and movies – were stalled or cancelled during the lockdown. Such things can easily cause upset and even throw you into depression, but my trick to overcome it is to keep going with something else. For my own sanity, I must create something new. If we do not create our own activities then we tend to get dragged into other destructive activities, and its best to avoid those!
What was most fun was the thrill of being back on set after being caged for so long – who even knew the simple things we took for granted could be such a pleasure. It’s made me realise what a delight and honour my work is, and to throw myself into it more than ever.
Going from theatre to mainstream cinema to streaming television, what is your favourite format as an actor, and why?
In theatre you re-create the character every night, or even thrice a day, while in cinema or streaming, you create her once and there she is, frozen in time, able to be seen at any time with the click of a button. On stage you have instant feedback and the adrenaline rush as there is only one take, but then the idea of being permanently in people’s homes with the final, highly polished film or series is a delight.
The greatest pleasure is the process – it stretches you as a person.
And, really, when it comes down to it, what we are trying to do is to build a culture that lifts the society – that gives people dreams, that inspires and enlivens them, so, while I always like to go back to theatre every year or two to brush up my skills, I want my work to reach as many people as possible, so being on the screen is my main focus.
How do you integrate your human-rights activism with your work in the entertainment industry?
My podcast Born Free and Equal aimed to spread awareness on human rights in a way that was informative while also being motivational using stories from the film personalities’ lives.
When the lockdown happened, all of my regular activities stopped and the need for human rights increased! So, I had to do something and I knew the other actors would be feeling like me – stuck in their homes and wanting to help.
I was overwhelmed by the number of actors and filmmakers who wanted to come on my show! Imtiaz Ali just opened his heart out to us because his films are so connected to the right he chose to talk about – The Right to Freedom of Thought. In fact, as soon as I told anyone in the film industry that I wanted them to come on our show, and I’m talking about filmmakers I’ve admired for all my life – R Balki, Guneet Monga, Ashvni Iyer Tiwari – they just came on board, because, as filmmakers, there’s already a natural inclination towards human rights.
What is your vision and hope for Indian youth in this century?
My first hope is that they fully understand all of their rights and responsibilities – that they read and understand (look up the words!) the Indian Constitution and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
Then, when they know their own and their brothers’ and sisters’ basic rights, they make those idealistic words on paper come true.
Caste was abolished 70 years ago, discrimination against religion has been illegal for the same amount of time, as has child marriage – we have all of the laws and we have people who want to do the right thing and want our country to fulfil its potential, so my hope for the youth is that they take those inspirational words in our Constitution and make a real India based on them.
Photography: Emily Jean Russell
Stylist: Falguni Trivedi
Makeup and hair: Ashley Kucich
Extraordinary words from an extraordinary woman