Sheena’s dream has always been to bring characters to life on stage and screen. “I was shy and acting was my outlet for expression. I felt more in touch with life. A story has characters and I love to understand their emotions and bring about what the director needs.”
“I was a shy child. I unexpectedly discovered that I could become someone else—by acting—and that I had a talent to assume the character. And even though I was portraying someone else’s emotions—it put me in touch with my own feelings. I love the theatre also but it is transitory—once the performance is made—it is gone—and the character with it. But movies continue and my character lives on.
When I started out…I just wanted to act. I just wanted to express, I just wanted to move people, the joy of making people feel enlivened, made me feel like I was living my dream. It’s a lot of fun to live being different people, different lives, which my profession allows me to do. I’m so thankful to the top award winning Directors I’ve worked with who showed me what being natural is and who taught me how to create and bring out a characters world who brought out my real emotions and feelings for the character.”
The first test of her own character was the early years of struggle in Delhi theaters, working with the esteemed and experimental director Arvind Gaur. It was these years of the acting craft and soul searching on his thought-provoking stages, where Sheena honed her ability to get into a wide variety of characters. Her work got the attention of Jayaraj and she was cast with Malayalam megastar, Mammootty. She gained popularity when she played Mammootty’s wife in the action thriller The Train. This immediately led to two films inspired by Tagore for National Award winning legendary director Buddhadeb Dasgupta.
Due to her versatility her fame grew and she was nominated for a Golden Goblet among Hollywood stars like Kiera Knightley at the Shanghai Film Festival and as Best Actress at the Dubai Film Festival. Sheena researches her characters as part of her commitment to her directors, bringing their direction to life while also developing the character. She respects professionalism and commitment to the roles.
Early in her career, Sheena realised that it wasn’t enough for her to have proved her own capability, she needed to help others do the same. So she became the South Asia Ambassador for humanrights.com, the world’s largest non-governmental human rights education program.
Most recently she played alongside Madhuri Dixit in Netflix’s Fame Game, she appeared in Disney’s Hot Star’s City of Dreams, directed by Nagesh Kukunoor. Her latest feature film Justice, which is being released to international film festivals this year. Sheena plays the co-lead alongside Rajshri Deshpande. She was also cast as the lead in a comedy drama being released by Humara Movies, releasing next month on MX Player.
Here’s a candid chat with the shining star, Sheena…
1. Where are you from and what was your dream career in your childhood days?
I was born in Punjab to a Sikh family, but my parents moved to Kolkata when I was a small child. I studied in Kolkata but wasn’t happy in my day schooling until, after my father passed away. My mother sent me to the Lawrence School Sanawar in Simla in the hills – it was full of arts, sculpture, violin, karate and of course – drama. Actually, I always dreamt of being an actor – I had my first part when I was a baby, less than two years old – it wasn’t a hard character study – I played a baby and just had to be held there and rocked, but nevertheless, I was hooked.
2. How did you venture into the South Indian film industry and then into Bollywood and beyond?
I was spotted by national Award winning director Jayaraj opposite The South Mega Star, Mammootty Sir, who saw me win a crown in the Miss Universe India pageant, where I was mentored by Sushmita Sen and he asked me to play the character of his wife in his action film – The Train. To be on the cover of a film, next to such a star, as my launch, was more than a dream come true and that led to other offers and a page in a top film magazine calling me an It Girl.
3. Were there any kind of apprehensions entering the field of cinema?
No, just excitement to have opened up an avenue to pursue my great love – creating and collaborating on the creation of characters. Of course one always has to understand that there are some people in any industry, but unfortunately more so the arts, who do not have good intentions, but that should never stop you reaching for your dreams. As long as you stay aware at all times, keep true to your instincts and have proper contracts in place and maintain professionalism, then you will be fine.
4. How challenging is it to carve out a niche for yourself?
Honestly, I don’t really think about that – I just think about how can I be the very best actor I can be. Before cinema I did five years of theatre in Kolkata and Delhi, pretty experimental stuff, as well as some really tough Shakespeare – there’s nothing I love more than acting and anything I can do to learn new skills or methods – I take it. In a way that means actively trying not to be put into a niche – I love exploring and researching different characters – finding out my director’s point of view and bringing him or her new ideas – so to be stuck in just one mold – it’s not for me!
5. What have been some of the biggest highpoints of your journey so far?
Being nominated as Best Actress at the Shanghai and Dubai Film Festivals, particularly Shanghai – the ceremony was broadcast to tens of millions of people and I was nominated in the same category as huge Hollywood actresses Keira Knightley and Kate Beckinsale.
6. What does family mean to you?
Stability. I understand that when a person reaches success, that can be the most dangerous time, because it’s easy to get arrogant and arrogance kills success. If one always remembers and stays connected to all of the people who have been there with you while you reach success, than that base the success was built on remains and so does the success and above all you can share it with them and help them grow and flow power to them too. You win – win together! Life is about teamwork.
7. What are your other passions and hobbies?
I’m the South Asia Ambassador for United for Human Rights (www.humanrights.com), the world’s largest non-governmental human rights program. For my work spreading human rights to 72 million people in a year I was awarded the Hero Award at the United Nations in New York. Last year I co-created a human rights podcast on Hubhopper where, by collaborating with actors like Sonakshi Pinha, Preety Zinta, Raveena Tandon, Sonu Sood and filmmakers like Imtiaz Ali, R Balki, etc. and our amazing media partner Raindrop Media, we communicated a message of basic rights and equality to over 100 million Indians. Check it out here: https://hubhopper.com/podcast/born-free-equal/312044
8. What is your vision and dream in this field that you are in now?
I have had successful films in the South, West and internationally, and now I’ve been offered some great roles in the Hindi Film Industry, so my dream is to portray characters here that were as well received as my previous roles. And, perhaps more than that, my greatest dream is to be given characters who I can immerse myself into, learning more about life and reaching a deeper understanding of people, and then have that character I’ve created reach out and inspire the lives of others – my biggest dream is to do that in a series or film that is remembered and watched for decades, touching hearts, inspiring lives and igniting imaginations!
9. What are the changes you want to bring about in the film industry?
Every change that is needed anywhere in the world is laid out in the spectacular Indian Constitution and equally brilliant United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. If we all abided by those rights and responsibilities, which are the absolute basis of our and international law, all of society’s problems, including the film industry’s, would be solved. Equality, education, Social security, domestic violence, child labour – it’s all there in the Constitution and Declaration – but the first step is reading it and looking up any words you don’t understand!
10. How has life changed after entering the film industry?
I entered it when I was just out of school, but the change then was that things became much more exciting and challenging. I was given a lot of opportunities, for which I am very grateful, but also there are responsibilities – art, especially film, has so much power – people copy the behaviour that they see on screen, so the type of content we make forms the type of country we live in. I’m mindful of that, and other ways I may influence people with my platform, so, my life changed by being put on this platform, and having to learn how to balance on it!
11. What kind of a person are you in your personal space? How do you like to spend your me-time?
I’m a dreamer and a doer. I’m fun loving. I am a very emotional and sensitive person but I’m also very strong and know my mind well. I very much believe in and practice the art of imagining a future and then setting out to create it. I’m focused and curious about life. I like to look beyond- i, me, myself. I enjoy being interested in life and people. I’m also organised and I LOVE to research. My space is full of articles, notes and all sorts of bits and pieces linked with characters that I’m currently researching or ones that I have in the past. Being an actor is like living a thousand lives, but the difference is that articles from those thousand lives are spread all over my living room!
12. What are your preferred holiday destinations?
I don’t have too much of a line between work and holiday – I recently spent many months in America where I shot NOMAD, a film that just broke the world-record for most number of countries (26) that it was shot in. To spend long periods of time in the US, collaborating with other artists, researching and creating characters – this is what I love – why would I need a holiday from that?!
13. What do you see in a brand that you associate yourself with?
It should be of real benefit to society – it should help and have a big heart.
14. How do you maintain a work life balance?
The famous quote is – “If you do a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life”, and I do believe that. I don’t get stressed or burnt out, no matter how long I work, because creation is a great pleasure. Like, take my film Ant Story with the director Mostofa Sarwar Farooki – we worked like nonstop for three months! We never stopped, around the clock for months! But I never had so much fun in my life! The work consists of discussions, trying things out – make believe – it’s a bit like being a child, playing, and a child never gets tired of playing.
15. Any memorable fan messages you’d like to share?
Actually, after Ant Story my Facebook exploded to over 500,000 fans, so at some times it was really hard to keep up with the outpouring of love! That is a true blessing, but honestly, the thing that sticks out in my mind is the results of the human rights work – girls writing saying that I’d saved their lives from abuse or that because of me they decided to pursue a career that they’d otherwise been tried to be persuaded out of – it’s this type of thing that makes me most proud.
16. Any memorable incidents you’d like to share with us during the shoot of your debut Malayalam film and some other films?
When we drove around on the bus with Mammootty Sir, we had people chasing after us for blocks, screaming, trying to jump on the bus! He’s such a big star that one time after I posted a photo of him saying here I was with the Superstar Mammootty, I had a hundred comments complaining that I should take the text down – he is the one and only MEGA star – they were upset I called him a superstar!
18. What has been one of your favourite roles that you have played so far?
It has to be Reema, from Ant Story – she was so much fun to create, much because she’s so different to me. She just caused herself one disaster after the next, she was untrusting, secretively planning, dishonest – LOL, it was crazy to get into her head with Farooki Sir and dream up what madness was going on in her head and how she’d react. It’s actually really therapeutic – you get to play such a lunatic and then go back to being your normal self 🙂
19. What are the projects and all the movies and web series you’re working on currently? Please share about all of them in detail.
I’m next shooting alongside Kajol in a series for Hotstar called The Good Wife. I play the lead in a webseries called Lockdown Mein Breakdown about to launch on MX Player and I play the co-lead with Bidita Bag in a film called Justice which is about to start doing the rounds in international film festivals. The other projects I’m working on I’m not allowed to talk about yet, but will put them on my social media when I can.
20. What is your view about films in the OTT world of today? Also your views on social media and how much time do you spend on it?
It’s great that the OTT platforms have created so much work and that there is a lot of discussions being created around important issues – communication is the way to fix anything, so the more society can freely discuss subjects through drama, the better. However, with that freedom comes responsibility and unfortunately that is often abused in the creation of content which drags society down. I want to see less promotion of sex, violence and drugs and more content that really makes us think, be inspired and truly entertained by content that doesn’t rely on cheap thrills. And also, it’s important to keep cinemas alive because they get people out of the house – we spend too much time looking at screens as it is – at least going to the cinema often involves a meal outsdie to discuss the movie.
In terms of social media – it’s such a power and power can be used for good or bad. An idea can spread around the globe in a microsecond now, and ideas are what changes the world. So, the ideas we are spreading and those we are listening to are extremely important – we need to realise that what we give attention to gains value, so to make sure we are watching or listening to what we truly believe has real value, not what social media manipulates us into valuing.
22. Would you like to recall some fun incident from any of your shoots?
I had so much Fun shooting with Taron Lexton for Nomad. I remember, we were just speaking about creating magic on set as an artistic collaboration as a director- actor and for the next shot we had to go to the beach to shoot my scenes. It was raining that day. As soon as we reached, 2 rainbows appeared, the sky cleared, the sun came out with the magic hour light and it was fun, so fun cause we were in exhilaration with so much beauty that lifted the scenes into nothing less than magical. That was fun.. we created a new vision into reality !
23. You made your debut with the south Indian film industry. Any plans to act again in any South Indian films? What do you have to say about the South Indian film industry?
I’d love to – the South has grabbed India’s attention recently for giving the audience what they want – big scale drama – spectacles! In my days in theatre we were always trying to bring epic ideas to the stage and we relied on the audience going along with us for the ride, as we didn’t have big budgets. But what the South is doing is taking many of the tales that we grew up listening to and before could only imagine, and bringing them to the screen in a family friendly way, which is really to be admired.
25. How would you like to describe your fashion statement?
It’s gotta have an element of Fun, free flowing, romantic, comfortable, edgy and classy.
26. Your fitness and beauty regime?
I love Fitness- I train thrice a week with my trainer in the gym and rest, I do cardio. I really nourish my skin with lots of water, good daily vitamins and stay happy.
27. What are your future plans?
Read my next script! Actually I have so much work to do at the moment – the character I’m working on at the moment has so many layers – I have half a dozen films and documentaries to watch, then the meeting with the director to go over his vision and act out to him the ideas that I’ve started forming. At the moment I can’t really see much beyond that, which is fine, as there’s nothing more that I love to do. My passion is also to spread the message of Human rights, so I live and breathe that naturally with each project I do.
Photography: Emily Jean Photography
Hair and makeup: Ashley Christine