Fatima Sana Shaikh had it all going for her. After a couple of blink-and-miss roles, she bagged a key part in Dangal, playing the rebellious daughter to Aamir Khan’s stern patriarch Mahavir. The film earned Rs 374 crore at the box office, second only to Baahubali: The Beginning, Indian cinema’s highest-earning film. She soon landed a plum role in Yash Raj Films’ Thugs of Hindostan with Khan and Amitabh Bachchan as her co-stars. It seemed that nothing could stop Shaikh from fulfilling her dream to be successful in the industry in which she started out as a child actor (Chachi 420). However, after Thugs crashed at the box office, Shaikh wondered if her days were numbered. “It was hated and how!” says Shaikh. “I was heartbroken.”
She lost projects. It didn’t help that as a newcomer and an “outsider”, she knew little of how the film industry functions. So she did what everybody does: got a public relations agency to promote her. But then she asked herself what would she talk about? Says Shaikh, “What’s the point of giving interviews if there’s nothing to talk about?”
Two years after the Diwali debacle that was Thugs, the 28-year-old finally has something to say with not one but two releases lined up for the festive season. First up is Ludo on Netflix on November 12, followed by Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari arriving the next day. The first is an ensemble crime caper in which she plays a young mother who uses her besotted classmate (Rajkummar Rao) to help her; in the other, also a comedy, she is a woman shuttling between being an ideal sister and a carefree girlfriend. Shaikh is relieved that the films are out even if it is on streaming platforms. “There is a nervousness to be seen. If you are not visible, especially when there’s so much content out there, then people forget. And it’s not their fault,” she says. “Films are all I have to be relevant.”
Suraj, she says, came to her when life was in limbo post Thugs. She ran into Abhishek Vyas, then a producer at Zee Studios, and candidly told him, “Main berozgaar hoon, kuchh hai toh bata dena (I am jobless. If there’s something, please let me know).” She was called for a narration and instantly identified with the duplicity of her character. “I have lived that life when I was a teenager,” says Shaikh. “Saying that you don’t have male friends and lying that you are at a friend’s place so that you can go to a concert in Pune.” With Manoj Bajpayee and Diljit Dosanjh already on board, she knew she had found the film to restart.
Shaikh cites the example of actors like Bajpayee along with Shah Rukh Khan and Priyanka Chopra-Jonas to illustrate that success and fame is not elusive to outsiders. But the road for them, she adds, has a set of challenges that those with families in show business don’t face. “They get work and many chances, but nepotism is in every industry, be it politics or business.” Shaikh is open about her struggle. “There are times I have been mistreated when I have played character roles,” she says. “I am not somebody who holds grudges. It is a cut-throat and ruthless business. I know what I have gotten into.”
Five years in the industry and Shaikh is finding her feet gradually. “She’s not rushing but thinking and slowly carving a space,” says casting director Mukesh Chhabra who vividly remembers how she entered with a tomboyish attitude to audition for Dangal. Chhabra credits her resilience that has ensured she didn’t fade despite the setback. Meanwhile, Shaikh is getting the hang of the industry and the self-promotion it demands. “It’s exhausting but it is part of the game,” she says. And Shaikh is here to play for the long haul.