Sheena Chohan shares her story of how she came into the Indian film industry, and her journey to becoming a well-established actress.
How did you begin your journey in acting?
I first went on stage before I was one year old – playing a baby in a theater play – the easiest character I ever had to get into! As I grew up my mother always put me into various activities and theater was the one that most appealed to me (although I’m also a Brown Belt in karate, swum competitively, played violin, etc.) so when I graduated from school, after I’d had a lot of success with modeling, I left my home town of Kolkata for the bright lights of Delhi and did five years of theater. Honestly, it would have been easiest to ride the huge wave of success that the modeling gave me – I had hundreds of hoardings across the city and the pay was really great, but there’s nothing like the thrill of really getting into a character – finding out everything you can about a type of person – their motivations, fears, secrets, passions, and then working with a director to match those discoveries to their vision in a collaboration with artists. It’s such a thrill that there was no way I would go in any other direction.
What was your first acting project, and how was that experience?
Once I reached Delhi I was selected for Arvind Gaur’s theater company, where I worked for countless plays over five years. He’s very experimental and nothing ever stayed the same – modern, post-modern, traditional – we did it all. It couldn’t have been a better foundation for my later work on the big screen, because it taught me to think fast – to look deeply on an individual level into who this person was that I was bringing to the stage, but no matter how convinced I was about the character I was creating, I always had to remember that this was the director’s medium and a collaborative process, so I had to have multiple options and ideas, if the first ones weren’t exactly what Arvind Gaur Sir wanted for the larger picture. Also, it really teaches professionalism, because with theater you don’t have two takes, so there’s not a question of not knowing your lines, or turning up late – if you do that you have a live audience who paid tickets to deal with (so I never did!)
Chohan started her career in modeling, before getting into the film industry. She speaks about her experience in beauty pageants, and how the transition happening between both industries.
You also participated in beauty pageants and won Miss Kolkata and a title under Miss Universe India . How was the transition between modeling and acting?
Modeling gave me a lot because I learned all about diet, skin, fitness, poise, contracts, agents, etc. Often an actress makes things look very effortless, but people don’t see the constant action and self-discipline that goes into it. I was lucky to be mentored by Sushmita Sen for Miss Universe India – she took me under her wing and even selected me out of all the girls that year to host the next year’s contest. What I learned from Sushmita ma’am, in the field of modeling, has stayed with me today. Discipline and professionalism being key! And actually, it was that time after Miss Universe India – that got me my first film – the South Megastar Mammootty noticed me winning my title and cast me for his wife in the action film The Train – I was placed on the film poster with him, attended the premiere and FilmFare wrote about me as the new It Girl – so the modeling was not only perfect preparation, it literally led to my first big screen role.
In addition to Hindi films, you have also acted in a few Hollywood films. Did you notice any differences in the filming process between both industries? If so, what were they?
Indians are so passionate about film – they work so hard and film is like the blood running through their veins, which is no different to Americans. The fact is that it’s about artists and their art – highly intelligent, creative and resourceful people who could do any job in the world, risk having no money, being looked down on by their family and any kind of security, to chase their dreams. So when you work with people like that, wherever you are in the world, you feel that exhilaration and hope for the future – that great pleasure in bringing a dream to life – of connecting to people on a deep level. There are of course cultural and financial differences, but in all of the ways that matter – dedication to craft, professionalism, care for others, etc. – the Indian film industry does us proud.
Chohan has acted alongside actors such as Madhuri Dixit and Eijaz Khan in critically acclaimed webseries’. She spoke about her experience in both shows, and how it impacted her acting process.
Your most recent work includes acting as the PR manager of Madhuri Dixit’s character in “The Fame Game”, as well as a social media journalist in DisneyPlus Hotstar’s “City of Dreams”. How were both of those experiences?
Madhuri ma’am is a legend, like her character on The Fame Game, so it was fascinating and a pleasure to step into her world on that Netflix set. What made it all the more interesting for me is that last project I had on Netflix, was Ant Story, where I played the lead character who, like Madhuri’s character, was a troubled superstar actress and eventually I was nominated as Best Actress for that role at the Shanghai and Dubai Film Festivals, in the same category with Kiera Knightly and Kate Beckingsale. So when I was playing next to Madhuri ma’am, I knew exactly how she felt – being an actress, playing an actress, which made the experience easier, and also more surreal. As for City of Dreams – that was my first web-series role – before that I had only played the lead in feature films, so it took a little getting used to, but ultimately each project comes down to the same thing – creating a character and collaborating with a director to make it fit their vision, which was the same for City of Dreams.
You have an upcoming comedy drama series coming out on Humara Movie and Disney HotStar- Ex Mates. Can you give us some insight into what it is about, and your character on the show?
I really loved working to create this character, because not only did I feel for what she was going through, I know so many women in India do too – she is full of energy, intelligence and drive to succeed, but is held back and stuck with a partner who, maybe because he’s entitled because of his gender, doesn’t even try! Now, this is no way to say this is what is happening in my personal life – not at all – but I think we have all experienced being stuck, whether professionally or personally with someone who drags you down – that’s what this 7 episode web series that is currently on Humara Movies is about. Getting into this character was easy because I see girls like this all the time, so I loved working on it because in the end, my character works out how to handle it and not only thrives, but gives her ex-partner the kick up the ass that he needed too!
In addition acting, Chohan is the South Asian ambassador for humanrights.com. We asked her what that experience has been like, and if she thinks it has changed the way she views the world.
I am driven equally by acting and passionately working to promote human rights and see them working hand in hand – the fact is that film is an artform and art is a branch of philosophy – when we are making films we are communicating on the human condition in the hope of spreading some light to difficult subjects, which is exactly what human rights awareness does. The Indian Constitution and the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights are the rule books for life – they are the basis of all national and international law. Our constitution is a written record of the conscious creation of our country – it is everything that we stand for – the way we expect to be treated and the responsibilities we all.have. It is essential to read it so that you understand for yourself what we are as a nation, everything that happens to you personally or that happens in the nation through the lens of the ultimate law – the constitution. Knowing my human rights affects me deeply and daily because it means that I understand every action I take or that is taken towards me in terms of my rights and responsibilities and most importantly with this knowledge I can most effectively help others to know their rights and responsibilities. I highly recommend doing this free online course so you too know your rights: www.humanrights.com/course
Some rapid fire questions:
A.If you could pick any superpower, what would it be:
To sprinkle magic and fun everywhere I go and spread smiles with this.
B. If you had to pick between modeling and acting, which would you pick and why?
That’s not even a choice – acting! In modelling you are just a body – in acting you create a character to bring the body to life.
C. What is your favorite part about being an actor? I
It aligns perfectly with my purpose, which is to help lift up the world via the use of beauty. We can only truly be happy if we are following our real purpose in life, which is to help, and acting does that and how!