COVER STORY : The Zing Thing: Tara Sutaria on movies musicals and theatre

Behind that beautiful face lurks a sharp and sensitive mind. Tara Sutaria, with her deliciously straightened hair and cover girl looks, is raring to go with her latest release, EK Villian Returns, a sequel to the EK Villain franchise. She talks about her love for music, being obsessed with theatre productions like The Phantom of the Opera. She’s watched a new play running in the suburbs of Bombay at least 12 times. She also had a wonderful taste in music, talking about everyone from Barbara Streisand to Mohammed Rafi. She lists Yeh Raatein yeh mausam and the songs from Pyaasa as delectable… which all adds up to the right time to meet Tara. And I ask…

Student of the Year 2, Heropanti 2, and now Ek Villain Returns, you appear to be the franchise’s queen.

Honestly, I didn’t realise this until a journalist brought it up recently. It was definitely not a conscious decision. But this is my fifth film and my third sequel, so yes, that’s a lot of sequels.

Did you think there was a danger of being stereotyped?

No. I don’t think I have been put in a box, and I hope that I will not be any time soon.

Tara Sutaria

If you were to meet your character from Ek Villain Returns, what would you tell her?

I would tell her to keep doing what she’s doing. She’s around a lot of powerful people, but that really doesn’t stop her from following her dream: to make it as an acclaimed musician. She’s an incredibly competitive person and won’t let anyone or anything come in her way. I would tell her to keep at it because all of us need someone to prod us in this music business.

And what would be your advise for Arjun Kapoor’s character?

Arjun’s character is different from what he is in real life. I would probably tell him to calm down on the angst bit and on his impulsiveness because that is detrimental not only to him but also to the people around him.

Tara Sutaria

You have sung in Ek Villain Returns. Who were the singers you were influenced by when growing up?

The voice that I fell in love with first was Barbra Streisand’s. I play her records every single day when I go home because it reminds me of who I really love and who I really want to be. She’s someone who used to produce, write, direct, sing, and act in her films. I love her to death. Then there’s Michael Crawford, Michael Ball, and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. He created The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, and all these great musicals. In Hindi music, I love Mohammad Rafi because he has this vibe, sound, and energy that is irreplaceable. I also love the Guru Dutt films, especially the music in Pyaasa. Hum aapki aankhon mein is such a beautiful song and is picturised so beautifully. You can see I live in another generation.

What’s your singing experience for Ek Villain Returns?

I have been singing in the theatre all my life.I recorded an album on my eighteenth birthday in London, which I have not released because soon after that I met with Karan Johar for Student Of The Year 2 and things just catapulted after that. When I first met Mohit sir (Suri), he said the reason he wanted to meet me was because the female character was a singer. He said he wanted me to sing all the songs for the film. I didn’t know him at all before that. But I did admire his music and films. Singing is a larger part of me than acting. I am glad I started my music journey in films by singing for myself with Mohit sir, and Ankit Tiwari, who have been a great support to me in the studio. I have trained in Western and semi-classical singing, and to start singing in Hindi was a completely different ball game. Technique-wise, it was difficult for me to adapt to Hindi, but it made it that much more exciting.

Tara Sutaria

How do you rate yourself as a singer?

To be honest with you, as a western jazz, pop, or semi-classical singer, I would say nine on 10. Right now I am in this anxious, fearful stage of the unknown of singing in Hindi.

Tara Sutaria

Music has always been your calling… How did it change you?

Music has made me connect with myself in a way that nothing else or anyone else has done. It helped me understand all my facets, the good, the bad, and the ugly. When we have bad days, we want to hear a song or play a film that has an amazing background score. I think music has always helped me connect with myself, even on days when I’ve felt disconnected from everyone or myself. It’s also been the biggest form of self expression for me while growing up. I was bullied a lot in school, so it was important for me to have an outlet. I didn’t have many friends, so I would keep to myself. My greatest outlet and my happiest days were when I would go to the NCPA (National Centre for Performing Arts) over the weekends and hear symphony orchestras or hear these fantastic musicians from all over the world. At that time, things were not as open as they are today. We didn’t have the kind of reach and the kind of musicians and artists from all over the world coming to India.

Tara Sutaria

I feel that the NCPA really spearheaded that. I was only five or six years old, and I would choose to go to the NCPA or the Royal Opera House over going to watch a film or to a birthday party, which was so unlike other kids. When I was in college, I played hooky so that I could go to these places. I happened to play the lead in Alyque and Raell Padamsee’s musical Grease. It was my life. Music helped me overcome my shyness and my stage fright. I gave a Ted talk on music and its connection to oneself a few years ago, before

I started acting. And now I am singing in Ek Villain Returns, so it feels like things have come full circle.

Tara Sutaria

What kind of music have you‘ve grown up on?

Everyone says I am an old soul. I listen to and resonate with music from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. I love the lyrics, the melodies, and everything about them. I still choose to play my records, DVDs, and CDs over online music, which is actually so much more convenient today. When I travel today to London or America, the first thing I do is watch a Broadway show or a Western musical or something like that.

What are your favourites on Broadway?

Every time I am in London, I make it a point to go to Her Majesty’s Theatre and watch The Phantom of the Opera because it is the greatest thing since sliced bread. I know every line of every song, every dialogue of all the characters. My dream is to play the female lead in that musical.

How did theatre and music help you to be a better actor?

When you act on stage, you know you have one shot to get it right. You don’t get a second or a third take. No 100 crore box office hit can make you feel that way when you are under the spotlight and there are thousands of people with their hearts, eyes, and minds glued to you. There’s no greater feeling in the world. I am still a big supporter of theatre and I still choose to watch a play over a movie because that’s where the real deal is. Theatre actors need to be taken more seriously and given the love we give our film stars.

Any favourite plays that you’ve watched multiple times?

Stories In A Song. The music is by the great Shubha Mudgal and it has this huge ensemble cast. I have seen it 12 times. Most of the cast have regular day jobs, but some of them are esteemed theatre actors, and the great Namit Das is one of them. I stood up and gave them a standing ovation in the first 20 minutes. I am obsessed with the play, which has stories about human beings, old ‘Bombay’ and old parts of India. It’s so exquisitely made and possibly better than any film you will ever see. It’s a travelling show, and I have seen it outside Mumbai as well. The cast asked me once how many times I was going to watch this play and when would I stop? I said I would be there as long as the play was showing. There’s so much to watch and enjoy in the theatre. I wish more young people would go and enjoy it.

You are very new to the film industry. What’s the toughest and what’s the nicest thing about being in this business?

This business is uniquely difficult, but it’s also the best job in the world. But the bad sometimes overshadows the good. The one good thing that stands out is that it teaches us so much about ourselves because most of us start out pretty early in life. We develop a lot of grit and determination and a certain amount of discipline. It makes us stronger, but at the same time very vulnerable. My other friends who are not part of this business don’t have these sets of fears and vulnerabilities that we have. So there’s this strange dichotomy when you are an actor, director, or musician. There are a lot of uncertainties. Many promises are made, but the majority of the time, they are broken. We deal with many disappointments, but we don’t really share or show them. We just move on with a smile, doing interviews, film shootings, and magazine covers, even on bad days. That is very difficult.

Do you have friends whom you can call and be yourself?

I don’t have very many friends in the industry. I chose to be closer to my childhood friends, and my twin sister is one of them. I am an introvert and I am trying to get out of it because this industry requires you to be an extrovert. I have always been closer to the people I have known all my life. I think things are less complicated that way and there are fewer misunderstandings because they love and understand you. Also, I don’t like having ‘yes men’ around me. I prefer to have honest people around me because that’s how I have been raised. My parents are brutally honest with both my sister and me, and we are honest with each other. My friends are honest. If they don’t like a film, they tell me that to my face. I prefer that to people praising me to the skies. It’s a personal choice, and I am happier. There are some really nice people I have met over the last few years in the industry. We gel together and have conversations that don’t necessarily involve films and work. I enjoy that because there is so much to talk about outside of work. It’s easy to get lost in this pretty delusional world that we are a part of. It’s better to be surrounded by people that don’t allow you to be consumed by what you do.

Tara Sutaria

You mentioned you were bullied in school.

My twin sister has always been much stronger emotionally and physically. She was as tough as nails growing up, and I was the introverted and quiet one. Actually, I preferred being alone rather than being with hundreds of other people all the time. I don’t know what the reason was, but I was this easy target to be treated badly from the fourth through the eighth grade. I also had learning disabilities, which when you are in school or college you don’t really understand what it is. You think a learning disability is like a mental illness, but it’s not a mental illness. So many of us have it and we don’t even know it unless we are tested. I think I got bullied because of that. My sister really supported me. She’d bully the bullies back. I could never take charge of myself. In retrospect, I do wish I had the inner strength to do that. Today, if I get bullied, I know exactly how to handle myself, thanks to my sister. I wish I could go back to school now because I have a voice and am much tougher. I would also love to go and talk about it in schools and colleges because there must be so many kids who must be going through the same problem.

As an actor, you get trolled on social media for the kinds of movies, airport looks, clothes etc., which amounts to a certain amount of bullying. How do you cope with all that?

I’m lucky that I have parents and a support system that have a laugh over it rather than sulk and get upset. My friends are the same. It’s your choice. You can let it affect you or you can ignore it. I feel if people in your life, like your family and friends, know the truth, then it really doesn’t matter. Just stand up for everything you believe in and negate this kind of dark energy. The trolling will not stop, so it’s healthier to ignore it than lock yourself in your room and cry over what a daft person has said.

You have been so cool about your relationship with Aadar Jain. How close are you to his family and how close is he to yours?

Apart from having a wonderful job and a great family and all of that, what’s the one thing that all human beings, no matter where we come from, want? Love. We want to be loved and give love, so it would be absurd to pretend that one doesn’t love somebody or that one doesn’t have emotions that veer towards that direction. I get very attached to people, and I think both of us are similar that way. We get attached to that special person and the people close to him/her. It helps to understand who he or she is and who they are. A lot of people in his family remind me of people in my family. The warmth, love, and generosity that you will find in most Parsi households, you will find in Punjabi households too. It’s been wonderful. I respect them and love them deeply, because for me, it’s important that if you love, you must love deeply.

When was the last time he surprised you or you surprised him?

When you first meet up with somebody, it’s full of surprises and bigger things, but as time progresses, you understand the importance of the smaller things. It can be something as small as him making a cup of tea for me in the morning instead of having somebody else do it. It could also be a handwritten note. These things mean a lot to him also, and are our special moments.

What is your mantra for heartbreak and relationships?

I really wish I had a mantra. I don’t get over things easily. I am an emotional person. I take people and commitments seriously. And when I am let down, it’s not easy for me to fathom why it has happened. So that can be upsetting. But life has been great and I am learning a lot.

What will a 25-year-old Tara tell a 17-year-old Tara today?

Don’t take life too seriously. Things do get better with time, and don’t be scared of everyone and everything. Always know your worth and you will go from strength to strength.