Shantanu Maheshwari: “I always knew that Gangubai Kathiawadi was an Alia Bhatt film, but I had complete confidence in myself”

Alia Bhatt’s star Gangubai Kathiawadi hit theaters on February 25. Besides Alia, Ajay Devgn, Seema Pahwa and Vijay Raaz, fans enjoyed Shantanu Maheshwari’s turn as Afshaan in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s management.

The boy from Kolkata shot to fame with Dil Dostii Dance and followed with Girls on Top, Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa, India’s Best Dramebaaz and Khatron Ke Khiladi 8. With Gangubai Kathiawadi he made his biggest leap from an actor known for his boy-next-door roles to an SLB hero. Shantanu spoke exclusively to indianexpress.com about her work with Sanjay Leela Bhansali in Gangubai Kathiawadi, screen sharing with Alia Bhatt and her journey in the entertainment industry.

Excerpt from the conversation:

In a recent interview, you mentioned that it took you a while to believe you were debuting an SLB movie. So when did this feeling finally kick in?

The day I finished my shoot. It was the day I felt like I was part of this colossal project led by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Yes, that’s when I realized I was making my debut in Bollywood.

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You also mentioned how you kept telling yourself not to say anything stupid when you met Bhansali. So what did you finally say? How was your first meeting with him?

(Laughs) I think we just had a very normal conversation, where he was trying to understand me and my background. It was just a frank conversation. However, I knew he was also trying to find his Afshaan in me and sizing me up and my body language. In my head, I kept telling myself to let him do his job and stay focused.

You watched the movie with your friends over the weekend. It must have been a surreal experience.

It was actually super fun. Many of them wanted to see it with me. They cried, laughed and even made fun of me when I was on screen. I think that’s how it is with friends. They never stop pulling your leg. Some of them have been with me since my first show. So yes, it was very very special.

And what about your family? They must be happy too.

Honestly, I had just told them that I was part of the film but I didn’t really give many details. So they went to see the movie on Friday, and fir toh dhindora peetle lage (they started blowing the trumpet). They asked everyone around them to watch it. It was never just about me, but they loved the movie too, and that’s what matters most.

There was only a glimpse of your character in the trailer. Did you trust the manufacturers or were you worried about how much Shantanu will be in the final product?

I don’t think I approached the film that way. Yes it was my first film but more than that I was thrilled to work with Sanjay sir and wanted to give my 100%. It was overall a very different experience for me, and I always focused on that. I had complete confidence in him and in the team. I knew that whatever screen time I got would do justice to my talent. I was in good hands. As for the trailer, few people know about Gangubai and so the goal was to establish it. Slowly and surely, the world around him revealed itself.

Moreover, you knew that Gangubai Kathiawadi would be called an Alia Bhatt movie, and even has a star like Ajay Devgn. Since you are relatively new, were you sure you would be noticed?

From the start, I knew it was an Alia Bhatt film. I knew it was a female film. This is the journey of a woman. However, I also knew that I had an important role in the film. The way she sacrifices her love for the greater purpose marks an important chapter in her journey. I had complete confidence in myself. And let me tell you, I was clapping loudly during Ajay Devgn’s entrance scene. He’s a star for good reason.

Tell us about your collaboration with Alia Bhatt. How did you two break the ice?

It was a fairly simple meeting at the office, where she walked in and we exchanged our greetings. It wasn’t like when she walked in, everyone stood up in attention (laughs). Plus, she knew I was playing the part and it was all very natural for us. In fact, we never had to break the ice.

Shantanu Maheshwari and Alia Bhatt in Gangubai Kathiawadi.

Was romancing Alia intimidating?

Not really. We were pretty clear about our characters and luckily the chemistry came naturally. We never had to put in extra effort, do workshops or rehearsals. Moreover, Alia does not carry the aura of a star. She is very cooperative and plays as a team. We both knew the script and we surrendered to it. Everything became easy after that.

Your character, which has quite a graphic, is about love and heartbreak. What did you think of the conflict?

Afshaan is a young man but at the same time he understands Ganbgubai. In the first scene itself, it is established that he has come to know her more deeply. And I think because of that, he understands why she’s sacrificing her love. And I think they had a selfless love for each other and so he supports her. He knows it will be for his own good. This deep love gives him this strength.

We all talk about ‘Sanjay Leela Bhansali heroines’, but what’s it like to be an SLB hero?

Honestly, I never thought of myself like that (laughs). But it was very nice of the gentleman to keep mentioning that. He asked people to look after his hero and that made him really special to me. In fact, it boosted my confidence and I felt like a hero. However, it was a very family organization and I never thought I was the leader. Titles are given here and there. In the end, your work will do the talking.

We have heard a lot about the difficulties faced by TV actors when moving to Bollywood. How was your journey?

I felt a little discrimination, but never in a brutal way. I think it’s over there and we don’t have to spell it. You get that from the vibe. For me, I think even the TV industry was slow to accept me because I had a very late entry. Since I came from children’s programs, it was difficult to find a place. To not receive invitations, to finally receive them and even to be nominated. When you are young, these things cloud your mind. You’re great in a way, but no one knows you, and it’s getting hard to deal with. But when you accept it, I think everything becomes fluid. Also, I must add that generalization is now fading with the web giving a platform to so many actors. I just wish this had happened years ago. But like them, better late than never.

For people who know you, Shantanu is a very simple, calm and private person. Since Bollywood is all about glitz and glamour, will you be able to fit in?

Sometimes it’s important to be a certain way, but you can’t be calculating about it. I realize that things like social media have become very important and I’m making that effort now. You can deal with these things, but I can’t drastically change myself as a person just because I’m in Bollywood. There are certain characteristics in me that make me happy and keep me in a good state of mind. It also makes me who I am, and it always will be.

Either we take small steps or we fly high. You made your big debut with a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film, but what’s next? Does the future worry you?

It will be a big responsibility and I will be aware. I am really happy that sir believes in me and he has been a confidence booster throughout. I also share a report with him where I can ask for advice and help. Sanjay sir really takes care of his talent and I know I can always consult him. I’ve always been selective and only want to do movies and shows with a good story. The length and the actors don’t matter, but the content has to be good. As far as TV goes, I don’t think I’ll do the trick anyway.

Dancing has always been your first love. What happens to this?

I have always balanced acting and dancing and will continue to do so. I don’t necessarily need to be on the international stage over and over again. I can do a lot more things to keep my love for dance alive.

Finally, share with us the best feedback you received for Gangubai Kathiawadi.

Everyone loved the movie and many even told me how I appeared like a breath of fresh air. Afshaan adds a different vibe to the film. I didn’t expect to have so much impact (laughs). Everyone has been really nice and kind. It’s so special when so many people make an effort to reach out to you. The fact that they are proud of me and think I deserve this place makes my heart swell with gratitude.