If there is one thing journalists dread more than working on a holiday, it is interviewing someone else on holiday. Such was my trepidation when I got on a call with Sara Ali Khan last week. Sara, having just show-stopped at the Lakme Fashion Week X FDCI, had scooted off for a few days to Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh. On Instagram, she posted pictures of unwinding in the glistening snow and tucking into hot parathas with butter. But behind the scenes, it was work as usual, discussing films and keeping pestiferous quote-chasers entertained.
“I am right now bumping away in the back of a Gypsy as we speak,” she shares, admitting that she has been answering the same questions for the past one hour. “But as long as the mountains keep changing, it’s fine.”
Sara is promoting Gaslight, a psychological horror-thriller co-starring Vikrant Massey and Chitrangda Singh. In the film, Sara’s character, Meesha, a young paraplegic woman, returns to her estranged father’s palatial estate, only to find that he is missing. The trailer is full of royal intrigues and references. Given that Sara too hails from a royal bloodline, was this a world she was familiar with? “Not at all,” she tuts. “I find it ridiculous when people think that. I don’t associate myself as a royal.”
Not even while growing up?
“I’ve lived in Juhu in Mumbai most of my life with my mother. I go to Bandra to meet my dad. I holiday in Himachal Pradesh and Kedarnath and Jammu and Kashmir. Like seriously, I don’t know what royal means.”
Sara workshopped at length for Gaslight, which thrives more on gestures and scares than gabby emoting. It is her first foray into psychological horror acting (though fans, or rather critics, of 2020’s Love Aaj Kal would disagree).
“There were days on Gaslight where I would stay back in the palace instead of returning to the hotel, which was just 45 minutes away. It was a different experience.”
Sara did not have a single release in 2022; this year, she has four. As prolific as that may sound, there is a lot more — endorsements, tie-ups, fashion spots — that busies ayoung actor for her positioning (and brand valuation). At LFW X FDCI, Sara shimmered in a bridal red Punit Balana lehenga and dupatta, part of a recent collection inspired by Rajasthani folklore and culture. She has picked up several top fashion and style awards in recent years, and freewheels more comfortably than most between western and ethnic fashion. Stress on the ‘free’. “I wear what I am comfortable in,” Sara says. “Fashion weeks, appearances, award shows…. It’s all part of the job. But not the most sacred part.”
So isn’t social media. Still, Sara is quite the star on it, known for her humorous reels and edits. Her promotional campaigns play into this shtick, like the recent Knock Knock video she did with actor Shehnaaz Gill. Nevertheless, there is a bite to her humour that occasionally goes beyond ironic detachment or cultivating a brand (when, in 2022, a troll asked why her shayaris are so bad, Sara responded in verse).
You can sense this too in her recent video on YouTube with grandmother Sharmila Tagore, who made an elegant comeback to the movies with Gulmohar (also on Disney+ Hotstar). At one point, talking about her arduous love life, Sara appears to overstep the confines of the scripted candour the makers were probably going for. “No, no.. change the story… you can make up something else,” Sharmila corrects her.
“The secret to my sense of humour is that it’s all organic,” Sara says. “If you are comfortable in your skin, even while being self-deprecating or whatever, it enables genuine humour.”
On screen, however, she has self-admittedly moved away from comedies for the time being to explore meatier fare. She is currently working on Homi Adajania’s Murder Mubarak, with Karisma Kapoor. There is Laxman Utekar’s untitled next, co-starring Vicky Kaushal, and a film called Ae Watan Mere Watan, on Indian freedom fighter and underground radio broadcaster Usha Mehta. The role, Sara shares, has been challenging on multiple levels, including the intricate voice moderation.
“People of that time generally spoke a little softer, especially women. I am a loud, gregarious girl. So I had to keep that control in mind,” she says. Self-deprecation much?
Gaslight releases on Disney+ Hotstar on March 31.
Sara’s recent reads
Non-fiction: Games People Play, a 1964 bestseller by the Canadian psychologist Eric Berne. The book lays out a theory of understanding human relationships through the study of social transactions or ‘mind games’. The book was recommended to Sara by her father and fellow geek, Saif Ali Khan.
Fiction: Madame Bovary, a classic of world literature by Gustave Flaubert. The book centres on the loneliness and disaffection of a romantic young woman in provincial France. Will Sara ever star in a Hindi adaptation?