The lure of Bollywood is indisputable. As I sit, waiting at The Palace Downtown hotel in Dubai to interview Humshakals actor Esha Gupta, I bump into a friend who, on learning why I am there, pleads to tag along so she, too, can get a glimpse of the star.
Does she like Esha for her looks or acting talent? I ask.
“Oh, I haven’t seen her films,” comes the sheepish reply. Apparently, what she has seen and heard of Esha – she was rumoured to be linked with heart-throb Hrithik Roshan – is enough to make anyone spend hours in a hotel lobby just to meet the star in person.
Although Esha has acted in only a few films including Jannat 2 (Heaven), Raaz 3 (Secret) and Chakravyuh (Battle Strategy), and performed a couple of item numbers – the Bollywood term for dance sequences – in forgettable films, she is already in demand.
Recently in Dubai as a brand ambassador of local fashion house Splash, she’s already made it, if the number of journalists packed into the meeting room waiting to interview her is any indication.
And just like any Bollywood star of note, she keeps us waiting. It’s 45 minutes before we are ushered into a room to meet her. But she’s so charming, confident and, well, pretty, we immediately forgive her.
“When I was starting my career, I decided that I wanted to do different kinds of films,” she says. “Humshakals (Lookalikes) for instance, had me playing a really glamorous doctor, which is great for me as in real life I am not like that at all.”
She’s being very modest, of course, as she was a model prior to trying her hand at acting. But even then she had her priorities worked out. “I would only represent a brand that I think a middle-class person would be able to afford,” she says firmly. “That’s why I like Splash. It’s for normal people like me.
“I have my nephews and nieces who go to college and would like to indulge in fashion but that is the period when you don’t have enough money, you have to depend on your parents. So you look for a brand that is upmarket but is affordable and easily available.”
Although Esha speaks like a socially committed person, she is not averse to a little fun, too. Even while she was a student – of Mass Communication and Journalism, majoring in Law and Diplomacy from Manipal, in India – she entered India’s premier beauty contest Femina Miss India in 2007 and was placed third. She went on to compete in the Miss India International contest.
She didn’t win, but looks on it as valuable experience. “The amazing positivity of some of the people I met, the tips I picked up on how to walk the ramp, the advice I received from various people on make-up as well as health and fitness came in useful when I was making my debut in Bollywood,” she says. And now that she has a foothold in the industry, she has big dreams.
For one, she’s looking to act in a ‘totally commercial film’. “Like Rowdy Rathore, Singham or Bol Bachchan, an action or comedy film in this genre,” says Esha. Which proves that she’s ambitious. All she really needs is a huge commercial success right now to cement her position in Bollywood.
While she’s hungry for success, Esha, 29, is very clear about the path her career will take. “I have not yet arrived at what I want to do ultimately, but I will. I tend to think that the universe is working in my favour and I have the blessings of everyone. Blessings are important, because success is more than just hard work. I see so many talented people who work hard, but so few make it. So somewhere down the line you must have something good.”
So, what is her goal right now? “To the reach the highest point in Bollywood. In fact, I would like to expand, and go to Hollywood.”
Bollywood was never part of the grand plan for Esha initially. “As a child, I never dreamt of entering Bollywood or movies. I wanted to be a chef. But my dad told me, ‘I don’t think a vegetarian chef is going to make it globally!’ I was also into sport and studious as well. I even got a scholarship to study law at Newcastle University in the UK.”
But the Miss India beauty contest happened and modelling offers came pouring in. “The goal then had been to become a lawyer, but the journey just changed,” she smiles. And she has no regrets. “Cardinal rule: never have regrets in life!” she laughs.
“I’ve been blessed in that I do not have any regrets except that after I moved to Mumbai [from Delhi] I miss spending time with my family, my parents and sis Neha, and our dogs. I need to earn more so I can buy the kind of place where I can move them along with our three dogs!”
So, what tips can she offer Bollywood hopefuls?
“If you want to break into Bollywood, you have to know the language, Hindi, which many people in India don’t speak fluently,” says Esha.
“You have to work on the diction. I know of a lot of actresses who couldn’t speak Hindi, and were forced to learn the language to get ahead. It cost them time that is crucial where an actress is concerned.”
She also stresses the importance of learning dance “because Bollywood is all about music and dance. Enrol in dance classes; you won’t regret the time and expense. I did and I am happy.”
Her third rule may not resonate with every wannabee Bollywood star – join theatre and acting classes. “Only then will you learn how to be comfortable in front of a crowd,” she explains. “Lose all your inhibitions and learn the right attitude. You should not be bothered about 20-30 people staring at you while you are emoting or romancing.”
Being positive is as vital as putting in the hours, she says. “Hard work and luck go side by side. It may be a long and tedious process, but persevere.”
And once you’re there, you need to network and make as many Bollywood film contacts as you can, she insists. “Don’t be shy about meeting producers and filmmakers, letting them know you are interested in acting in their projects,” says Esha.
While it may be easier for people with Bollywood connections, it is not entirely necessary. “It is more difficult for people without industry connections like me to make it in Bollywood,” she says. “But it’s not impossible.”
Above all, be ambitious. “You have to have it to succeed,” she says. “In my case, I am fulfilling my mother Rekha’s dream. A homemaker, she told me years back that ‘I don’t want you to be known as my daughter, I want people to say this is Esha’s mum!’ I have her blessings.
“The industry has been kind to me too. I am happy where I am, but I want to reach for the stars!”