“I can totally do splits in this,” declares Sanya Malhotra, 26, as she picks out a dress for her dance-fashion shoot with HT Brunch.

The young actor, known for her roles as feisty wrestler Babita in Dangal (2016), fightercock Chhutki in Pataakha (2018), and cute, super-supportive Renee in Badhaai Ho (2018), entered Bollywood not via the fashion industry, not via a godfather, but through the reality TV show Dance India Dance – which gave the Delhi girl a chance to audition in 2013, but ultimately did not take her on.

“I was in the top 100, I got the Taqdeer Ki Topi, and I came to Mumbai,” recalls Sanya. “But I had my doubts. I felt I was not good enough. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, and I didn’t get through. I was so sad that I got one chance to come to Mumbai and now what!”

What happened next was instead a chance for Sanya to achieve her biggest ambition – act in movies. And here’s how it happened.

No age to dance

Like most children, Sanya began dancing by copying dance steps she watched in movies, and performing (mostly to the song Kajra Re) at family weddings. Her first dance competition happened when she was just a tot, at a mela (fair) in Delhi.

“A small boy was performing to Tu Cheez Badi Hai Mast Mast at this competition at the mela, and my mom’s best friend asked if I want to dance,” says Sanya. “I said yes, so she picked me up and put me on stage. The boy’s parents were really upset because it was his dance competition, and I totally stole it!”

Other small contests followed that Sanya participated in purely for fun. But, it was only when she was in college that she realised she could do more with dance than just copy steps.

“I was in the choreography committee of my college, and we used to have an annual production and participate in inter-school competitions,” explains Sanya. “When I got to know about techniques, I realised there’s a lot more to dancing than Bollywood. Till then, I had thought choreography simply meant doing your own steps. So in my second year of college I joined Mr Fernando’s ballet company in Delhi. I was quite flexible. When the teacher saw me dance, he was impressed.”

Most ballet dancers start training when they’re very, very young, so Sanya found her classes difficult. But she persevered and within two months, she had ‘found her pointe’ – that is, she had learned to dance on the tips of her toes, a move that usually takes years to achieve.

Sanya’s advantage in any dance performance is that she is usually the choreographer as well as a dancer, which means her chances of making mistakes are practically nil. “I’m really good at improvising on stage, so if I’d forget a step, I’ll just make up something,” she giggles. “And the rest of the dancers would be like… what is she doing!? It always looked like they have forgotten the step, so I got away with it!”

Credit where it’s due

Sanya taught dance as well, at the same ballet company that got her to her ‘pointe’. Then Dance India Dance called, and she moved to Mumbai. Though she did not get through the auditions, her talent shone through, and soon she not only became an actor, but also choreographed a song in the Aamir Khan production, Secret Superstar. “Post the DID audition, I thought I should be doing something to keep myself busy till I get some work. But I was too shy to go out and do anything, I only used to go for auditions, I had even thought of assisting a choreographer friend, but things didn’t work out. I even tried to assist a few casting directors but again, I never got a response from anyone. But then, I auditioned for Dangal and all’s well that ends well!” she says. Both acting and choreography are strong talents, but Sanya does not believe she can combine them. “I can’t choreograph myself,” she confesses. “I tried doing that for Pataakha, but I couldn’t do it.”

Indian films have always been known for their song and dance. Ironically, though, the people behind these arts have almost always been relegated to second rank in the film industry hierarchy in comparison with actors. Sanya believes that now dancers, choreographers and the art of dancing are getting their due credit in the film industry.

“Through all these reality shows, we are definitely giving dance that importance now,” she believes. “You see Shakti Mohan, Mukti Mohan, Dharmesh Yelande… we know these people. I follow these people. Earlier it was just Bollywood, now people know so much about dance forms, so it’s definitely evolved.”

In her time in Mumbai after the Dance India Dance audition, Sanya worked in both Ashley Lobo’s and Shiamak Davar’s dance troupes, but quit both for diverse reasons. “I got into Ashley Lobo’s company to teach, but I used to wear really normal T-shirts and pyjamas and my company director would tell me I should wear sports bra, cut my T-shirt etc., and I didn’t want to do that, so I left,” she says. “Now that I look back, I think these things matter. It makes you feel good. I didn’t enjoy Shiamak Davar’s troupe, because it was too much about the favourite student first. Unless I’m in the centre of the stage, I’m not doing it!”

Not so social

As she talks, Sanya is busy with our shoot, doing different dance forms in different outfits. She’s happy to go from a contemporary step to a twirl, picking up a hat and prancing in between shots to Michael Jackson songs. But she has a life beyond the screen that she is fiercely protective about. She wasn’t visible for two years after Dangal, and that’s how she is: reclusive to protect her personal space.

“I’m a shy person. I like disappearing from the scene when I’m not working,” says Sanya. “I am an actor, but being social is not what I like to do. I love being in front of the camera and meeting people on the sets, but that’s about it. This is my way of protecting my personal identity.”

Instead, she blooms on social media – a following of 768K watches her Instagram dances. “I’ve used dance as a form of expression all my life. If there are too many people to talk to, I’ll probably be nervous. But give me a huge audience when I’m on stage and I will give my best performance!” says Sanya proudly. “And I’ve never been trolled,” she adds, chuckling. “People are so nice to me on social media!”

That’s just as well, because for Sanya, the dancer is in the actor, and the actor was always the priority. “I always wanted to become an actor. As a child, I always told my mom to please tell people she wants me to be an actor, or Miss Universe. When I learnt dance, I thought maybe I’ll be a dance teacher, but I knew deep down inside that acting was always my goal,” Sanya says.

But she wants to dance on screen as an actor in an ABCD kind of film, and intends to go abroad and learn tap dancing, she says. So perhaps our next glimpse of Sanya after this shoot will be of her tap dancing on the streets of Europe!

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From HT Brunch, January 13, 2018

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First Published: Jan 12, 2019 21:09 IST

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