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The reigning queen of Siyaasat: Charu Shankar on playing Noor Jehan
Payel Majumdar  3rd Jan 2015

Charu Shankar

elhi girl Charu Shankar has come a long way, from being a young actor in Lady Sri Ram College's dramatics society to her stint as a dance instructor in Ashley Lobo's dance school, working as a global fitness instructor for Reebok, and hosting a show for NDTV. Charu latest role is Noor Jehan in Siyaasat, a Game of Thrones-style period drama adapted from Indu Sundaresan's book The Twentieth Wife, part of the Taj Mahal trilogy. Guardian20 caught up with the actor and asked about her unusual career trajectory and why she thinks Indian TV is going through a resurgence.

Q. Siyaasat happens to be the first TV drama series you've acted in. How did you get involved?

A. I had read all three books in the Taj Mahal trilogy and liked them. The producers called me and said that they were trying to make a Game of Thrones-style series out of it, to which I said, "Excellent. What role do you want me for?" And that is when I got to know that it was for Mehrunissa [Jehan's birth name]. I was driving at that moment and I almost banged my car out of excitement.

Q. What excites you about this particular story?

A. Siyaasat begins at a point where Akbar has ruled for many years, and Salim is to become the next ruler. Noor Jehan belongs to a family of Persian refugees who later rise in society to become diplomats. Being a woman and being in a fairly disadvantaged position, Mehrunissa rises above that to become the empress, Jahangir's 20th wife. Marriages at that time were generally for political alliances — she was the only one whom he married for love, and she was a powerful princess. There were even coins minted in her name.

Q. Is Noor's career trajectory an exception as far as women in those times were concerned?

A. Noor Jehan was definitely an exception. Women at that time, especially noblewomen, had no voice at all. There have been several queens in the past who have risen to the occasion, whether it is Razia Sultan or Rani Jhansi, but they are more the exception than the rule. We are talking about the Mughal era here, and Noor was a woman from the harem who used to sit in court. Having said that, women in the harem were much more powerful than we give them credit for. Even in the book, Noor is exploring this power equation with women of the harem who are not just powerful but very, very rich. The show has quite a few powerful women characters — Rubaiyyah Begum, for instance, who was Akbar's wife, held a lot of political clout and was very rich.

It is not a soap at all. It harks back to days when you had well-developed shows like Bharat Ek Khoj and Pachpan Khambe Lal Deewarein.

Q. How did you prepare for your role?

A. I feel like I've lived an entire life playing Mehrunissa. I've never had a role before where I've been a young teenager in love, had my heart broken, been married to someone I don't like, had a miscarriage, a child, and been in a war. I had a month to prepare for the role before we went to Bikaner, which is where we shot the series. I happened to be doing an art history course at the National Museum at that time and I spent it at the gallery studying Mughal miniatures and trying to imagine the world that Mehrunissa lived in. And once I was in Bikaner, we shot the series over a span of six months. As an actor, my actor's device was this nath that our costume designer Pia Benegal gave me to wear; that is the last piece of jewellery I would wear. And as soon as I did so, I would change from being Charu to being Mehrunissa.

Q. Would Siyaasat warrant being called a soap?

A. It is not a soap at all. It harks back to days when you had well-developed shows like Bharat Ek Khoj and Pachpan Khambe Lal Deewarein. It has a strong, well-plotted narrative. When we were reading the script, we found each character to be layered — no character has one simple narrative; there are many motives to why they do what they do. TV has dumbed us down a bit, so we usually look for the good girl and the bad girl. This show has nothing of that sort; each character on our show has shades of both. In fact, our creative director, Rishabh Seth, said this to me: "I don't want people to keep thinking of Mughal India in terms of Mughal-e-Azam. We need to break out of that. They were very powerful people, but at the end of the day, they were people."

Q. Do you think Indian TV programming is seeing a renewal of sorts?

A. I found the best example of this in my own grandmother, who loved her K dramas. But it took her no time to switch to a channel called Zee Zindagi that has these meaty drama series that don't go on and on. So, I think that it's not just the young audience, even older age groups want to see good shows. It is high time television went through a change. Last year, Anil Kapoor made 24, which went on air and did well. Now, I think more and more channels are realising that there is a cry for good programming.

Q. How hard is it to find good roles for women characters on TV nowadays?

A. I increasingly feel that now there is some sort of resurgence taking place in India, and there is gender-sensitive work that is beginning to happen, even in ad films. And this is a worldwide phenomenon. It is very interesting to have a woman play the central role, for there is so much more conflict that comes in then, and conflict is something that is interesting to watch.

Q. Any other roles you've played in the past that have excited you?

A. I did this play called Draupadi, which was directed by Bertina Johnson. I played a modern-day Draupadi-esque character called Maya, who is visited by the spirit of Draupadi. It was a contemporary look at Draupadi's dilemma, which was: I have been wronged, but does that mean that I want war? We started with a very skeletal script, and we worked our way into getting under the skin of the character, and figuring out where the conflict is. We ran that show for a year and performed it all over the world. Every time we performed the play it was a little different.

Q. What determines the roles you pick?

A. Always the script. I'm a graduate in literature, and I was taught to read between the lines of a piece of literature. And it is something I take very seriously.

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