We tuned in with Nikkesha Rangwala on a warm Tuesday afternoon. Forthcoming, grounded, and a self-confessed shy bird, Nikkesha talks about keeping it real in the entertainment industry.
On starting early
How did you set off in the entertainment industry? Did you always know you wanted to be an actor?
Growing up in Canada, I was always the kid who was into dance, drama, and theatre. I would be the first in line for a play audition. I used to do this weird thing where I would read the whole script and insist on playing the character with the most lines. If there were ever a negative character with a commanding stage presence, I would go to the teacher and say, “I want to play this role!”.
I was also a Kathak Dancer. After school, I used to teach at a classical dance floor in Canada. We would have corporate shows and performances every weekend. We would do everything from weddings, functions to opening acts for Bollywood actors. I started getting spotted at these performances and got a couple of offers for commercials. This is how I got my first portfolio done at the age of fourteen.
Wow! You started working very early on. Was it because you enjoyed being a part of commercials?
Honestly, I started doing commercials only because it felt quite amazing to earn $5000 on an acting job at such a young age. I used to buy all kinds of gifts for friends and family from the paycheck. I would eagerly wait for Christmas so that I could surprise them with presents under the tree. I wasn’t all that generous though. The mall was a ten-minute walk from school, so I would also buy a lot of stuff I didn’t need. It was all quite silly, but to have that kind of financial independence was a surreal feeling at fourteen. Later, I started saving up because I had set my eyes on moving to Bombay.
Was it difficult getting a break in Bombay?
I moved to Bombay when I was nineteen. I had just finished graduation. Initial days were tough. For the first four months, I was giving only auditions, around five to six a day. It was an exhilarating phase because I would get to dress up and do something new every day. Even the smallest of achievements made me really happy. It would also be disappointing at times when I would get shortlisted for a couple of roles, but then nothing would pan out. It definitely taught me persistence at a very young age.
We liked your role as the hyperactive girl – Amal Mirza (Amy) – in Haq Se teaser so much. She is also shown to be an aspiring actress. What was it like playing Amal?
Amal is a fascinating character. She wants to be an actress but comes from a small town and can’t speak English properly. This was a challenge for me because first I had to ‘unlearn English,’ and then take on ‘Ajeebsi Hindi.’ This was a character that said byotifool instead of beautiful. Her favorite line was,
“Mai toh Star hoon Yaar!”
Apart from all these cultural differences, I could partly relate to being this innocent girl with dreams. I am not as bold and outspoken as Amal, so it was challenging to play her. I was glad to be the funny one when everyone else had serious roles. Even at the script reading, I would get bored in the parts where Amal wasn’t there. By this time, I had reached a point where I didn’t want to play the character with the most lines anymore. I wanted to play the most exciting role. And, Amal definitely fit the bill.
You have worked on multilingual projects. How important is fluency of language?
I think if you are an artistic person, picking up on languages and wanting to learn comes naturally to you. I think language is just the medium for art. It does give the advantage to be very comfortable with the language though. It helps in improvising.
Even Hindi was a challenge for me initially. When I was in school, I came to India in summer vacations to do an acting course in the Roshan Taneja School, Mumbai. They would give us these bizarre dialogues with heavy Hindi words. I would not know the meaning of any of those words — main sirf ratta maar ke aati thi. Taneja Sir’s wife would make me stand outside the class until I learned the meaning. It was tough love, but it helped.
On advertising in India and abroad
You have worked both in India and abroad. How is it different?
In India, you have a possibility of 3-5 auditions a day, whereas in Canada or LA you will have one audition a week.
Generally, you will have 30-35 other people auditioning with you here. At times, they would want you to do weird things like flip your hair and show the bottle, or cry on the spot. This can get super awkward and chaotic with 50 other people watching. Someone would be talking; someone would be attending a phone call. At times, even the casting director picks up the call in the middle of the audition and goes,
“Haan mummy mai audition le raha hoon.” (laughs)
It is absolute mayhem out here. These issues can get frustrating, but you have to learn to adapt to it.
Overseas, the casting director has already seen your profile and shortlisted a small number of people. There is never anybody else in the room apart from you, the casting director and the client. They also have the concept of a buyout. For every ad you do, depending on how many seconds you are seen on television you get a royalty per day.
Here, there is no such contract. Actors get paid a fixed amount. However, there is an opportunity at every corner. There are more languages to work on, more people, so many more things to sell, so many movies to be made. There are advantages and disadvantages to both ways. I am glad I have seen both sides of the pond.
What is it like to be on an ad set? How is the process different than shooting for a film?
Being on an ad set is the best thing ever.
“Budget jyada hoti hai, Khana bhi accha hota hai” (chuckles)
Jokes apart, ad sets are a lot more structured. You have the liberty to shoot the ad in a day or two. You have time to make a proper storyboard, plan the shots. Plus, you have the money. Films can’t afford that. You have a tight one-month schedule, and you are always after saving money. Advertising is definitely more organized. It is a happier space.
Did you ever feel like giving up?
The challenge with acting in commercials is that you have to constantly prove yourself. Even after doing 50-100 ads, I am still going for auditions. You are constantly trying and constantly facing rejection. Months can go by without any work. It can be a challenging profession, and you have to be very patient and very positive. In other jobs, if you are good, success will follow. But with our profession you can be extremely talented, really good looking, very hard working but if it doesn’t click, it just doesn’t.
How do you keep yourself positive in times like that?
I keep telling myself, if you don’t have the same energy as when you were a child, or when you first started or when you used to dance without any alcohol at a party, then you would never be able to do the same as an adult. You have to be as innocent, as excited and as filled with spark every day as if you were trying all of it for the first time. Only then can you keep learning and achieving. Acting is about reinventing yourself, every day.
Over time, you also learn to not care too much about a rejection. ‘Yeh nahi toh kuch aur sahi’ becomes the motto.
What are some commercials you enjoyed doing?
I enjoyed working on my L’Oreal shoot, it was a fun day. It was mostly a solo shoot, and Sonam Kapoor was there for like 2 seconds (laughs). Another unique commercial I did was for Sunsilk. It was an A to Z book with 26 ads. Unfortunately, it did not release that particular line of product, so the commercials did not come out. I also really liked working for Bharat Matrimony. It was super fun to be a bride for the day, sitting in Mandap and doing nakhras. I’ll never have a wedding like that, so I was glad to experience it firsthand (chuckles). I learned a lot working with Pradeep Sarkar on Dabur Amla. It was one my first commercials. I had a lot of fun shooting for Toyota because I got to drive fast.
What have you learned working on commercials? Can you give us an insider’s perspective?
You would learn a bit about advertising if you ever get to see how the shampoo commercials are made. It is amazing what we do to make the hair so shiny and fluffy. They will just use a stick in your hair to make it flat. Once they pull it out, your hair looks like it is flying all over. Honestly, that is what advertising is about. It is about illusion. A huge part of me has now accepted that perhaps what you are on screen doesn’t have to be you in real life. It is just what people want you to be. It is a brand’s job to adapt to the consumer and an actor’s job to show them what they want to see.
How do you think entertainment space has changed over the years? How has your perspective changed?
I think when you are younger, you think,
“Abhi toh mera Golden period hai, 23 tak toh mai star ban jaungi” (laughs)
Everything is about being number one, being this big star. But as you get older, you just want to be a working actor. You just want to be a working model. Most of all, you want to be happy doing what you do. It is not really about the numbers anymore.
With web series and social media, things have changed a lot. It is not necessary that everyone has to be a ‘heroine.’ They can be popular in their own space. You can see TicTok and YouTube stars, and so many content creators in different media.
Back when I started, things were larger than life. I still miss that sometimes. Now, I think the quintessential Indian Cinema is fading away. There are movies made without songs, without superstars. Films are now being made with the script as the hero. That is great because it gives opportunities to more people. We now see a bunch of protagonists. Even Haq Se was about four main leads. Stories are more dimensional, more relatable.
Now that you are established in the industry, does it sometimes feel like a dream come true?
It feels like I have actualized a dream that I envisioned many years ago. At the same time, I am still dreaming and achieving. Have I gotten everything I desired? I think any of us will say no. But I feel blessed, that I am in the race of my dreams.
What are your future plans? Any projects lined up?
I have some regional projects lined up. Haq Se season 2 is supposed to start as well. I have been working on a lot of music videos. Some other projects are still under the wraps. This should come out to be a good year. Someday, I would also like to produce and make my own content.
What is your message to aspirants outside India who intend to work in the entertainment industry here?
First, you should be very sure that you are comfortable with the language. Work hard on your acting skills. Have a good portfolio. Sign up with the right agency so that things are filtered for you, and you don’t have to struggle alone. Focus, persistence, and patience are three crucial things in this industry. It is about how badly you want it and what you are willing to sacrifice for it. This is a choice that everyone has to make for themselves.
- Are you willing to audition every day?
- Can you sacrifice family time?
- Can you face rejection?
- Can you wait in lines?
- Can you gain and lose weight according to the role?
- Will you be able to manage with an unstable income?
If you are willing to do all of that, then strive to be patient. Your life can change any second. (signs off)
We wish Nikkesha Rangwala great success ahead! You can follow her on Instagram @nikkesha1
Interviewed by Prachi Shevgaonkar.