Ridheema Tiwari is an Indian TV and film actor who carved a fan base in both West Bengal and Bangladesh, by playing the role of Maldawali in the Life OK channel's hit serial Ghulaam. Maldawali had Bangali origins, and everything from the way she drapes her saree, to the half Hindi and half Bangla dialogues made her appearances on the screen memorable each time. In 2017, she made her Bollywood debut in the film Begum Jaan, which also stars Vidya Balan. In an exclusive interview with the Dhaka Tribune Showtime's Faruque Ratul, Ridheema reveals how memorable serial characters are created and the challenges that actors face in their life
I have read somewhere that your name is Shweta Tiwari. However, since there is one Shweta already, you decided to go by Ridheema. Is there any truth in this?
There was an identity crisis when I entered this industry. Being an ambitious newcomer, I decided to wipe my past clean and began my journey and struggle with a fresh new name. Ridheema means prosperity - goddess of power and money. Slowly,I began to feel more likeness with the godliness of purity, stability, peace, fearlessness and abundance to face the ups and downs in this competitive field.
Your dance sequences tell me that you have had training in dancing. Did you also get training in acting?
I am a trained classical Bharat Natyam dancer. I was fortunate to start dance lessons early in my life, which taught me the importance of posture and how to easily change my expressions. But acting was never my passion or my career goal. I came to Mumbai to become a journalist, then took up a banking job and soon got bored with it. Some youth have a lot of clarity which I didn't at the time. Most of the times I left it to destiny and learnt everything from the experiences that the universe gifted me. Initially, acting came as an experience that slowly became something I like, and then turned into something I was serious about, and then my passion and so on. Unfortunately I had no prior training in acting and learned everything on the sets from my seniors. Through various trials and errors, "gyaan" (knowledge) from my co-actors, patience, self-analysis, observations, never-dying learning spirit, gratitude, and learning from past mistakes helped me grow. These are helping me expand, explore and rejuvenate even today.
Tell us about your debut serial Har Ghar Kuch Kehta Hai?
After more than decade in the industry now, Har Ghar Kuch Kehta Hai was my first TV serial. I had no clue of where life was taking me, and had no competitive spirit. I just took up work to keep myself busy and learned a lot on set, watching my seniors perform and deliver lines effortlessly, yet remaining energetic, vibrant and beautiful throughout the day. I met my my role-model the powerful and superwoman actor Meghna Malik on the set of Har Ghar Kuch Kehta Hai, who I draw inspiration from even today.
How hard is it to get work in the serial industry of India? The market is saturated. What qualities do the directors specifically look for among actors?
Every field gets saturated if there is too much supply and limited demand. But the question is, is there quality with quantity? Commoners think it's easy to face the camera and deliver lines in front of 200 to 300 people, look glamorous at all times,and have easy work schedule, loads of money and a lavish lifestyle. They think we did not give any efforts to achieve this. The flip-side is that actors have a very challenging lifestyle. Our careers are unstable and have a somewhat short span. We have no private life, and have hectic work schedules ranging from 12 to 14 hours. Our money reaches us after three months. And sometimes we even get into a crunch to pay bills if work is not steady. The struggle to show an outright glossy or flashy lifestyle adds pressure. All these reasons, and sustaining a position in the industry when one becomes jobless between work stints, takes a toll on our mental health. It is easier said than done. Whilst there are success stories of people who are flourishing, most of the times they are only glossy stories to read, incomplete contrast to what the actual truth is. Of course there are people who do well here, but only those who are grounded, disciplined, stable in their heads, courteous,and have a hardcore learning spirit make the cut. People who value time, people and money are the only ones who are here to stay.
Your role as Maldawali in Ghulaam pretty much made everyone sit up and take notice. How did you design such a complex character?
I am blessed and grateful that Maldawali in Ghulaam got noticed and appreciated.I give complete credit to the producer of the show Saurabh Tiwari who thought I could justify playing it. Rahil Kazmi - the writer who made my character spicier by the day, the designer Shivani Shirali who styled me with uniqueness and finesse, and my make-up and hair department have all come together to finish the classic design of the character. Delivering the lines came much later. Only once the look is right do people take notice. I did my job earnestly and shall keep doing so always. Of course I can’t forget my fans who made this role memorable by giving me so much love and support.
Complex characters are nothing but our real selves, if one peels layer by layer, one can transcend "real" into reel through personal experiences and analysis. I empathized with Maldawali and befriended her to hear her story and then just narrated it, expressing her through me...the rest is history.
The special dialect with which you speak as Maldawali, is a mix between Bangla and Hindi. Was that a deliberate decision?
It definitely raises the oomph of the character thanks to my Bangla lessons on set from my senior co-actor and my creative director. Of course because Maldawali was from Malda, it was important to add nuances, which made the character interesting. Speaking entirely in Hindi or Bangla was definitely impossible due to the setting of the show. Hence, we went with the Hindi-Bangla mix. It justified my character's Bengali origins as well and catered to a larger audience. It was a fun experience.
Can you speak Bangla fluently? What other languages do you speak fluently?
I speak Hindi, English and Gujarati fluently. However, I cannot speak Bangla, but I do understand some of it.I love Bangla bhasha! It is the sweetest.
What makes Maldawali so noticeable is the colourful sarees she wears with many different styles of blouse and waist chains; and the special way she drapes her saree. How involved were you in designing her appearance?
Not much. Looks are usually created and approved by the channel. A lot of hard work goes into finalizing the look of characters. The way a certain character looks becomes a pivotal priority in order to strike the correct chords with audience. However, I took immense interest in the case of Maldawali and was involved in creating certain hairdos in order to make the character look prettier in every frame. I made sure to carry the dresses and styles with my character in mind to the best of my ability and imagination.
There are many videos on YouTube showing the serial stars having a fun time on the set, when they are not shooting. This camaraderie deserves an applause. Do all the production teams for serials behave in such a way? Do the directors and producers insist on such an environment?
Of course. Since we spend most of the time away from family, our unit is our extended family. We connect with each and every person on set and share happy cheerful moments and celebrate together. The shows mostly run for approximately a year, so obviously, a healthy environment is extremely important for favourable working conditions.
Tell us the excitement you felt, when you were cast in Begum Jaan. Did you feel nervous, or did you feel you were perfect for your role? Did the casting director tell you why he or she chose you for the role of Amba?
I was chosen for the role of Amba because of my fierceness, strong body-language and my energy levels. I was told that I was selected in a span of 10 seconds of watching my audition tape. I shall never stop thanking God for this. I was nervous, happy, anxious and a lot of other things. I just did my job earnestly again and left it to God. I do not know if I was perfect for the role, but I definitely enjoyed playing the part.
Begum Jaan was supposed to feature an on-screen kiss with your co-actor Flora Saini. Were you nervous about the sequence and its reception? What was the chemistry like with Flora?
It was to showcase a kiss initially but then it did not happen. I was extremely nervous about doing it and I always shall be with scenes like these. Also the nervousness regarding audience reactions, given the societal taboos and norms is natural. Though I also understand that I am an actor and we need to express freely and completely. But thankfully all went well and I have not been typecast in such scenes.
You have mentioned to India Times that you are looking for more versatile characters in the future, to avoid being typecast. Will you give some examples of the kind of roles you are specifically interested in?
There is so much good work happening that it’s impossible to list. I wish to be part of more films, and more web-series, where I get to play different characters each time. Positive, negative, historical, mythological, sci-fi, anything goes. I just love acting.
Will you ever work in any production of Bangladesh, if you like the character?
Of course! It would be an honour to work with a worthwhile production house and team in Bangladesh, as deep down we are still one people.