You can feel her excitement in her voice. She always talks the proverbial 19 to the dozen but now there is a certain lilt to Kubbra Sait’s voice that’s infectious. She has just returned from Maldives where she did some ‘amazing’ dives despite not knowing how to swim. But the fear of the unknown has never deterred Kubbra. If it had, she wouldn’t have accepted and aced the role of a transgender that everyone is talking about in the show that everyone is crazy about – Sacred Games. “Finally, we have made something where we do not show flowers kissing,” she laughs, referring to the brave, bold and shocking scenes that may have become a topic of social media conversation albeit in a surprisingly positive way.
Netflix’s first original Indian show, directed by Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane, opened to a thunderous response last July. The cop and criminal saga with political and religious overtones was a star-studded affair with Saif Ali Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte leading the cast but credit goes to the writing and performances that even the smaller, supporting actors shine through the maze. And among them, few have made the impact that Kubbra did, playing Cuckoo, the afore-mentioned transgender who is in love with gangster Ganesh Gaitonde (a menacing Nawazuddin). It’s a pitch-perfect performance that doesn’t miss a single note.
With top critics to the average Netflix fanatic raving about Kubbra, it can be said that the hard work has finally paid off. Quite a few people already knew her as the bubby host of award shows and red carpet events, some may even remember her from small appearances in films like Sultan and Ready but Cuckoo has changed it all. A new actor has arrived on the scene. Now, will she get roles that do justice to her talent? Kubbra isn’t thinking too far, she is happy soaking in the adulation…
Congratulations on the response to your role in Sacred Games. How did it come about?
It all started one unassuming morning when I met (the musician) Ankur Tiwari, a dear friend who wondered aloud how long I would continue emceeing. I patiently heard him out. A short while later, I got a message from him saying he had recommended my name to Anurag Kashyap, and asked me to go for auditions. The role involved nudity but Ankur knew I wouldn’t mind it.
Incidentally, this happened during the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival where I was hosting the red carpet. Anurag was there and initially he ignored me but then turned around and asked, ‘Aren’t you Kubbra? Ankit told me about you’. I was excited, Anurag knew my name and that made me want to crack the audition!
Soon I auditioned and that’s when I was convinced I had to do it. They made me dance (which I am terrible at), they called me for a look test where I tried the hair, wig etc and it made all the difference. As soon as I stepped into Kuckoo’s shoes, I felt confident. Even the ADs (assistant directors) felt I had nailed it. A few days later, I was hosting a show when Anurag again called me. He gave me a 15 minute spiel on how bad a dancer I was, I didn’t know Hindi very well etc etc but….(and I waited with baited breath when the ‘but’ came)… he said they had decided to choose me. I was super thrilled! The shoot began after four days, I had no time to prepare but it all turned out well. What I liked about the role was that it was humanised, there was genuine love and affection for the third gender. The praise that has come thereafter is so overwhelming! Right now I have a carnival in my head! It is the one moment for which everyone comes to Mumbai.
Had you read the book by Vikram Chandra?
I picked it and found that Kuckoo was just a passing character. Anurag asked me not to read the book because Kuckoo was his and Vikram’s idea. All the dialogues and sequences were developed after I joined. The beauty of the role is that even if she is not in the scene, she has a presence in the series.
What were your apprehensions?
I was very nervous! But Anurag had so much confidence in Cuckoo, he kept telling me I had created magic. For me, I was doing another job, but for him, he was shattering all boundaries. I had such a strong team by my side giving me so much love and comfort that they let me fly. Even the breakdown scene (when Kuckoo reveals her gender identity to Ganesh Gaitonde) was read out to me and explained in detail. Working for a medium like Netflix, gives you a lot of freedom. The language used comes across as natural and organic. Be it the revelation scene or the sex scenes, the audiences are not spoon fed. As an actress, I just followed my director who was the pied piper! And this series was directed by two directors whose approach is so different. While Anurag is more spontaneous, Vikram is very prepared and planned.
So you have finally made it in Bollywood. How do you look back on your journey?
It took me eight years to reach here. I have done the ‘struggler audition’ rounds galore. I used to carry a bag with a kurta, a dress and a pair of denims as I went from one audition to another where I would be competing with 60 other people. I think everyone needs to do that. Not because it’s a struggle but because by my 100th audition, I started saying my name (one has to introduce oneself in these auditions) with conviction. I have been asked if I can play a mother? I am over 30, hello, I can play an orange if need be! I decided to give my best to whatever I took up. I did a tiny role in Ready. Similarly, I played a role in Sultan which I thought would be a turning point. In fact, whatever I did, I felt would work for me. But in the end, it was Sacred Games that became the actual turning point.
Kubbra Sait with Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Sacred Games
How did you wait for such a long time?
What worked for me all these years is diversity. If I was going to sit at home and do nothing, I would have lost my patience. So I hosted events, I started diving, writing stories… my brain was always working. I never did anything for money; money became the by-product. I just wanted to be good at what I did – be it acting or diving. Theatre did not pay well, so I took to the stage by anchoring. I also started aiming high though not unrealistically high. Basically, I treated myself like a business project where I would do a SWOT analysis (Strength, Weakness, Opportunities, Threats) and would note my progress every six months. Every six months, I celebrated my little successes. As I said, facing Salman Khan in Ready prepared me to … face Salman Khan! Now, it doesn’t matter who is in front of me – Salman or Nawazuddin or Ranbir Kapoor…it’s all the same. I just need to do an honest job and get paid.
But isn’t getting a break in Bollywood all about networking?
Not sure if it works. If you think politics is bad, try the entertainment industry! I might be best friends with the topmost director or actor but they won’t go out of their way to do something for me. I know most A-listers. For instance, I can say hi to a Karan (Johar) but can’t obviously walk up to him and ask for work! I realised Anurag Kashap used to live in my building but I never met him. It’s all destiny, I would rather let my work speak for itself.
How did you keep going all these years?
When you look at the smaller joys, the bigger failures look small. My mom has always taught me not to let failures get to your heart or success to your head. The year after Sultan came out was the hardest where almost anything I touched, failed. But I had to stick in that and get beaten or I had to rise. I decided to rise by taking a holiday. I went to Japan, backpacked, got acquainted with a new culture, climbed Mount Fuji and all that. The trip showed me my strength and proved to me that I was fighter. It wasn’t easy but it made me wiser.
Would you still continue your work as an anchor?
I enjoy it, it pays my bills! Emceeing is instant gratification. I could not live in the house I do or the car and driver I have if not for anchoring. I have travelled the world, learnt about people, I learn every day! Henceforth, I might reduce the number of shows but won’t give them up.
Let's do a SWOT analysis on you. How would you rate your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats?
My strenght is my confidence. I can walk up to anyone and introduce myself. My weakness is that I can't put myself in a box. Also, I am politically incorrect. My opportunities, earlier, were that I could grab everything that came my way. Now, the opportunity would be the wisdom to choose. And the threat is my sarcasm, it's lethal! (laughs).
So what's next on your plate after Sacred Games?
I have a roadmap ahead of me. I want to choose well. I am playing a small role in Gully Boy, it was great to be a part of it. It was the first movie I got without an audition and I absolutely adore Ranveer. I have clarity now. I was anyway, never cut out to be a heroine, I want to be an actor.