The more I read the script, the more I came to love her: In Conversation with Actor Serena Walia

Serena Walia is an Indian film actor and stage actor best known for her unconventional character choices. After graduating, Serena took up a corporate job but quickly realized that it was her calling to be a performer. She worked as an intern with Manav Kaul’s group for one and a half years, going on to then start playing parts in Mamtaz Bhai Patangwale, Swanand Kirkire’s Ao Saathi Sapna Dekhein, Akvarious’ Peter Pan and many other noted plays. sold out theatre productions including A Kind Of True Story with Actor’s Cult and Unselfed with The Company Theatre, Orphans by Dennis Kelly, Open Cast with Kumud Mishra’s D for Drama.

Serena made her feature film debut in 2019, playing the mysterious protagonist in Kumar Rituraj’s sci-fi drama Khudbudi. It was screened at NFDC in 2019; the role garnered her rave reviews. Her short film (Aarti Neharsh’s The Song We Sang) has travelled to prestigious film festivals including the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, International Film Festival of South Asia and Kashish Film Festival .

Serena’s filmography also includes culture defining music videos such as As We Keep Searchings’s Rooh, which documents the emotional ups and downs of a relationship brought about by fate. She is also sought after by brands thanks to her ingenuity and fresh look.

Serena has made her presence widely felt in prominent roles on the web as well, across major online streaming platforms, including the hit romantic comedy created by Pradeep Sarkar, Cold Lassi and Chicken Masala (Alt Balaji and Zee 5) and Lov Pathak’s episode of Parchayee based on Ruskin Bond’s ghost stories (Zee 5). With The Song We Sang being spoken widely of late, Serena spoke to me about her experience of working on this short film and more

As an actor what excited you about this film and this role particularly?

When I read the script, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was excited from the word go. To dig my teeth into an idea so well chiselled was an honour. That’s what was running through my head as I auditioned for it. I was tested for both the parts. I loved them both and after interacting with the team, I knew I’d love to be serving this director’s vision irrespective of what they chose for me.

Krishna was the part offered to me and I was intrigued by her way of looking at the world. At first I perceived her as pessimistic and then grew to understand her as someone who is extremely practical and yet has the courage to seek what brings her joy. The more I read the script, the more I came to love her.

Can you tell us about the journey with this film. At what stage did the Director contact you.?

Three words to describe my journey would be : Collaborative. Inventive. Unconventional.

I must have auditioned for this about ten times. That is when I realised that the team loved to experiment and would ask me to send the same scenes in Hindi or as the other character. Manashree (handles casting and production) and Aarti (the director) were both very hands on and scheduled an online reading. When I heard that they wanted it to be a collaboration, I was thrilled.

In all, we rehearsed for three days before the shoot began. It was a night shoot that spanned over six days in Ahmedabad. We would sleep during the day to wake up to a set of fun instructions waiting for us in the afternoon. On some afternoons we would feed on truth in any scene and weave what we’d found with what was written. On certain days we’d be asked to stay in bed to watch a film together that belonged to the universe of this film.

Everyone’s working style was respected and every suggestion hurled their way was entertained.

P.S. The favourite part of my journey was all the drool worthy Gujrati dishes I stuffed my face with, during my stay there. No regrets, ‘cause YOLO!

What was your process of preparation? Was any particular acting technique more useful in this case, would love to know more about your process?

I read the lines over and over again till they could reveal minute details about Krishna. For eg. What she says about herself, what others say about her, what she says about others and the things she does.

As I read I started to find spaces to explore subtext and pauses pregnant with thoughts specific to Krishna.

There were times Aarti and I rewrote her lines and then scrapped them altogether. This process gave me time to access her stream of consciousness.

What do you feel is your strength as a performer and what is your favorite moment in the film and why?

To be present in the moment and allow the moment to take any shape is something I love and consider to be a strength. My favourite moment in the film is when you’ve seen the characters talk about infinite possibilities and then you watch them actually experience it.

Has your journey as an actor developed a new understanding of the art and craft of acting from the first day you had a desire to act. And what does acting mean to you today?

My understanding of the craft has evolved and how. I have understood the value of simple but underrated concepts like concentration, observation and imagination. When I did my first play I struggled with all three. When I went for my first ad audition I thought they were going to ask me questions like “why do you think you should be the face of Lays?”. I knew absolutely nothing but was more than willing to learn.

There are three words that come to mind when I think of acting today- The immeasurable gift. I feel grateful to be steeped in creativity and to be doing the work that makes me feel most alive.

Do you see any specific challenges for an actor in India today and would you like to see any changes?

I see a lot of very talented theatre actors around me. I would love to see more opportunities for them in films. I would also love for a stronger union to have our backs.

How was the experience working with a female Director for a female centric film. Do you feel it would be different from a person from the male gender? As an actor how much freedom did the director give you? Could you discuss your collaboration in relation to any specific scene?

Before this, I would always keep hoping to read or work on more scripts written by women. Many urban Indian men see women as equals, yet when they put pen to paper you don’t feel the same way. When I watched Suits or even Pataal Lok for that matter, I knew it had been written by men because of the way the female parts were written.

Aarti, our director, has cowritten this script with Chintan Bhatt. I think anyone one else, be it a man or a woman would have done this differently. I am so proud of my director and the high standards she holds herself up to that are unique to her.

It’s like Aarti and her team were in a thought bubble of creativity. In half an hour we got to witness instructions to explore a part of the scene in a million different ways. Aarti encouraged explorations even on shoot day. Since it was established that it was a collaboration from the very beginning a sense of ownership had pervaded through us all.

The first meeting of Alia and Krishna was shot in a way that the scene was divided into different parts. They knew which part was to be shot from which angle according to the edit, so for the next hour or so we would explore the world contained in those five lines only, which was a new experience for me. Suggestions of a new subtext or an intention leading to a reaction would be exchanged between the director and I. It felt like an experiment of sorts.

Here’s the teaser of the short film “The Song We Sang”

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