She is in the midst of a shoot for the popular reality show Bigg Boss' season finale, but in a conversation she punctuates with late dinner and black coffee, Mouni Roy, who plays Shivanya the lead character of Colors' Naagin -- television's current hot property, a show that rose to No.1 in record time -- traces her journey from Cooch Behar to Mumbai.
Where have we seen Mouni Roy earlier?
Some of the roles that can be highlighted in Roy's career graph include those in Star Plus' Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (as Krishnatulsi), Life OK's Devon Ke Dev Mahadev (as Sati), and as a contestant in the Colors' dance show Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa. She has also appeared intermittently in other soaps in non-lead roles, as well as in many non-fiction shows.
From English Literature to Naagin
This particular audition happened to be for television's numero uno soap those days -- Balaji Telefilms' Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (KSBKBT). "Initially, I got chosen for a different Balaji show which needed a Bengali-looking character. I was called to Mumbai for a day for a test, a few days before my final exams. In fact, I was getting calls from the production house even during my exams. On the final day of my exams, I remember the production person waiting outside for me to finish my paper," says Roy. "And, when they couldn't get someone to play the character of Krishnatulsi for KSBKBT, I ended up with the role on the recommendation of Balaji Telefilms head Ekta Kapoor, one I hadn't even been tested for," she adds.
Roy says that her father was skeptical and wanted her to focus on studies. And she, on her part, wasn't 'much of a TV person' either, and had more of a 'hostel life' which involved going out with friends to places like Dilli Haat and the India Habitat Centre, and reading books. For college student Roy, the show KSBKBT conjured images of sarees, big 'bindis', 'mangalsutras' and heavy make-up. She decided to come to Mumbai only after the creative team managed to convince her. "I went along thinking of this as a summer job. I had never signed a contract, and didn't realise how much responsibility this came with," says Roy.
The production house provided her a home, a car and 'cheques on time', but it was lonely in Mumbai initially. "I felt there was a huge gap between my social circle in Delhi, and my professional circle in Mumbai, a marked difference in interests," says the actress, who has submitted a dissertation on Habib Tanvir and Indian theatre, and had further planned to do an M.Phil. Roy says she did suffer from the 'diaspora syndrome', but adapted well thanks to her experience of having lived alone since she was young, as well as her exposure to different cultures - being born in Cooch Behar in West Bengal, having studied in Delhi, and working in Mumbai.
According to Roy, her KSBKBT days taught her a lot -- both in terms of acting and being a professional. She says KSBKBT's lead actress, now cabinet minister, Smriti Irani, was her mentor.
A 'snake woman' in 2016?
The role for Naagin, Roy says, came to her after a period of sickness and personal loss (her father's demise) -- her low phase. She landed on the sets in Jodhpur without needing to go through look tests or preparations. Roy asserts that the story was that of a 'contemporary snake woman' which helped put aside apprehensions of, yet again, taking up a role with 'Amprapali costumes'. She says, "I did not refer to films of this theme -- Ekta Ma'am's narration was more than enough to understand the vision and the character".
Shailesh Kapoor, founder and CEO of Ormax Media, adds, "Roy has entered the Top 15 fiction characters on our index 'Ormax Characters India Loves', within a month of the launch of the show Naagin. Typically, successful characters take at least two-three months to break into the Top 15 bracket. In certain markets such as the small towns in UP, she has broken into the Top 10."
He adds,"Shivanya's popularity is a result of various aspects, some linked to the story and some to Roy's casting. Shivanya is seen as being a strong woman determined to take revenge, yet has Indian values in her core character definition. Roy's portrayal of Shivanya comes across as good-looking, with the ability to uplift a scene with her assured performance."
Roy, who is excited about the show's success, like most actors, credits the entire team for it, and adds that due to its need to flit from the contemporary zone to the 'snake' zone, the show can get difficult, and needs presence of mind and focus.
Can a role of this kind (and the one in Devon Ke Dev...Mahadev) affect perceptions about her or even hinder brand endorsements coming her way? She counters that her reality show appearances, her public persona, and her presence on social media are enough to take care of pre-conceived notions. "I don't take up work based on what it will or won't lead to," she says.
Roy is prolific on social media and her twitter profile says, 'A Jane Austen heroine in a Christopher Nolan world'. "I feel I'm born too late, and I often feel like the ugly duckling -- always the misfit," she explains.
Besides English writers and poets, her literary favourites also include the works of Premdas and Kabirdas and those who helped her understand and enjoy the dialogue of her mythological shows. But even so, does this Jane Austen and Keats fan feel strange when her face (and body) transform into a snake? She says, "The show is called Naagin..there are no surprises...if not a snake, what will I turn into?"