Surakshya Panta is a confident woman who started her career in films with no mentor. She is today a celebrated actor in the country, now also called ‘the lady in red’ having walked the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival early this year. Her looks and award created a buzz as the first Nepali actor to achieve this milestone.
Starting her career eight years back, Surakshya has done eight films and is recognised for her natural acting abilities. The journey to success came with its share of ups and downs but the one thing that she kept working on was to keep polishing her acting skills.
“I love the confident me. Everything falls in place when my eyes reflect confidence,” the actor says. WOW’s Ankita Jain spoke to Surakshya Panta about the unrealistic beauty standards in the industry and why it is important to honour yourself. Some of Surakshya’s answers are not what you’d expect, and yet this is just the beginning of her story. Excerpts:
Tell us a little about your childhood. How did you define beauty as you were growing up?
I was born and brought up in Butwal. Raised among five siblings, my family always priotised education and as a result I was a studious child with good grades. Tracing back to my childhood, I was equally interested in dance and drama. Beauty then meant confidence to me. I was least aware of beauty standards then, so my seniors at school with leadership qualities always attracted me. I thought that was what we call beautiful and I always idolised them. However, in my teens, a pretty face became the definition of beauty for me.
What does beauty mean to you today?
After meeting people from across the globe, and having a fair amount of work experience, I can proudly say that my childhood definition of beauty was true. Confidence is what makes people beautiful irrespective of colour, facial features, and body type.
When you look in the mirror, what do you like most about yourself?
I like my eyes; they reflect my mood and emotions. I like how it reflect my joy and compassion towards my own journey in the film industry – my struggles, my downfall and my strong will to never give up. I like how I have accepted and love the way I am. My eyes remind me that as an actor I can do anything.
Coming to Kathmandu on your own must have been challenging…
During SLC, I was a school topper among the girls and this was my call to Kathmandu. My parents wanted me to go for higher studies and eventually become a doctor or an engineer. In small cities, these two professions are the only ones which are respected and praised and students are brainwashed to choose one. However, when I came to Kathmandu, it was difficult for me to gel with other students and people around me. I was a topper in Butwal but here, there were many like me. I got trapped in an identity crisis. Gradually the city accepted me and I opened up to the people. Later, when I decided to pursue a career in the film industry, my family didn’t support me at all, even the financial support stopped. I was on my own then.
You started your career as an engineer and eventually your passion for films landed you in the industry. Tell us about this transition.
I worked as a site engineer for more than a year but it didn’t give me any happiness. In-between I was auditioning for a VJ hunt show and late director Alok Nembang saw a spark in me during that audition. He offered me a supporting role in his film ‘Ajhai Pani’ which happens to be my first film. However, the film didn’t do well and even the director passed away. This was a major breakdown for me. The director who believed in me was no more. I then got back to my engineering career until I was approached for Suskera, my second film. Luck didn’t favour me again and Suskera never got released. After this, I started contemplating whether a film career was really an option or not. I started to question myself: ‘Am I really made to be an actor?’ or ‘Have I chosen the wrong path?’ With no one to mentor or guide, I was completely shattered. As time passed, I regained my confidence and took on another film Dhanapati which did well. After this, my career in film industry started to go well.
Now when I think about what got me back to acting time and again, I know that it was purely the happiness acting would bring me. This was something I could give my best at. I enjoyed being on film sets and working for hours tirelessly.
You break several unrealistic beauty standards in the film industry…
I was the odd one out in the industry. My height and facial features didn’t match the beauty standards then. But what mattered was the audience found me beautiful and this became my asset. I was different and I am comfortable in my skin.
When you joined the film industry, were you expected to look a certain way and did that make you insecure?
I faced many rejections for glamourous roles in which you are expected to look a certain way. Also, when you are an outsider, industry people try to pull you down. There are several planned gossips to lower your self-confidence. They spread rumours and then convert them into facts. This is an ongoing practice. When I was a new comer, people even said: “Surakshya is not meant for acting, who got her in.” They commented on my physical features which of course affected me. Many times, I rejected films believing that I won’t be able to do it. But then I never stopped trying, bounced back and did what I want to. In this industry where women are judged with every move, my biggest learning is, confident women have survived over the years.
What would you tell a young woman who is struggling to love herself?
Be yourself, take risk in life, and never stop believing in yourself.
What makes you different from your contemporaries?
Everyone is hard working but luck plays a significant role in this industry. Also, the way I think makes me different.
Tell us about the roles you have done, many of which have a very definitive, feminist flavour to them. Do you pick these roles consciously?
I have been typecast with roles of a housewife or a mother. I am usually offered these roles because people have seen me doing well in them. But as an actor I want to explore, experiment, and be in the skin of unusual characters. The fact that most filmmakers are male makes them see women in characters of a housewife or a mother. But it is high time that they realise women play various other roles in society, and films are the reflection of the society. We should equally have empowered women, boss women, women who stand for themselves and are no more dependent on their husbands.
I am trying to break my sweet and bubbly image through my upcoming films like Green Bird and Jalebi.
What do people tend to get wrong about you?
People think I am a very serious person. I am often called Bodhi Naika, the intellectual and wise one in the industry but I am equally funny and stupid.
The industry is quick to label artistes as mega star, super star, etc. I just want to stay away from these labeling practices and be free in what I do.
What do you have to say about the exploitation of artistes by brokers and agencies when it comes to foreign projects?
It is one of the major loopholes of the country. We lack artiste management companies and the brokers and agencies from outside Nepal take advantage of it. The Eight Mountains, the first foreign film I acted in, was dealt by an India based broker. The scenario was such that the pay amount was massively bargained and I only agreed because I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. This incident made me realise where we as a country are lacking. Had that agent been from Nepal, I would have had more space to question and negotiate.
You are the first Nepali actor to walk at the Cannes. What is the reaction you are getting?
I am known as ‘the lady in red’ these days. Even people, who didn’t know anything about Cannes, believe that I did something really big to reach that film festival. And in the industry, I have earned huge respect. People see me with different lens now. I am seen as a more deserving actor. The number of films being offered has also increased and so is the expectations. The film ‘Aama’ was surely my turning point but Cannes Film Festival has been one of the major highlights of my career.
How do you view the gender discrimination in the industry in terms of role and pay structure?
The pay gap is huge. It still exists. It will remain till the time we have more women driven stories. I still remember I was paid Rs 51,000 for my first film around eight years back. It was a fair amount then as I was in a supporting role. Later with my second and third projects, I was paid in pennies. It was my passion and will to act which made me take up those projects.
Is the industry good for the lesser-known faces or junior artists?
People are getting opportunities but many of them are often made to work for free, exploited and badly behaved with.
An actor you appreciate in the film industry…
Swastima Khadka with the different kind of roles she takes on, and the person she is.
One director you want to work with in Nepal…
I have always been saying that Prashant Rasaily is the director I want to work with.
Photographer: Suzan Shrestha
Interview, coordinator: Ankita Jain
MUA: Nilima Basnet
Hair Stylist: Sibani
Stylist: Markush Tamang
Wardrobe: Sonam Subba
(sonam_subba_limbu), Asha Retail (asharetail), Rk leather
Accessories: The Empress pvt
Footwear: Bsd Collections (bsdcollections)
Location & Hospitality Partner: Kathmandu Marriott Hotel