Effortlessly easing her way from the small screen to movies and recently debuting in OTT platforms, it would be understandably difficult to believe that acting happened by chance to the effervescent Mouni Roy. In a breezy conversation with the charming actor, we travel back to her childhood days in the small town of Cooch Behar in West Bengal, discover the role her parents played during her formative years, and how literature has shaped the way she sees the world. Roy’s journey is full of elements that make for a well-written book that needs to be unravelled one page at a time.
As told to Amitha Ameen
Make-up by Sarah Sequeira
Photographed by Ansonfotos
Production House HOP Media, Dubai
1. From TV serials and reality shows to music videos and films and most recently your debut in the OTT world, you have done it all! What has the transition been like?
It has been quite a journey. To be honest, I never thought much about the platforms per se, but rather about the different characters that I got to play through the different projects. I did television for the most part of my life, almost 10 years, and then I subsequently got opportunities to do films. I was working around 15 to 17 hours a day and never really had the time to sit down and think and plan a certain career path for myself. It has been very organic, and all I can say is that I feel very grateful to have this journey.
2. You shot London Confidential after the lockdown in London but while the pandemic was still looming large. How different was the experience of being on set during this time?
Initially, we all had jitters because nobody knew how it was going to be on the set. In the first two days, everyone was sceptical and finding their ways around, but the protocols and government regulations there were very strict and so, I think we all kind of eased into it. Only one unit was allowed on set at a time, be it the light department or camera department and all units had their own separate holding areas. For the first few days, we were able to recognise one another only by our voices, because everybody had masks and face shields on. The most important thing was the swab test that they did every week for the entire unit. I don’t know if I should call us lucky, but not a single person on set fell ill during the entire shoot that took place over one and a half months. It was a painful process but a necessary one.
3. You’ve been in three different countries, UAE, UK, and the Maldives in the last few months during the lockdown. What was the experience like to travel across borders during these unprecedented times?
One does feel a little scared of the unknown, especially when you are doing it in between so much confusion. But the reality is, if you follow all the protocols and other necessary steps that need to be done, then you will be fine. Obviously, you can’t stop working, and travelling was mandatory for me. At first, I thought I was coming here (Abu Dhabi) for a week and it has been seven months now. Then when I had to go to London, that was important because it was for work. When I was coming back to Dubai after that, that was for work as well. We did what needed to be done and more than that we cannot do anything.
4. How have you been keeping busy during your time in the UAE?
My morning ritual is pretty lengthy. Roughly, four or five days a week I go for a 90-minute hot yoga class, and by the time I come back, it is mid-day. I clean up, do my puja, chanting, and meditation and on the days I don’t go for yoga, I wake up in the morning and read religiously. I find that the morning hours are particularly quiet and distraction-free.
The second half of my day is spent attending meetings, doing the kids’ homework (Anisha’s), painting, and learning new choreography. I really love cooking, so I am always cooking something and in the evenings I unwind with friends. I have somehow been occupied this whole time (during the lockdown). I guess it is because very early on in this lockdown, I had decided that I don’t want to just sit around and procrastinate and binge-watch Netflix or keep reading.
5. What do you like the most about Dubai and what draws you back to the city?
It has to be Anisha. She is like my sister and it is almost like having my elder sister with me all the time. The best thing about Dubai and Abu Dhabi is her and her two kids. For me, it is always the people and the memories attached to them, as things and places are always changing. When you are attached to something it has to be something real otherwise it has no value.
6. Tell us a bit about where you come from and what life was like before…
It was a very happy time for as far back as I can remember. I was born in Cooch Behar, West Bengal. It is a small town and practically everybody knows one another there. In a town like this is where you can truly understand the concept of neighbourhood, so much so that you can literally leave your home and ask your neighbour to look after it. So that is where I come from.
The best memories of my childhood are attached to my father because I think I am who I am because of him. Very early on in my life, my parents taught me the importance of honesty and integrity. My parents are the ones who introduced me to books and dancing. Just by the virtue of being a Bengali, I think, it’s in our culture.
7. When did you decide that you wanted to become an actor, and how did your parents react to it?
I never decided to become an actor. At the time I was studying in Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi and one day as I was walking out, someone tapped on my shoulder and told me that auditions were taking place nearby and that I should check it out. And my friends and I went to the auditions. The next thing I know, I received a call from Balaji Telefilms asking me to come to Bombay for a look test. My father, of course, said no as I was meant to complete my higher studies and eventually sit for one of the competitive exams. But I always had a knack for performing arts because I studied music and dance from a young age. I was always the one dancing and choreographing at family functions.
I remember my final exams were about to start shortly and I really wanted to go to Bombay. I told Anisha’s mom about the predicament and she encouraged me to go and told me that she would talk to my parents. So I flew to Bombay in the morning, did the look test, and flew back on the same day as well. It was a whirlwind of a trip and one that I will never forget. My parents eventually came around although none of us expected it to be a permanent career path for me. I always thought it would just be a summer job.
8. You have lived in West Bengal throughout your childhood, what has been your earliest and fondest memories of the state from that time?
Life was like a high school musical and I have very distinct memories of my childhood. Every morning my father used to wake me up and take me on morning walks where he would talk about different writers and books like Shakespeare, The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, and Agatha Christie. You don’t understand the importance of reading those stories when you are younger, but as you grow older you realise that it was embedded in you since childhood and it has played a significant role in moulding you to be the person that you are today.
I am from Cooch Behar and I don’t think I had a passport until I actually passed out of college. So all of my travelling until then used to be through these books. My father would always sit with me or piggyback me, no matter how late it would get, and revise whatever I learned during the day. Another memory that stands out is the festivities surrounding Durga Puja with my mom and aunts.
9. In what ways have you changed from being a TV star to a Bollywood star?
If you actually go back and see my journey, you will notice that I have always been the same person, had the same friends in the last 20 years, always minded my own business, and have always been a very private person.
What I know for sure is that I am growing and evolving every day. The rest of it is all superficial and is of no importance. It is not possible to be accepted everywhere or be loved by everyone. We all have our own perceptions. Looking back at school, college, Delhi, and now Bombay — they all feel like different lifetimes to me.
10. As an actor you have shot at various locations. Which destination holds a special place in your heart and why?
It will always be London. It is almost impossible to be a literature student and not love Britain. I have grown up reading about its stories, culture, and historical places.
11. What was your fondest trip of 2019?
It has to be Soneva Kiri in Thailand and it was my birthday trip! It was one of my happier birthdays as I always tend to get a little glum around my birthday. But this birthday was very refreshing and it may have been mainly because I was submerged in the water for most of it. It was very picturesque and I was surrounded by nature constantly. On the eve of my birthday, my best friend and I went for a swim in the sea and right then all the algae lit up and there was a shooting star; it all seemed surreal and straight out of a novella.
12. You recently celebrated your birthday in the Maldives? What do you love the most about this island country?
The sun, the sea, the water, and the trees. I went kayaking for the first time. Initially, I was very scared, but 30 minutes later I had gone into the deep sea all by myself, literally sailing into the sunset. Not only did I conquer my fear but I also came first, even though nobody was in competition. I paddled fast and reached the sea chalet where we were supposed to spend the rest of the day, where a beautiful tropical picnic welcomed us.
13. What was the last book you read and how did it change or shape your existing perceptions?
I am currently reading Think Like A Monk by Jay Shetty. Two books that completely changed my life began with Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda and then the Bhagavad Gita. I have always been keen to dwell more into spirituality and self-realisation, if I may say so. These two books showed me a path because they not only guided me on what to do but also how to do it.
In the last 10 years, I have realised that every fiction has a takeaway or learning that the author is trying to convey but none of that matters if there is no application of these learnings by the reader. You can gather as much knowledge as you want in the world, but if you don’t apply it in your daily life, then there’s no point. All of our emotions must be treated like visitors who just come and go instead of dictating our lives. These are just a few of my learnings that I have picked from my readings.
I have realised that our lives, ambitions, work, and desires are all going to be there floating in our thought palace. But if we manage to do small daily activities like workout and meditation, and if we do it with discipline then we will be more productive. It is really important for one to always be in the service of others because such a person will never be sad or unfulfilled. Being of service to others and practising gratitude are two things that I swear by.