Payal Rohatgi is an actress and Reality TV personality. Starting as a part of the Miss India Pageant, she debuted with Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hain? in 2002. She went on to work in notable films like Rakht, 36 China Town, Heyy Babyy, and Dhol.
She gained significant attention as a robust contestant on BiggBoss 2008. Payal has further modeled for Cadbury, Nirma, and Nescafe, among other brands.
Team Storiyaan talked with the fierce actress about her life and journey in Theatre, Films, and Television, as well as her strong opinions.
Questions and answers
You earned a degree in computer engineering before joining the industry. Can you start by telling us a little about your time before the glamour world?
Before I entered the glamour world, I was an engineering student. I have been academically driven as my entire family has always promoted education. My mother has been a teacher for the past 30 years, and my father is from IIT Kanpur, my uncle is an electronic engineer. Therefore, I opted to be a computer engineer. So, it was a different experience for them when they realized that I wanted to get into modeling and pursue a career in it. But, it all happened during my college days. I was a pretty girl in college, and people used to say that I don’t belong to engineering colleges, and I should try something in Bombay. I always wanted to complete my studies, but I tried for Miss India, and after that, I shifted to Bombay. But I finished my engineering, and I have a degree that I can show as proof when asked about.
You were a part of the Miss India Pageant. Can you share some of the memorable experiences you've had during that time?
Priyanka Chopra, Lara Datta, and Diya Mirza were Miss India pageants back then in my batch. So I have a lot of memorable experiences as I have seen them throughout their journey. Miss India was a trifle back then, just like I told you, I had woven a bet in college, and I was supposed to fulfill that bet, and for that, I applied as a Miss India contestant. I came to Bombay but being an amateur, I knew nothing about etiquette, clothing sense, etc., but I still managed to go till the last nine in the contest. I then represented India in supermodels, who wanted a Miss India finalist to represent India, and for the same, I traveled to South America and won the supermodel title there. As a pageant, I feel the ‘Miss India’ process needs a lot of change. Just like you have casting couch, nepotism, and other stories related to Bollywood, even Miss India has its shares of stories and linkups and favoritism, which honestly can be more professionally done.
You must have met people from all over the country while participating in this pageant. What are some of the things you learned from that experience?
Well, I’ve met many people, there were a lot of internationally acclaimed judges. You have to remain calm, composed in whatever situation you are thrown into. It can be a crazy day, it can be completely upside down, but you need to maintain control over the situation by controlling your brain. So I presume; that is something I’ve learned. I tried to survive in the modeling industry and get into Bollywood, which I eventually did. I tried to survive the pressures in Bollywood, financial pressure, and more. I’ve learned from each incident in my life, Miss India being the starter. It taught me how winners are made. I think in today’s time, you can’t sell what you were selling eight years back. Bollywood actors coming to the set 2 hours late can’t be tolerated now. Everything has to be punctual and professional. Even in the fashion industry, the shoots you have done and the winners and the contacts you have, and getting to know the questions before the question-answer round, all these things cannot be done nowadays. We don’t know where there is a camera, and the information will be put out. So I feel that my experience has always been a learning experience. I don’t think of it as good or bad.
You won the title of Supermodel Miss Tourism World in 2001. How would you say you contributed to the country with your title?
I was representing India on an international level. After that, I interacted with certain organizations that were working against drug abuse and working on rehabilitation of the drug addicts. I associated myself with those organizations because I realized that Bollywood (in fact, Mumbai as a city) has many bad habits that can swallow an outsider. So I tried to get associated with these organizations, but unfortunately, my association with them was not long-lasting. I was a loner trying to establish a Bollywood career, fighting my own battles and surviving on my own terms. I have started talking about various issues like politics, or issues like ‘justice for Sushant Singh Rajput,’ or the hypocrisy in Bollywood that they won’t address, things that help some people personally. I think I am talking about and doing more for society now than I did ten years back.
You are unafraid to voice your opinions. What is your take on feminism and pseudo feminism? What, according to you, distinguishes both?
I think feminism in India is pseudo-feminism. Feminists here speak on issues if anyone is showing Hinduism in a bad light like feminists find the tradition related to Karva Chauth regressive but not the tradition of Roza, they find Ghungat regressive but not Burkha. They wanted Sushant’s family to be allowed to grieve. Now that his family is boldly asking for justice for their son, their brothers are now taking another angle, saying that Rhea Chakraborty facing the media trial is horrible. The supreme court should look into it. They don’t accept the same court’s verdict when it is the ‘Ram Mandir’ issue or when Pragya Thakur is given bail and acquitted of the charges of terrorism. When the Supreme court works according to their rules and regulation, the hypocrites hail the Supreme court, but the Supreme court doesn’t work according to their rules and regulations. I find them a bunch of hypocrites, and they expose themselves every day. They live in India and thrive by selling India, they thrive by supporting people who want to divide India, but now they are being exposed. So that kind of feminism is being targeted by me, especially because I believe that they have the right to target my religion to further their career profits. They want to survive by targeting my religion, which they are also a part of, but I won’t allow that. So for me, feminism in India is pseudo-feminism.
How was your experience in the Big Boss House? Can you share some of the incidents that happened behind the screen?
Big Boss was my first reality show; I did not know how the show would work with the telecast aspect. We were living with a suitcase of clothes we had taken initially inside the house. There was no connection with the outside world as such. There was a lot of politics in terms of what was edited and shown on the television, in that one-hour episode. A lot of issues were not shown to the people. If they showed Payal in a swimming pool wearing a swimming suit, they would publicize it and portray it as desperate to wear a swimming costume on National television. The purpose behind this was a daily task that had to be done. The ration for the contestants would not be released if the task was not done. So a lot of facts were hidden from the people when I was on the show. I realized all of these when I came out of the show. I was famous because of the show, but I became famous negatively, yet I took it in my stride because of many people related to me as a person. I appreciate the show as it happened, and because of it, I moved further in my career as a performer, and I shall always be thankful for it. Bigg boss taught me to look at the world as if I am in the Big Boss house and behave like cameras everywhere, and God is my Big Boss. I believe that I am answerable only to God, and as long as my conscience is clear about what I’m saying, then I have the whole right to say what I feel about anybody.
How did you end up on the dance show Nach Baliye 7 along with your fianceé?
I was never a dancer. I came to Bollywood, as I said, due to the engineering bet with my college friends. But when I came to Bollywood, I was given many glamorous roles because of my appearance. I always wanted to do the show. Sangram was also there in that shoot, and it was too difficult to coordinate steps with him because Nach Baliye is all about couples, so I guess our chemistry also got exposed. Real couples are not that mushy, like how certain couples are projected on reality shows. After these reality shows get over, these couples end up breaking up. I believe that a reality show is a fake world, but some people like us have survived it and have a true relationship. Even Sangram faced difficulty, not being too good at dance.
Your YouTube channel is quite recent but has a lot of subscribers. Why did you decide to start a YouTube channel, and how do you come up with ideas for your content?
I was not happy with the kind of work being offered to me, as I had said earlier. Being a person of norms and being based in Ahmedabad, I had plenty of time in my hand. I came to Ahmedabad to do a medical treatment that was related to prostate cancer. I started making videos on Social media platforms like Facebook. Those videos got viral, and I started a YouTube channel because many people told me that YouTube is the next big thing. Facebook was never monetized; neither was Instagram. It’s different if anybody offers you a deal and pay you for promoting their product, but the platform doesn’t pay you. I had always been an orator in my college days, and I could speak my opinion. So people suggested me to start a YouTube channel. I am a person who likes to present things. Therefore, I started doing videos on YouTube, and I became active in it since the last one and a half years residing in Gujarat. I think it is perfect if somebody wants to use it as a medium to address their followers and make money ethically.
How was the experience of working with rock bands like the Silk route and KK? How different was it shooting for a music video from your other shoots?
These music videos were the ones I had done at the start of my career. They boasted a professional setup, and I enjoyed working with them. I was not paid a huge amount because no outsider coming in the industry is paid that much. So I tried to balance out surviving in Bollywood trying to do good work, and I was earning a good amount. It was a good experience; I never had a bad time working with these music videos’ artists. They were professional, good people.
Your debut film was 'Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai.' Can you talk a bit about that?
My debut film happened to be ‘Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai’ because my entry in the film industry was due to my personality. They wanted a character like ‘Esha,’ who was a good looking, glamorous woman and had the entire college behind her. So, I met the director Hansal Mehta and the producer back then, Haman Baweja was also present at their office. I got the role because I fitted the script well. They had seen my works, released before the film. I was also nominated for the debut category for ‘Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai,’ so I’m a person who is happy to be in front of the camera. It was a normal transition I was expecting, but yes, I didn’t know that I had to struggle more to be established because I didn’t understand the politics I would get into once I got into Bollywood.
You have also done a bit of theatre along with movies and television. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of the theatre? Do you think that theatre is a dying art form?
Theatre is not a dying art form, but it requires much more visibility and awareness, as the theatre is an art form that gives you a live audience. The adrenaline rush you get while performing, and it is kind of different. You know there’s only action and no retake in the same. You get into the character, and you perform, but the film is a way where you have time to breathe in and breathe out of character, going through action, cuts, and retakes. So, I believe theatre to be a different medium. So, I presume it should be reversed because a theatre actor is a much better actor than a Bollywood actor. After all, that person has given shots without retake to have much more control over a character.
You made a film called Valentine's Night with your husband, Sangram Singh. How different was the experience of working with someone with an emotional bond? Does it make your emotions flow more naturally on screen?
I think sometimes having your partner as a co-star can hinder your performance unless both of you have gained that professional excellence, where you can distinguish between your character and your real appearance. So, when you are on the set, you need to be a completely different person, you need to have a thin line, and that thin line gets a bit distorted if you are working with your partner. I wish the film could have been better shot and released. I’m happy that I got to work with Sangram at that point because he was completely new, and he had not done any project in terms of film. Presently, he is a more camera-friendly person because he has done reality shows like ‘Nach Baliye’ and ‘India’s Deadliest Road.’ As he has become more camera-friendly, it has become easier for him to get in and out of character. At that moment, we were amateurs to take up that project, which had us play the characters and be in a relationship, too; it was confusing. So, I’m not very happy with the outcome of Valentine Night.
Fame also brings criticism along with it. How do you deal with it?
It is totally fine if anybody criticizes you. You try to take the criticism, understand it, and rectify it. I believe that people who try to bring you down should be listened to, as somewhere they are trying to form a perception about you. If the perception isn’t correct, then we must hear the perceptions and fight against them in the coming time. Everybody is a hypocrite in a way. However, some people do a lot of work, and it’s depicted. Everyone has a right to say what they perceive about me. So, sometimes I clarify stuff about me if I want to clarify.
1. Your biggest pet peeve – Hypocrisy
2. The food you can’t live without – Paneer or cottage cheese
3.The most daring thing you’ve ever done – Swimming underwater in a reality show called Survivor India.
4. Describe your partner in three words – Simple, trustworthy, and good.
5. A role model or an inspirational person you look up to – Actually, I look up to myself. My journey inspires me.