If Aushima Sawhney looks like a natural (actress, I mean), that’s because she is.
Born in Delhi and brought up in Bangkok, is an experienced model, and has appeared in several Bollywood movies and television films, but is far from done yet.
By Caron Lau
“I love the camera, I always have,” Aushima Sawhney states as we begin. “I was always in front of it as a child, strutting around in grandma’s saris and learning Madonna dances.” She’s being prepped for the cover photo shoot, with make-up first on the agenda. Dressed in black jeans and a jersey top, with her long brown-blonde curls spilling around her shoulders, Aushima is relaxed and clearly used to being interviewed — and made up. “I need to watch that I don’t say too much,” she says, giggling. “I’m always doing that.”
Actually, Aushima seems to have known what she liked from a very young age. Placed in an Indian boarding school at nine years old, when her parents left for Bangkok to pursue their careers, she soon made her feelings known to her parents: she was having none of that! Soon afterwards, she and her sister were transferred to Ruamrudee International School here in Bangkok, where Aushima says they were both blissfully happy for the rest of their school days. “Best years of my life!” she exclaims, “and Thailand, well, it was fabulous. I felt so happy, so safe.”
Aushima’s foundation is nearly complete, but the makeup artist, Swanti Sethi, also her friend, is having a hard time keeping her client still. She is answering her questions animatedly, oblivious to the work being done to her. Next comes the gold eye shadow. “Gold is a no brainer for the Indian complexion,” Swanti tells us, spreading what seems like a generous amount of it above Aushima’s lovely large eyes.
These were the same eyes that must have helped secure for Aushima the fame she had always craved, starting with modelling and then soap ads for Nima Soap. “Things happened quickly after that,” Aushima says. She travelled to Mumbai to take part in the Miss India 2005 beauty pageant, making it into the top 10, and soon afterwards would go where no woman had gone before. “I was the first Bangkok girl to break in to the Bollywood film industry,” Aushima exclaims. “It was a dream come true. I worked hard to develop the right contacts, turn up for the right auditions, be at the right event at the right time, that sort of thing.”
Her efforts must have paid off, for Aushima caught the attention of leading film-makers Mahesh Bhatt, Pooja Bhatt, Rohit Jugraj and the great showman himself, Subhash Ghai, securing for herself leading and supporting roles in three films in quick succession: Dhokha (2007), Superstar (2008) and Yuvraaj (2008). “It wasn’t a piece of cake. It was hard work, but I loved it.” Which brings us to back to the present…
“You could say it was the love of my life that tore me away from Bombay,” she tells me. “My fiancé, Sanjeev Saluja, had started getting tired of dating from a distance, so he proposed and we got married. It was the right time, and then followed our little boy, Aryan, who’s just one year, seven months.”
“I think I was always supposed to be a mother. Bollywood actor Anil Kapoor always said, ‘Aushima, you’re going to make a better mother than an actress.’ I guess I’d always been the maternal one in the group, the one who looked after the others. I have a wonderful family, and I love being a mother. Aryan is already an actor. Look!” she tells me, beaming over a video clip on her mobile. A good-looking toddler appears in the screen, and despite his youth, knows exactly how to play to the camera.
But for all of Aryan’s innocent charms, Aushima had to be missing all the glitz and glamour of Bollywood, surely? “Not at the moment,” she says. “This is my life now and I love it. I also need to get back in to shape after the baby. If I wanted to go back I could. I still have the contacts, and I still get called for roles now and then, but I’m not ready just yet. I could also get into TV, but we’ll see.”
For now, Aushima, however, is choosing to fill whatever free time she has with managing her own brand Aushima Selects, an initiative with a team of individuals who are completely motivated to create a new fashionable lifestyle. She has also recently partnered into managing an organic household brand, called Earthology, a curated collection of aesthetic designs for the contemporary home. “We’ve already opened in Paragon and Emporium, so things are pretty hectic.”
Aushima is asked to hold still while the eyelash extensions are put in place. “If you don’t,” Swanti jokes, “you’ll have wobbly lashes!”
Asked what, besides her good looks, other strengths she thought had helped her make it in Bollywood, Aushima says: “I don’t think I’m particularly good looking. No, really!” she says, in response to my raised eyebrow. “Actually it’s nothing to do with looks. Yes, you need to look good behind a camera, but it’s really about what you bring to the table. You’ve got to be confident and let your character shine through. And you have to go after the top films and top directors. A bit like at a job interview, you have to connect with your interviewer, do well at the audition, be right for the part, give it all you’ve got. Luck plays a role too, and obviously if you have a supporter inside the industry, which I don’t, you definitely have an advantage.”
While the nude lip gloss she has chosen is applied, I ask Aushima if she has had any ‘if I only could have’ moments. “Looking back, I think I could have been a lot more successful if I hadn’t been as nice, if I hadn’t just accepted anything that was given to me, you know? But it simply isn’t part of my character to be unkind. Also, I might have been better known if I had done TV rather than films, but I just loved Bollywood. I still do! My parents never really approved of my acting ambitions because of the stigma attached to this line of work, but they were always supportive and stood by me. My mother once made a good point: ‘Do TV, not films; get into people’s living rooms and more people will know you.’ But seriously, I have no regrets at all. I’m not like that. Every part of my journey was important, and helped to make me the happy person I am today.”
The final lip coating is applied, and Aushima congratulates the makeup artist on her work. Just a tad of blush now and she is ready for the shoot…
Aushima, I ask her, ever thought of what you might have become if you hadn’t caught the Bollywood bug? “Oh yes!” she replies, and tells me how she would have probably been a chef. What, exchange the pageant swimsuit for a starchy apron, I ask! “Yes,” she laughs. “I’m a really good cook and would have maybe liked to open my own small café or restaurant. As most of my friends know, I love getting busy in the kitchen, and cooking risotto, biryani, lasagne, pork ribs, all sorts. In Australia, where I was studying, I managed a restaurant and really enjoyed it.”
“Aushima’s Thanksgiving dinners are famous! Really, they’re that good!” Swanti says as she completes the blush. She starts packing up the tools of her trade, as Aushima admires her completed look. “You really are good!” she tells her, as I sneak in a couple more questions.
Asked if it would be alright if her children were to take after her, and one day say, suitcase in hand, “Mum, I’m off to Bollywood!” Aushima replies, “Absolutely, it would. They could do anything they liked and I’d be proud of them. I don’t think it matters what you do as long as it makes you feel good about yourself and you maintain your self respect.”
And finally, what, I ask Aushima is the one thing that nobody else knows about you? “I think most people know that I love life, that I’m a big kid at heart, oh and that I am a big soppy romantic and an animal lover, but there is one thing — I’m not sure that I want you to write this down though — I was a mean child. I used to bully my sisters to death when I was young.” Guilt is written all over Aushima’s face, but is soon replaced with something like mischief. “Yeah go on, write it, why not? I guess I’ll get it back one day anyway because I’m a firm believer in Karma, that what you give is what you get. I’ll get a lot of flak for it the in meantime though!”
Originally published in Masala Magazine June-July 2017.