Famous for playing Anupamaa in the daily soap of the same name, Rupali Ganguly is Indian television’s highest-paid actress today. As she rides her well-deserved high, she recalls her struggle of establishing herself in the industry.
For older millennials and generation X, Rupali Ganguly’s return to television brings with it a sense of overwhelming nostalgia and pride. It doesn’t seem that long ago that she was stealing our hearts as Monisha in Sarabhai vs Sarabhai, with her “middle-class” antics and entertaining banter with mother-in-law Maya.
After a seven-year career break, she returned to TV screens in 2020 with Anupamaa, which airs on StarPlus and Disney + Hotstar. The show has been topping TRP charts, and today, Rupali is riding her well-deserved high.
However, a recent interview with Humans of Bombay revealed that things weren’t always so easy for the actor, who is among the most well-known names in Indian television today.
Rupali is the daughter of National Award-winning director Anil Ganguly, who has directed films like Kora Kagaz (1974), Tapasya (1975), and Aanchal (1980). Two flops and a film with Dharmendra that dragged on for four years brought on a hard time for the family, she said.
‘What goes down has to come up’
“Papa was my biggest hero. Watching him direct each frame meticulously — I was fascinated,” she told HoB.
“Once, an actress backed out of Papa’s film, and he put me in it when I was 12. But soon, Papa had two flops. Our tough time began, and my dream took a backseat. I did everything — worked in a boutique, catered, and even waited tables. I was once a waiter at a party where Papa was a guest. I worked in ads too — that’s how I met my husband Ashwin. He suggested that I try TV and I thought, ‘Why not?’,” she recounted.
Rupali recalled that there was a point when they were “literally on the streets”, as they had to sell their house.
“In those days, people would sell their houses to make films. This happened to us too,” she told Pinkvilla, adding that the film that ended up stretching on for four years created massive problems for their family.
“Regardless, we had a very grounded middle-class upbringing. I think it’s because my father had struggled a lot. He had run away from Calcutta [Kolkata] and come to Bombay…stayed on the footpath…He was a chorus singer at one point in time…and would survive on Rs 15-20 a month in those days,” she said.
On some days, money would be so tight that she was unable to afford public transport. Recalling her first audition, she told Entertainment Times that she walked from Worli to Andheri because she was unable to buy bus tickets. “I was so tired by the time I reached that I …goofed up and felt terrible. Then I heard someone discussing that the storyline is a double role. I got very excited. I went back to Rajan Shahi and requested him to give me one more chance. He was very reluctant but I pushed him. He called me the next day and I auditioned. He gave me the first scene and then he asked me to do six scenes back to back. The rest is history. I started my journey from there on.”
A few years on, she got her breakout roles in Sanjivani (2002) and Sarabhai Vs Sarabhai, which won her immense critical acclaim. As she told HoB, “None of us knew it’d be a hit, we were just having fun!…We became a family on that show.”
But a few years later, at the peak of her career, Rupali announced she would be stepping back from acting. In this time, she got married and had a baby. “I didn’t regret it,” she said. “I was once told, ‘You’ll never conceive’, so watching my son take his first steps was a blessing. The next six years were all about family.”
Recalling her troubles with conceiving due to thyroid, she told Entertainment Times, “My baby was a miracle. After I had my baby, people would body shame me. They would say you’ve become so fat. As it is, I was feeling so much guilt, because I couldn’t feed my child. People added to that. Nobody has the right to tell you that you’re fat, you’re an aunty.”
Anupamaa came to her a few years after the death of her father, who passed away in 2016 after a brief illness.
‘I accept myself completely’
She recalled that at the time, she asked producer Rajan Shahi to give her some time to lose weight. “I told him, ‘At this age you’re making me the heroine…I need some time to get fit’. He told me, ‘Rupali, I don’t want a heroine, I want a mother. The show is about a mother, and they are who they are’.”
Rupali also noted that it took time to accept herself on screen after seven years of being at home. “I was worried about how I would look…to accept myself on screen, to think about what people would say about my weight…I had many self doubts. But Anupamaa received so much love that it gave me confidence.”
But even as she started doing the show, she was subject to age- and body-shaming. “People would say I have wrinkles and that I was fat. Yes, I have wrinkles, I have earned them, and am proud of them. I accept myself completely.”
“People also commented on the fact that I look older than my co-star, who plays Anuj. Yes, I am older than Anuj, so what? I am all natural and 45. Why don’t people talk about my work, instead of my looks or age?”
With Anupamaa, she said, she feels as if she is carrying forward her father’s legacy. “My father used to make these women-centric films like Kora Kaagaz, Tapasya. His women characters would be so strong. I feel like I’m reliving my father’s legacy.”
She also credits her husband Ashwin Verma for standing by her and letting his career take a backseat. She hopes more women get family support to excel in life, and more men are like her husband.
She wants women to remember three things — “Self-worth, self-love, and self-validation. Shame your haters back,” she said.