Athiya, who makes her debut with Sooraj Pancholi in Hero, has an army of young boys and girls buzzing around her, tucking away that obstinate lock, brushing up that incredible jawline, patting some delinquent creases as we speak.
In her diva curls, stilettos, flared red pants and a tie-back top, Athiya is already a star. “But I hate being called a star-mom,” says Mana, who is known in film and society circles for her poise and affable airs. “There are certain connotations to it,” says the proud mother even as she embraces her new identity “wholeheartedly.”
Mana and Suniel Shetty say they have consciously stayed away from tutoring Athiya for her debut film. PIC/PRADEEP DHIVARConfidence, say the parents, is Athiya’s strongest trait. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar
“I was with Athiya only on the day of the mahurat. I never visited the set. I didn’t watch the rough cuts, even when I was invited to. But she knows I am always just a phone call away.”
Suniel and Mana Shetty’s children — Athiya and Ahan — are stepping into the film industry. And they can both hope to ride on the goodwill that their father has commanded over the decades.
“But ours is an incredibly down-to-earth family,” says Suniel, who believes his daughter enjoys a good mix of Mana’s good looks and his personality. “She is my carbon copy,” he says as all three of them huddle for the photo shoot, talking about how both, father and daughter can swing between extremes of emotions.
The couple looks perfectly coordinated in blue and brown. They laugh about it, with Mana gently nudging her husband, when he alleges playfully that she has been copying him, down to the shoes. Jokes apart, Suniel is relatively more hands on with Athiya’s career than Mana, although he has tutored himself not to pry beyond a point. “As actor and father, I briefed Nikhil (Nikhil Advani, the director) about Athiya’s strengths. That’s about it. We knew it was best to let the professionals do their job.” He is referring to brand wiz Reshma Shetty and the film’s producer Salman Khan, besides Advani.
One of life’s biggest life lessons Suniel shared with Athiya was how to tackle the “Fear of Fridays”. “He told me that there would be a fantastic Friday followed by some really disappointing ones. You have to take it in your stride.” Confident as he may be about his daughter’s “professional packaging” as he puts it, Suniel believes there is only so much he can do. “There is a certain kind of professionalism in the industry today, which we did not encounter. There are image managers, brand managers, bound scripts...the machinery is geared towards reducing risks in the profession.”
For the mother, Athiya has been a model child. Knocking on wood, tapping her head several times during the conversation, she looks back at Athiya’s adolescence as “a surprisingly smooth phase.” The only time she got her parents in a knot was when she was 18. “She took us through the entire rigmarole of visiting American colleges that offered liberal arts courses, but did not like any of them,” Suneil says. Choosing American School’s IB programme for her was meant to lead in that direction. But Athiya’s heart clearly lay elsewhere.
It was after Mana sat her down for a heart to heart that she opened up about her wish to be an actress. In 2011, she went to New York to study acting, and it proved to be a turning point. “For the first time in my life I was living alone. I was ironing my clothes, cooking my food, doing things I have never had to do,” she says. “It changed me.” In her apartment in the heart of Union Square, Athiya learned and loved to “live with silence”.
“It is important to be able to do that as an actor,” she says, adding, “I learned about attachment, detachment and grew as a person.”
The Shettys say they have spared no effort in ensuring that their children stay grounded despite being to the manor born. “And that’s also because they have grown up with their grandparents,” says Suniel. “Even when I’d shoot, I would come back home and be a father, husband, son.”
This conversation couldn’t be complete without touching on the sensitive subject of Athiya’s controversial co-star, Sooraj Pancholi. Soon after their project was announced, he was drawn into a case involving former girlfriend and actress Jiya Khan’s suicide. “As a mother, I was worried,” Mana says, choosing her words carefully. “I could understand the pain that her mother was going through. I could also understand what Zarina (Sooraj’s mother) underwent. But then I met Sooraj and realised he is a completely different person from what we were being led to believe. He reminded me of my son — shy, soft-spoken and respectful towards women.”
The past is evidently behind him as Sooraj gets the thumbs up from his co-star as well. “Once he starts his round of interviews and interactions with the media, people will get to know the real him,” she says.
In fact, both Mana and Suniel say that confidence is Athiya’s biggest strength. They watch her at photo shoots, media interactions and flick away a tear or two. “When I watched the first cut, I had tears in my eyes,” says Suniel. “Her other unique quality is a hunger for knowledge. She is a learner, constantly studying, watching, observing and growing.”
We leave the sprawling interior design store with its equestrian artefacts, tulip chandeliers and frangipani blooms, with the three Shettys wrapping up the remainder of the picture perfect shoot with a cheerful selfie.