TV-watching millennials will remember seeing Shantanu Maheshwari dancing his way through the many episodes of Channel V’s Dil Dosti Dance (D3), and are exhilarated to see him in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi. The shy love interest of Gangubai has everyone gushing, whispering, and wondering who this ultra cute, coy, eager-to-please lad is. Making a Bollywood debut with an SLB film has been an experience for the actor, and with his very first role, he is showing that he’s here to stay. Maheshwari became the talk of the town with a role that did not even demand him to dance, something he has been doing all his life. And that is what made him say yes to the film, along with the fact that it was an SLB film, of course. “I was nervous on the first day of the shoot. I was very focused during my first rehearsals. Bhansali sir was on the monitor when I realised that the time had come, finally. That is when it hit me, ‘Okay, I’m going to be doing this,’” he recalls. 

Did you know Maheshwari caught Bhansali’s attention because of his mother? It so happened that Bhansali’s mother saw the actor on a reality show. She suggested that he audition Maheshwari for the role in Gangubai. While Bhansali was not very confident about it, he could not refuse his mother’s request. Maheshwari was called in for a test, and landed the nuanced role of Bhatt’s lover in the film. He quips that he may have manifested the role. “Every actor, obviously, wants to be part of films. But knowing how things are, and being practical and logical about it, I knew it’s a very tough thing to crack, especially in today’s time. Then Shruti Mahajan ma’am, the casting director of the film, called me, and the whole thing happened,” he articulates. However, films were never on the new actor’s agenda. 

The young Kolkata boy came to Mumbai just to finish his studies. “I shifted to Mumbai because I had applied to study at Xavier’s. I could not get into my desired college in Calcutta because of my grades. So my cousin suggested that I apply to colleges in Mumbai. I was dancing for college competitions, and that is where I got picked up for Dil Dosti Dance. Until then, I had never imagined myself as an actor, in front of a camera. I always wanted to do something behind the camera.” But even before D3, the actor says that his mother always wanted to see him act as she believed that her son would look good in front of the camera. Well, we agree. “My mom always thought and knew that I would do good in front of the camera, and she always wanted me to pursue acting. My parents were very supportive because they always knew that I had some kind of potential.” In fact, it was his mother who enrolled him in dance classes, and helped him find his passion, i.e. dancing.

The actor has been dancing from a very young age. He has been a part of many reality shows, and is a part of the Desi Hoppers dance crew, who have represented India on a global stage. Is Maheshwari looking to focus more on acting now after Gangubai? “I represented India on the world stage. I don’t want to take that away because dancing is what introduced me to acting. Dancing is something that I started with, and then I got into acting, and I’m deeply passionate about both,” he adds. Dance also introduced him to the world of television, and just like him, many TV actors made it big in the Hindi film industry. Who serves as a TV-to-movie inspiration to him? He responds, “There are so many people, but definitely Vikrant Massey is a big example. Sushant Singh Rajput was doing so good.” Actors who build their career from scratch tell the best stories. It’s a life not everyone has the grit to lead. Look at an Irrfan Khan, or Nawazuddin Siddiqui, and even the Roadies- to-movies example of Ayushmann Khurrana.

These are examples that inspire any new actor to keep at it. “There are people who are ready to believe and show that kind of commitment towards you, and I think a lot depends on it. Obviously, you will love to have your own path because there is no specific formula to success, and you learn it on your own. When people start accepting you, I think it is the best way to move forward,” Maheshwari explains. His family has always been supportive and even now they “don’t interfere so much”. As someone who grew up watching D3 and knows for a fact that the cast still hangs out a lot, I was bound to ask if his future plans include a D3 reunion. Sadly, Maheshwari said that as much as he wants it to happen, it is not in his hands to make it possible. “It’s a conversation that the channel needs to start. 

We are more than happy to be part of D3 again,” he adds. However, he is now looking forward to experimenting with new roles and genres. “I don’t want to restrict myself by saying that I want to do this specific thing. I would love to explore all the genres because I want to sustain myself in this industry, and to do that, you have to explore work with different directors in different roles. So I’m looking out for new scripts that interest me and challenge me to do something that I have never tried before.”

As we conclude, let’s do one cliché question: How has life changed after Gangubai, and how has he been handling all the attention from fans? Maheshwari humbly says, “The exposure and the respect that the film has given me is something that I didn’t expect. I’ve been acting for a very long time, but wow, people have accepted me. One thing that stayed with me is that a lot of people said that when they saw the film, it didn’t seem that I was struggling anywhere. I was there and I could hold a frame.” He continues, “It’s overwhelming and nice to see all the love I am getting, but yes, I have done a lot of hard work to be where I am. It’s a happy feeling to get love from the audience and feel motivated. People have started respecting me, and taking me seriously in terms of what I do. So as an artist, as a performer, it is always nice to get appreciation from the audience because ultimately you thrive on it, as it helps you keep pushing your boundaries so that you can continuously entertain them and be connected to them.”

He signs off with a big smile, stating that he is hopeful that he will get more good roles, and more chances to talk to people about his work. I hope so too.