Tanya Maniktala was just another young Indian woman living in Delhi and doing a job she tolerated, but didn’t love. “I would wake every morning at five,” she tells me from her home in the capital city. “I’d get ready, get on the bus and not reach my office till eight, and then it would be a monotonous day working as a copywriter trying to think up ideas about the food and beverage industry.”
Maniktala, who is 22, had studied literature at university, where she’d joined the drama society but never imagined acting could be more than a hobby. It was while she was at work in her advertising job that a friend called to ask if she was interested in reading for a television role. He wasn’t allowed to reveal what the project was and at first Maniktala was reluctant.
“I had done a web series called Flames before this, but acting wasn’t really on my mind. It wasn’t something that I was looking forward to as a career. But I have an older sister who is always really supportive of whatever I do. I’m a really shy person, so I don’t like putting myself out there, but she would always say, ‘Just try it, give it a shot and let’s see what happens.’ ”
What happened was that Maniktala went for the audition and learnt that it was for the lead role as Lata in A Suitable Boy, the adaptation of Vikram Seth’s novel, directed by Mira Nair (who made Monsoon Wedding) and scripted by Andrew Davies. After the audition there was a period of silence and Maniktala was close to giving up when she got word that Mira Nair wanted talk to her.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, is this really happening?’ I spoke to Mira Nair, and we discussed the character and it was really nice talking to her because she felt so much passion about the book, and that made me realise that I really wanted to be a part of this thing – no matter what the role. I wanted to work with her because her energy is completely something else, and you want to share that energy.
“Then she told me that she wanted to come to Delhi and she would like to see me here and do another round of auditions. And after that happened, she called me up to tell me, ‘You are my Lata'. ”
Maniktala rang her older sister, who was living in Melbourne at the time, to tell her the news. “There was so much crying,” she recalls, “but happy tears. She has always been here with me for my big moments, for my shining moments – she was over the moon.”
When Maniktala did a read-through of the script, she met the book’s author, Vikram Seth, who is also an executive producer of the series. It must have been strange for her to meet the person who dreamt up the character she would be playing? “He was really kind,” she says. “He told me, ‘You are what I imagined Lata to be', and that made me really happy.”
The story of how she won the role of Lata sounds like a fairy tale – the young woman plucked from obscurity to star in an adaptation of one of the most-beloved novels of the past century opposite Indian film legends such as Tabu. “I had no idea what it would be like working on a film set, in the presence of all these huge names, and working really long hours. I went in with a very open mind and that worked for me because I was ready to mould myself into anything that they wanted me to be.”
It must have been, I suggest, a little intimidating to be the newbie amid such acclaimed figures as Mira Nair and to know that the success or failure of the series rested in no small part on her performance. “In the very beginning, I was definitely more inclined towards, ‘What am I doing here? I don’t fit here, I mean, these people are legends. I am nobody.’ But these people [the cast and crew] made me feel like I fit, like I was a part of this. They made me feel so much more than I actually really am.”
During our conversation, Maniktala says so often that she is a shy person that I wonder whether she has really thought through this whole acting lark – if she hates being the subject of attention, what is the appeal?
“I feel like the thing about acting is you could be just anybody,” she enthuses, “and that is so wild and so fascinating for me. I could be anybody, I don’t have to be myself anymore. I could do anything I want that I, normally as Tanya, would be so hesitant to do.”
Maniktala says she only read A Suitable Boy when she started to prepare for the role of Lata, but “I fell in love with her – because of the way she’s written, she’s so beautiful. She’s complicated yet so simple. She’s everything I wanted to be and so much more.”
In A Suitable Boy Lata is of course a young woman in India only a few years after Partition, trying to fight for her independence amid family pressures to marry a man who is deemed to be up to scratch by her mother, Rupa Mehra. But is that a challenge that’s still faced by young women of Maniktala’s generation?
“It’s still very much relevant today,” she says. “The societal pressure of a mother wanting to find a suitable boy for her daughter is the truth of our time. Even in our generation. Parents still want to get their kids settled. They have a plan like, ‘OK, by 25, you have to get married. By 30, you have to have two kids.’ That’s still the case even today.”
Maniktala’s own parents – her father is a publisher and her mother a housewife – have yet to see the series. When she learnt that she’d won the part, she and her older sister worked out a plan to prepare her parents, so that they wouldn’t get overly concerned by her being away from home during the filming. “We started immediately working on that,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Dad, listen, I’m taking this work, I’m going to be gone for a few months, so be OK with that.’ Now they are really excited, but I don’t know what the reaction is going to be. I hope it’s good. I hope they won’t hate me on screen.”
That seems unlikely – the more pertinent question for Maniktala is, having been given this golden opportunity, what to do next. “I couldn’t have asked for a better debut than working with Mira Nair and the BBC on A Suitable Boy,” she says.
“It’s very much a dream for me. I never imagined myself to be here and it still feels surreal. I’m sort of in denial that it happened and I don’t know what’s coming next. I just try to stay calm and not get overwhelmed when things are happening around me, and just hope that bigger and better opportunities are coming my way.”
This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV guide.
You can buy Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy on Amazon now.