By Pooja Kanwal-Mahtani Opening Doorz Editorial | April 25, 2020

I remember first seeing that pure, dimpled smile at a dance class 14 years ago. I was already very enamoured of her parents who I was closely following in the first season of Nach Baliye. As an ardent student of dance and an actor, neck deep in my own journey as a professional, something made me stop seeing one of her parents’ performances in the first season of this reality show that’s stood the test of time and still holds its ground.

They were simply brilliant! It opened my eyes and made me think of how much we push ourselves outside of our comfort zone, each time we perform. How capable are we as performers to take on challenges and outshine in them even after accomplishing what we set out for and more. The energy was attractive to say the least. Which is why, my first meeting with Shriya Pilgaonkar was well-timed.

Our dance teacher, now a very established choreographer (Harshal of Harshal Vithal fame) introduced us and I immediately congratulated her on her parents winning Season One of Nach Baliye. She smiled and my first reaction was, “Her smile is just a pure as her moms!” I wanted to see her dance and was very curious to know if she had that spark too. As the dance class started, the one striking element that kept me glued to her was her confidence—here was a bubbly teenager who was aware all eyes were on her, but she was rock solid.

Shriya Pilgaonkar Pooja Kanwal Opening Doorz
Shriya’s ability to touch people’s heart, her sensitivity, her talent and her looks sets her apart, writes Pooja Kanwal-Mahtani (left).

A few years later, our mothers landed up working very closely on a show together—Radha Ki Betiyaan. They developed a special bond and both Shriya and me came up often enough in their conversations. We had things in common: both were students of St. Xavier’s College (she of course joined college after I had left), both of us had the same kathak guru (Nutan Patwardhan lovingly called Tai), both our Mums were in the television and film industry and they had lots to talk about us. Though I didn’t meet her too many times during this period, I would hear so much about her at home that I started feeling like I knew her.

About two years later (2010), her mum, my mum (Anita Kanwal) and I started working together on the sets of Sasural Genga Phool. I clearly remember her first visit to the set: we were all sitting in a huge group, rehearsing. As she entered, in a simple tee and jeans, I couldn’t help but notice how she had blossomed. She looked radiant and very fit. I met her warmly and immediately said, “Wow, look at you,” and I turned to our mums and said, “I wanna be as fit as her.”

“Listen please; I would be happy to be as fit as you when I am your age,” Shriya shot back, a naughty glint in her eye and her dimples deepening even more. Being the loud Punjabi that I am, screamed. “Whaaatttt? My age? And looked at her mom, who was trying to salvage the situation, covering up saying, “Pooja isn’t much older than you, she just got married very early, actually she’s just 4 years older than you.” By now the entire cast was rolling up in laughter. I was amused but couldn’t stop laughing. In fact, till today I tease her about how she was the first person to make me feel old at the age of 25! That’s how we broke the ice and since then it’s been a ‘laughathon’ for us whenever we meet. We have shared some very emotional moments together.

As I spent a lot more time with her mom during the shoot, we would look forward to updates on her life and achievements, always underplayed by her humble mom. Shriya shared a special bond with her nana and even travelled to countries alone with him. They still do their trips together. Her mom would share stories about Shriya’s childhood which is why it didn’t feel weird that her mom wanted to still cuddle with her like she’s a baby even now.

I remember one incident very vividly. Mom and I had gone to meet Supriyaji, who I lovingly call ‘Soupy’, who stayed in the same lane as us. We spent a lot of time with Hobo, Shriya’s German Sheperd brother. Shriya wasn’t home that day and while leaving, I saw a photo frame with Shriya and Hobo’s photograph in it and while leaving I told Soupy, “I wish I have a daughter like Shriya!” I just blurted it out and when I was at the door I even told Mom and Soupy, “Wasn’t that a weird thing to say for a girl who is the same generation as me?” I had never even thought of having kids at that age.

Shriya Pilgaonkar Pooja Kanwal Opening Doorz
Hobo and Shriya Pilgaonkar.

It was then that I knew this bond was special and this girl had a very special place in my heart. Our meetings became more frequent as the families got closer. Hobo started growing old and losing him was hard. We held each other’s hand when he breathed his last. I remember her mom and me saying, “Why did he go so early.” And she replied in a very mature manner, “That’s something we will never know and can never question.” Her maturity was above most people I know. I started turning to her for advice. In weaker moments, I would often call to speak with her. I could never define, still can’t what role she plays in my life. Is she the baby I have always wanted? Is she my extended family or my ‘go-to-person’ when I’m lost or is she someone who I look up to?

She got busier in films, I had a baby girl. I remember calling her up when I was 18 kilos overweight, had a baby crying all night, and was missing my work and didn’t know how to put my life back on track again. She immediately fixed up a date and we met at my Mum’s place. She sat with me for three hours brain-storming on what I needed to do to get started again.

We crossed paths at all major milestones of our lives. She couldn’t make it for my 30th birthday but came home a month later with 30 gifts for me, all which I need at different times of the day!

Shriya Pilgaonkar Pooja Kanwal Opening Doorz
Shriya Pilgaonkar is effortless on stage and on screen. She has this capacity to feel every single moment on screen as if it’s really happening to her, writes Pooja Kanwal-Mahtani.

When I saw her on stage for the first time at her professional Kathak performance, she was poetry in motion. Honing her skills under the best guru Mumbai has to offer, Nutantai, Shriya has taken excellence to the next level. She is effortless in whatever she does. On screen, she is just like her Mum—a natural. She feels every single moment on screen as if it’s really happening to her and has the capacity to relive a moment over and over again with the same energy like she did the first time. That’s how she performs on stage!

Recently, I was hosting the Dada Saheb Phalke Film Awards and had the honour of giving the Lifetime Achievement Award to her dad on stage. While receiving the award he said, “It feels great receiving it from someone who is like mine and Supriya’s daughter.” I still have goose bumps thinking of that moment.

Today, I feel ecstatic that the biggest names in the web film world have realised that she is one of the best performers we have. The biggest brands want her to travel with them and represent them. I have enjoyed being a part of her journey and watching her grow. Despite her hectic shoot schedules she’ll go out of her way to make it for anything that’s important to Mom and me.

Shriya’s ability to touch peoples heart, her sensitivity, her intelligence, her confidence, her talent and of course her looks define her and sets her apart. There’s no one like her.

I am sure she knows that if it wasn’t for the lockdown I would’ve been planning the menu for hosting a dinner at my place for her Birthday today.

Blessed to have you in my life!

Happy Birthday, Shriya!

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