Lillete Come Lately
The last time I met her for an interview was five years ago, when Zubeida was the hot, just released film and she, the new find. I’d known Lillete Dubey, the theatre person, for a while and often reviewed her plays but as the newest actor to hit the marquee – that too one who wasn’t a just bloomed Miss India or another chip off a familiar filmi surname variety – she was an object of curiosity. I vividly remember the headline – ‘Lillete, The Late Bloomer? – a fact she had laughingly concurred with.
Little wonder then that five years on, ‘the late bloomer’ is yet not in full bloom and is laughing just as heartily. As each petal unfolds, she releases a burst of new creative energy – a brand new production, a refreshing dimension to an otherwise abused role or then she unleashes a Dubey Jr. For Lillete, infancy was in her 20s, adolescence in her 30s and now that she’s just stepping into adulthood, there’s yet time aplenty ahead to blossom.
“I am an anachronism in the film world,” she claims nonchalantly in her husky voice that is now a reference point in Hindi cinema. That is one statement everyone that Lillete has worked with in her short-spanned film career will agree with: she has none of the prerequisites of stardom. She’s not hungry. Lillete says that hunger to be a star is the single most cherished value in filmdom. She isn’t vain, the second must-have for any actor. During Zubeida, her make-up artist had a tough time gluing her to her seat! She refuses to be typecast and most importantly, she doesn’t have an iota of delusion about herself.
“I know I am 20 years too late but it’s okay. I am aware that meaty, title roles will go to actors with a long track record. There is a slew of ladies out there with 30-year-track records, established actors who still look great. I can’t fight long-held reputations. The residuary roles are not really substantial but in those, I look for diversity.” It is a fact that in the narrow niche left for her she experiments and never fails to surprise her directors and her audiences. We have loved her as Aunty Rose (Zubeida), the weepy Punjabi mummy Pimmi, (Monsoon Wedding), the kajal-spewing mum (Gadar-Ek Prem Katha) and Jaswinder Kapoor, the risqué sister (Kal Ho Naa Ho).
Lillete explains, “I had asked myself very early in life what I wanted. Was I in this for a stash of money or for something else?” Though she admits that she loves her creature comforts, she chucked television completely seven years ago despite the fact that she was on top and was making a packet – simply because her skills were getting blunted. Regressive tele-serials are not Lillete for as she says, “It was all very cut and paste and it came to a point when I just stopped growing as an actor and so I opted out. I was not in it for just the money. For me it wasn’t like, isse mera chula jalta hai. Even though I didn’t have a loaded husband, the burden of running the house was not on me. Television or theatre, I was doing it for the creativity. That became my criterion even when I entered films.”
And the roles haven’t really been that few. It’s just that she’s declined many more than she’s accepted. “I didn’t want to just be the screen mum or the screen sister. I know I can’t be the central character but even if I am in the sidelines it has to be a new sister, a new mother!” And she bursts into laughter.
Though technically an outsider in the industry, the irreverence she adds to every film unit endears her to this otherwise friendless world. Bred in theatre, the whole greasepaint of cinema took some time to blend in with her persona. Lillete remembers her initial discomfort: “In my first movie I was a disaster. I didn’t know what was happening. After sitting through 45 minutes of make-up, I told my make-up man, ‘What’s the point; you can’t change how I look!’ Since my first movie was a Shyam Benegal film, I was spoilt by the professionalism – later, the hours wasted between the shots would drive me insane.”
But she has learnt and adapted to the chaos. “Now, sets are fun,” she laughs again. “I have adjusted to my surroundings and understand things better. Also, I have organised myself better; my laptop is always with me. I ensure I don’t waste time between shots and work on my production schedules, budgets and travel.” She says she likes to squeeze every drop out of every hour and we laugh. Amidst the laughter she quotes Michael Caine on actors, “You get paid for the waiting, the acting is for free….”
In the past five years if films have her scaling new heights, her theatre company, The Primetime Theatre Company, is in roaring form too. “It’s grown, if anything. Out of the 52 weekends in a year, at best we are not performing only three or four.” Her old productions are still alive and kicking – “They keep rising like the sphinx” – and the new ones are opening to great response, and she’s also taking her productions to newer destinations – US, UK, Hong Kong, Singapore, China. But what has her adrenalin pumping for now is the possibility of her first ever Hindi production. Sammy, her latest play, has found takers in the corporate sector that would like it to be staged in Hindi for their staff. “That’ll be a challenge and I am hoping it comes through.”
Speaking of firsts, there’s the comeback to TV and her debut talk show. “Don’t call it a talk show,” she corrects me. “I knew I couldn’t do anything in the arena of serials so when they told me about this format I liked it. Actually, I wanted to see if I could do it. I have never anchored a show; I am always at the other end doing all the talking. Will I be able to listen?”
And with enough work coming her way and a full plate, she has plans of making a film next year. “I just want to do something that pleases my sensibility and that is what I love about the arts,” she comments. “There is scope for all of us. I mean for the Yash Chopra genre, for the Anurag Kashyap genre and maybe even for Lillete Dubey!” While she may not have the script, she sure does have a film philosophy: she will make not what the audience wants, but what she wants. “Of course, I want bottoms on seats in the theatres but on my terms. We assume we know what the audiences want. But all movies that’ve done well are about directors who knew what they wanted.”
She, for one, does know what she wants and doesn’t. No more phone calls from girls with stars in their eyes. “The hunger in these girls surprises me. I am yet to make my first movie and am already getting these endless phone calls from girls,” she states. “They call a thousand times a day…. What must be happening to the big daddies of cinema?” And then suddenly switching gears completely, she adds, “That hunger is exactly what’s missing in Neha.”
Lillete spelt backwards reads family. Watch any of her productions and you’ll know. Her plays are like ‘Meet the Dubeys’. Ira, her younger daughter, will announce the opening, having also assistant-directed the production, husband, Ravi, will ensure everyone is seated and comfortable, elder daughter, Neha, will be on stage and Lillete will join her too or maybe having directed the play will be out shooting.
“I told Neha you have to be very hungry to survive here; that everyone has to do all kinds of roles but she is clear. She isn’t here to become a superstar. She wants to do stuff she enjoys. After Monsoon Wedding, many item numbers came her way but she just said no…there is no confusion in her mind.” And nor is there any in Lillete’s. She’s isn’t the pushy filmi mum who will do anything to ensure her daughter’s a star. “I am confident that very soon Neha will pack off to do her MA in psychology, as acting cannot satisfy her beyond a point.” Coming from a family where an MA is a minimum qualification, maybe that is to be expected. For that matter, Ravi and Lillete, who’ve been playing the love ballad 35 years on, met while they were graduating in Delhi. St Stephen’s Shakespearean society was what got them together and the foundation of that friendship is what has them on song to date. “Too much is made out of this man-woman relationship and that is where the problem starts. If you begin as friends and ensure you hold onto the friendship, no marriage can be rocked.” For Lillete that’s proved true because as she puts it, “My best friend happens to be my husband” and very often when they aren’t discussing a new production or a new role, they stay awake till 2 am over a game of Scrabble!
Family is her catharsis, what she calls her sustaining unit. Otherwise – and she lets me in on a secret – it’s when a director tells her that a role has been scripted with only her in mind! “I am a sucker for that,” she admits. “It’s the most seductive thing for an actor.” Of course, she’s nobody’s fool and doesn’t give in easily. So don’t go calling her for a done-to-death mum’s role and then say, “But I only want you!” All you’ll get is the click of the phone at the other end!
Make-up by Fiona Caroline, specialist for Dior. Hair by Homai Sheikh for Juice. Clothes: Brown and yellow top and green layered tunic, both by Rohit Gandhi and Rahul Khanna, for Cue, at 7 Best Marg.
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