National Award Winner Divya Dutta Talks Cliches, Ageism and Sexism In Bollywood
A pair of piercing eyes bore straight into mine, sizing me up right through the screen, her powerful presence — even where she has hardly any dialogue — a perfect foil to her diminutive figure. As Ramandeep Braitch, the steely-eyed chief minister of Punjab in Irada, she is a handful, and easily the most interesting character in the film. Based on the cancer epidemic in the state, the thriller also features veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi but it’s the feisty Divya Dutta who has my undivided attention. Unfortunately Ramandeep deserves more — more screen time, more lines, a better etched-out character, a credible plot. And though she did bring home a National Award for Divya Dutta, in the Best Supporting Actress category earlier this year, it is certainly not the first time Dutta’s had the viewer sit up and take notice. Over the years, we have seen the petite actor transform into a shrewd publicist (Heroine, 2012), a foul-mouthed sweeper (Delhi 6, 2009), an unscrupulous school principal (Chalk N Duster, 2016), the quintessential Punjabi kudi (Veer-Zaara, 2004), a doting sister (Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, 2013), an alcoholic (Blackmail, 2018) and plenty more — diverse avatars that allowed her to test herself and shine.
None of it came easy or fast. Breaking into what is undoubtedly still a male-dominated industry without any backing is no mean feat but in the mid ’90s, when meaty roles for women were an absolute rarity, it came with its own set of problems. At the time, women were systematically objectified, both on screen and in real life via casting couches (the situation was much the same in Hollywood, as the Harvey Weinstein scandal laid bare). They were quickly typecast, paid a fraction of their male co-star’s fee and not considered bankable enough to carry a film on their shoulders. On top of that, whatever roles did exist for women were largely seen exclusively through the male gaze: as a damsel in distress in need of rescuing, a devoted wife, a spoilt rich brat who would have to be tamed, a scantily-clad item girl to be ogled at and so on. But what made it infinitely tougher for Dutta is that she didn’t play by any of the rules that were, by then, more or less set in stone. Challenging the status quo — itself a reflection of a larger systemic problem — Dutta dodged offers where she would be relegated to a cliche and be forced to play second fiddle to her male co-star or take on the mantle of a conventional heroine expected to titillate the masses.
In the last decade, she has been part of a number of popular films including a movie paeanizing the culture and diversity of our capital city, a much-loved story about a little boy, a semi-fictionalised account of the film industry, a heist film, a sports biopic, a revenge thriller and a black comedy. Namely Delhi 6, Stanley Ka Dabba (2011), Heroine, Special 26 (2013), Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Badlapur (2015) and Blackmail, alongside stars like Abhishek Bachchan, Sonam Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Akshay Kumar, Farhan Akhtar, Varun Dhawan and Irrfan. Irrespective, any Bollywood buff worth his salt would know that she’s never endorsed the ‘bigger is better’ kind of mantra in relation to either screen time or cast, preferring to let her nuanced performances do the seducing instead. “I am an actor who plays all kinds of roles and I have never been bothered about the length of the role because I think the audience will remember you if you do an impactful job, even if you come on for a bit.” Her filmography, a no-holds-barred mixed bag of whatever catches her fancy — brave independent ventures, masala mainstream movies, realistic parallel cinema, art-house love letters, commercial midstream projects — backs up her statement. There seems to be very little that the seasoned actor cannot, and will not, dip her feet into. Her logic, where’s the sense — or fun — in playing it safe?
She is clearly in a good place. In an industry where nepotism runs amok, and in a country where the masses are still more interested in the hero and a star cast, Dutta is one of the few outsiders to have carved a niche for herself. She appeals to both industry insiders and the audience and has made it on her own terms and merit. See or read any interview and you will find that she has no time for platitudes or banal bromides. She firmly holds her own, and this holds true for any frame she is in as well — and no matter who she is up against. Fun trivia: Dutta also has the distinction of being directed by Om Puri in Teri Amrita — as the poet Amrita Pritam opposite Puri’s Nawab Zulfiqar Haider — a two-character Punjabi play that saw him resurface on the stage after 25 long years.
In a career spanning 24 years, it is important to keep things interesting, I venture. “I think, as an actor, if you get bored, it kind of seeps into your audience. So my aim is to not ever get bored and the mantra for that is to not repeat myself.” It’s great advice and something she follows to a T. In fact, by the end of 2018 we will have seen her alongside a decidedly eclectic bunch — Neena Gupta, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Irrfan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Ranvir Shorey, Boman Irani, Rajkummar Rao, Arjun Rampal and Anil Kapoor.
Although in Cannes for the first time for the world premiere of her film Manto (2017) that was also nominated in the Un Certain Regard section, Dutta promptly replied when we texted her. Ever the professional, she took out time from her busy schedule to answer all our questions. When she talks about her métier, she is practical, upfront and confident — you know, #NoFilter. She has none of the triteness that comes so naturally to so many actors; neither their insecurities, nor their need for validation, nor their overworked PR machinery. She’s generous with praise, laughs easily, doesn’t take labels lightly or hesitate to reprimand you in a good-natured way. She certainly doesn’t mince words or sugarcoat, and knows how to draw you in. Her vibe? Unpretentious, powerful, tongue-in-cheek. And, like her on-screen personas, real.
Excerpts from an interview….
In the ’90s when you set out to become a Hindi film actor, there were fewer meaty parts for women who were often relegated to ornamental or cliched roles. You didn’t have any formal training. The ideals of beauty were narrow and rigid. What drove you to pursue acting under these circumstances?
I always wanted to be an actor. Ever since I was four. I was totally, totally taken with Mr Bachchan and I would imitate his dancing style for my friends, who were my only audience. And I think it was the applause that got me (hooked). I realised early on that this is exactly what I want to do all my life. I told my grandmother that I wanted to be an actor, and she said, “You’re not conventionally good-looking”. But I knew that I was going to make it. I knew I had talent and presence. And I did know that I’m pretty. I always had this strong conviction that I was made for the movies.
Actors are known to be narcissistic, egotistic, insecure. Do you agree? How difficult was it to deal with rejection — almost a rite of passage for most artistes? Did you ever come close to falling into depression?
Yes, any profession which does not offer stability will give rise to insecurities and in our kind of line where you’re constantly trying to make it work and create credibility, and where everything is based on how your last release has fared and how successful you’ve been, there is bound to be insecurity. You’re bound to feel a little unnerved. I also think that if you take it in a positive way, it keeps you going. For me, the insecurities have worked beautifully because I never had a godfather. I was given smaller roles and I had to prove myself. So the insecurities drove me to move ahead and pushed me to do better and today I am where I am. Yes, I’ve been low. But family, friends and a strong support system help. When you leave work aside and switch off with them by your side — though it is difficult for a lot of people to do that — it helps. I think I’ve managed to do it pretty well. So yes, I have gone through the lows but that is life and you bounce back.
Your role models are…?
Personally, I would take only one name: my mother, Dr Nalini Dutta. My book Me and Ma is a tribute to her. She is the best thing to have ever happened to me. Workwise it’s always been Mr Bachchan for not only being the superstar that he is but for being who he is. Warmth personified, humble, super intelligent, knowledgeable. And for the way he’s with people. And I’m so glad I belong to his times and know him personally. And also Shabana Azmi. I totally look up to her for the beautiful balance she has created in her personal and professional life and for the woman she is.
Moving from Punjab to Mumbai at the tender age of 18 was brave. You landed up here without a godfather in the industry. Was there any point when you wanted to give it all up and move back or go away somewhere new like Kareena’s character did in Heroine (or is that a tad too dramatic)?
Yes, it was brave on my part to want to be an actor although I did not have a godfather. There are times when you feel rejected. I come from a very sheltered background. In Punjab, everything was taken care of by my family. Here in Mumbai, you have to look after yourself because nobody else is bothered about your interests unless they need you. I don’t mean it in a bad way but, of course, our industry is need-oriented and everyone is fending for themselves. As I said before, you feel very unnerved sometimes. I do need to take breaks like I am right now but I don’t ever feel like giving it up because I love my job.
Your side characters have at times lingered in one’s memory more than protagonists despite lesser screen time….
Okay, I hate that word you have just used, ‘side character’. Because you’re sidelining the character by using this term. I have never been called a ‘side actor’. There might be different degrees of importance but a role is a role. I don’t even know what you would mean by a lead. If an actor is romancing another actor, he or she becomes a stereotypical hero or heroine. There are other characters, which are probably much more important but they are not called the leads. Then, call us actors. Why do you want to see a side of it? I will use a strong word and say that I get annoyed with this kind of phrasing.
Directors you haven’t worked with and who would you give an arm and leg to collaborate with?
Gulzar sahab and Hrishikesh Mukherjee anyday. And Steven Spielberg.
Your filmography consists of a mix of mainstream and midstream cinema…how easy or difficult is it to maintain this balance?
Well, I don’t think that much about creating a balance. I pick from whatever I am offered. I don’t say, ‘Okay, now I will do two commercial films and then I’ll do some parallel cinema’. That’s not how it works. And now there’s been a beautiful marriage between commercial and art cinema, and every kind of movie is being made. Fortunately, I fit into all the genres so I’m doing all of them! I’m also doing some regional cinema. I have just finished two Punjabi films, and I’m about to start shooting for a Bangla film.
You’ve worked with so many actors and directors, old and new, and made over a hundred films. Who is your favourite co-star and who has given you the best advice?
Amitabh Bachchan, and I’ve already said why. I remember when I was doing Baghban (2003), I was very new to the scene and totally overwhelmed to be working with my favourite actor. While in character, I had to behave negatively towards him. I didn’t understand how to handle being nasty to somebody I idolise. And when I came home, my mother asked, ‘Did you not do a good job?’ I said, ‘Of course I did’ and she asked me, ‘Why are you upset?’ I hadn’t realise it but I was upset because I had to be nasty to Mr Bachchan on the set. And I think Mr Bachchan caught that. He is so sensitive and observant. The next day he came up to me, cheered me up, and got me sweets. That’s when I actually realised that I needed to separate my personal and professional life. There’s an urgent need to disconnect off-camera. And I was very, very overwhelmed by the fact that a huge superstar like Mr Bachchan had such sensitivity for a newcomer and what she was feeling. This experience created a bond between us. Second, I would say, Shah Rukh Khan. He is very sensitive. He looked after me and out for me on several occasions during Veer-Zaara and he advised me to look after myself. He said, ‘Main nahin rahunga toh kya apna khayal nahin rakhogi?’ [laughs]. So I learnt that from him, and will be ever so indebted to him for being his charming self.
What drew you to your role in Fanney Khan? It has an interesting star cast (Dutta, Anil Kapoor, Aishwarya Rai and Rakjummar Rao). Or does it have something to do with it being produced by Rakesh Omprakash Mehra, a long-time favourite of yours….
Of course, it’s always interesting to work with my all-time favourite Mr Mehra because of the sheer fact that he has always believed in me and never repeated my roles. He has always given me something different and is responsible for some of my career milestones. Apart from that, it’s a beautiful script and I have a lovely role. It’s opposite Anil Kapoor who has been on my wish list for very long…and why won’t I do it?
You could have been typecast as the bubbly Punjabi girl (Veer-Zaara) or someone who can pull off a crass character (Delhi 6, Blackmail), but you ended up reclaiming yourself by carving a niche for yourself as a serious actor without getting pigeonholed.
Yes, my struggle has been not about getting work but breaking stereotypes. After I did Veer-Zaara, I was flooded with roles of that type. I sat at home for a year, waiting for something different, and along came Jalebi (Delhi 6). And when I did Jalebi, sensual roles started coming my way. So I had to keep breaking these stereotypes. Now you’re treating me as a stereotype [laughing] by calling me ‘a serious actor’ and I’ve broken it by doing a crazy, mad comedy like Blackmail with Irrfan Khan and I am doing another one with Anubhav Sinha. So whenever a tag comes along I go ahead and do something completely different. I like to surprise myself and my audience and that’s what keeps me going.
Questions you hate being asked as a ‘character actor’?
I have been called a ‘character actor’ but again I don’t approve of it. I’m an actor and a complete one at that, so please stick to that.
Have you experienced any sexism or ageism in Bollywood? What about the questions you have had to field as a ‘female actor’?
Yes, you do face it sometimes. Everyone is at some point propositioned. You choose whether to react to it or ignore it or confront them. I have negated all of this and made my own path, as everyone knows. It’s a longer journey but it’s more long-lasting. I have been asked some typically sexist questions at times too. The masses believe that the hero stays young even at 50 but our heroines lose their youth at 30. But I think I have been successful in defying that. If I’m playing a mother to Malala (Yousafzai) in one film, I am also romancing a hero and making love to him in another, which is Manto, where I am playing a sexy prostitute. What I’m actually looking for is diversity and totally defying any kind of image that anyone wants to give me.
Your take on terms like ‘supporting actor’ and ‘parallel lead’?
I am an ac–tor. That’s it. Do not give it any other names, please. Because if I’m playing a parallel lead in one film and a supporting role in another, I’m playing a negative character in another, a comic in another and a lead in another. So I’m doing about 10 films right now and I’m placed variously in all…do you want to use all those terms for me? No. I think I would like to be called an actor.
Blackmail, your last release, is a black comedy…are you happy with the way the film has turned out?
I’m in love with how Blackmail was made. One, I totally enjoyed working on it and two, I’m very proud of Abhinay (Deo) for going against the tide and saying, ‘Yeah, okay, I can see Divya as a crazy, whimsical, alcoholic woman and not just a sweet Punjaban or a ‘serious actor’’ and I am glad he could break that barrier and give me something so different. I totally respect it. I really had a blast doing that film and I received great feedback for Blackmail. But my favourite genre, if you ask me, is romance.
This is your first time in Cannes, how would you rate your experience? What is your role in Manto all about?
Walking the red carpet with my film and watching it with the entire cast has been an overwhelming experience. I’m playing a character from Thanda Gosht, one of Manto’s most controversial stories. And Nandita (Das) had told me it was going to be a bold one. I’m glad I did it. It was really talked-about in Cannes and I’m glad I’m part of this beautiful film.
Are you a method actor, director’s actor or natural actor?
I’m not a method actor by far. I’m a natural actor and a director’s actor. I like to have the best of both worlds. You add a lot to the role. You add your X factor. That’s what sets it apart. So if the character you play has been loved, then, of course, it is not just because of the writer but also because of you. You add your soul and spirit to the beautiful body. When I sit on a role, I intuitively figure out how to layer it up. It just comes to me. Adding the layers works for me. And without moving the story in any way I kind of like to decorate my character.
Films you let go of which you wish you had been a part of….
Honestly, I’m very glad about my choices. There’s no film that I regret not taking up.
Let’s talk about your National Award-winning turn as Ramandeep…what drew you to her? And have you hiked your fee after winning the National Award?
Ramandeep is a very interesting character. The sheer fact that she is an ambitious, aggressive, manipulative politician who comes from modest roots but who is not very humble hints at her layered character. (Director) Aparnaa (Singh) and I added our own personal touches, we filled in the blanks about where she came from, about her relationship with her mother, her past (she probably killed her father to get his seat). In the scene after the one where her mother calls her a devil, you see her counting her teeth in the mirror. This is based on a Punjabi folklore which claims that the devil has a certain number of teeth. That’s my favourite scene because it gives away the fact that somewhere she is kind of regretful of what she has done, but that’s the path she has chosen. And after my mother, this was the first film that I signed on. I put all my energy into this role and I gave it my best. So this film is very special, yes. And, yes, I have kind of increased my fee [starts laughing] after winning the National Award.
Irada raises some pertinent ecological issues, do you believe that films should have a message?
Yeah, why not, films can have a message but they shouldn’t preach, they should entertain. If the message is given in an entertaining way then the visual medium really helps the audience to take it home. Good examples would be all of Raju Hirani’s films, he entertains and leaves you with a very subtle message, which you take home. Like a jaadu ki jhappi is something I will never forget. I like giving people a hug. It works, it really does in our cold times when everyone is really busy with themselves. A warm hug does wonders and that’s what Hirani taught us through Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. (2003). For that matter even if you look at, say, Toilet: A Prem Katha (2017), it is a film with a message but it is entertaining. So many of my films too have a message but they are not preachy. The audience pays to get entertained and if you sneak in a message without making it very obvious, what’s wrong with it.
You will be essaying the role of Malala’s mother Toor Pekai in Amjad Khan’s upcoming biopic Gul Makai…this is the second biopic you are in but you’re not playing the protagonist. Which public figure would you like to portray?
It’s not about lead roles and supporting roles. It’s a kickass role and probably the best one in the film. When you watch it, you will know. In Milkha too it was the best role. It doesn’t matter to me if I’m playing the titular role or not as long as I’m playing the best role, okay? And to answer your second question, I would love to play Meena Kumari or Amrita Pritam on the big screen. I know I will do a good job.
Nastik, The Music Teacher, Jhalki, Manto, Fanney Khan, Ram Singh Charlie, Abhi Toh Party Shuru Hui Hai, Tennis Buddies, Gul Makai, did we get them all?
You’ve done your homework well! These are my films that will come out this year for sure.
Comedy, drama or negative roles — your poison — and why? Which role was the toughest to crack and why?
I never see a film I’m offered as ‘Arré, I wanted to do a comedy but I’ve been offered a serious role’. I see it as what it is and what I can add to it, if it excites me intuitively and what my gut feeling says at that very time. I also see how diverse I can be with my selection. I really enjoyed Anubhav Sinha’s Abhi Toh Party Shuru Hui Hai, we had a blast. I enjoyed doing Music Teacher for its sheer romance and I totally loved Manto. I met (casting director) Uma da Cunha the other and she said, ‘I’ve seen two films of yours and you’ve been kissing your heroes in both of them!’ It’s an interesting phase in my life. In the pipeline are other films like Ram Singh Charlie, a beautiful film I’m super proud of and, of course, the Malala biopic. My most favourite role till date is Jalebi in Delhi 6 because that was not me. I had to use very different body language and dialects to play that role.
From bit roles to bit roles with depth to supporting roles to solo films, it has taken you 20 years to finally get your due. Are you a cynic by now?
Yes, I have come a long way and, thank you, I’m glad everyone thinks that I’ve just started to get my due. Until last year I was told I am underrated. It’s a big feat for any female actor to be going strong after sticking around in this industry for 20 years. There must be something special, right. It’s great to keep rediscovering yourself, challenging yourself, pushing yourself to find newness every time in every film. I think I’m stupidly passionate about myself as an actor and the roles I pick and that’s why I don’t tire at all and that’s why my audience wants more of me every time. No, I’m not a cynic, I’m a child at heart. Everyone asks, ‘Do you think your National Award has been delayed?’ I don’t think so. There’s a time for everything and now is my time. It’s my first time in Cannes, it’s my first National Award, a lot of lead roles are coming my way for the first time. Firsts are welcome and I’m enjoying this phase.
Grey’s Anatomy star Ellen Pompeo, who is currently the highest-paid woman on television drama for playing the titular character, has recently spoken about ageism and being paid less than Patrick Dempsey, who played her on-screen husband. She said he had never seemed keen to join forces and go to the producers with her. Deepika Padukone made news recently for being paid more than her male co-stars…the discrimination is rampant even at the highest levels but women are empowering themselves…your thoughts.
As much as we try to fight it and although we do have some strong female actors who have made their mark and asserted their star power, like Deepika, as you’ve mentioned, it is a male-dominated industry. There’s also Kangana Ranaut and Priyanka Chopra who charge a lot, equivalent to their male counterparts. It is an industry based on demand and supply. If you give hits, people pay you. But at the end of the day, the scales are tilted. ‘Is film ka hero kaun hai?’ is what people ask once a film is out, and once that changes, things will start changing too. But as of now, I don’t think I’ve been doing badly at all, and I have been happy with the pay packages I have been getting.
Why has Bollywood failed to contribute to a movement like #MeToo?
We as a society are still unlearning a lot of things. We come from a space where we are routinely told to be quiet about certain things. This is what we learn, ki choop raho, bhai. I’m talking about the masses, in both small towns and big cities. This is the context. Now, we are speaking up even if it’s a gradual process. But we can’t compare ourselves to Hollywood. We don’t have their infrastructure or unions, so that’s not a fair comparison. Women are raising their voices but we are not quick to name anyone in India. It will take time but it is happening.
There is a culture of silence in our society and in Bollywood too…you have nepotism, camps, cliques….
I’ve never been part of a clique but I have stayed put and I’m in a better position now than many others. If you see the top slot of actors, and even stars, be it Deepika, Shah Rukh, Priyanka or Kangana, they are not from the industry. They’re self-made. And even if someone has friends in the industry, you can only be helped till a certain point. After that, it is your journey and you have to look after yourself. So I feel it’s your work that determines your status here, or your relationships, if people like working with you. In the long run, these things matter more than the nepotism we talk about. Of course, it exists, we can’t deny it. But it is not that impactful.
Can you name some films where roles have been written with you in mind?
There have been quite a few of those actually. I have often been told, ‘We only saw you in this role’. Examples of this would include the Malala biopic, The Music Teacher, Fanney, Delhi 6, Veer-Zaara and Manto. I was told I was the obvious choice and that they had me in mind from the start.
After so many years, what keeps you going?
As I told you, there’s a child inside me who’s always raring to go, to find newer things to do, newer toys to play with vis-à-vis my roles. If I keep doing the same kind of roles that I have been liked in then after a while I will get bored of it. So what is fun is to leave my comfort zone and jump into roles that I’ve not been seen in, feel nervous about doing them, give them my darned best and surprise myself and also my audience. And I think that is what I’m doing right now and I’m thoroughly enjoying it.
Now that you’ve written a book, will we ever see you writing a film?
I don’t know. My directors tell me to do it. Writer-directors Neeraj Pandey and Sriram Raghavan have both requested me to write a script. Some day I might just listen to them. As of now, I’m writing another book!