Her Instagram captions – wittily concise or an expertly selected emoji – present an intriguing combination of millennial insouciance with profundity that is beyond her years. The enigmatic yet instantly relatable Sobhita Dhulipala’s inner self emerges as Richa Kaul Padte peels back the layers of everyone’s new favourite ‘webtertainment’ celebrity, on the heels of the actor’s upcoming Netflix release, Bard of Blood
PHOTOGRAPHER: BIKRAMJIT BOSE; STYLIST: NIKHIL D (ASSISTED BY SAKINA CONTRACTOR, DIPIKA C AND RISHITA SHETI); BOTH FROM FEAT. ARTISTS.
HAIR AND MAKE-UP: ELTON J FERNANDEZ, INEGA TALENT MANAGEMENT.
Sobhita Dhulipala wants to feed her enemies to the pigs. That’s when I learn that pigs can eat entire human beings, leaving no trace behind. Teeth, bones, guts. All gone. It’s the perfect way to knock one or two people off your hit list. Dhulipala proposes this idea while she’s looking out of a car window, white earphones tucked firmly in, long hair sweeping across her face.
Well, actually, she proposes it on the internet. This scene takes place on Instagram, in a post that Dhulipala concludes by saying that since pigs are so cute, she’d rather feed them yummy things instead. In fact, could we please all just google pictures of piglets? She insists. So I do just that. They’re incredible.
This post is not an outlier on Dhulipala’s internet. Dark humour, a self-deprecating tone and the pairing of a windswept photo with an ironic caption are all hallmarks of the 27-year-old actor’s digital persona. In one post, she wears a white hotel bathrobe, gold stilettos, and a double string of pearls around her neck. The caption reads: ‘I’m going to hell Ma’. In another, she’s in a large striped shirt, hair hanging loose, with a disgruntled expression on her face. The caption? ‘Every time I type lmao’.
My favourite, though, is a picture of the Made in Heaven (2019) star sitting on the sparse banks of a water body. She’s dressed all in black, with her hair styled into a long braid. Her back is to the camera and she looks sideways into the distance, so all we see is her strong profile: a prominent cheekbone, half of a full mouth and one perfectly arched eyebrow. But that’s just the appetiser. Her right arm extends back towards the camera, and her hand, resting on the earth, holds a black handgun.
The caption: ‘Me, on a date’.
I burst out laughing. If this isn’t millennial internet humour, what is?
“I have my doubts,” Dhulipala says, before explaining that she had borrowed a prop gun during a shoot, set her camera on timer, and balanced it on a rock. “In fact, maybe people just think I’m insane.”
Being misunderstood has been a longstanding feature of Dhulipala’s journey. Known for her unconventional career choices and ‘exotic’ (code for not ‘white-passing’) appearance, people have often told the young star that she doesn’t fit in. But the one place where Dhulipala has never felt the need to belong is online.
For many people living in isolated, misunderstood pockets of existence, the digital world has been a welcoming space. And today, despite being increasingly controlled by private corporations, the internet is an arena where it is still possible to circumvent the mainstream. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the work which propelled Dhulipala to rapid fame, Zoya Akhtar’s Amazon Prime Original series, Made in Heaven, was a show made for the internet. Featuring striking portrayals of gay sex and teeming with unapologetic women, the series was a runaway hit with everyone gasping for a breath of uncensored air. And were it not for the internet, it’s hard to imagine that we could have met its leading lady Tara Khanna – played by Dhulipala – any other way.
If the internet is key to understanding our particular cultural moment, it is equally a means to understanding its rising stars. And what makes Dhulipala’s corner of it such a treasure trove of humour and irony isn’t that she’s the most followed celebrity or the most prolific poster; it’s that she truly is a child of the internet. Born in 1992, three years before VSNL brought dial-up connections into Indian homes, Dhulipala understands the internet the way many people of our shared generation do: like it’s a given.
When we meet, this is what’s on my mind – and I’m looking for a way to convey it.
“You’re really funny on the internet,” I venture.
“Yeah?” she laughs in surprise.“Thanks, man. I have no idea how I seem to another person.”
“You don’t post like a celebrity.”
“Really? Shit, I’m doing it wrong.”
Dhulipala and I meet at a small café of her choosing, and then spend a good deal of time debating where to sit. Inside, it’s crowded with college-aged girls sheltering from the rain. Outside, it’s, well, raining. The plastic sheets installed to protect the patio furniture make the downpour sound, in Dhulipala’s words, “apocalyptic”.
We sit outside.
“I love the monsoon,” she explains. “It’s the only time one is forced to interact with nature. Otherwise we drive around in AC cars, we’re so guarded. But in the rains, you have no choice but to address nature, to deal with it.” Dhulipala has dressed the part too. She’s wearing a relaxed black-and-red, leopard-print dress, paired with a men’s Calvin Klein rain jacket that she keeps on throughout our two-hour meeting. She’s also sporting chunky black trainers, her hair is wet, and there’s no (visible) make-up on her face. (‘Because I woke up late,’ she texts me later. ‘But also because fashion.’)
Was it always this way, I wonder. A confident young woman making her way through the world, dressed in seriously cool outfits? “No way,” she says. “I grew up with Harry Potter.”
Dhulipala spent her childhood in Visakhapatnam (formerly Vizag), a small city in southern India. The child of a merchant navy engineer and a government school teacher, she was a quiet, awkward girl who struggled with social interactions and found more solace in the magical world of books than she ever did in her peers. “I wasn’t pretty as a child,” she says directly into my recorder, which she’s holding in a (wild) bid to speak over the rain. “Puberty hit me like a train. When I say I was geeky, I don’t mean cute pigtails, short shorts. No, not that. Like fucking geeky. Uncool. I was like Hermione. Except Hermione was pretty, I wasn’t.”
It’s my doing that we’re speaking in Harry Potter references, but it’s Dhulipala’s Ravenclaw phone cover that led us here. Ravenclaw, one of four houses in JK Rowling’s fictional school of Hogwarts, is known for its intelligent, bright students. And of all the star-studded characters who appear across the Potter universe, it’s the quirky, bullied, whimsical Ravenclaw, Luna Lovegood, who Dhulipala identifies with the most. “She was so comfortable with not being validated,” the actor recalls. “As a child, that was such a new perspective for me. Luna was her own person, and that’s a daring thing to be.”
Harry Potter was a big reason why Dhulipala began to explore the internet, armed with a Potter-inspired email address, a dial-up connection and plenty of free hours in a childhood spent largely alone. She moved between fan forums, blogs and general interest chat rooms, rarely contributing but keenly following conversations all the same. “I would just go see how people talk. It was almost as if I was living their lives. Like I had an invisibility cloak, where nobody could see me, but I got to see what moved them.”
“As a creative person, if I get to question the status quo, then I must.
For my own sake, if not for others.”
Over the years, Dhulipala has learned to become what she describes as “an outspoken introvert”, but she’s still fascinated by other people’s voices rather than her own (“If you’re talking you’re not listening, you know?”). In fact, the café where we’re sitting right now is a place that the young actor often visits to casually eavesdrop. She gets a coffee, puts on her headphones, but, “There’s no music, I’m just listening to other people talk. And I just think, ‘I’m so happy I’m not a chair, I’m so glad I’m alive.”’
In turn, I think about how the only other person I can imagine earnestly comparing themselves to a chair is Luna Lovegood.
Back when she was growing up, unsure and hesitant, the internet allowed Dhulipala to “feel less cornered, less alone”. As she explains: “From a young age, I was so open to the idea that one could become anything, because the internet showed me how many different kinds of people there must be.”
How did Dhulipala go from being a quiet child “hoping not to be spotted or acknowledged” to one of the rising stars of Indian entertainment today? Her path wasn’t straightforward, and nor was it planned.
After unexpectedly winning a local pageant (Miss Vizag, which she was encouraged to enter because she was “tall”), a teenage Dhulipala wanted to broaden her horizons, and successfully convinced her family of four to move to Mumbai. “The idea of a big city for me was bigger than the city itself,” she recalls. But at college, Dhulipala found herself in a familiar role: feeling like she didn’t fit in. “I felt so left out: from the good conversations, from the fun stuff. I didn’t belong.”
“But then you became. . . famous.” I say.
“So famous! Can’t you see the paparazzi?”
Dhulipala laughs and gestures towards the empty street.
After graduating college, she went on to win Miss India Earth 2013, a competition that 19-year-old Dhulipala entered on a lark, but whose rigorous rules and stringent beauty standards taught her an important lesson: that this life was not for her. Despite not wanting to dredge up the past, she briefly explains: “Imagine there’s a girl who is not fully grown, not so confident, under the influence of people who tell her, ‘This is right, this is attractive, this is what you should do’. So you start doing it, but you don’t feel good, because you feel like it’s not you.”
After a year of struggling to find herself, Dhulipala attended an acting class and went on to work in a variety of independent film projects, spanning the Telegu spy-thriller Goodachari (2016), the popular Bollywood film Chef (2017), and the dark comedy Kaalakaandi (2018), In 2016, she also starred in Raman Raghav 2.0, a film that premiered to acclaim at Cannes. Dhulipala fondly recalls that the film’s director, Anurag Kashyap, was the first person who believed in her creative talents: a gift that gave her the ability to believe in herself. She explains: “[After that], my energies were focused on being actually good at my work. Because work, knowledge, creativity? These things will not leave you in the middle of the night saying they don’t want to cuddle anymore. I trust in that.”
This trust shines through in the fact that none of the projects Dhulipala has chosen (with the exception of Chef, where she had a minor role) were set to make any money. But she has always been interested in art that excites her even though this pursuit makes it harder to pay the rent. You never know how something will land; you only know that you believe in it.
And one of the things that Dhulipala believed in was Made in Heaven, a show that made people truly sit up and take notice. The sexually- and politically-charged nine-episode web series follows the lives of two Delhi wedding planners, and is set within a cultural context that asks a familiar question to and of Indian women: log kya kahenge; what will people say?
“I don’t post as much these days. Social media has become about who is the most likeable. And I can’t make it my job to make sure someone understands me. Because then I would be explaining, not living.”
Dhulipala, for her part, has stopped caring. “Dude, everybody fucks. That’s the elephant in the room, and it shouldn’t be.”
We’re talking, at this point, not just about Made in Heaven, but about a witty 2017 Durex condom advertisement that Dhulipala starred in. It’s a playful, subtle video that could, in Dhulipala’s words, “be an ad for jeans”. Which means that despite its sexual energy, it’s the sort of ad that might be permitted to exist in domestic settings, in regular Indian homes. The kind of ad that “could actually reach people”, she explains.
But it’s also an advertisement that not many desi women would agree to star in, the pervasive question ‘What will people say?’ stalking our lives at every turn.
“It’s the most normal thing,” Dhulipala says of sexuality. ‘In movies, people smash each other’s skulls in, and that’s fine. But if people are holding hands, if there’s a moment of affection. . . .” she trails off, before taking her analysis further. Sexual stigma is, according to the actor, “a manufactured thing for the government and society to have control over an individual. Because if an individual is happy and living life on his own terms, when those in power mess up, he’s less likely to forgive them. . . . As a creative person, if I get to question the status quo, then I must. For my own sake, if not for others.”
At this point, I’m smiling so much that she looks at me questioningly. I’m not sure how to explain, so I simply say, “I agree with you.”
And I do, but it’s more complex than that. We’re living in a cultural moment where feminism is suddenly cool, gender equality is wrapped into every tweet, and yet most women can’t walk into a pharmacy and buy condoms without being shamed. So when someone like Dhulipala, with all the trappings of fame, walks the talk, it paves the way for other girls to do the same.
Our hot drinks have arrived: a tea for me, and after a little discussion, a coffee for Dhulipala, who was momentarily tempted by my order because she “used to be a tea person” but then converted to coffee.
“You can be both?” I suggest.
“Can I though?” she wonders. “Isn’t it like cats and dogs?”
Caffeine and animals aside, I ask her to tell me what her experience of the internet looks like. I’m very curious. If people follow Dhulipala for her wit, book recommendations and stunning photos, what does this self-professed geek follow people for? She picks up her phone to check, and she’s not happy with what she finds.
“Actors, actors, actors,” Dhulipala frowns as she scrolls. “It gets a little dull following actors and others of my field. Fuck man, I don’t dislike them or anything, because I wouldn’t want to be disliked. But that’s not enough reason, you know?” Having a reason behind doing things, and being present in one’s decisions, are qualities that Dhulipala values greatly: both online and off. Before she entered the acting world, Dhulipala’s social media feed was “a lot more fun”, filled with travel pages, history-buff accounts, writing blogs and interior design images. Today, it’s mostly actors. Which is perhaps why Dhulipala has been feeling disconnected from the internet lately.
“I don’t post as much these days,” she says. “Social media has become about who is the most likeable. But people like what they understand. And I can’t make it my job to make sure someone understands me. Because then I would be explaining, not living.”
Two hours into our meeting, we’ve come full circle: to the question of fitting in. But what’s changed in the years since her lonely childhood is that Dhulipala no longer feels the need to belong at all.
“I’m glad I didn’t lose a sense of who I am,” she says, quietly noting that ever since she gained social standing, people have fawned over her ‘uniqueness’. But when she was just setting out into the world, they would dismiss her as strange, weird, uncool.”
And the thing is that she sort of gets it.
In what I’ve come to perceive as her characteristically thoughtful demeanour, Dhulipala reflects: “I don’t think there’s something wrong with [other people]. I think there’s something wrong with me. Because the things that move me, that excite me? I haven’t found anyone else who’s like me. And that gives me as much hope as it does heartache. Because it means that I’m always going to be unique, but I’m always going to be alone.”
After I switch off the recorder, we step out into the rainy street, and Dhulipala hugs me goodbye. She’s declined my offer of a ride home: she walked here, and she’ll walk back. She’s making her own way.