Divya Dutta on her new book The Stars in My Sky and writing about people who matter

In this exclusive interview, actor Divya Dutta talks about her new book, her roles that are the closest to her heart, how she has managed to choose diverse characters, and why she doesn’t regret not becoming a mainstream heroine.

Sneha Bengani December 02, 2021 11:12:21 IST
Divya Dutta on her new book The Stars in My Sky and writing about people who matter

Four years after her debut book Me and Ma, a memoir on her late mother, Divya Dutta is ready with her next, The Stars in My Sky. This time, she writes about how some of the biggest giants of the Hindi and Punjabi film industries have helped her become the formidable actor that she is today.

In a style as refreshing and candid as her, Dutta reflects on the time she’s spent in stellar company while making her dream come true, one film at a time. Stars in My Sky includes Dutta’s interactions with several industry bigwigs such as Amitabh Bachchan, Shabana Azmi, Shyam Benegal, Yash Chopra, Rakyesh Om Prakash Mehra, Irrfan Khan, and Rishi Kapoor. In talking about them and the impact they have had on her, she reveals a lot about herself and her journey from Ludhiana to becoming the tour de force that she is today.

Here, she talks about the book, some of her closest friends in the industry, the challenging roles she’s essayed over the years, how she has avoided getting stereotyped, and why she doesn’t regret not becoming a mainstream heroine.

This is your second book after Me and Ma. How different was the experience of writing the two?

First, I'll talk about the similarities between the two. Both the books are straight from the heart and about people I am really passionate about.

The first one was about Ma and how I wanted to celebrate her with the world. The second is about the people I celebrate in my life on a day-to-day basis because they made my journey so beautiful.

The writing process was very different in both of them. Mumma's book went off really quickly because it was more of a catharsis. But the second book took a while because it is about so many people. I had ­to reminisce about each person, how I met them, and what memories I had of them. It was not easy, but it was a fun journey. Writing this took much longer than the previous one.

What brought about this book?

After Me and Ma, everyone kept asking me about the next book. I could think of only one thing—the world of movies, which has never ceased to amaze me. I get a huge smile when I think that I belong to this beautiful world. There are a few people who made this journey so special for me. Not many times do we get to say thank you to the people we are really fond of and remind them how much they matter. This book is for them.

What has been the most difficult bit about writing The Stars in My Sky?

They're all megastars and big directors. I wanted to put down my amazing experiences with them in the words that befitted them and were honest. To do it in the right way was the tough part. Sometimes, I wanted to present it differently but most of the writing has been instinctive. I got very emotional with a few chapters, like those on Rishi Ji and Irrfan. Those took a while to write. Then there were certain chapters, like the ones on Mr. Bachchan and Shabana Ji, both of whom I totally adore. There was so much I wanted to say about them that I had to think about how and what I should write so it’s crisp and nice.

The chapters on Sonu Nigam and Sonali Bendre are such incredible stories of enduring friendships. Are such equations in Bollywood rare or is it just one of the many myths about the film industry?

Thank you! Yes, these two have been a great support and I have a special bond with both Sonu and Sonali. Sonu has always held my hand tight. He has believed in me in times when I didn't. It’s a blessing to have a friend like that around. Sonali has been a strength. I've always been inspired by her. Our friendship is still strong. We might not meet every day but these two friendships are very, very special. Such friendships are not rare. In any competitive field, people will be competitive but that doesn't mean there can't be friendships. Of course, there can be. And beautiful ones at that.

Divya Dutta on her new book The Stars in My Sky and writing about people who matter

Your first break into the film industry was through the Stardust Academy. How important do you think is the talent-hunt format for newcomers?

As an outsider from Ludhiana, I didn’t know how to establish a foothold in the industry. So that kind of a talent hunt really helped. It helped me find a reason to come from that small town to my city of dreams and make those dreams a reality. Also, when you are selected out of 50,000 candidates all over India, people do take notice. We did get attention and training. Though life itself is the best training, these talent hunts get you acquainted very well with what’s coming.

A piece of acting advice that you’ve found the most useful when in front of the camera and who gave it?

All these actors, stars and directors don't really give you advice. You just have to be sensitive enough and pick it by observing them. Sometimes they say things in such subtle ways. Like my incident with Mr. Bachchan. I didn't know how to disconnect (from my role) during Baghban. I was so upset because I was mouthing these mean lines and not being nice to somebody who's my absolute favorite. But he was amazingly sensitive. He noticed that this newcomer was feeling miserable, and with his experience, knew the reason for it. He just called me one day and told me, “Listen, you're very nasty to me and my fan club won't like it.” I got defensive and started justifying it. I said, “But it’s just a role.” That's exactly what he was trying to tell me without telling me. That was the amazing way Mr. Bachchan taught me to disconnect from a role when I was done with it.

You have done some very challenging roles in your prolific career. Which one has been the most difficult to perform?

There have been so many. I've been lucky. The first such was Shabbo in Veer-Zaara, with the dialect and everything. But for me, personally, it was Delhi-6’s Jalebi because she was totally unlike me as a person. She was an uninhibited, bold woman and I was such a shy Punjabi girl when I did it. To be Jalebi was a process of learning. By the end of it, I knew how to take on a role, give it as much of me as required, and make that character what it needs to be.

Which one is the closest to your heart?

In every film that I've done, there is a certain scene which I really hold dear. But as I said, Delhi-6 is my personal favorite. So are Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Badlapur, and Special 26. Recently, I have shot for Dhaakad. It's such a difficult role, I have thoroughly enjoyed portraying it. I'm also doing a show for Amazon. I've never done a role like this one before. So yes, exciting times.

One role you turned down that you wish you’d done…

I've never regretted the roles that I have turned down. I think your gut, your intuition is your best friend. I've always picked up roles or rejected them according to my intuition. I’m curious to see the work I have rejected or not been a part of. But 99.9% of the time, I've just been happy that I didn't do it. It turns out to be the right decision. As much as I might enjoy watching them, I have never regretted that I didn't do them.

In the book, you have also talked about your fear of being stereotyped. And yet, you have done remarkably diverse roles. How does one avoid getting pigeonholed in an industry that is big on formulaic success?

It's been a conscious decision. If you get bored with your own self doing the same roles, your boredom will reach your audience. Similarly, if you are excited, nervous, and rediscovering yourself every time, it also reaches the audience. That's why I pick up diverse roles.

It's very easy to get pigeonholed because it's very easy to say yes to so much work and good money. But at the end of the day, anybody going on the sets playing similar roles will get monotonous at some point and I have always run away from that feeling. I'd rather be a nervous, excited actor than have a self-assured been-there-done-that attitude. You need to say no lots of times to get the kind of yes you want. I think I've been successful in doing that.

You are a terrific actor who has proved her mettle with every film but do you regret not being recognized as a mainstream heroine?  

I don't think we live in the times of mainstream heroines anymore. These are times of good actors. If you would have asked me this question a few years back, I would have answered it differently. But what's in right now is what I already started with Veer-Zaara many years back. Now is the time for significant, beautiful roles, inconsequential of whether they are romantic leads or not. Everyone is doing everything and nobody's bothered about what kind of role it is and whether it is mainstream or not. Everyone is taking up roles that excite them. I am glad I started it pretty early in my life.

I take up roles that make my heart flutter.

And thankfully, all of my roles now are the so-called lead roles, so it really doesn't bother me. I would want the best role in a film inconsequential of what it is.

One filmmaker and actor you’ve not worked with yet and would want to?

You're asking a greedy actor. There are quite a few but I’d love to work with Aamir Khan. Among filmmakers, I'd love to be directed by Gulzar Sahab, Meghna Gulzar, and Zoya Akhtar.

What would you like to tell aspiring actors from non-filmy backgrounds who are trying to make a name in Bollywood?

You always have to remember these three Ps: passion, patience, and perseverance. You have to continuously give your best to the profession you really love. Only then can you reap fruits.

Is a third book on cards?

Yes, there will be a third book, very different from these two. But let me absorb this second one first.

When not reading books or watching films, Sneha Bengani writes about them. She tweets at @benganiwrites.


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