Rasika Dugal on the 'long and short' of it: How the actress moved from small projects to big roles, while getting her due
Over the last year, Rasika Dugal has received rave reviews for her performances in Manto, Lust Stories, Once Again, Hamid, Made In Heaven and Delhi Crime. Rasika confesses, however, that she struggles with choosing which project to take up next because prioritising and strategising are not her strong suits.
The boom in web content has infused new life into Rasika Dugal's career; she now has more projects to choose from, having also proved her mettle over the years.
Over the last one year, she has received rave reviews for her performances in Manto, Lust Stories, Once Again, Hamid, Made In Heaven and Delhi Crime.
Rasika confesses, however, that she struggles with choosing which project to take up next because prioritising and strategising are not her strong suits.
Rasika Dugal has just moved into a new home — a sea-facing apartment in the suburb of Bandra, Mumbai. We reach the elevator at the same time, and she struggles to enter, swiping her access card repeatedly, even as she turns around to greet me. After a few failed attempts, she switches her attention entirely to the task a hand and smiles when the sensor — finally — beeps welcomingly.
Through the course of the interview, I learn that the seemingly minor ordeal of entering one’s own space is a daily struggle for Rasika, professionally. The boom in web content has infused new life into her career; she now has more projects to choose from, having also proved her mettle over the years. Over the last one year, she has received rave reviews for her performances in Manto, Lust Stories, Once Again, Hamid, Mirzapur, Made In Heaven and Delhi Crime. Rasika confesses, however, that she struggles with choosing which project to take up next because prioritising and strategising are not her strong suits.
"I feel the need for a manager, or at least a guide, more than ever before,” she says. “I'm the kind of person that if you ask me to clean that shelf or work on a script, I'll do both with equal intensity. I'll devote equal time to both, not realising that one is probably far more urgent or important than the other. And though I'll give it my best shot, I'll always feel later that I could've done much more!"
The part about cleaning the shelf is believable — Rasika’s the only celebrity I’ve interviewed who served me a glass of water herself, with nary an affectation. “Petty” jobs are not a concern. In fact, they have been an immensely fruitful training ground for her later work. "I did a slew of short roles for the first many years of my career. But they were like my riyaaz and helped me familiarise myself with the camera (for) when I did my first lead role. Also, I am not good at networking so that was the only way I could meet like-minded people from the industry," reasons Rasika.
Short roles and lack of networking skills are often considered weaknesses in the showbiz. But for Rasika, these shortcomings never factored in; she was more invested in experiencing characters. "I don’t have the ability to market myself. I couldn't continue with theatre for the same reason. Those who perform on stage — actors, musicians and dancers — they have this will in them to experience something and share it with the audience, and then also gain from that experience and add it to their performance in the same moment. I don't have that. That's why I prefer cinema, where I can just experience my character in front of the camera," says Rasika.
She does regret that a couple of her films did not reach the audience they deserved. "I came in at a very interesting time when a film like Bheja Fry worked so well at the box office. It opened a new avenue for ‘multiplex films’. But soon, they stopped working,” says Rasika. She looks at a framed poster of Qissa: The Tale Of A Lonely Ghost and continues: “That is what happened with my film Qissa. It was a very interesting role that I wished more people had watched."
Mili in Qissa was a role that stayed with Rasika even after the film wrapped up. "I'm Punjabi but was brought up in Jameshedpur. We visited my grandmother's place in Chandigarh during Summer holidays and that was my only connect to my roots. So I really enjoyed playing Neeli,” Rasika says. Safia in Manto was a character she instantly recognised when she read the script. "I've seen so many women like her around me, including my grandmother. She gave her all to make a relationship work, despite crises of different kinds. And she never realised what a difficult thing she was doing! I know so many women like her but it pains me to know that what they do is not considered feminism these days," says Rasika.
These women had a crucial role to play in shaping Rasika's childhood, and eventually her love for cinema. "When I used to visit my grandmother in Chandigarh, there used to be so many of us, the cousins, in one house. And in those days, there used to be a lot of power cuts there. As soon as we'd face a power cut, all hell would break lose. So to keep us quiet, the youngest of my aunts would take us to watch a film in a theatre because it would be air-conditioned," says Rasika, laughing at the memory.
Films did not play an active role in her formative years but she has vivid memory of all things Sridevi. "I used to be fascinated by her. I've seen all her films and loved them as a child, especially Mr India. There was an advertisement she did, which used to air close to the 9 pm serial on Doordarshan, in which she’d wear white fur. It was for Cema Bulbs and Tubes. That was my first fan moment!"
While in college, her fascination for cinema evolved from Sridevi to the creative legacy of a film school. "When I got to know about FTII (Film and Television Institute of India, Pune), I was very intrigued by how wonderful it'll be to study at the same place which was once Prabhat Studio. Also, that college was very liberating in the sense that it gave you a lot of time to find your footing. Everything I knew about cinema when I entered the industry, I owe to FTII," she says.
She moved to Mumbai in 2007 and got her first major role in Tahaan, an independent film set in Kashmir, with a premise similar to her latest release, Hamid. "More than the film, I think the land had an impact on me. I was never fascinated by a physical place till I came back from that film's shoot. I'd imagine and romanticise the landscape of Kashmir when I was in Bombay [sic]. It's sad that the tragic lives of its people adds to that romance in some way… It's like we want to own the land but not solve its problems. It makes me sad that we don't work towards resolving the Kashmir issue — which admittedly isn't easy to resolve — as much as we love talking about its beauty," says Rasika, who admits that her role of a 'half widow' in Hamid was an eye-opener.
While Hamid has got her more awards and laurels than most of her past films, she has fond — and funny — memories of her first lead role. "Kshay was written and directed by a debutant, Karan Gour. It was a small independent film… I never thought that it would get made. So I never took on any pressure of it performing well. We were shooting at a flat we had rented in Bhayandar and most of the money was Karan's own so we never bothered if the shooting hours got extended. We dubbed in his 2BHK in Lokhandwala where we would speak our dialogues in one room and Karan would listen to them in the other, connected through a device. I would go to his place on his two-wheeler at 1 am because that would be the only time there was no noise," recalls Rasika.
What surprised her, besides the realisation that filmmaking needs more will than money, is the critical appreciation Kshay got during a successful festival run. "I couldn't believe that my performance was appreciated at all these big film festivals. It was my first lead role as I had only done many short roles till then. But I never faced a challenge in graphing my character because Karan had written the film as a character-driven drama, rather than a plot-heavy one. But those reviews were unbelievable! I used to read them whenever I wasn't getting any work. They kept my spirits high,” she says, laughing.
This lack of self-consciousness seeped into her creative process. She admits her process, or the lack of it, is still the same. "I think there's no way to get into somebody else's life,” Rasika says. “When you're so calculated, it can at best be efficient. It can never be magical. Obviously, you need to equip yourself with the world of that character. But you can't be calculated about emotions. People don't plan emotions. They may see a pattern retrospectively but they often surprise themselves, especially in heightened situations. They laugh because they can't help laughing. They cry because they feel like crying. And every story has these heightened situations that eventually lead to a conflict. Even if you find those one or two moments in a film which you can feel, I think it's a precious find. It's worth it."
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