By Poulomi Das Mar. 13, 2019
In the decade that she has been in Bollywood, Rasika Dugal has happily inhabited films such as Manto with a single-mindedness that serves her characters without drawing attention to herself. It’s why it’s impossible to forget how her characters mould a film, even when you might fail to remember her presence in them.
In Zoya Akhtar’s short in Lust Stories, centred around a passionate sexual affair between a maid and her employer, Rasika Dugal appears in its closing minutes – just when you least expect it. Dugal plays an unnamed maid who breathlessly rattles off several complaints about her fussy madam to Sudha (Bhumi Pednekar), the film’s lead, before boasting about the pink kurta that she gifted her. That the gift seems like a discarded hand-me-down hardly bothers her. Instead she draws attention to the fact that it is “fully embroidered”, as if convincing herself that that the gesture holds value; that it isn’t entirely thoughtless.
In that moment, Dugal displays the sort of manic energy that encapsulates the castles that these women – domestic freelancers enriching the lives of others – build in the air to escape the despondency of their own lives. The 34-year-old actress doesn’t steal the scene but happily inhabits it with a single-mindedness that serves her character without calling attention to herself.
It’s precisely why it’s nearly impossible to forget how her characters – often existing in the fringes – mould a film or a show’s narrative, even when you might fail to remember her presence in them. That’s because Dugal, a generous actor, occupies most films to quietly champion their sub-plots. It’s partly this abject unshowiness – a consistent trait in all her performances – that distinguishes her from someone like Radhika Apte, an actress who more or less operates in a similar space.
Unlike Apte, Dugal isn’t instantly noticeable, despite coming off a productive year (Tu Hai Mera Sunday, Manto, Mirzapur) and having an unusually busy month ahead of her. Just last week, she registered her presence in Zoya Akhtar’s Made in Heaven as Nutan Yadav whose marriage is brokered to accelerate her father’s political ambitions. In Hamid, which releases this Friday, she plays Ishrat, a Kashmiri widow forced to multitask between grieving for her missing husband and raising a son on her own. And next week, she plays Neeti, one of the police officers investigating the 2012 Delhi gang rape in the Netflix series, Delhi Crime.
Rasika Dugal comes across as someone who constantly evaluates her worthiness to do justice to a role instead of it being the other way round.
Dugal credits Nandita Das’s Manto – her biggest film till date – for the abundance of work finding her way. “The offers have significantly increased ever since I signed Manto. Sometimes, I think it was my lucky charm,” Dugal tells me when I meet her in Andheri on a hectic day of promotions for Hamid. The actress played Safia Manto, the better – and conveniently forgotten – half of Saadat Hasan Manto. In the film, Dugal coloured Safia’s helplessness with an understated grace; quietly pleading with a celebrated author to be the man his family needs him to be instead of outrightly demanding it.
In a Hindi biopic about an author whose words resonate till today, the significance of her role could have easily been reduced. It’s something that Dugal was aware of but not concerned about, owing to Das’s politics. “Nandita told me that Safia was important to her and that she wanted to make a point with it. As an actor, you can’t make a point with anything unless your director is also on the same page.” Dugal believes that to be both an advantage and a disadvantage, “It absolves the actor of responsibility when things go wrong, but it also sometimes puts you in a situation where you don’t have control.”
In fact, Dugal brings up “an actor’s responsibility” several times during our conversation – coming across as someone who constantly evaluates her worthiness to do justice to a role instead of it being the other way round. For instance, she reveals that she had initially turned down the role of Ishrat when it was offered to her. “I told Aijaz (Hamid’s director) that he should cast someone from Kashmir. I was apprehensive about looking like an outsider who was recreating someone else’s grief,” she reasons.
It’s also this sense of duty toward characters that’s behind Dugal’s belief of not discriminating between lead roles and smaller parts, “When I moved to Bombay after FTII, I was advised to refuse smaller parts, because it instantly becomes much more difficult to transition to bigger parts. But I did every small part that came my way. The advice wasn’t wrong: It did take me 10 films before I landed my first lead role in an independent film (Kshay, 2011).” Yet Dugal views the slow take-off of her career as a logical move, a stand that stems from her realisation that as an outsider there was no way for her to build a connection with people unless she worked with them. “I remember feeling excited about those two-scene roles because at that time I wasn’t sure if I knew how to do a scene efficiently. I wanted to test my two years at a film institute on real ground,” she adds.
In Manto, Rasika Dugal, coloured Safia’s helplessness with understated grace.
In Manto, Rasika Dugal, coloured Safia’s helplessness with understated grace.
Ten years into her acting career (she debuted with a bit role in 2007’s Anwar), the actress still continues to be seen in supporting roles and cameos. Does she still act in them to put her skills to test? “No, now I’m confident that I can do justice to a scene,” she asserts. There’s a marked change in how she views them. At this stage in her career, Dugal doesn’t take up a smaller part unless the collaboration excites her or if the role is an addition to her skill set, “I did Tu Hi Mera Sunday because I got to learn sign language (Dugal plays the single mother of a hearing-impaired child). Lust Stories was because of the opportunity to work with Zoya, and Made in Heaven happened because Alankrita (Shrivastava) and I have been friends since college. The first time I acted in a real play, it also involved her; she was taking care of the sound department, I think. That was a connection I wanted to relive.”
Yet Dugal’s filmography, littered with roles where she often plays – by her own admission – “a woman of virtue”, might suggest that she still isn’t in a position to challenge an industry that thrives on typecasting actors. When I prod her about being cast only in roles that require her to play a supportive wife or a jovial mother, she doesn’t seem too perturbed. “For me, what mattered more was the fact that the stories were different. In a way, I am happy that when someone writes this kind of role, the first person they’d think of is me. I like having a monopoly in the morally upright market,” Dugal jokes.
Almost instantly, the actress segues into a reflective zone, admitting that she can afford to not be concerned only because some directors go out of their way to offer her roles that are diametrically opposite to her “image”. Like Mirzapur, where she played Beena, the sexually frustrated second wife of a dreaded gangster. It’s a morally corrupt role that Dugal exploited to the hilt, lusting with abandon – making a solid case for Bollywood to throw her a challenge. “Mirzapur demanded a kind of physicality from me that I was very excited to explore,” she tells me.
In the same breath, Dugal – who is set to reprise her role in the second season of Mirzapur – discusses the limitations of depicting a character like Beena, “When I read the script of Mirzapur, I did feel that Beena was empowered. I didn’t think she was being sexualised. But when I watch it, I’m not very sure,” she admits. “And honestly, that dissonance wasn’t because the intentions of the show’s director or writers wasn’t correct. It’s just that for so long, our visual references for women have been so sexualised, that it’s hard to separate it from sexual empowerment,” Dugal adds with a self-awareness that feels reflective of an actress who tends to constantly re-evaluate herself.
After over a decade in Bollywood, much has changed for Rasika Dugal – this year will finally see her in a comic role in a film that is in the “commercial space”; she plans to balance it with an indie project that has been “completely improvised”. And even though she is yet to command mainstream adulation and attention like Radhika Apte, you can hardly stop her from being omnipresent.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.