In an exclusive interview with Aza, Rasika Dugal gets candid about enrolling at FTII "for fun", working with her mentor Naseeruddin Shah, getting consumed by each character she plays, and her fondest memories of celebrating festivals back home, in Jamshedpur
With a shy gait and friendly, unassuming smile, she strolls into the studio wearing white shorts and a baby pink button-down shirt, sleeves causally pushed up to her elbows. I quickly notice she's not alone. No, it's not to say that Rasika Dugal makes an entrance with an entourage - she categorically doesn't. Accompanying her are a set of articles I come to recognize as indelibly tied to her: prescription glasses which seem to possess a life of their own in the way they inexplicably but reliably materialize at will between shots; a trusty black hair scrunchie that liberates Rasika to focus on the next task at hand; and a cell phone she shares a love-hate relationship with. It is precisely these idiosyncrasies that catch me unarmed; there's something about Rasika. For starters, I'm floored by the sincerity, honesty, and thoughtful eloquence with which she speaks. Throughout the afternoon, I observe her as she chats, ponders, giggles, poses, and sits down. I watch her rise purposefully, without a helping hand to pull her up, and I understand her rise to fame.
From her days as a struggling actor fresh out of The Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), standing in a queue for 2-3 hours for a single ad audition, Rasika has successfully traversed the often attempted but seldom accomplished journey to becoming OTT royalty. As a female actor, she has paved the way for a new era in content by portraying a wide array of real, relatable characters and stories with depth. As I get to know her, Rasika confides that the naive but beautiful enthusiasm of her twenties had her follow the whims of her heart fearlessly. Rapt, I listen. "It was enthusiasm more than inspiration that drew me to acting," Rasika shares, as she delicately repositions her glasses on her nose to examine the wardrobe selection for the shoot. After a quick perusal of the plethora of options, she happily declares, "I'll wear anything you guys decide, you know better."
"Exeunt pretention and vanity" Much like the characters she has portrayed and received accolades for, including Beena (Mirzapur), Meera (Out of Love), Neeti (Delhi Crime), Savita (A Suitable Boy), Neeli (Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost), Shobha (P.O.W. - Bandi Yuddh Ke), Rasika exudes an unmistakable girl-next-door vibe. So, what inspired the Mathematics major to pursue acting, I wonder out loud. "The desire to experience and experiment," she answers simply. "It took me from a degree in Mathematics at Lady Sri Ram College (LSR, Delhi) to a Post-Graduate degree in Social Communications Media at Sophia College (Mumbai) to becoming an academic research assistant on a Gender and Public Space project. I was' in fact, working on that project when, one day..." She pauses as the stylist appears with the first festive look for the photoshoot, a refreshingly bright yellow floral printed lehenga with bird motifs.
Like a seasoned narrator, Rasika knows exactly when to add poignant silences to build suspense and ignite curiosity. I stare at her, enthralled, and she continues, " came across this newspaper ad stating FTII was re-starting its acting course. I was always interested in films and had thoroughly enjoyed doing theatre in college. So, on a whim, I took the entrance test. To my surprise, I was one of 20 students to get selected for the course! Even at the time of joining FTII, I didn't really look at it as a serious career choice. I thought it would be a fun course to pursue. Soon, I realized I was the only one in class who had kind of wandered into this course. Most others were there with years of acting experience, some with fierce ambitions of stardom! But, a few months into the course, I was totally in love with and fascinated by the many, many things that being an actor asked of me. I knew then that this is what I wanted to experience for as long as I can help it," Rasika fondly adds.
What followed was far from a rosy path for the performing artiste as she took on multiple brief roles and blink-and-miss appearances in both cinema and television from 2007 onwards, all in a bid to foster productive ties in the industry and bag a bigger break. It was Qissa in 2015 that finally got her noticed, and Manto and Mirzapur, both in 2018, that brought her fame. Today, she has successfully worked in feature films, short films, web series, TV shows, podcasts and theatre. "I enjoy being in front of the camera - whether it's a short film, a movie, or a series. I love being on sets. I've always been intrigued by how the camera captures a performance. Filmmaking is a deeply personal journey but also a highly collaborative one. Your performance is so dependent on how you have been lensed, how the shot is lit, how it's edited, the background score that will accompany it later..." she trails off before continuing passionately. "I'm constantly amazed by how much of yourself you have to put out there and how little control you have, as an actor, over what comes out. I thrive on the beautiful chaos that's typical of a filming unit. Sometimes I feel every shot is a miracle. That space between 'action' and 'cut', when a million energies attempt to come together, never gets boring; it keeps me on my toes."
The world is her stage Years later, the student got an opportunity to share screen space with her mentor, in The Miniaturist of Junagadh. And, by the mentor, we mean the legendary Naseeruddin Shah. It had to have been nerve-wracking, I ask. "Naseer Saab is that rare combination of a great actor who is also a very good teacher. So much of what I know about my work today is based on the invaluable fundamentals I learnt from him at FTII. Naseer Saab had once said in class, that if you want to truly listen to your co-star in a scripted scene, you must learn the other person's lines as well. At the time that he had given this instruction, I found it strange. But when I started practicing it, I understood what he had meant. It works like magic. On the first day of shoot for The Miniaturist - which also happened to be my first professional interaction with him in Mumbai after FTII - Naseer Saab asked me, "Apni lines yaad hai, na?" I said, "Sir, aapki bhi yaad hai," Rasika shares, an affectionate smile tinging her voice. Consequently, The Miniaturist travelled the world with a nomination for Best Short Film at the New York Indian Film Festival. It was screened at the Cincinnati Indian Film Festival, and was officially selected for the International Film Festival of South Asia, Toronto, and Indian Film Festival, Stuttgart.
As Rasika shares this happy anecdote, team Aza indulgently flutters and fusses around her, styling her hair, fixing her jewellery, and helping her into high heels (for which Rasika thanked the styling assistant at least four times!) to achieve that carefully careless beauty the mood-board demands. In between shots, the ardent Sridevi fan - well, she can accurately hum the entire Cema Bulbs and Tubes ad jingle that featured the Mr. India actress - says she wouldn't be averse to a quintessential Bollywood experience. "I wish for variety and I've been very fortunate to have had a lot of that - in terms of characters, genres and mediums. I feel the lines between commercial and non-commercial are now very blurred. And it's nice that one can no longer slot a film/series firmly into either category. I'm not saying no to a 'glam character' who breaks into 'song and dance numbers' frequently. I had a short song and dance number in Lootcase, which I thoroughly enjoyed!"
"Feminism over tokenism" Does she ever feel there's a need to change the conversation in the entertainment space when it comes to the depiction of women - their strengths and weaknesses or awareness of sexuality? Rasika quietly deliberates for a bit before fixing her glasses and replying, "I think the conversation has changed a lot and for the better. Women are finally being acknowledged as sexual beings and not merely as objects of male desire. Not only are there more important roles for women than there used to be, but the writing of female parts is also increasingly getting more nuanced. Scripts are now exploring and celebrating femininity; having a female protagonist helming a show/film is no longer just an act of tokenism. Of course, there is still a long way to go. Filmmaking is a visual medium and there is a long journey between the written word and the visual. Often things get lost in this translation. Sometimes, even the most well-written and well-meaning scripts end up with sexualised images/visuals or end up perpetuating a stereotype rather than breaking it. Possibly because of our deeply-ingrained prejudices or maybe because of long-standing references."
As Rasika retires to the green room for a homecooked lunch, we sift through the photographs. And it's clear as day that she loves being immersed in what she's doing. Perhaps it's this immersive, versatile nature that makes her depiction of characters so utterly memorable. It makes me wonder if there's a method to her artistic madness - a process she follows to get into the skin a character, especially when it comes to starkly contrasting roles like Savita (A Suitable Boy) and Beena (Mirzapur 2). So, that's my first question to her, right after her lunch break. Rasika patiently explains, "I want to be consumed by a piece of work in a way that there is no room for anything else. I enjoy that so I seek it often. But I don't have a fixed process. I believe every part requires a different preparation process. Also, your preparation process has to align with the visions of your director and co-actors. But yes, your experiences as a character in a story becomes a part of your life experience. It will always be there with you. How much it does or doesn't affect you is difficult to quantify. These experiences are subliminal and that's the beauty of it. It is a gradual exploration and a journey to attempt to understand another way of being."
"Enter stage left: The Expressionist" As she resumes the Aza Fashions shoot, breezing from one festive look to another, radiating in the season's choicest anarkalis, sarees and lehengas, I can't help but observe the actor's hands - yes, hands. There's something immensely graceful but unintentionally uninhibited about how she moves them. Even as she examines Rahul's clicks on his laptop, right after her glasses once again miraculously appear (as I imagine a screenplay: Rasika in her mind, "Accio glasses!" Spot, summoned from nowhere, hands the pair over to her), she peers into the screen with a hand thoughtfully suspended in air, as if already noting things she can improve upon. She's a perfectionist through and through. In fact, she got a blouse specifically stitched to symbolize the 50s just for the audition of Mira Nair's A Suitable Boy. She breaks into giggles as she remembers. "At the time I auditioned for it, it seemed like the most natural thing to do. I was asked to wear a saree that looked like it belonged to India in the 1950s. How could I achieve that without a blouse which looked like it belonged to that period? Retrospectively, yes, I giggle at my own enthusiasm. But the truth is, I enjoy working with details, I think the tiniest ones go a long way in creating something special, even though it might seem almost indulgent at the time." Difficult to disagree.
The self-made star - who actively champions the tenets of food conservation, global hunger crisis prevention and waste management - believes, no experience is not useful to you as an actor and, in that sense, she's always working. "But, once in a while, I need my 'super slothful' day, when I switch off my phone, give the house help the day off, sleep, have a nice cup of coffee and binge watch a show," she reveals with a wistful smile. But gruelling schedules notwithstanding, a good book is never too far. "I think my love for Urdu poetry and literature helped me understand Manto and Safia's world better," she says about the critically-acclaimed film based on the life of the celebrated but misunderstood writer and playwright, Saadat Hasan Manto. And, much like an eager, reading-with-some-coffee-on-a-rainy-day bibliophile, she continues, "I have enjoyed reading most progressive writers. But If I have to pick, then Krishan Chandar, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Amrita Pritam, Faiza Ahmad Faiz and Manto, of course!"
Art of the matter Apparently, her love for the creative arts isn't limited to acting; whenever she has some spare time, Rasika takes music lessons. She happily admits, "I have settled to the idea that this is the one skill I will always want to learn. I have immense respect for singers and am in awe of actor-singers. Once I get busy, I find it difficult to continue classes. So, invariably, I drop off. But I have always enjoyed singing, even though I am not particularly good at it."
There's something endearingly spontaneous about how Rasika goes about her work. So, when our lensman requests her to move a bit to the right to catch the light better, Rasika - dressed in a saree, no less - hops to the desired position sans any qualms. In fact, she exudes a familial sense of acceptance. As the figurative curtains draw to a close on the shoot, I enquire about Rasika's fondest memories of celebrating festivals at home. With a dazzling yet longing smile, she shares, "Diwali in Jamshedpur, where I grew up, was full of love. Ours was an open house. We had a large veranda in front of the house, where my grandparents would sit for hours. People - friends like family - would flock in and out to meet them. Gifts would be exchanged amidst unending banter and uncontrollable laughter. A large table full of homemade goodies would be laid out on the veranda. I can still smell the methi puris and besan ladoos whenever I recall those days." Her nostalgia-soaked narration immediately transports me to blessed memories of days filled with warm hugs, animated festive revelries and, the must-have decadent desi-ghee-and-kaju saturated mom-made halwa. Le sigh!
An FTII graduate, Rasika Dugal has successfully worked in feature films, short films, web series (on Netflix, Disney+ Hotstar as well as Amazon Prime Video), TV shows, podcasts and theatre. Some of her most prominent works on the OTT platform include Mirzapur (also Mirzapur 2), A Suitable Boy, Out of Love (Seasons 1 and 2), Made in Heaven, Lust Stories, and Delhi Crime. The actress has been an integral part of films such as Qissa, Lootcase, and Manto.