TV, theatre and Bollywood actress Ira Dubey has tackled a myriad of challenging roles throughout her career as an actor.
From her stint in acting with ‘Marigold’ starring Salman Khan and American actress Ali Larter to Alia Bhatt and Shah Rukh Khan starrer ‘Dear Zindagi’, the statement is justified irrespective of her choice in theatre or on the big screen. Although she places her roots with her performances in theatre, Ira has been known for being rather selective in her portrayal of characters in the box office.
I got my first film which was called ‘Marigold’. It was a film made by an American gentleman named Willard Carrell, and it had an American actress opposite Salman Khan.
In the exclusive interview, the charming actress talks about her entry into films which was, albeit indirectly, with a very well-known member of the immensely popular ‘Khan family’. Ira adds to her statements, believing that a 9 to 5 job would never have worked well with her.
“Well, actually, acting kind of runs in my blood. My parents met doing theatre together in college, back in the 70s. At the age of five or six, I started acting in plays and acting sort of became my calling at a very young age. I didn’t think or plan for it to become my profession, but it kind of happened organically. I went abroad to do my college; I was at Yale University and majored in Theatre Studies over there. I acted in a lot of plays when I was there and then I came back to India and started working with my mum. I did do a corporate job for a while, which was interesting. While I was pretty committed to theatre at the time (I still am), I got my first film which was called ‘Marigold’. It was a film made by an American gentleman named Willard Carrell, and it had an American actress opposite Salman Khan. We played a really small part, like those of extras. So it was just a fun thing to do, and I remember the shoot was in Rajasthan and we had a blast doing it. We were barely there in the movie!*laughs* That was my first experience with film and this was while I was in college.”
The actual first proper feature film was ‘The President is Coming’, which I actually always quoted my first feature film. It was directed by Kunal Roy Kapoor.
To add to such a spectacular first step into the world of acting, Ira decided to help out a friend with her project. The short film, produced for a thesis, ignited her desire to pursue acting as a full-time career. The project itself resulted in an interesting encounter for Ira.
“I must have been 19. It was during my summer break, and I remember it just sort of happened; kind of fell in my lap! The second experience was in a short film called ‘The Morning Fog’. Aminta Goyal who was a senior of mine at Bombay Cathedral School reached out to me. Presently, she writes for Hollywood. She was making a short film for her thesis. She said, “I want you to play the lead in this film that I’m making”. That was my first ever experience; I flew out to LA and shot with this real tiger, which I will never forget. It was a crazy, unforgettable experience! The story was about this young girl, living in Bombay. I was really young, and I was telling myself how great a start this was and that I’d like to continue doing it.”
Recently my director for ‘Shehjar’ Nikhil Allug, told me that my film will be shown in Italy in May. These are the films that you do purely out of the love of your heart, and that’s the kind of work that makes me get fired up.
An adventurous personality, Ira’s constant willingness to challenge herself at every turn seems to have paid off. It’s evident from her life story that people could continue working for years in a dead-end job, without finding their passion. Attempting new experiences seems to be the key for the ‘Dear Zindagi’ cast member.
“The actual first proper feature film was ‘The President is Coming’, which I actually always quoted my first feature film. When I returned from college, I was working with my mum in her theatre group. I was doing plays for different theatre companies in Bombay and I was working at a marketing company. This was my first and last 9 to 5 job and I worked for about just under a year. I was offered this film, directed by Kunal Roy Kapoor. He’s a very smart and funny man. Rohan Sidhhi then saw the play and decided to make it into a film. That was my first film, and I remember going to my company’s chairman and asking for thirty days of leave for shooting the film. He was very supportive and encouraging, but he said that I couldn’t take thirty-five days off work; it was a choice that I had to make at that moment. It was clear to me that I wanted to do the film. It was my one corporate stint. It was necessary because you need to do things to realize that it is not meant for you.”
Ira believes her love for theatre to stem from its sheer performativity and the soul of the theatre itself. For her, each medium has its own perks. Her love for acting in front of the audience, understanding their reactions and subtly juxtaposing the nuances of her act along with the aura of the theatre itself is what makes her return to the stage over and over again.
“I never actually thought that it would become a career. I did feel that I would always choose theatre but I felt that I could get into several different things. I was always interested in writing, music, fashion as well. But acting used to keep coming back to me. It’s an addiction; especially theatre. Some of the finest actors have come from theatre. The reason for that is that at some level, it is an addiction. As an actor, it’s a wonderful medium. I think that theatre is more an actor’s medium while a film is more of a director’s medium. I think for an actor, there’s something about performing in front of a live audience and feeling that energy, feeding off it in a span of two hours. There’s something different every single time. This isn’t there in a film.”
I stumbled on this piece which is a one-woman show, called ‘Nine Parts of Desire’, which I still perform. It’s an 80-minute solo performance.
Ira is renowned for picking roles from the barrel of characters; those which most modern actors would not desire to tackle for fear of botching them. However, for her, the characters are entities which speak to the actor. They let the actors breathe through their subtleties and emotions, which becomes the actor’s job to exhibit to the audience. In Ira’s case, the world of acting becomes a transitive one.
“I feel that characters choose you. Even in my theatre work, before I turned thirty, I stumbled on this piece which is a one-woman show, called ‘Nine Parts of Desire’, which I still perform. It’s an 80-minute solo performance. I don’t know what possessed me at that time to choose a play like this because many actors don’t attempt things like this. I feel like characters and roles come to you at a time when you can explore them the best. I feel that both in my theatre and film work, I have always followed my gut. You evolve and build from there. In film and theatre, it becomes a collaborative process. Working with your director and actors, it’s how you find that particular family, theme, or ingredients which brings out that character. I’ve never looked at myself as that actor who wants to become a star. If that happens along the way, then fabulous! But my aim in life has been to do as much diverse work as I can, to challenge myself. Even young girls I meet today love ‘Aisha’, and it makes me really happy and proud that I had such an impact on that character. I think it’s because it’s the most commercial of the films that I did. With my mum, it’s ‘Baghban’ and ‘Kal Ho Naa Ho’. Whenever my mom is mentioned, these two films keep coming up. With me, it’s become ‘Aisha’.
Nonetheless, stereotyping actors, especially women, into a specific role or character has been the problem. The inability of producers, directors and audiences to provide willing actors with the chance to truly show their versatility creates the foundations of a monotonous career. This is one of the distressing salient features of many commercial films and is something that Ira wants to avoid at all costs.
“In some ways, it becomes difficult because you don’t want to be typecast. I think that’s why I keep coming back to theatre, because in theatre, in a play like the one-woman show, I play nine different characters. Each of them ranges from a 15-year-old girl to a woman in her 30s and 40s, with different ethnicities and nationalities; to a woman in her 60s. In films, it’s not the same. It’s sort of what comes your way at a certain time in your life, and how you tackle that. For me, I need to be fulfilled with the work I am doing. Of course, I want my work to be seen. There are hits and misses. In business, there is a combination of factors which ensure your success. I will keep working, I will choose work that satisfies me, and interests me. At the end of the day, your job as an actor is to prepare for your character and collaborate with the director and co-actor. How the film will finally be edited and put together ultimately is not your job. It took me quite a while to come to terms with that.”
As Ira continued to work in the theatre, her various projects created a sense of aesthetic and art in her. Her realization of being a true artist in her field led her to understand some of the problems surrounding modern cinema and theatre in India.
“I am working on an adaptation of a book which I am writing as well, trying to make it into a film. It’s the story of Jinnah and his wife. I’m discerning how to put it together and it’s exciting to be on the other seat of a producer; how to produce a film from scratch.”
Censorship, according to Ira, is the one true bane to freedom of expression. However, she says that the internet has now provided a reprieve for artists in this regard. Nonetheless, what artists choose to show must be interpreted properly onto the stage or screen, as it can be very influential and impressionable on young minds.
We’re trying to show sex, violence and nudity, but our society is not that progressive and our television is still very regressive.
“The danger of this web space is that given the censorship “hoo-hah” that is happening for the past two years, in cinema we become careful as to what we can show. People are creating such a ruckus about what you can or cannot do or show. Now, with the web coming in I feel the danger is that the people are having a field day with the other extreme. Everything is becoming about violence or sex. That doesn’t mean that you go overboard with that. As a society, we have to think ahead. Where we are in the evolutionary stage, every society goes through a revolution. Every hundred years, something happens which changes the reality. There is a big section of stuff which is out there, which I feel that you need to be careful. I feel like it’s very early days. At the moment, it is exciting, of course. But it is also very crowded. Sooner or later, it will settle down. Audiences are hungry and discerning now. They want different kinds of content. It’s very encouraging for the people behind the camera. It’s an exciting time.”
Ira understands that there are certain lines or limitations which must not be crossed by an artist. Regardless of the freedom that the artist is given, with freedom comes responsibility. This exercise of freedom can only come from the sensibilities of a true artist. To understand the limitations, Ira had this to say:
“I feel as long as you are sticking to something that you firmly believe is your voice, you are okay. I feel like there is a very fine line between trying to portray something and actually being that something.
We’re trying to show sex, violence and nudity, but our society is not that progressive and our television is still very regressive. When we are encouraging the “saas-bahu” mentality, vamp and mentality that pervades our society, then if we are encouraging that on one level, then what are we trying to do on the web stage? We can’t be so hypocritical.
For the longest time, we have been a slightly lazy industry. We find it easy to copy things, to adapt and modify. When you start realizing that you have to think on your toes and you have to be smarter than that, that’s when the industry starts to grow; when you start to use reason. That’s really the crux of it.”
People like Kareena, Deepika, Alia, Kangana, all these women are women I admire very much. They take their craft very seriously and I admire that.
As acting is a form of artistic expression, Ira wants her expressions to be as authentic as possible. For this, and her upcoming project on Jinnah and his wife, she has engaged in tons of research in order to give us an authentic experience. However, she was wary to divulge details just as yet.
“Well, it’s very, very early. You’re the first person I’m mentioning it to. It’s a historical story. I don’t even know at this stage what is the medium that it’s going to be in. I’m going to play Jinnah’s wife. But at the moment, I don’t know yet. I talked to people outside India, and different kinds of people for the part. What I can share is that it’s a love story; it’s not political. Nothing to do with partition, it happened much before that. It’s about Jinnah’s early days as a barrister, and his marriage to this woman, which is much before he became the Jinnah as we know him.”
Since the beginning of Ira’s career, she’s worked with strong female personalities like Konkona Sen Sharma, Gul Panag and her mother, Lilette Dubey. Ira says that such wonderful women have helped her shape her ideas, and understand the struggles of women all around the world. Her exposure to strong women from her very childhood has helped her in every sense.
“I think I’ve always been surrounded by strong women all my life. I find them extremely inspirational, and I keep meeting people who I find inspirational. I think it’s very stimulating to be around women who are achievers, who are successful.”
What I can share is that it’s a love story; it’s not political. Nothing to do with partition, it happened much before that. It’s about Jinnah’s early days as a barrister, and his marriage to this woman, which is much before he became the Jinnah as we know him.
In a developing country such as India, women face sexism much more than in other developed countries. Ira has had experience of living abroad as an actor and a filmmaker, but does not leave out the contributions of the great Indian women actors and filmmakers and cites her own experiences.
“The thing is, for an Indian actress it’s a great time. People like Kareena, Deepika, Alia, Kangana, all these women are women I admire very much. They take their craft very seriously and I admire that. I salute them all because this is not an easy business, you need to be very thick skinned. There’s a lot of rejection that you face. There’s emphasis based on your appearance; there’s a lot of pressure. It kinda affects your self-esteem as well. It can make you question things. You need to be very strong. You need to be able to deal with rejection. I know actors who have been around for 10 to 15 years before they get a break. You need to be patient and have willpower.
Recently my director for ‘Shehjar’ Nikhil Allug, told me that my film will be shown in Italy in May. These are the films that you do purely out of the love of your heart, and that’s the kind of work that makes me get fired up. However, the truth is that you also need to make money. You need to be prepared when you get into this business. This is something that I would very much warn others. It looks very glamorous from here. If you’re lucky, sure. Work brilliantly and you may even be famous overnight. But it may not happen like that.
In India, the competition for places in every field increases to the extent where people are often led to compromise and take different paths than what they initially wanted to. However, Ira does not seem to be a person who would diverge from the path that she treads on.
“I don’t think I’m one for Plan Bs, unfortunately. I’m a very ‘seize the day’ kinda person. I remember my school motto which is ‘carpe diem’, which means seize the day. As I said, I lost my dad three years ago and my life has changed. I very much wanna enjoy every day. There are many areas that I can get into. It’s not even the tip of the iceberg. When you asked me my first question, I felt like I’m a baby. I feel like people haven’t seen anything yet. I feel like I’m going to be in this field for a long time. “
I stumbled on this piece which is a one-woman show, called ‘Nine Parts of Desire’, which I still perform. It’s an 80-minute solo performance.
The conversation drifts to Ira speaking about her recent film, Shehjar. The idea of working in remote locations, with the locals of the areas excites her to great extents. She talks about how the entire experience boils down to an interaction between two people at the most human level. The importance lies in establishing a connection, in order to learn.
“I follow my gut, and I’m very big on the people that I work with. When I work with people, it’s a give and take situation. You have to go to work with these people every day. So you might as well like them. I really enjoyed my connection with Nikhil, I think that he’s an extremely talented boy and he’s got a very bright future. He’s an all-in-one. He has written it, directed it, shot it, edited it and made the music for it. I completely salute him for that. It’s a small film, with a small cast, very streamlined and tight storyline. It’s an extremely well-written film. That’s also what really attracted me to it. I read it in one evening; couldn’t put it down. Very rarely do I find a script like that. I loved my character. It’s not something that played before. It has a lot of layers. I like that, I like to sink my teeth into something.
Working with Nikhil was a pleasure. Two other things that were a pleasure, the guy who acted opposite me, Sunil Kumar Palwal. Very talented actor. He and I hit it off very well. Basically, always a pleasure to work with people who know their craft very well, who are on the same team; who are very collaborative. It’s a pleasure; then it becomes fun. Although it was gruelling. This is not a film that I did for any commercial reasons. It was a gruelling schedule and was shot on a very small budget. I was the only woman on the set. I remember that we travelled by train two days up north to Jammu and we shot there.
We lived in a village over there with ten or eleven men. It was a very different experience than what I am used to and I wanted to put myself on that. I think it’s very important to see what’s happening in our country. The third thing that stayed with me is that there were two kids in the film. They’re from Srinagar. Their Hindi was poor, and they had never been in front of the camera before. It was a real treat to work with them. They were so real. You can have all the training in the world, and sometimes it can still not be as real as some other actors. They’re spontaneous and giving. There’s so much to learn and I learnt so much from those two kids. They got very attached to both of us. One of them called me up today, asking how I was doing. Like family.”
Ira then switches her focus to the added culture shock of many Indians when they are introduced to the rawness of the theatre as a form of expression. Though India has imbibed a lot of the culture from the West, according to Ira, the one thing that still evades the nation is the culture of theatre.
“The thing is, with theatre in India at the moment, is that it is not like it is in the west. People don’t go to watch plays every day. There’s no theatre district, there are not five hundred things happening. It’s not like London, Berlin or New York. Even though Bombay is the financial capital of India, and it epitomises Manhattan in a lot of ways, it’s not got the same culture yet. We are obsessed with Bollywood are cricket. We can’t keep blaming other people for it. We need to get more grants from the government and we need to be more supportive. At the end of the day, it’s a cultural phenomenon. On a macro level, it is important. It’ll take time. Now the money needs to be spent on educating the poor in the country, not to create theatres for us. For practical reasons, India is still on the way to become a first world country. Funds can’t be given for it. We will always fight for it, and we need to have balance.”
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