In the year 2000, at the turn of the millennium, when Farhan Akhtar would release Dil Chahta Hai—a film that heralded the beginning of new artistic sensibilities in Hindi cinema—three Indian women created history.
Not that it could escape the ragingly sexist lens of the Indian media then. According to this NYT piece, The Indian Express ran a banner headline saying, “India Breasts Tape Again in the World’s Great Bimbo Race.”
Dia Mirza, Priyanka Chopra and Lara Dutta won big at the world’s three major beauty pageants in 2000, putting the national spotlight on them and playing a key role in propelling their Hindi film careers.
While Dutta’s initial years saw her in hit films such as Masti, No Entry, Partner, the actor couldn’t quite sustain the momentum of these sporadic successes which were marred by several underperforming, forgettable films in between such as Insaan, Elaan, Dosti: Friends Forever.
However, despite their commercial fate, Dutta stood out as a confident, spunky performer unafraid to dabble into different genres. She’d eventually prove her mettle as somebody with quirky comic timing. “I didn’t want to be reduced to a decorative prop in a movie,” she says over a telephonic interview.
We were speaking ahead of the release of Dutta’s first digital show, Hundred, which drops on Hotstar on Saturday. Directed by Guilty’s Ruchi Narain, Dutta plays a cop in the film alongside Rinku Rajguru, who burst onto the scene with Nagraj Manjule’s acclaimed inter-caste romance drama, Sairat.
“When you come from a beauty pageant background, the industry tries to bracket you as a ‘glamorous face’ and meaty roles are hard to come by.”
Dutta isn’t wrong in her assessment.
At the time, her closest peer, Chopra, too, was appearing in mediocre fare such as Plan, Kismat and Asambhav before Mujhse Shaadi Karogi, Aitraaz and Bluffmaster established her as a bankable leading lady.
But how does Dutta, who has championed the cause of #MeToo and has been outspoken about her politics, feel, in retrospect, about the casual misogyny of her earlier hits?
“Actors are subject to the prevailing environment in the industry at the time that we are active,” Dutta says, explaining that most commercial cinema follows a ‘formula; or a ‘trend’ that’s popular at the time.
“When films like Masti, No Entry and Partner came to me, there were various other factors I had to consider other than the theme of the film: is the director on my wishlist, who are my-costars, are these people who I want to work with? These factors also play a part and not just the storyline of the film.”
She further adds that views of a particular character do not really reflect the values she personally holds and that operating within the confines a deeply misogynistic industry doesn’t leave a woman actor with much of a choice.
“I have worked in what has been a misogynistic industry and even now, the film industry remains hero-driven and male-dominated. As women, you learn how to navigate that in your own way.”
On the other end, Dutta says that she, and most actors of her generation, such as Priyanka Chopra and Dia Mirza, have been vocal of causes they actually believe in, such as the #MeToo movement and the conversations around pay disparity. “Which is where you make the real difference. Slowly there’s a change and as we see, it has translated into cinema as well. Real-life impacts reel life. It’s a slow, deliberate, subtle change but it upends preexisting mindsets and you see the movies reflecting that change too.”
When we speak about societal changes that precede major cultural shifts, beauty pageants come to mind. Once considered as a sureshot entrypoint to a career in modelling and films, they’ve now been assigned to the relics of past, the very idea of quantifying worth based (largely) on beauty and a few questions and answers - all of which somehow manage to invoke Mother Teresa - being increasingly irrelevant.
“Again,” Dutta says, “It’s a function of time. They existed at a time when reality shows weren’t dominating our screens and there were very relatively few big, live-telecast events. People tuned in because that’s what it was - big corporations harnessing viewership through a beauty contest property. Today they’re already feeling the change: they aren’t considered as a huge TV property and many are struggling for viewership.”
But the former Miss Universe is quick to point out that her association with the organisation and subsequently as an ambassador of the United Nations, triggered effective social change on the grassroots level.
“From an outsider’s view,” she says, “It appears like a contest amongst women around who’s the most beautiful but if you look at the new crop of winners, they aren’t your conventionally good-looking women. They are strong voices with a wealth of experiences who are extremely well-spoken and are advocates of what they believe in. These are indicators of the changing patterns.”
Back home, her production company, Bheegi Basanti, hasn’t done much work since the Vinay Pathak-starrer Chalo Dilli (2011). Dutta attributes this to two things.
In January 2012, she gave birth to her daughter, Saira, and had to retreat from the movies for a certain period, slowing down the progress of the company.
“One of us had to work and at the time, Mahesh (husband and tennis star Mahesh Bhupathi) was touring. So I decided to take it slow,” she says, adding, “After spending so many years in the business, I don’t have to prove anything to anybody. I launched my skin care range which took my time and thankfully has done really well.”
The other explanation is more telling of a structural problem.
“I’m glad things have changed now and a lot of women producers are at the forefront but trust me, as a woman producer, things can be really hard. People just don’t want to take you seriously and that has a tangible effect on how fast you grow. But now we're expanding and doing a lot of digital content.”
For now, the actress is excited about her transitioning from films to streaming, which she likes ‘as they’ve liberated the storytelling process.’ Her character in the show is ‘unapologetic and ambitious, with a dark sense of humour.’
More than the subject itself, which is quirky and humours, Dutta says she was most eager to work with a woman director. “The gaze in itself is different. And that informs the storytelling. All of it made it such a fulfilling experience,” she signs off.