Actor and theatre veteran Lillette Dubey opens up about her fascination with strong female characters and her latest production on the life of Devika Rani, one of Indian cinema’s first actors, in a freewheeling chat with Shrabasti Mallik
Be it on the big screen, on the stage or in the chair of a theatre director – Lillette Dubey has been there and done it all. Yet she is still not satisfied. “I am a very restless artiste,” she had once said, and I believe her. Although she has made her mark with path-breaking films such as Monsoon Wedding, My Brother Nikhil and The Lunchbox, she claims that celluloid doesn’t satisfy her creatively as much as theatre does. A reason why she set up her own theatre company, which, under her direction, is ready with its latest production on the life, time and work of Devika Rani, one of the first women actors of Indian cinema. The lead role is being essayed by Lillette’s daughter Ira Dubey. Lillette opens up about her fascination with strong-willed women.
How did you come to direct Devika Rani: Goddess of the Silver Screen?
I set up my production company [Primetime Theatre] with the intention of doing original Indian plays – both existing and ones being written. So, I am always looking for new scripts and themes. It was last year when I met Kishwar Desai [a noted author] and she mentioned that she was working on two books, one on Jallianwala Bagh and another on Devika Rani. Now, when it comes to a personality as strong-willed and impressionable as her [Devika], I am intrigued. So I told Kishwar that the subject would make for a good play. One thing led to another and here we are, ready to depict the life of Devika Rani on stage.
Writing a play is different from authoring a book. Tell us about the creative process taking material meant for a book and structuring it into a play.
The process is undoubtedly complex because in a book, you have the space to incorporate every aspect of a personality’s life, unlike a script meant for a two-hour play. So, instead of going back and forth, we sat down to decide what the play would focus on. I expressed my interest in Devika’s story from the moment she walked into films to the moment she left it; from the moment she met Himanshu Rai, a pioneer in Indian cinema [who would eventually become her husband], to when she, after his death, fell in love with Russian painter Svetoslav Roerich, and retreated to the mountains, away from the limelight to become a Greta Garbo-like figure.
About nine to ten drafts were made, amended and improvised on, and we held workshops to determine whether a particular scene or actor would work. Theatre is a creative process and a play will only work on the stage when presented with the right dialogues, storyline and setup. The medium is a little difficult and writing a play requires a special craft, and Kishwar was a first time playwright. The play, honestly, was a long time coming.
This is not your first tryst with biopics. In 2016, you produced a play on Gauhar Jaan, one of India’s first woman vocalists to have her voice captured on record, post which you had said that you’d not look for documentaries for some time. What about Devika Rani moved you to reconsider?
Where do I begin? People know Devika Rani as one of the first actresses of Indian cinema but she was so much more than that; she was a visionary. She not only hailed from a reputed family [she was the great-grandniece of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore] and studied abroad, but she also broke the proverbial glass ceiling and, along with it, all stereotypes by stepping into cinema at the time she did. She opened doors and slowly paved the way for other women like her to enter films. And she just didn’t stop there. Along with Himanshu, she also set up Bombay Talkies in 1934, India’s first full fledged production house with foreign technicians and state-of-the-art equipment, and kept it going even after his death. She was very much her own person too – strong and focussed, feisty, spirited and independent. She was an all-rounder as well – an accomplished actress who sang her own songs, and designed sets and costumes. She was much ahead of her time. Today we speak of films led by a woman, but Devika Rani had already starred in such movies during her time. What fascinated me more was her fearlessness – the way she held her ground in a male-dominated industry and stuck to her choices. I could relate to her struggles which, I am sure, many women like me would do.
You put a lot of thought into the two lead casts as well…
Next to a script, that is the one thing that can make or mar a play. I did not choose Ira just because she is my daughter. I did so as she is one of the most hardworking artistes I know, not to mention talented. Moreover, she fit the bill perfectly. She is petite, has a soft demeanor, holds great command over English and can be both feisty and vulnerable at the same time – every prerequisite I needed for my Devika. She can carry a tune well too, and sings one of the actress’ songs Ban ke chidiyan live in the play. But the deciding factor was the age. The play spans Devika Rani’s life from when she was 18 till 36, and Ira falls in that age bracket. And I could not think of anyone better to essay Himanshu other than Joy [Sengupta]. I had worked with him in several other productions and am aware of his prowess. I felt that he had the right look to play Himanshu, who was 16 years elder to Devika. Also, Ira and Joy share a great working equation.
The play opens in Mumbai on September 7, your birthday. Was it a conscious decision or is it your way of celebrating the day?
(Laughs) Believe me when I say this, but somehow, for the past several years, I have worked on my birthday. I don’t know whether to call it coincidence – but I have, and honestly, I have enjoyed it. I might just love a non-working birthday but I think it’ll be a few more years till I know for sure.