Rasika Dugal thinks a lot about Elena Ferrante. Not only is she a fan of the mind-bogglingly talented pseudonymous Italian novelist whose books have been turned into films and who was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, Rasika is “almost envious” of the award-winning literateur for another, somewhat unusual, reason.
“I am mesmerised by the idea of anonymity – imagine someone trying to do that in the age of social media,” says the Bollywood actor in wonder. “She wants to protect herself, and just project her work forward. I wish I had that quality.”
Anonymity, alas, is not in Rasika’s stars. Though the acting profession itself landed on her by chance – having completed her Bachelor’s in mathematics from Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi and a diploma in social communications media from Sophia Polytechnic, Mumbai, she had signed up for an acting course at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune “on a whim” – she felt early on that she’d made the right choice.
“It felt very good. I was driven to work,” says the 34-year-old, who worked in a gender and public space project and did academic research before launching her career in cinema. And going by her choice of nuanced and touching roles in films such as Manto (2018) and Hamid (2019), Rasika’s journey been enriching for the industry and viewers alike.
Rasika has been associated with films that take up issues of social injustice such as religious intolerance or gender violence. She made her debut in 2007 with a character role in Anwar, made by Manish Jha to highlight the stereotyping of Muslims in a post-9/11 world.
In 2012, she played the lead role in an avant garde black-and-white psychological drama Kshay, written and directed by Karan Gour, which went on to win awards at film festivals in Los Angeles and Shanghai.
Dozens of television serials, thrillers and web series later, she has begun to get comfortable with intensity and shades of grey in her characters in the past couple of years. “I didn’t want to do Hamid initially,” she recalls of her role as a half-widow in Kashmir and the mother of a little boy who sets out to speak to God and his missing father.
“The land is so highly misrepresented in mainstream cinema and media. I asked the director if he was better off casting a Kashmiri woman instead. But as an artiste, this itself is an important conversation – who is an insider and who is an outsider?”
Rasika’s comments are relevant at a time when LGBTQ activists are fighting for authentic representation in mass media and cinema, and when criticism dogged the makers of the biopic Mary Kom for casting mainstream Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra instead of a thespian from the sportswoman’s own Manipuri community.
But insider or not, Rasika definitely did justice to her character – researching for months and immersing herself in Kashmiri culture – so much so that she went on to win the best actor award at Rajasthan International Film Festival for her role of Ishrat in Hamid, which also won the best director award for Aijaz Khan.
“The film shifted something in me in a significant way,” muses Rasika. “Very often, your experiences as an actor are very intangible. And that’s the beauty of it – that it cannot be articulated adequately. It becomes a part of your life. Each project adds to your experience and makes you richer within. You carry it with yourself. This is what you live for as an actor. You want to experience what you haven’t.”
The acclaimed web series Delhi Crime – based on the Delhi gang-rape of 2012 – also took Rasika into uncharted territory. “We were angry in the aftermath of the gang-rape but we forgot about it and fell into the complacency of our lives. One gets fatigued. But small things really contribute to bigger crime. All of us – men and women – are accountable for how women are treated in society. In a sense I wanted to remember what happened. Yes it’s painful but it’s important that we don’t forget.”
The Jamshedpur-born Rasika credits Richie Mehta, the maker of Delhi Crime, for handling the subject so sensitively. “We either valourise or villainise the police in cinema; we hardly project them as normal human beings. The series examines the life of the policewomen working on the case without accusing anyone,” she says.
“We all take sexism for granted. Even as women, we internalise it. The series shows that there needs to be discourse, not anger.”
The only one in her family to work in films – Rasika’s parents run their own businesses and her sister is an economist – Rasika found a kind of comfort working with stalwarts Nandita Das and Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the award-winning 2018 biographical drama Manto.
Her role as Saadat Hasan Manto’s wife Safia was masterfully rendered, bringing out the tenderness in the couple’s relationship and Safia’s vulnerability and strength as a woman.
“You’re being delusional if you think it’s about you,” she says modestly of an actor’s contribution to a successful film production. “It’s really about the director’s vision. What two actors experience between ‘action’ and ‘cut’ can be quite magical when you have an experienced filmmaker running the show. Such special moments are beyond the artiste, beyond all thought,” she says.
Rasika has also given stellar performances in Zoya Akhtar’s web series Made in Heaven, and as a key character in Mirzapur, a crime thriller series, both on Amazon Prime Video. When the “intensity of such dark and serious portrayals gets too much”, she takes on comic roles from time to time.
To de-stress, she travels and binge-watches web shows, or takes up classes in a new skill. “Every day reminds you that there’s so much to learn,” she says.
Now working on season two of Mirzapur and Delhi Crime, and a comedy film Lootcase – all of which will release later this year – Rasika is content with her lot. “Work is fun. It enriches me,” she says. Anonymity is definitely not in her stars.
First published as the cover story in eShe’s August 2019 issue
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