By Neha Kirpal
Born Dolly Rawson in the town of Kohat, the land of the Pashtuns, in pre-Independence India, Dolly Thakore was baptised in a small church beside an abandoned airfield. From the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, her life’s trajectory took her across both physical and metaphorical borders as she found her way to Mumbai in free India and went on to travel the globe and become one of the best-known faces on film and television.
Dolly’s life has been exceptional in many ways, not just for her professional achievements. A theatre actor and well-recognised television newsreader who was also a radio jockey, copywriter and newspaper columnist, Dolly’s entry into the world of film began with a bang as the casting director for Richard Attenborough’s 1982 mega-hit Gandhi. She went on to work as a publicist, communications professional and even an actor over the next two decades.
Her personal life and choices were remarkable too. In 1978, at the age of 35, Dolly had her son, Quasar Padamsee, with fellow stage actor and producer Alyque Padamsee. The couple never wed and eventually broke up, but after a long gap of a decade, Dolly says they “found a way to coexist” until Alyque’s death in 2018. Her son Quasar went on to become a successful theatre personality himself.
It was certainly a fearless decision to be an unwed mother in the 1970s, and it is this subject that Dolly will speak on at eShe’s upcoming South Asia Union Summit Led by Women on October 2. Her panel titled ‘Women Who Dare: Single Motherhood, Freedom and Fearlessness’ will discuss the challenges of single motherhood in South Asia.
Having just recently released her memoir Regrets, None (HarperCollins, Rs 599), Dolly – who is also a staunch social activist – spoke to us about how she kept herself busy during the pandemic, the experience of acting in her first digital play and the culture of silence for women in the entertainment industry.
I would like to ask you about the ‘culture of silence’ for women working in the entertainment industry and how it is not easy for women to speak up even when injustices are done to them. What are your observations about this?
A lot of this has to do with conditioning. It’s very sad that we women have been conditioned never to speak up – whether it’s from our parents, teachers or whoever is in power. Even as young girls, we were always told, “Shh… log kya kahenge?” (Hush, what will people say?)
That conditioning of silence over generations has passed on and continues even today, even though women are now going out, working and independent. I’m happy to see that the world is changing, as women now speak up a little more. But there is a great change that has to still take place.
The #MeToo movement was a terrific start. It hasn’t quite achieved and acquired everything that it should, but it has been a very good beginning. I hope that it continues to give women the opportunity to speak up, and not be quiet about anything.
All of us are ambitious and want to get ahead, and society has to accept the fact that we women are independent, have a voice of our own, and can make it on our own.
A lot of women in the film, media and entertainment industries complain that ‘women are women’s worst enemies’. Why do you think their experience has been like this, and what has been your experience in this regard?
I have never had that problem of other women being jealous or putting you down. I have had great supporters amongst women. I come from a very hardworking humble background and my examples have been my grandmother and aunt. I think women are women’s best supporters. The old thinking has changed. I’m so glad to see that the urban new woman come this far – and the rural woman is much stronger than us.
I know that finance plays a very big part in the decisions that women make. The opportunity of working, contributing to the economy and to household expenses has given them a voice. We have a long way to go yet and a lot of that depends on your courage and guts.
Do you feel we have enough women in leadership positions in the media and entertainment industries, and has it helped in creating a more inclusive environment for women working at the lower rungs of organisations?
Most TV newscasters in journalism are women. Look at the number of women film directors who have been successful recently. The middle class has risen up and is setting examples, and the others will follow. The awareness of women in the lower class has increased considerably, and they have been able to educate their children.
What are the differences you have noted working with international versus Indian teams when it comes to gender equality on the sets?
I’ve only worked on one or two international films, and there was no gender discrimination at all over there. There was equal amount of work for both men and women, and they both contributed equally to the film. Today, when you go to a film set, there are any number of women working there – camerapersons, costume and set decorators, hairdressers, and so on. It’s a good sign.
You began writing your memoir in 1982. What took it four decades to release?
It was pure lethargy on my part. I started writing at the time when there was an emotional upsurge in my life. But with work and the pressures of trying to make ends meet, leading a life of my own, paying my own bills, I didn’t find time to write, so I gave it up. Then, I went back to it 10 or 12 years later, and kept making excuses. The passion for writing and sharing had diminished a little, and work took over.
Now that I’ve almost lived my life (I am 78 now!), I suddenly found that I had so much to say and share the kind of assignments I did and the kind of people I met. I have pages and pages of interviews, notes, books and covers of magazines in which I featured. So that’s why I began again about six or seven years ago. My son asked me to finalise all that, but I didn’t know where to start and end. So, Arghya Lahiri, an intelligent writer whom I’ve known in theatre for 20 years, and has directed me in a play, helped me. He went through my papers painstakingly, and helped put this book together.
How did the pandemic affect you personally?
I haven’t had a day of boredom during the pandemic. I had interesting things coming my way all through. The first thing I did was judge an all-India fashion pageant for people between 65 and 90 years of age. Those people wore their own clothes and sent videos of theirs from across the country. That gave me a big boost. Then, I interviewed a veteran actor for the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Museum on his theatre and the work he has done.
I’m also on a lot of screening and advisory committees, such as the Kashish, the National Sponsorship Council, Alert India and Laadli Awards. So, I have Zoom meetings every single day. Work has been going on.
Having been associated with theatre for so many years, what was it like acting in your first Zoom/digital play Turning Point written by Meher Pestonji recently?
I loved the script, and I have previously directed Meher Pestonji’s play Feeding Crows about four or five years ago. Sumit Roy, a director with Red Curtain in Kolkata, was directing the play. My stage manager was in Chennai, my actor was in Bengaluru, and I did it sitting in Mumbai. My home was the background for the entire play. I’m a complete tech-dumbo, and this experience taught me so much – about sound, light and everything else.
You will turn 80 soon. What are your plans and goals for the coming years?
I don’t even think about it. Hopefully, I will continue with the same kind of energy and support I have – in my theatre and social-work activities. I hope all women have the same kind of energy and attitude that I have. Of course, there have been heartbreaks, grief and pain in my life, but I have overcome that – it’s not the end of the world. You have to have the inner strength to continue.
Join Dolly Thakore and over 40 other eminent speakers at eShe’s South Asia Union Summit Led by Women (October 2 and 3, 2021), which will be broadcast live on eShe’s Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn and Twitter. Participation welcome.