Age has liberated me, says Bollywood star Lara Dutta

Roles in "Bell Bottom", "Call My Agent: Bollywood", and now in Lionsgate Plays Hiccups & Hookups have put the former Miss Universe back on centrestage.

By Kaveree Bamzai

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Published: Thu 9 Dec 2021, 10:29 AM

Last updated: Fri 25 Nov 2022, 11:29 AM

We can't seem to get enough of Lara Dutta. She was the delicious Begum Samru in Gurinder Chadhas "Beecham House" for PBS, the feisty policewoman Saumya Shukla in Disney+Hotstar’s "Hundred", an almost unrecognisable Indira Gandhi in Bell Bottom, an exaggerated version of herself in Netflix's Call My Agent: Bollywood.

And in what is one of the best roles of her career, the newly-separated single mom Vasudha Rao in Kunal Kohli's "Hiccups & Hookups" for the new streaming service Lionsgate Play.

"Time of her life"

At 43, she is having the “time of her life”. Miss Universe in 2000 in a year that Priyanka Chopra was Miss World and Dia Mirza was Miss Asia-Pacific International, Lara has been in our cultural consciousness for the past 21 years.

Her debut in Andaaz as the weepy Kajal established her as an actress of note and she had a fairly successful career in movies varying from the hilarious (2007) to the dramatic "Billu" (2008) to the comedic 'Housefull' (2010).

But it is only now that her naturalistic acting has found the perfect match, in a far more aware and evolved audience, bred on global streaming shows and Hollywood movies.

"I genuinely feel age has just liberated me.'' she says in her very distinctive voice, over the phone from Mumbai.

"I feel fortunate in a way my predecessors even a decade ago were not. There's been such a wind of change with OTT (over the top) platforms giving female actors an opportunity to not just have a career but to really thrive and do incredible roles. The writing is better, the characters are more layered, you're not playing the stereotypical, long-suffering wife or somebody's girlfriend or the perfect mother. You have the opportunity to play women who are faulty, diabolical, and ambitious. So, I am having the time of my life,” she adds.

Kunal Kohli, who directed her in 'Hiccups & Hookups', agrees: "There are very few shows talking about women in a realistic perspective. What's really nice is her involvement in the entire show," he says. She was not concerned about merely her role, but she also mothered Shinnova (who plays her daughter) on the sets from her hair to her clothes to her performance. "Over the years one develops a sense of confidence with one's craft. Lara understood every nuance and every layer completely and batted on the front foot. There were no inhibitions about anything, how to play intimate scenes, comedy scenes or serious scenes," he says.

Living the dream

She is being cast with a lot of versatility and as an actor she's possibly living the dream, doing the kind of work she always wanted to do. If there were roles like Saumya it would invariably end in a catfight with other actresses because there were such few parts like that. ''And I was never somebody who lobbied for a role,'' says Lara, adding that it's so refreshing to be unapologetically ambitious and ruthless. "In Vasudha, I saw a lot of women in their forties I know who have chosen not to settle because they haven't found the perfect partner or who've come out of marriages and are single parenting their children in their forties. Gone is the time when we've been conditioned to believe it's all about your family, children and in-laws. and if you're divorced it has to be your children, you've always got to come second, you're always your own last priority.''

Shades of Vasudha

It's extremely difficult to look for love or companionship. She loves that Vasudha's character is scared as hell and is vulnerable, but in a way, she is putting herself out there. Lara feels a little bit of Vasudha has rubbed off on her. "You get comfortable in your life and stop putting yourself out there. It forced me to get out of my comfort zone,” she says.

Shot during the second phase of the Covid-19 pandemic in Mumbai in an extremely challenging environment, there were lots of standard operative procedures, and it was a huge responsibility to keep oneself and one's families safe.

A "womans woman"

For Lara, it isn't just about working in the industry — it is about transitioning, about being an entrepreneur.

"I’m not ready to sit down yet. I've always been a woman's woman," she says.

"When we won Miss India, I was the only girl who was based in Mumbai. I had a matchbox apartment but I always had Dia or Priyanka living with me. It's such a bond, such a sisterhood across husbands and children and movies. We just pick up from where we left off.''

Unlike in the past, there are more opportunities and women need not become each other's worst enemies to get their hands on whatever little meat there is. She ascribes the change to the #MeToo movement, the argument to end pay disparity and the idea behind more inclusive sets.

"I honestly believe if you rise you should lift others with you. There's enough for everyone now unlike in the past when no one took you under your wing or told you who were the right people to know or the places to be seen at. I feel the older lot had it so hard maybe there was a bit of 'let these young ones learn the hard way' , " she adds.

She never belonged to any specific camp yet when someone wanted her in their movies, they wrote a role for her. They valued what she brought to the table.

“I never wanted to merely fill a space. Now there are more women in the business, more writers, more directors, more cinematographers, more editors. The women are no longer one-dimensional characters," she says.

Much more to offer

Indeed, Ruchi Narain who directed her in 'Hundred' had a personal connection with Lara that went way back.

“She, like the character of assistant commissioner of police (ACP) Saumya Shukla, had been relegated to a certain kind of role because she was a good-looking woman as if that was her only quality,” she says.

“But I knew her and felt that she had much more to offer. The character required a lot of bullish strength and a wicked sense of humour of someone who was brutally aware of how things were, and yet, was ready to push her way through to realise her ambitions, smirking at the ironies all the way. I was 100 per cent sure that Lara was the right fit and proved me right. Working with her was a pleasure. She is intelligent and understood all the contradictory layers of the character and was able to give a really fun and nuanced performance. Playing ‘serious’ roles is always simpler, but to get the right degree of frustration, drive, humour, and wickedness, and that's a feat which Lara nailed with consummate ease,” says Narain.

Lara also runs Arias skin care, formulated for Indian skins.

Arias Home is launching and then Arias kidswear — Arias being the name of her 10-year-old daughter with tennis ace Mahesh Bhupathi spelt backwards.

She's never been busier. Or happier.

(The author is a senior journalist and author, most recently of 'The Three Khans and the Emergence of New India')

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