In her 48-year-long movie career, Dimple Kapadia has had to audition twice. The first was at the age of 13 for Raj Kapoor's Bobby – the sweeping teen love story that made her an overnight star. And the other, more recently, at the age of 63, for Christopher Nolan's Tenet. She tried her best to wriggle out of the second one. "Because of my fear and anxiety I almost didn't do the audition… Thankfully better sense prevailed," she said later. She plays Priya in Tenet, a wealthy arms dealer in Mumbai. Trade publication Variety called it the film's "wiliest performance". The actress says she was a nervous wreck through most of the filming and it didn't help that the first 40 pages of the script "flew over" her head. But passing the Nolan test did wonders for her self confidence. "I always feel I'm not good enough. My learning is never let fear get in the way of your life," she said in an interview.
It's odd she feels that way because it would appear that Dimple has never shied away from taking chances. There are numerous examples of that through her career (Lekin, Rudaali, Drishti, Antareen), but even in the last 20 years, what you'd call the post-Dil Chahta Hai segment of her filmography, she's had fun with some interesting parts. Given how unimaginative the writing is for women in their 60s, Dimple's done well.
Let's take Katy Sethna of Being Cyrus (2006), a middle-aged Parsi woman stuck in a boring marriage. Katy is a shrill, abrasive woman who is secretly plotting to kill her father-in-law for his inheritance. She's also a compulsive flirt and never forgets to pull her dress down when the much younger Cyrus (Saif Ali Khan) is around. "Most people liked to make eye contact, but Katy liked to make breast contact at every chance she'd get," is how Cyrus describes her.
Neena Walia of Luck By Chance (2009) is the Bollywood mom from hell you've read about in gossip magazines. She's bossy, a bit of a bully, and is obsessively micro-managing her talentless daughter Niki's big Bollywood launch. "What time did you sleep last night? Your eyes are puffy," she hollers at breakfast with a butter knife pointed at Niki. It's a juicy part and Dimple marvellously makes Neena more than a mere bad-mom caricature.
Finding Fanny's (2014) Rosie is a widow in the sleepy Goan village of Pocolim and her most distinguishable feature is her unusually large bottom. "Dimple is a fab sport and needs to be reined in sometimes. If I had listened to her, her backside would have wider than a bus," says director Homi Adajania.
Adajania has cast Dimple in every film he's made so far. He met her because his producers felt she'd be perfect for Katy in Being Cyrus. At the time he was oblivious to her mammoth body of work – the only film he had seen was Dil Chahta Hai. "I remember walking into her house for the first time and seeing this woman screeching obscenities at Tina's (Twinkle Khanna) dog who had taken a dump under her treadmill. I instantly knew I had found my character," he says.
Dimple's been picking women who aren't one-note characters – they are frail, flawed, eccentric and sometimes evil. As Adajania explains, she's unafraid to "embrace her inner crazy" on screen. And while that's true, it feels like it's the filmmakers who are unable to get past her staggering beauty which gets written into every part.
In both Finding Fanny and Dil Chahta Hai, the men are so enchanted that they want to paint her. In Dil Chahta Hai, when she appears in a pristine white sari and that gorgeous hair which eats up half the frame, Akshaye Khanna's jaw literally drops open. In 2002's Leela, she is a teacher married to a poet, played by Vinod Khanna. We're told they have an "open marriage". She's sleeping with her student and he's interested in other women, but they remain married because she's his muse. Without her beauty for inspiration, he can't write love poems. And in Being Cyrus, Saif Ali Khan's character can't get past her "swish and bounce of hip."
It's woven in, albeit more subtly, even in her most recent release, the political thriller Tandav on Amazon Prime Video, where her character Anuradha has been in a clandestine relationship with the prime minister for decades. She's as amoral and ruthless as the men on the show. When the PM is murdered, she can barely wait for his funeral to be done with before she can usurp his chair. "I'm tired of being a muse," she says in frustration.
"To me an actor like Dimple ji is an archetype – she's always symbolised various types of women but there will always be a great deal of grace and beauty attached to the part. I think with that beautiful hair and the aura that she has, she represents a kind of a timeless beauty," explains Saif, who has done the most work with her in recent years.
It's not only filmmakers, Dimple's an "eternal muse" also for her long-time friends and designers Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla. "Her physical beauty is mesmerising. Hypnotic. Her presence is a combination of the physical with the ethereal or spiritual," says Khosla.
It would be interesting to know how Dimple views this – is she flattered or weighed down by this? The actress studiously avoids interviews so we may never know. (She blames it on her "verbal diarrhoea") There's a YouTube video of her addressing fans at a public gathering in Rajasthan a few years ago. A lady in the crowd asks her how her hair is getting more luxuriant with age. "Arre itni picturein ki hain. Uske baare main koi kuchh nahi bolta!" she says half-jokingly.
That said, she vehemently dislikes being the centre of attention and wears her talent lightly. Dimple famously went into the Tenet audition and recommended other actresses better suited for the part than her. Any other actor would perhaps make a much bigger splash about landing a Christopher Nolan film. She remained reticent about her achievement. With reports of more offers coming in and her new-found confidence, hopefully we'll see much more of her. "Dimple's time to shine is starting now," says Adajania. "She better go out there and grab the opportunities coming her way."