Rasika Dugal is having a busy year. She's on Amazon Prime (Mirzapur, Made In Heaven), will soon be on Netflix (Delhi Crime) and her new movie Hamid, hits theatres this Friday. In it, she plays a Kashmiri woman in the tough position of having to raise a child alone after her husband goes missing. Dugal says she was initially hesitant to accept the part, not wanting to portray Kashmir through an outsider's gaze. Having just two weeks to prepare added to her apprehensions. "As artists, you constantly have these questions, which you must, about who is an insider and who is an outsider telling a story. It was a tricky role because you're speaking in Hindi, but with a Kashmiri accent. It's hard for someone to teach you that because the ways in which Hindi is spoken by Kashmiris varies according to geography, class and exposure to other cities," she says. Dugal went to Kashmir to get a sense of the different accents and intonations, and read "tonnes of material" on the conflict, but it was an interview with 'The Iron Lady of Kashmir', Parveena Ahanger, that finally helped her connect to what her character was going through.
Dugal's upcoming films include season 2 of Mirzapur, an independent film that she says has been mostly improvised and another she describes as being "more in the corporate space". This workload is keeping her from her plans to develop a series on India's forgotten authors, but she's not complaining. Given the uncertainty of the business, she's glad to have her plate full. "I don't think I can ever get used to the uncertainty. Sometimes I enjoy it, sometimes I don't. But it's always there."
She spoke about doing 10 films before getting her first lead role, the need for transparency in conversations about pay parity and how the web space has shaken things up for actors:
You've done work across a variety of mediums – there's the web space where you're on Netflix and Amazon, short films on YouTube and movies. What has it taken to get to this space where directors can see you in such a variety of roles?
I'm not good at strategizing. I've tried strategizing at certain points in my career and failed miserably. I've mostly responded to things even when I didn't want to do them. I've taken up projects that may not be the best thing to do but which interested me as an actor, I gave them time. I think therefore I'm only known for my work and not for anything else. I think hopefully I'm looked at as someone who can contribute to the acting style more than anything else. So directors reach out to me once they have a role that they feel I would be good for. I've been very lucky because my role in (short film) Chutney (2016) was very different from what I'd been cast as. I would usually get offered very morally upright women. I don't know why. Chutney was a diversion from that and Mirzapur only took it to another level. You need some directors who think differently from what you've been established as. (Mirzapur showrunner) Karan Anshuman and (casting director) Abhishek Banerjee felt that I could fit the part. When they offered it to me, even I was surprised. I was like: Galti se toh nahi bula diya mujhe?
You just need a few people to have faith in you and look past what your general image might be. Most people think it's safer to cast you in a role you've already been seen in. You just more people to think out of the box, have a larger imagination and trust you. I was lucky to have those two experiences which were different from the others I usually get cast in.
Today, I see that in a work environment, if someone says something sexist, at last there will be enough people to call it out. But for many of my friends this 'at least' compromise isn't acceptable anymore
Are you now in a better space in terms of the quality of roles being offered to you?
There's good and bad in whatever you get offered and you have to decide according to the situation in which you are in. All I can say is there is a lot more being offered now, but it's 50% good and 50% bad, quality wise. But the good thing is that there is a lot of work for actors like me now, in terms of quantity, since the web space opened up. There are web shows, short films, and many other things that weren't real options till six years ago. Now, you can do a series and if it's commissioned for another season then you have work for another season. So yeah, quantity wise, it's been a lot more in the past two-and-a-half years. It's such a great time for everyone. The actors around me – everyone's busy with work.
What do you mean when you say you strategized your career? In terms of selecting parts that would give you greater visibility?
In terms of visibility, yes but also in terms of the length of role. A lot of people told me when I came to Bombay after finishing my course at FTII: Don't take smaller parts. Nobody will give you a bigger part after this. And I have to say they weren't wrong. But I didn't know how to meet people if not through my work. I didn't know how much I knew. I mean, I'd done two years at the institute but I wanted to test what I'd learnt. I didn't know if I could jump into a film and do the best acting job or the lead parts right away. So I wanted to take chances and play it differently and find my own way. I took up a lot of small parts, I did about 10 films till I got my first lead role in Kshay (2011). Before that, I had a sizeable role in Tahaan (2008) and Agyaat (2009). It was hard, the transition. They might not have strategically the best things to do, but all the people I know today are because I met them in the first three years of my acting career in Bombay. They've all moved on to being directors who are now calling me to do lengthier parts. I was also very confident by the time I got my first lead part. I knew I could do scenes efficiently, but now the challenge was in pitching a graph for a character. So that's when I started saying no to the smaller parts. It wasn't a strategic decision, just an instinctive one. I was very driven by what I wanted to do with my craft rather than where I wanted to be in my career.
A couple of years ago, I was very happy with the joy I was getting from the work I was doing. It was a very personal, artistic choice. Then Qiissa (2013) didn't release well at all. And I thought it was a beautiful piece of work, a lovely film. It deserved to be watched by more people. And that's when I felt like it was no longer for me to experience that joy alone, but to share it with larger audiences. When that happened with Chutney – it has 122 million views – it was the first time it happened to me in my acting career and it was lovely. I really enjoyed the idea that a lot of people were watching the work I enjoy doing. I'm proud of the work that I'm doing and I want to talk about it and I want to put it out there. If somebody praises me for it, I'm happy. So why not share it?
You've been a vocal supporter of the #MeToo movement and are even part of an all-women's collective aimed at supporting your peers in the industry. Has there been any tangible change in your work environment since the movement started?
Tangible changes take time. I'm happy that there has been a movement, that it has been acknowledged and that there is a conversation. It's unfair to expect any changes to happen in a day. I want to familiarize people who I work with about the POSH rules and how they are implemented. I'm interested to know how they work, what I can do from my side, making sure production houses are in compliance with those rules before I sign up with them, whether it can be made part of my contract. I've spoken to a few friends about it. We've started this WhatsApp group modelled on the Femme Film Collective. We're thinking of starting something to familiarize ourselves with the legalities of it. The onus should be on production houses to have a system in place but it's also important for us to know how to contribute to it. We must ask the production houses if they're POSH-compliant or not. Change takes time but today, I see that in a work environment, if someone says something sexist, at last there will be enough people to call it out. But for many of my friends this 'at least' compromise isn't acceptable anymore. So I don't know what the real answer is but I feel encouraged by the conversations taking place.
I'm proud of the work that I'm doing and I want to talk about it and I want to put it out there. If somebody praises me for it, I'm happy. So why not share it?
What are the conversations like in terms of pay parity?
When I said I got paid more than Nawazuddin Siddiqui for Manto, there were conversations like, 'Oh Rasika has betrayed Nawaz.' But in terms of pay parity, I don't know how to answer that question. I have no idea how much my co-actors get paid. Every time this question comes up, I ask the people around me if they know how much their co-actors are getting paid. I've heard as much as you've heard. In the star system, the female stars get paid lesser than the male stars do, that's what I've heard. In my work environment, I don't know whether I'm being paid lesser than my male co-actors. I don't even know how much my female co-actors are being paid. That's not something that you discuss professionally. I don't know how there can be transparency.
I don't think that there is a difference because you're a man or a woman, I think the difference is due to length of role. People price themselves differently as actors. There's a lot that factors into how much you charge for a particular project. Basically, it's about how much you can get the other person to give you because it's hard to put a value to your work as an actor. I find it hard – what if there's a project that demands a lot from you, but has only a small budget. How do I make it happen? How do I get value for my work and pay my bills but at the same time ensure money goes into the production because that affects my work also. But it's a conversation.