INTERVIEW

‘Self-made journey of passion’: Divya Dutta on going from ‘sweet Punjabi’ to embracing her dark side

The ‘Blackmail’ star speaks to ‘Scroll.in’ about working her way up from bit roles and fighting stereotypes.

Divya Dutta is relishing her dark turn these days. She has been gathering generous praise for her performance as a fiendish corporator married to Arunoday Singh’s younger dim-witted hunk in Abhinay Deo’s Blackmail. “Dolly Verma is an alcoholic with a temper and a mind of her own,” Dutta told Scroll.in. “I was mighty surprised when Abhinay approached me with the role. It was starkly different from what I had done so far. When a director visualises you in such a unique role, it is a different kind of high as an actor.”

Dutta starred in a clutch of forgettable films through the 1990s until she made an impact in Yash Chopra’s Veer Zara in 2004. She has fought hard since against being stereotyped as the sweet Punjabi woman from the next village.

“Maybe it was my smile,” Dutta said, adding that she had been hungry for “impactful, complex roles” until Delhi-6 happened. In Rakeysh Mehra’s 2009 movie, Dutta plays an exploited Dalit trash collector. “I sat at home after Veer Zaara because everyone wanted to cast me in the same kind of role as Shabbo,” Dutta said. “And then Rakeysh Mehra surprised me with Jalebi in Delhi-6. He was confident I could pull it off.”

Dutt has played complex, dark characters even before Blackmail. In Chalk and Duster (2016), she plays a manipulative school headmistress. In Irada (2017), she is a scheming politician who uses her sexuality to get ahead. In Babumoshai Bandookbaaz (2017), she appears again a crooked politician.

“A few years ago, no one was willing to give me roles where I could explore my fun, racy and dark side – now there are suddenly all these films coming in,” she said. “I had no idea that I would end up having so much fun playing these characters.”

Blackmail works in a different register, she said. “Abhinay has a thing for showing you a completely different way of doing the usual stuff,” Dutta said. “It is exciting to unlearn everything you may have picked up as an actor and follow his cue. It is beautiful and whacky.”

Play
Blackmail (2018).

Dutta has come a long way since bit parts in such films as Agni Sakshi (1996) and Chhote Sarkar (1996). She also appeared in the Salman Khan-starrer Veergati (1995), but the movie was a flop. “It has been an interesting ride – an unconventional career, I would say, for a woman to start with a multi-starrer and then do two romantic songs and five romantic scenes,” Dutta observed. “I was gradually promoted to more significant roles, playing parallel leads and leads and romancing the male protagonist. I guess life has come full circle.”

Dutta’s choice of roles did earn her plenty of unsolicited advice. “People wondered why I was doing the kind of films that I was doing,” she recalled. “The length of the scenes never mattered, even though for most people it did. It takes no more than two scenes to make an impact. And I think my time here has been a beautiful one – a self-made journey of passion.”

Play
Badlapur (2015).

Apart from stints in television and theatre, Dutta made her debut in 2017 as an author. Her book Me and Ma explores her relationship with her mother, a doctor who raised the family singlehandedly after her father’s death. “I am already working on my next – a collection of short stories inspired by my motivational speeches on life, sexuality, career ambitions and the like,” Dutta revealed. “I realised that people can relate to what I have to say. And I wanted to put my insights down in the form of a book.”

Dutta is one of the few actors who enjoys an excellent rapport with industry heavyweights. Amitabh Bachchan launched her book. Anil Kapoor messages her whenever a film of hers draws praise. Shabana Azmi has been tweeting about her performance in Blackmail.

“I think I am the most loved adopted kid for the industry,” Dutta joked. “More than nepotism, what really matters is the kind of work you deliver. When people love you for what you present on the screen, it extends beyond the screen as well. It is also important to have a strong family to keep you grounded. So that even when you fall or hit a rough patch, they tell you that it is alright. I guess I have been lucky on both counts.”

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.