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.”

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.”

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.”