Divya Dutta can see the parallels between herself and her character Ayesha Khan in Hostages 2, which is being streamed on Disney+ Hotstar from September 9. Ayesha, a negotiator brought in to persuade kidnapper Prithvi Singh (Ronit Roy) to release his hostage, is a “a petite woman operating in a man’s world who can bring a saner point of view and put reason into the minds of both sides when extreme calls are to be taken”, Dutta explained.

Ayesha is also “self-assured, intelligent, single, but also vulnerable” – more reasons why the single and petite 42-year-old actor was attracted to the role.

“My physicality is never a hindrance to any character I play,” Dutta told Scroll.in. “I remember that they were hesitant to cast me in a villainous role in Heroine, because I was so sweet-looking. So I changed my attitude and approach and voila. But that same quality in me adds softness to my character in Hostages.”

Hostages (2020).

Dutta’s 26-year filmography is a study in resilience and versatility. She has played practically every kind of role, from the singing-and-dancing heroine in the 1990s to pivotal supporting parts in films such as Veer-Zaara (2004), Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008), Delhi-6 (2009), Stanley Ka Dabba (2011), Heroine (2012), Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013) and Badlapur (2015). Irada (2016) won Dutta a National Film Award.

Her first success was in her native tongue Punjabi. Shaheed-e-Mohabbat Boota Singh (1999), a love story between an Indian Sikh man (Gurdas Maan) and a Pakistani Muslim woman (Dutta), was a blockbuster. Dutta will soon be seen in the Punjabi film Maa, along with the Hindi film Sheer Qorma, in which she plays a woman caught between her same-sex lover and a disapproving mother. Excerpts from an interview.

How did you become an actor?
I was an ardent Amitabh Bachchan fan. I’d tear mother’s sarees, wear them, organise parties, and invite the neighbourhood children to come clap for me while I danced. I come from a family of doctors, so nobody expected me to want to become an actor.

Through school and college, I loved the attention and accolades I got on the stage. Between studies, I would be hooked to film magazines, daydreaming of becoming a heroine. One day, an issue of Stardust had a talent hunt form. I filled it out and sent it, and got accepted. Then I told my mother. She was surprisingly supportive.

Divya Dutta in Badlapur (2015).

What were the initial years in Mumbai like?
The first five-six years, you are a newcomer. This time goes into knowing the right people, making them know you. Initially people were sweet to me, very accommodating, and one day, I called up my mother and said I am starring in 22 films.

Then the 20 films never went on floors, and I had been replaced in the other two. That gave me a reality check and I realised here you have to be on your own.

You have played so many different kinds of roles. Was any role particularly challenging?
All of them, unless the role seems like you have done something like that before. Then boredom seeps in and you wouldn’t enjoy doing it. I like the surge of excitement and nervous energy that comes with uncharted territory.

The first two-three days when I build my character on set it, nobody knows I am nervous, but I am, because I start with a fresh approach for every new character to ensure I don’t repeat myself.

How did ‘Shaheed-e-Mohabbat Boota Singh’ change your career graph?
I remember Gaiety Galaxy shows for Shaheed-e-Mohabbat were housefull. I had never thought a sad Punjabi love story would be a pan-Indian hit. It did open a lot of doors for me, in the sense that earlier people wondered, who’s this girl, but now I got to work with directors I like such as Shyam Benegal.

Shaheed-e-Mohabbat Boota Singh (1999).

Did you plan on working with certain directors at the start of your career?
In 1993, I had won the awards for best actress and best dancer at the Punjab Youth Festival. So while I loved glamour and dancing around trees, I always wanted to prove myself as an actor. And initially, I realised I wasn’t getting more than two songs or three romantic scenes. I was greedy for more and still am.

I never planned my career. If you are passionate towards something and you work towards it, what you want comes to you. When I took up Shyam babu’s [Shyam Benegal] Samar, he had already finished casting. I was a stubborn girl, I said sir, mujhe karni hi hai aapki film [I just have to do your film]. He said, okay, I have a dance number, will you do it? I said yes, and that’s how things moved in that direction.

Divya Dutta in Basement Jaxx's Romeo (2001).

You started as the lead heroine, moved to what are called character roles, before really coming into your own in the 2010s.
When I started acting, I was 17-18 years old. I knew nothing, had stars in my eyes, came from a protected family, thought everyone and everything would work for me. Once I did those early stereotypical heroine films, I thought I should do something bigger now, with only Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar.

So I kept waiting. My mother said, do these people know you are good? They see you as a newcomer, as just another cute face. Where is your X factor? I said, it’s there, no? Then she said, then why wait? I am not producing your film. Take up the interesting offers you are getting now and prove your X factor to the world.

And that’s how slowly I reached a point where Veer-Zaara happened. Everyone at the premiere were like, who’s this girl? I learned that every role I do, be it lead, supporting, antagonistic, that’s my role and I have to make it my own. They may not be lengthy roles, but they were integral to the story.

That’s how Badlapur, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Stanley Ka Dabba, all these movies happened. I didn’t plan much, tried to never be repetitive, and put in a lot of heart and hard work.

What’s more important: the role or the film it is in?
The entirety of the product is very important. If I don’t like the film, why will I go watch myself in it? You will notice a beautiful diamond placed on a shiny good-looking shelf, but not inside a dustbin because why would you look into it?

Any roles of yours which went overlooked?
Monica and Haat: The Weekly Bazaar.

Your mother single-handedly raised you. How did she influence your life?
Everything about her influenced me. When I had come to the movies, I had come from a secure world, thinking everyone would be like her, but no one was. Here you have to dig your own well and have your own water.

She had lost her husband very early, so she was a young widow. She lived through terrorism days, had been transferred many times. But I never saw her sit and cry. Maybe she did, but never showed to us. She had an incredible zest for life, enjoying the moment she lived in. Whenever I would feel disappointed, she would say accept it. Half the time in our lives, we are in denial. My mother taught me to accept life and face it bang on.

I used to hide behind her before. Now that she is not here, I just role play and do what she would have asked me to do.

Sheer Qorma (2020).