Rasika Dugal hasn’t been on a movie set since 2018. Not since the comedy Lootcase, which was made that year and streamed on Disney+ Hotstar in July. But the powerhouse actor has been in several web series during that time – Mirzapur, Delhi Crime, Out of Love.

Dugal will appear in the second seasons of Delhi Crime and Out of Love. A third season of Mirzapur on Amazon Prime Video has recently been announced, which also means the return of one of Dugal’s most memorable characters, Beena Tripathi. “Beena is somebody who wears her sexuality on her sleeve, she has a body language that is very different from mine, she has this magnetic pull, a comfortable confidence about her – these are not things I have in life,” Dugal told Scroll.in.

The horizon has vastly expanded in recent months for the Film and Television Institute of India-trained actor. The roles are getting more diverse. The sensitive face that can conjure up a lightness of the spirit or the unbearable burden of sorrow is more recognisable than before.

“The quantity of work has increased by leaps and bounds,” Dugal told Scroll.in. “There’s a lot more happening.”

Some of it is drudge work, such as pre-release publicity interactions. Dugal has given deep interviews about the art of performance as well as participated in conversations in which she has been asked about the first time she experienced love (On her first date: “When I was 16, but I can’t remember much else”).

Rasika Dugal in Mirzapur season 2. Courtesy Excel Entertainment/Amazon Prime Video.

Dugal still finds it hard to navigate the consistent positivity demanded by public relations exercises. “I am not allowed to say what I actually feel about the projects I have worked in,” she said. “The level of conversation isn’t always conducive. It’s not that I am looking to diss a project, of course.”

It’s just that Dugal wants to apply the thoughtfulness with which she approaches her work to the chatter around it. She wants to take apart and reassemble her characters, like she does on the screen. This quality makes her performances hard to forget, even when she is in ensemble projects, such as in Delhi Crime, A Suitable Boy, in which she played Savita Kapoor, or the movie Tu Hai Mera Sunday.

Dugal’s commitment to her craft has suited her foray into web series, which can last several seasons. “I don’t feel that you can exhaust a character, but my only problem is that this [approach] removes the possibility that a given moment can have,” she observed.

Rasika Dugal and Lata Maniktala in A Suitable Boy (2020). Courtesy BBC Studios/Netflix.

This worrywart attitude and the meeting of the instinctual and the cerebral are in full flow in Mirzapur. As the second wife of Mirzapur’s crime lord Akhandanand Tripathi, Beena is both victim and schemer, to be pitied as well as feared.

In the first season, Beena was punished terribly for an act of rebellion by her perverted father-in-law. Among the shockers of season one was the sight of Beena forced to straddle her wheel-chair-bound father-in-law, played by Kulbhushan Kharbanda. The rape is suggestive rather than graphic, but it was originally written differently, Dugal said.

“In the original script, it was a far more elaborate scene,” she said. “It was beautifully written and interesting, but very hard to pull off. I felt that even experienced filmmakers would worry about this scene.”

Dugal nearly refused the role because of this sequence, but then the series makers made it easier for her and her co-actor.

“We avoided eye contact since it was a silhouette shot,” she said. “We had this unspoken understanding about the awkwardness of the situation.”

Beena Tripathi in Mirzapur.

In 2017, Dugal was cast in Mirzapur by Karan Anshuman, one of the directors of the first season. Rather, she demanded to be in the show. When she heard that Anshuman was working on a project with Mirzapur’s producer Excel Entertainment, she gave him a call.

“When Karan narrated the role to me, it sounded very interesting,” Dugal said. “It wasn’t the kind of part I usually got offered.”

Anshuman had no doubts about Dugal. He had been “blown apart” by Karan Gour’s indie Kshay, in which Dugal brilliantly plays a housewife who becomes obsessed with a Ganesha statue.

“Rasika and I have known each other for a long time, from our struggling days,” Anshuman told Scroll.in. “She was doing some strange movies, and then I saw her in Kshay.”

Anup Singh’s Qissa in 2013 “sealed it” for Anshuman. In Qissa, Dugal and Tilottama Shome play two halves of a deranged Partition victim’s fantasy about retribution for the violence he has suffered. Although the film was headlined by Irrfan, Dugal and Shome sparkled too in their roles.

“The thing about Rasika is that she is tremendously instinctive – she is very alive, sentient,” Anup Singh observed. “She has to react to every little stimuli. There is nothing she can ignore or look away from. And unlike many actors who are instinctive, she has a great respect for being in this world, this quality of, how can I live this life a little more intensely? That is what makes her an extraordinary actress.”

Rasika Dugal in Qissa (2013). Courtesy Heimatfilm/National Film Development Corporation.

For Mirzapur too, Dugal brought her A-game to her performance. “She did these little things, these hand gestures, that took things beyond the writing,” Anshuman said. “These touches gave you a window into the soul of her character, about being in this patriarchal world.”

Dugal added her flourishes to Beena Tripathi, as she does with all her roles. “I will always try out one thing that I have brought myself, it makes me own the space,” she explained. “Nobody will see it and nobody will notice it, but I do it for my satisfaction.”

Connoisseurs of Mirzapur will notice that Beena’s fingers are laden with rings – Dugal’s notch in a well-etched part. “I wanted some spiritual-looking rings, since while Beena is not exactly god-fearing and likes the risk, she may be superstitious about things,” Dugal said.

Mirzapur paired Dugal with Pankaj Tripathi, who plays Akhandanand Tripathi. In Atul Sabharwal’s gripping television series Powder in 2010, Dugal portrayed the sister-in-law to Tripathi’s gangster.

“It’s like incest happening after many years,” Dugal joked. She was deeply inspired by Tripathi, who can make complex scenes look very easy, she said.

“It will look like Pankaj isn’t doing anything, and then when you watch him closely and realise that he is doing so many little things,” Dugal observed. “The scene in season two in which Akhandanand calls me Binni instead of Beena – it was totally improvised.”

Dugal was similarly moved by Kharbanda. The penultimate episode in Mirzapur’s second season revolves around a confrontation between Beena and her father-in-law. “It was such a difficult scene to shoot, it had gone into one-and-a-half shifts, and we had to finish it,” Dugal recalled. “I was zoning out, the unit members were talking about what was for lunch, I could hear stomachs growl. Kul ji [Kharbanda] was such a sport, it was stunning. I hope I can sustain this kind of dedication to my work.”

Dugal meshes easily with her co-stars in her ensemble projects. When it’s her turn to lead the narrative, the concentration becomes even sharper, the worrying over the balance of nuances with the larger picture more intense.

In Out of Love, the Disney+ Hotstar series from 2019, Dugal plays Meera Kapoor, a doctor who realises that her husband is having an affair with a younger woman. An official remake of the British show Doctor Foster, Out of Love counts as one of Dugal’s most astute performances.

Out of Love (2019).

“I was really looking for a part that would drive the narrative,” she said. “When I watched the original series, I felt it was very well made and would give me a lot to play with.”

Dugal had to overcome a fair amount of self-doubt: “Meera is in almost every frame. Can I still be engaging, especially since I have played smaller roles?”’

A new season of Out of Love is underway. The second season of Doctor Foster was criticised for its unconvincing plot turns. Dugal will have to summon every ounce of her talent to ensure that viewers continue to be invested in Meera.

The 35-year-old actor has made her peace with follow-ups, which stretch web series beyond what is necessary. Actors go into long-form shows without always knowing if there will be another round. “For instance, when we were shooting Delhi Crime, there wasn’t even a streaming platform on board,” Dugal said. “Sometimes, I watch shows in which a favourite character gets killed, and I realise the actor got bored and asked for an out. I used to think they were crazy, but now I understand where it is coming from.”

And yet, web series have given female actors opportunities like never before, Dugal said. “Would Beena Tripathi have had any role if Mirzapur were a movie? She might have been written with a lot of interest, but she wouldn’t have had the screen time to flourish. Women’s parts are the first thing that suffer in the editing.”

The most challenging bit about the business is diving deep, resurfacing and walking away. “The hard part of being an actor is that a lot is asked of you and then you are told to let go,” Dugal said. “Nothing is actually in your control. You see your work months after the shoot. Like I saw Delhi Crime only a year later. I had given the role everything I had. But two lovely scenes got edited out because of time constraints. I thought about it later and told the director Richie Mehta that he had been right to take the scenes out.”

Her golden run has meant that down time has become a luxury. When was the last time she took a holiday? Rasika Dugal, who can talk about her performances into the night, is hard-pressed to remember.

Banana Bread (2020).

In between web series, Dugal has squeezed in other assignments. In 2019, she teamed with her husband, the actor Mukul Chaddha, for Kshay director Karan Gour’s second feature, tentatively titled Fairy Folk. Dugal described the improvisation-heavy project as “an actor’s delight”, a film in which scenes depend on what came before, rather than adhering to a bound script.

During the lockdown necessitated by the coronavirus outbreak earlier this year, Dugal and Chadha acted in the short film Banana Bread. Directed by Srinivas Sunderrajan, Banana Bread casts Dugal and Chadha as neighbours who attempt to bond over the television show Sherlock and the dish that became enormously popular during the pandemic.

The workload is heavy but not (yet) a burden. The challenge is to avoid getting bogged down by the “peripherals”, which include maintaining an Instagram account to keep the fans engaged.

“The peripheral things are taking over the main work, and I don’t know how to protect myself,” Dugal said. “The problem is that I can’t keep myself out of the detail. It will bother me if a hashtag isn’t right. If you ask me to be Meera Kapoor and clean a shelf, I will do both with the same amount of dedication. I can’t do anything oopar se” – on the surface.

She never wants to be that actor who gets lazy with success, lets the praise go to her head, allows the rigour to slacken. There’s a simple rule for staying grounded, she said: “If you think you are doing everything right, then you’re not listening,” Dugal said. “There are always people who are doing better than you.”

Her admirers would politely disagree with the last statement.

Kshay (2011).