If Neha Dhupia had a life philosophy, it would be lights, camera, hustle. The actor says in the film industry, of which she has been a part of for two decades, one has to take charge, lead from the front and be their own miracle. There’s space for talent, but not complacency.
Dhupia began her Bollywood journey with the 2003 release Qayamat. A few misfires later, she started featuring in big commercial comedies before eventually transitioning to mid-sized movies in the late 2000s–back then called multiplex films. In the last five years, the actor, also a mother of two, has featured in acclaimed projects like Tumhari Sulu, Lust Stories and her Disney+Hotstar release A Thursday.
In an interview with indianexpress.com, Dhupia opens up on how motherhood has made her finally learn to say no, the act of letting go off her inhibition to ask for work and how she currently finds herself in a comfortable–but introspective–space which she insists is between “survival and revival.”
Professionally, what are you craving to do today?
There are people, who know what they want to do and stick to it and there are those who dabble into different things. I don’t know where I belong. You get older, more experienced, you become a mother so you naturally evolve. But the world is changing too. There are different platforms, lots of work, actors are becoming influencers, influencers are becoming actors and I am not saying this in a bad way.
The only thing I want to do is something that is worthy enough for me as a mother and a professional. It should be rewarding enough and by that I don’t mean a good pay cheque. It should be satisfying. Earlier I didn’t have the ability to say no. If somebody asked for help, to jump in on a project, to show up, I would. But my children have taught me that I have to say no. I have both of them waiting for me at home. So I am investing my time in deciding what my next steps are going to be. I am starting all over again. I am in a stage between survival and revival.
That can be a nerve-racking phase.
It is. There are days when I randomly pick up the phone on my mom and wonder, ‘Will something work out?’ You do get strength from the past, from people around you. I am not a one-time wonder, I have been in the industry for two decades and have sailed through. I am somewhere between survival and revival because I have to shift gears.
I still want to work as hard but I also have to look after everything that’s happening at home. There are times I am accelerating a lot. Times when I lose sleep due to a lot of work and there are also times when I lose sleep due to the lack of work. It is a tricky business. The sooner you understand, make amends, respect every job that comes your way and work hard, that’s when you start enjoying it.
You started working for your Bollywood debut in 2002. That’s 20 years in the industry. How do you process it?
It has been great. I don’t aspire for stardom or praise; I’ve never been part of the number game. If I had to see my 20 year long career, I would think about where I was right at the beginning to where I am today. I feel like I have survived, I am grateful, I am relevant. These are huge feathers at least in my cap to be in the business. This is an industry where you are always walking on eggshells, it is not easy, but here I am.
Was there ever a fear of being forgotten?
Ya, just recently after I came back from a holiday with my family. I am constantly working as a person so when you take a ten day break you question yourself. You see that your phone hasn’t rung so much, so you call people and say, ‘Hey I am back to work’. But that one night is filled with anxiety and fear.
I question myself but I don’t compare. It’s the film business, you can’t leave it to the universe. You have to be your own miracle and keep working hard. I used to not do this earlier, but there is pride and confidence in being out there, to tell people that, ‘Hey I am good, take me, hire me.’ It is like round two for me. There are makers who want to work with you, audience that loves you, but you can’t let it all slip.
Was there ever an apprehension to reach out for work?
Yes, because I felt they are not going to hire me. That they don’t think of me that’s why they don’t call me, so I don’t want to force myself on people to hire me, put them in a spot where they can’t say no… Today I feel liberated. I feel empowered, I feel if today I step out and tell makers I am looking for work, there will be work for me. But I need to take that first step. I have started doing it now, I don’t shy away anymore.
There was a phase in your career where you were balancing mainstream films like Singh Is Kinng and De Dana Dan with mid-sized movies like Ek Chalis Ki Last Local, Raat Gayi Baat Gayi. But did you face a perception battle where makers thoughts you were too glamourous to be cast in other roles?
I was not too happy with the kind of work that was coming my way from the mainstream world. I did do Singh is Kinng, Chup Chup Ke, De Dana Dan and had fun. But then I wasn’t pleased. Later I just started getting films like Raat Gayi Baat Gayi, Ek Chalis Ki Last Local, Mithya and started enjoying this a lot more. The so-called bigger filmmakers didn’t cast me that much in mainstream cinema. I wish all those films had come now for OTT. I was doing the right thing, may be a bit sooner than my time. I wasn’t confused, but maybe I gave the projection that this is what I am doing, and people were confused what I did or didn’t want to do. But I was happy.
Why do you think they didn’t cast you?
I don’t know. I would never say I was not good enough, but I want to definitely compliment others and say maybe they were better than me. There is nothing wrong in that, it is not my defeatist attitude, but I was doing other things and they were casting others. I have no complaints. Today, I am reading scripts, but I don’t want to do things that have me going to set with a lukewarm attitude. I was excited when I did this short film Good Morning for Amazon MiniTV and have also shot for a comedy film. My highs have never been so high or my lows never so low that I will worry. I have always been in a situation where I can take chances, and that’s simply fantastic.