Rasika Dugal was quick to realise that mathematics was not for her. She now chuckles at the memory, for she had chosen the subject, in part, to show her father that she could study it. But at the Lady Shri Ram College for Women, New Delhi, there was too much happening for mathematics to hold her interest. “I ploughed through my maths classes,” she says. “Running from one play rehearsal to another elocution, and fitting in a class somehow.”
Dugal, an actor of versatile expressions and expressive silences has a busy year. Audiences will see her in a sports drama, Spike; a black comedy thriller, Lord Curzon ki Haveli; a supernatural horror, Adhura; a dramedy, Little Thomas and her signature, Mirzapur (Season 3).
Though excited about it all, she has reserved a special exuberance for Fairy Folk―an improv dramedy that premiered at the Sydney Film Festival in 2022. The film had a prepared storyline, but the dialogue was all improvised by the actors. “That’s not to say you go on set and do anything,” says Dugal. “It requires practice. You take what your co-actor gives you and build upon it. It is beautiful as it lets the inconsistencies and errors of everyday conversations seep through.” Dugal’s husband, actor Mukul Chadda, co-stars in the film.
Dugal, who debuted in Anwar (2007), has earned serious praise for her work―both at home and abroad. She plays self-destructive (Out of Love, 2019-2021) with as much elan as she does subtle (Manto, 2018). She does chatty (Lootcase, 2020) as well as silence (Kshay, 2012). She is equally convincing as jaded (Delhi Crime, season 2, 2022) as she is as saucy (Mirzapur, 2018-present).
The last is what Dugal is not at all like. She says: “I love Beena Tripathi (Mirzapur) for I had always imagined what it would be like to be a woman who is completely comfortable with her body.” The Tripathi of Mirzapur, sexually disgruntled wife to a gang lord, is a character that is both the abused and abuser. As both, she does not hit a false note.
The audition for the part though came with a fair bit of trepidation with Dugal being sure it was more suited for someone who was more stereotypically sexy, someone more voluptuous. She used a memory to help her get through. That of a young girl she had met at a party. “She was from a small town, sweet-looking and clad in jeans and a T-shirt,” says Dugal. “She mentioned she was a singer and, when coaxed into singing, transformed into this sensual, beautiful woman. I was stunned.”
“The experiences you have, the experiences you want to have, all come to you when you prepare for a role,” she says. Paraphrasing, as an afterthought, Kate Winslet’s words that research is just a means to assuage an actor’s guilt, for when a role comes, an actor is already prepared for it.
To Dugal, as for many creative people, preparation can become an obsession. For Delhi Crime (season 1), she shadowed a cop who was at the same level as she was in the series. When season 2 came around, the cop was at the position which Dugal’s character essayed in it. The process was so fascinating that she believes a film on it would have been interesting.
Dugal’s passion for her character ran so deep that once while shooting, when she was asked to get into the car, her eyes met that of the cinematographer David Bolen for a fleeting second, in surprise that she was being asked to get into the wrong side. Police protocol demands that an officer not sit behind the driver. Bolen understood and told her that he would switch the lighting. Months after the season released, she agonised over whether she should have put on a beret in a particular manner in a crucial scene.
And to think that Dugal is an actor by chance, if one discounts her playing Mother Mary in school. She saw her first Satyajit Ray film (Pather Panchali) when at LSR. As part of her social communication diploma at Sophia College, Mumbai, she studied films for the first time. And the form for the acting course at the Film and Television Institute of Pune was filled on a whim―when a friend offered her the sage advice that becoming a mother was the only non-revocable decision in life.
Between Anwar and Mirzapur, Dugal continued doing theatre―including numerous performances of the Vagina Monologues. She counts 14 small parts before Mirzapur, among them Chutney (2016), which earned over a million views in a day.
One question Dugal was repeatedly asked during the promotions of Delhi Crime was which city, Delhi or Mumbai, was safer for women. She says she would be wary of making a blanket statement, but adds that she would not want women to be constantly on the watch.
Dugal speaks from her experience of encountering different cities and public spaces at different stages of life. Growing up in Jamshedpur where everyone knew everyone; in Pune and Delhi as a student, and in Lucknow where she did secondary research for some academic papers (including one co-authored by Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee). The common thread was a sense of “eyes on oneself”―a feeling she wishes women would not have to contend with. For somewhere along that path, a consciousness of one’s body develops―in part shame; in part a lack of confidence. Remarks such as “look how she is dressed” or “looks like she forgot her dupatta” sow seeds of insecurity.
On gender discrimination, she says it is rarely recognised in the moment. “It could take days, months or even years,” she says. And thus, she says, just like any other woman, she cannot pinpoint an exact time or experience. Yet that pent-up anger and helplessness came out as tears at Cannes 2018 (she was there for Manto’s screening), when Cate Blanchett led a silent protest against gender disparity in entertainment.
Unlike mathematics, it was a space that Dugal completely owned.