How hard is it to play the first lady of Indian cinema? Ira Dubey opens up on her role as Devika Rani
Ira Dubey was just a teenager when she took to the stage for the first time; her mum Lillete Dubey is, of course, a giant in the realm of Indian theatre and spearheads the Primetime Theatre Company. Just like her mum, Ira, has an allegiance to exploring her true self as an artiste, be it on the stage, on screen or even behind the camera. She dropped out of an Ivy League theatre course to come back to India and pursue her love for the stage more closely. And a decade later, she’s perhaps one of the most recognised faces in theatre. In her next project, she plays the most intriguing artiste Indian cinema has come across. We’re talking about Devika Rani, who was a rebel and a titan, and was so much more than just the first lady of Indian films. We caught up with Ira to ask her how she intends to get into the skin of the character.
Can you tell us how you’re approaching the role of Devika Rani?
I’ve always felt that we need to tell the stories of our own people, and Devika is such a game-changer. She is considered the first lady of Indian films, but many people still don’t know that she’s a complete pioneer and she set up the film studio Bombay Talkies, in the mid ‘30s with her husband; it was a one-of-kind set-up which employed many people from across the globe, and India still hadn’t seen anything like it. Now we see Margot Robbie, Priyanka Chopra or Anushka Sharma who are producing and acting simultaneously, Devika was doing it back when it was an incredible achievement. And let’s not forget that this was 1930s India, when no educated woman was expected to take up acting. Our play is as much a story of her as it is of Bombay Talkies.
Devika was a woman of enigma too...
Sure, people want to talk about her controversies as well, but there are a lot of psychological complexities which need to be addressed. But Devika did it on her own terms, people used to call her the ‘dragon lady’, because she used to cough a lot, and smoke relentlessly, and she was really brazen. Getting under the skin of the character has been a challenge, there’s not much out there about her, we could only track down one or two people to ask about her, which includes the grandson of Niranjan Pal, who was one of the co-founders of Bombay Talkies. Our story spans across 16 years, and it chronicles her life from when she was 18, till she was 36, when she left cinema forever.
How would you say the Indian theatre has changed in the last decade?
It really has blossomed over time; when I decided to pursue theatre after school, I couldn’t study it anywhere here. There was nothing except a couple of places where I could go to train myself. Things have changed vastly now, in terms of venues and infrastructure, and there are places where you could hone the technicality of the craft. We have so many writers now. My mum would say theatre in this country is like Bollywood’s poor cousin, and I debate for hours with friends over what’s more important in a developing country? Is it the arts, or the ‘roti, kapda, makaan’? But I can’t tell you how many young people come to my plays and want to take it up as well, and can actually do so because there’s more room for it now.
Tell us a little about your experiences in being directed by your mum.
I started working with her when I was 19, and she has directed me in several plays. Dance Like a Man, for instance, had a show in Kolkata a while back, and it’s a play which opened when I was 12. It had mum, Suchitra Pillai and Joy Sengupta since the very beginning, the cast is still headed by them. My mum likes to run her shows for long; as a director, she’s extremely tough, she has an incredible sense of how things will come together, the visual landscape of it all, the set design, the lights, everything.
Tell us about your connect with Kolkata
I have performed here many times, and Devika is Bengali, I know people will want to see the play when we do come there. Kolkata is always fun for me, and I’ve observed that people really connect with the theatre here, whereas Mumbai is more Bollywood-centred. Kolkata obviously has a tradition of theatre and performing arts in general, and their appreciation is so discerning!
Do you enjoy Bollywood as a performer?
I think it’s a great time to be an actor on any platform. There’s plenty of work now, but I feel in my trajectory I’m moving in a slightly different direction. I do want to continue acting. But I want to focus on my passion project next, which is a book which I’m looking to develop as a web series; it’s based on the life of Mohammed Ali Jinnah.