'Can't believe I'm actually in a film with Aamir'
Kiran Rao's directorial debut Dhobi Ghat will see many first timers.
One of them is Monica Dogra, a singer and composer who hails from Maryland.
Patcy N speaks to Monica about making it in Mumbai, acting and Aamir Khan.
From musician to actress. From US to India. Tell us about your journey.
I was born and brought up in Maryland.
My mother Rama is a teacher -- she sings, she acts. She is a very creative person and she instilled that in me.
My father Anil is a businessman. He deals in real estate. He raised me. He feels proud of me today, but when I was younger it was difficult for him to accept that I was going into the world of art and music [which he felt was] so unstable and uncertain a profession. My younger sister just moved to Switzerland -- she is a research scientist for one of the largest pharma company in the world, Novartis.
I moved to New York when I was 17. I got a degree in musical theatre from New York University. I started performing professionally in the musical circuit in New York. I moved to Mumbai on a whim, around five years ago to write my own music. In [my] first three months in India, I completed my first album and started my band Shaa'ir + Func. We have released three albums in India. We are one of the most successful bands in the independent music scene in India.
Kiran [Rao] came to know of me because I was on the cover of Time Out Mumbai in 2008 as an Indie music hero. We toured all over the world and played at some of the largest musical festivals on the planet including Glastonbury, Big Chill in UK, France Netherlands, Dubai, US, Canada, representing what people like to call the New India and a new culture which is urban and conscious.
I think actually Dhobi Ghat fits into the same genre -- new urban conscious cinema.
I sing. I write my own music. I recently sang a song Dooriyan for Break Ke Baad with Vishal-Shekhar. I have acted in plays, but I have never acted in films or done a role as large where I was working with a big production house and working with the likes of Aamir Khan. My world has turned upside down in a good way.
Image: Monica Dogra
'I have always felt a very strong of sense of being Indian'
Was it difficult to convince your parents that you wanted to move to Mumbai?
Not at that stage. When I moved here, my father had realised that he couldn't stop me. But it was difficult to convince him earlier on in life, particularly when I moved to New York to study music and theatre. Like any good father, he was just nervous, just afraid that I would get hurt that I wouldn't succeed and then what would I do?
But at the same time, it is because of him and because of my mom, because of my upbringing, that I have such a strong sense of identity. I had great amount of courage to face any adversities that came [in my way while trying to] achieve my dream.
Was it difficult to settle down in India?
I have always felt a very strong of sense of being Indian, even though I have lived in the US. I have always been in love with my culture. I am really attached to my heritage. In that sense, moving to India was just like returning to my core and going back to my home. And I can speak Hindi.
The hard thing was being a world away from my family. I don't have any family in Mumbai. I didn't know anybody. I came completely alone.
Sometimes I feel there is lot of work to be done in terms of equality between men and women [here]. But that said, in a city like Mumbai [things] are definitely moving forward at a really rapid phase and I like to think that I am part of that movement.
Image: Prateik Babbar, Monica Dogra in Dhobi Ghat
'I don't think Dhobi Ghat is a Bollywood film at all'
How did you make your break here without family and support?
I had saved up quite a bit of money to come and had a cushion [to last me a] few months without working. It was difficult to find accommodation. I made friends with other artists and musicians very quickly.
The wonderful thing about India right now is if you are doing interesting work and you are good at what you do, then you will rise. And you will rise fast. So that's what I did. I met my band mates within the first few weeks that I came here. I found Randolph Correia, my music partner. He helped me a lot in acclimatizing to this city. I had a friend, who is a stylist and into films, so when she went to New York for her film, she gave me her place for a couple of months. It is this community [feeling] that helped me a lot.
And how did you get into films?
I did not think of a career change. I don't think that [just because] I have now acted in a film, I am no longer a musician. I have always been both. I studied musical theatre. I am actor and a singer and performer. I understand that there are not too many people in the industry who do that, but I will be one of the first. That excites me. So I haven't changed my career at all. I have been an artist activist and I will continue to be. I want to contribute to social change through the artistic medium. I will do those projects.
Dhobi Ghat happened. I didn't go out searching for work. I wasn't auditioning for films and I didn't have an aspiration to be in Bollywood. I don't think Dhobi Ghat is a Bollywood film at all. It is an art film, it is an alternative film.
Kiran saw me on a magazine cover and her team contacted me through Facebook. Once I got the role, I obviously took that opportunity to work with a director as sharp as Kiran Rao, a script as beautiful as Dhobi Ghat and with an actor as amazing as Aamir Khan.
Image: Monica Dogra in Dhobi Ghat
'I was a huge fan of Aamir Khan since a child'
Did you have an audition?
I did one screen test solo. The second test was with Aamir and the third day I was cast.
Tell us about your role as Shai in Dhobi Ghat.
I play an NRI from the US from New York City. An investor banker on sabbatical, who comes to Mumbai to explore and discover herself -- much like me in real life. She is passionate about taking photographs, she is interested in finding the intricate layers of Mumbai. As a result she ends up making friendship with people you would not expect.
As a result of her relationships she transforms as a human being. I have a relationship with Aamir as well as Prateik [Babbar, actor Smita Patil's son] in the film.
Were you familiar with Aamir Khan as an actor when you were growing up in America?
I was a huge fan of Aamir Khan since a child. I had seen Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and I had loved Rangeela. So it was kind of crazy, I still can't swallow the fact that I am actually in a movie with him.
Image: Monica Dogra in Dhobi Ghat
'Aamir helped me quite a bit throughout the shooting'
How was it working with him? Were you intimidated by him?
I was very nervous. The level of nervousness I have performing in front of 5,000 people, when I am singing, was the same nervousness I had when I was auditioning with this one person called Aamir Khan.
But luckily, because I had done so much prior to this, I know how to combat my nervousness and still deliver under pressure. I just prepared as best I could and took a deep breath. I am sure I must have done well because Aamir said I am a very strong actor after seeing a piece of my performance in the film.
Did Aamir advise you?
Aamir helped me quite a bit throughout the shooting. He really helped me when I was dubbing my Hindi lines. He speaks the language fantastically well. He offered me lot of advice on that.
What is that one moment during the shoot that you will cherish all your life?
I will always remember this one evening. The sun was going down. We had shot for 16 hours. Some of the cast and crew members from Peepli [Live] had also come. The writer and the director too. And one of them started reciting the poem from Daastan by Noon Meem Rashed called Zindagi Se Darte Ho and we were all brought to tears.
Then Aamir asked me to sing a song and I performed one of the first songs that I ever wrote. He said he was blown. He soon sent A R Rahman a text message.
At that moment, I understood what a community I had been welcomed into -- some of the most powerful players in the world of film and music in India. I just felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude to the universe for having given me this opportunity. In equal measures, I felt the sense of responsibility to do good work, to deserve everything that I was receiving.
Image: Monica Dogra in Dhobi Ghat
'I feel that Aamir and Kiran share a wonderful relationship'
Aamir Khan is known to be a perfectionist. How did Kiran and Aamir work together, professionally?
I feel that Aamir and Kiran share a wonderful relationship. They support each other. They give each other space to be who they are. I never really saw any nagging. But I wouldn't say that it was as if they were actor and director or husband and wife. They were all those relationships combined and only a duo like them can do it so seamlessly and so eloquently. So they were really fantastic to watch.
What are your expectations from the film?
It was a dream come true.
I have really high hopes for this film. I believe there is an audience for such alternative cinema in India right now and I think cinemagoers will prove that on Friday by buying the tickets.
Image: Monica Dogra