The Rediff US Special
Dimple Kapadia purses her lips and blows smoke, watching it waft through the air with those smouldering eyes. Her right hand twists forward, outstretched, sliding her bangles down to her wrist while trapping the Rothmans cigarette between two fingers.
The actress, draped in a burnt-orange sari, is a figure of serenity amidst the frenzied activity on the movie set. As she smokes, tall spotlights are rolled past her and positioned close at hand, crackling and emitting a hot glare as they are switched on. Other workers lay out the wiring for cameras on the ground, reflective boards are angled and tightened, and the assistant director bounds up and down a flight of stairs, looking for people to take their places.
Dimple, however, is unmoved, content to sit back in her chair and let the smoke trail from her lips. It is not yet time for her to be on camera.
She holds the title role of Leela, an English-language film that reunites her with Lekin co-star Vinod Khanna. The shooting for Leela has brought Dimple from the humid clutter of Bombay to the carefully manicured and breezy campus of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
Though Dimple is outside her home country, she is in her element. When her scenes are finished, she is whisked off in her own transport. When engineer-turned-director Somnath Sen goes for a few changes, he asks her opinion. And when he wants her to act a certain way for a scene, he tells her gently. It is done out of respect, in deference to her long career in Hindi films.
But the local film crew has never seen her in Bobby or Saagar. Most have never seen a Bollywood movie at all. They are unaware of the legend that Dimple is, and so are refreshingly informal with the actress in the fashion that Americans are so known for. Some who have got to know her comfortably kiss her on the cheek to say hello, others tell her jokes or share cigarettes. It is unlike the timid reverence she receives from Indians who recognize her, and, having mustered enough confidence, ask for her picture.
Dimple doesn't seem to mind the Americans' nonchalant attitude. She enjoys their youthfulness, and breaks from the poise and measured stance that she carries herself with. I witness her playful attempt to attack R J Olivier, the first assistant director, from behind, kicking her heel into the air with a devilish grin. She dips into the bag of Doritos offered to her by a member of the crew, turning her manicured fingers orange from the chips. A makeup assistant compliments her on the cosmetics she uses, and Dimple tells her to take what she likes.
Vinod Khanna, Dimple's co-star in Leela
"I love these people," Dimple says. "Every one ... it has been so fun working with them."
The crew in turn has been won over by Dimple. During a scene where she is to stand in the middle of a crowd of college protestors, some extras who are to join in ask about the woman in the burnt-orange sari. Why is the camera going to be focused on her, they ask.
"She is a very famous actress in India," a female member of the crew explains, in a protective, hushed voice.
"Oh," the student says. "You mean, like Nicole Kidman?"
Dimple isn't overly impressed by the fact that she is in California, shooting a Bollywood movie that is being produced in Hollywood. It was only a matter of time, she says, that such a film was made with America's current fascination for all things Indian and a swelling number of South Asians clamouring for a slice of home.
What she is able to derive from this acting opportunity, she says, is the chance to explore roles beyond what Bombay has to offer her now. Dimple, 44, still wants to act; she enjoys being onscreen, but she won't settle anymore with just being the mother, as she did in Hum Tum Pe Marten Hain.
In Leela, Dimple is a visiting professor from India who falls in love with one of her students, Krishna. He is 20 years younger than her -- and she has a husband back in Bombay. Though it will not last, the relationship allows her character to examine her life in a way that couldn't have been possible in India.
"It's a universal story that many women will be able to relate to," Dimple explains. "Women sometimes get so caught up in life... their marriage takes over their life, their relatives take over their life, and then they forget who they are."
The role of Leela admittedly is complex and controversial, yet the complexity is what attracted her, Dimple says. "I have to be able to feel that I can't do this," she says. "The challenge itself is to exceed certain high standards you've set for yourself.
"When I restarted my career [with Saagar in 1985], I realized I was years behind... now I have often been told by well-meaning colleagues that I had plenty of time to do these types of films, that I could have waited another six or seven years. But this was a personal choice. With me, the issue was, can I still act?"
Dimple and Amol Mhatre in a scene from Leela
Our conversation draws out slow and flowing, just like the wisps from the cigarette she takes in. Every inhale and exhale draws a pause... a floating moment of thought, seduced by her husky voice.
A personal makeup artist is always on hand, carrying a platter of cosmetics and brushes much like a waiter. In public, he has two tasks: to constantly powder Dimple's porcelain smooth, fair skin, particularly her nose, forehead and cheeks; and to hand her a brush, which she waves through her auburn hair, her fine tresses flowing past her shoulder.
She admits that the rush from acting never wore off on her. "While in production, I'm all tensed up, and that is what makes me take my acting to the next level," she says. "It can be so unpredictable... at that moment I have to understand the emotion, so I feel have to dig deep into my character.
"You have to draw from yourself, it cannot be pre-planned. It's exciting because I'm not prepared for what I'm going to see."
Of course, when she does see herself, she can't help but be critical.
"I keep picking at it constantly, trying to convince myself what's wrong. I go through all that shit. At the last shot, I'm still fighting, thinking to myself that I'm shit, I've ****** up..." a pause to exhale, and a smile that reddens her cheeks: "I do indulge myself in such mental masturbation, and chew out everybody's brain around me. I think they get fed up."
A young American actor, who has a fleeting role in Leela, comes by to say hello, and they discuss acting. He tells Dimple about some other work he's done recently, and she asks if he's seen it yet. "No, I hate looking at my work," he says. Dimple turns to me. "You see," she says, "I'm not the only one."
As she continues her discussion of her work, Dimple does not even spare her better known movies.
"I did some major ****-ups in Rudali," she says. "I felt that at the end, the transition from being upset to accepting the situation wasn't realistic enough."
Mhatre as 'Kris' and Dimple at a picnic in the movie
She has some kinder words for Lekin and the ghost-like heroine she played: "It was a wonderful experience working with Gulzar. That had to be the most fantastic role I ever did. I wish I had more scenes in that film."
Regardless, Dimple is aware that she has the luxury to reminisce, and the good fortune to keep acting while her daughters Twinkle and Rinke now appear in movies too.
"I don't know whether to be thankful or to ask for more," she says. "After I won the National Award, I believed that was my biggest achievement... then I thought it would be best to just keep asking. I got more than my share in life; a little more wouldn't hurt."
Dimple does not avoid difficult topics, such as her well-publicized failed marriage with Rajesh Khanna: "Being in the public's eye had no effect. I'm a very open person, and I am not ashamed of it being out there. It's part of life."
Her only regret? "I knew all the right people, but I didn't use them to further myself."
It's my last day on the set. I'm sitting with Dimple alone on a bench. We are now in the middle of Hollywood, a few steps away from Mann's Chinese Theatre. Dimple is still smoking, the smoke curls mixing into the reddish haze of the sunset. The shadows grow deeper in the shoe steps of the movie stars outside Mann's. But the star next to me is laughing, choosing to leave her imprint on those around her.
"Life has been very good to me," she deadpans. A pause to exhale, to reflect, perhaps to allow for criticism even here: "But given the opportunity, I'm sure I would have gone and confused everything up again."
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