In an industry of hyper-hypocrisy, she remains honest.
No false smiles, no sucking up to directors and heroes.
On Lara Dutta's birthday, Subhash K Jha salutes an actress who has never compromised on her values.
She once told me she was named Lara after the heroine in her mother's favourite film, Dr Zhivago.
I don't know Lara Dutta well. But I've always felt very positive vibes from her.
Our conversations have always been impersonal and she has never called herself a friend or a sister or a daughter... relationship catchphrases that mean absolutely nothing in the entertainment industry.
I've met her just once and it didn't go well.
I had gone to meet a director friend on the set of a film.
Lara was one of the leading ladies in the multistarrer.
The director told me she was in her van. "Would I like to meet her?" I, of course, agreed happily since Lara and I had been talking for some time.
The director knocked on the van and we entered.
Lara hastily got up from her recliner where she was napping in a sequined ghagra-choli ensemble for a hideous tedious dance number.
Introductions were made. Fake smiles exchanged. And I fled.
Later I sent her a text saying, 'That didn't go too well, did it?'
This is the quality that I like about Lara.
In an industry of hyper-hypocrisy, she remains honest. No false smiles, no sucking up to directors and heroes. No compromises.
Priyanka Chopra and Lara Dutta started off together in my friend Suneel Darshan's Andaaz.
Between the two, I thought Lara was going to be the big star.
She had the better role in Andaaz and she went on to give some good performances in films like Dilli Chalo, Billu and David. But her career never took off in the way it should have.
Lara was seen as Priyanka's competition at the start, like Sridevi and Jaya Prada, Hema Malini and Leena Chandvarkar. Sadly, Lara had to be the Jaya Prada in the race with Priyanka.
She had spoken about the comparisons once during an interview with me.
"We competed on the same level for the Miss India contest though I had been modelling before. We trained and won together and even won international crowns in the same year. I could not have hoped for a better co-star.<"/p>
"The makers of Andaaz wanted to cash in on Miss Universe and Miss World, that's me and Priyanka Chopra, being cast together. Both of us came from an 'out-there' field like modelling and were comfortable with our bodies."
"We knew what we were doing and wearing. No compromises were pushed on us. I can only speak for myself and say I was very comfortable with whatever I wore in Andaaz. I wore what today's college girls wear," she told me then.
Did Lara see Priyanka as competition?
Her reply was candid but cautious.
"We are very different actresses. She has different aspirations.
"I want to build a base for myself as an actress so that, tomorrow, a film-maker will have the confidence to cast me in a role like Nargis's in Mother India.
"I don't want to burn myself out. I don't want to be seen in every second film. I don't want the audience to say, 'Oh no, she's in this one too'."
Surely there must have been a competitive edge?
"There was! But that helped both of us perform better. And I would much rather compete with Priyanka, whose career has grown alongside mine.
"Besides, she's very talented. We advised each other like two veteran actresses whenever the other would mess up a shot."
Lara's interest in acting started early.
"I have been involved with theatre since I was 13. I never seriously thought I would get into movies though I had every intention of continuing with theatre.
"To be brutally honest, when you win a title like Miss Universe, your entire life turns topsy-turvy for one year.
"Coming from Bangalore, I suddenly saw a large world of opportunities open up before me, movies being one of them.
"Again, to be honest, I had no idea what the Indian movie industry was like. What I heard made me sceptical. But it was also a chance to go forward in life."
Entering Bollywood was not easy for Lara.
"It took me a year-and-a-half to sign a movie after I gave up my title.
"As Miss Universe, I made a huge effort to keep at least some areas of my life to myself.
"The film industry requires you to drop all inhibitions, demolish all the walls built around you. It took me a while to get used to the constant glare. Know what? Now I love every bit of it. When I came in, I hadn't really done my homework.
"I had only heard about Subhash Ghai and Yash Chopra... that's it. I went purely by gut instinct when I signed my first film, Andaaz.
"I've been finding myself as an actor. And I love the process.
"I am new around here. There were lots of things initially that didn't make sense. Certain things upset me.
"I can't change the industry, so I learnt to adapt. As I got involved with the whole business of moviemaking, things started falling into place. Now, I am having a great time," she told me.
Someone should write a role for Lara about an urbane 30-plus woman finding herself in the corporate jungle and bossing over an organisation filled with men. She would nail that one.
She would have been a much better choice for the desi version of The Intern than Deepika Padukone.
Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com