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How Aditya Chopra Changed Divya Dutta's Life

By DIVYA DUTTA
November 29, 2021 11:15 IST
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In life, you always need that someone who directs you to the right path, who shows you the way.
In my case, I was very fortunate it was Aditya Chopra.
A fascinating excerpt from Excerpted from Divya Dutta's The Stars in My Sky.

All photographs: Kind courtesy Divya Dutta/Instagram

I was in London when I got a call that Aditya Chopra wanted to meet me.

As soon as I got back, a meeting was arranged -- I was to meet both Yashji and Adi. My excitement knew no bounds.

I first met Yashji. My face fell when he broke the news about me being considered to play the heroine's friend.

Dreams of me dressed in a chiffon saree, singing on the Alps in a Yash Chopra film had come crashing down.

Just then, Aditya Chopra entered the office. I hadn't said anything, I was still trying to grasp the news. Yashji said, 'Aditya is the writer, he'll tell you more.'

 

I was thinking, what more is left to tell -- a friend's role, after all, is a friend's role, and our industry is always in a tearing hurry to typecast you with an image, especially if it comes from the biggest banner.

Adi quietly joined in and said a pleasant hi.

I was trying to look and sound pleasant too, but somewhere, the excitement of finally having met two of the biggest and finest film-makers had merged with my disappointment of being relegated to a friend's role.

I do not know which expression was finally showing itself on the surface. Whichever it was, the intelligent director had gauged it.

Adi sat and narrated the gist of Veer-Zaara to me. It was a dream, this film, and I knew it would be a memorable one. After the narration, I just wanted to get up and clap.

Suddenly, I realized, that I was lucky to be sitting in front of these two stalwarts and even listening to the narration (for many, it would probably have just been a dream).

Of course, I had loved the narration and really wanted to do Veer-Zaara, but the nagging thought of being branded in a friend-type role kept coming back.

I was brought back from my thoughts when Adi said, 'Are you apprehensive?' He had read my mind.

I managed to mumble, 'I absolutely want to do it but ...' I couldn't complete it.

'...it is not a regular friend's role,' Aditya completed the sentence for me.

'We wouldn't call you for it otherwise. I have written it and it is one of my most favourite roles.'

IMAGE: Divya Dutta at the IIFA Awards in Tampa, Florida. Photograph: Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images

I was all ears. He continued, 'I can only say one thing. You will always be remembered for playing Shabbo. The rest, of course, is your call...'

There was a quality about him that made me, as an actor, feel absolutely relaxed.

The inner voice said, 'Trust him. Leave it to him na, enjoy the journey!'

That was true. If they wanted, they could have cast someone bigger too, but they had chosen a fairly new person.

Yashji and Adi sat there as I uttered, 'Of course, I trust you and I'd love to do it.'

IMAGE: Divya Dutta in Veer Zaara.

The journey of preparing for Shabbo turned out to be one of my most cherished experiences.

The responsibility of getting me ready for the dialect that Shabbo would speak was taken on by Aditya himself, and my visits to the Yash Raj office started soon after.

There were readings galore -- Aditya would listen carefully to how I mouthed the beautiful lines written by him.

The dialect chosen for me was from a Pakistani province, so once I had mastered the lines and the nuances within them, it was time for me to learn the distinct way to speak those lines.

Nasreen Munni Kabir, a renowned author and a family friend of the Chopras, helped me with that.

It was a sing-song way of delivering lines, but I was told that the way they spoke in that manner also varied depending on which strata of society one belonged to. Shabbo was supposed to be the housekeeper.

IMAGE: Divya Dutta with Shabana Azmi.

My most interesting experience was when a call was made to a household in Lahore.

Adi told me, 'Listen carefully to how they talk. You shall talk to the lady of the house and the house help. Mark the difference in their styles and remember both.'

I found this process extremely interesting and intriguing too. I listened to the graceful lady's voice on the other side -- it was with an accent but the delivery was straight.

Then she handed over the phone to the house help. His lines sounded rhythmic and were spoken in a sing-song way -- yes, there was a big difference in the way they spoke!

After the phone call, I delivered the lines like the house help, and saw Adi shutting his eyes and listening intently. 'Yes, this works, but let's try a few more variations.'

A recording with the house help's voice was organized for me and I worked hard, trying to deliver my dialogues in that dialect.

Adi asked me to give him a few variations, and then he shut his eyes again.

So, I gave it my best. After all, Adi was going to finalize the accent that sounded right for Shabbo.

I gave him six different variations altogether.

He opened his eyes, clearly decisive. 'The fourth one,' he said. He had actually remembered each rehearsal!

I looked at him in awe -- that was his focus and passion for his work.

He had given his Shabbo a voice now and he seemed pleased (he wouldn't say it, being the reserved guy that he is, but he looked happy for sure). But he said this, 'Good, I think we are on track!'

Shabbo was ready to face the camera for this very special film.

 The shooting, of course, was a joy ride. Adi would always hear my rehearsal before my shot and a thumbs up from him was truly uplifting.

Being amongst all the biggies and trying to hold your own was a bit overwhelming, but we sailed through well.

Veer-Zaara went on to become a big blockbuster, and Aditya Chopra's words turned out to be prophetic. I was loved in the role.

I was nominated across all possible awards, and to date, people love me the most for Shabbo. I was surprised with the response, but he knew. He always knew.

After Yashji passed away, I didn't want to lose this amazing connect I had with the Yash Raj studio, and I continued my tea-time visits to Adi's office once in a while, sharing with him what movies I was working on and, of course, chatting on various topics over a cup of green tea.

One fine day, I took an appointment to meet Aditya Chopra, little knowing that after that meeting, I would come back a different person.

As always, I sat in his office, sipping on green tea. He joined me in a while and we started chatting in general. He asked me about all the projects that I was working on.

Like an exuberant, excited child, I parroted, 'Oh, I've actually signed about a dozen films, so and so with this one, that one with so and so ...,' and then I paused to take a breath.

I was expecting a happy reaction from him. I was sure he would have been extremely happy for me. But there was silence instead. I was confused.

After a long pause, he said softly, 'Divya, why are you in a hurry to do so many films?' I was a bit taken aback. He continued, 'Are you doing them for money?'

I reacted instantly, 'Of course not. Thankfully, I am fine. It just feels so good to be so busy and relevant,' I said.

A pause again and he said, 'You, Divya, are a fantastic actor. Be selective about your films. Leave behind a legacy.'

Those words hit me hard. His voice reverberated in my head, playing up again and again even after I left.

He was so right. What was I doing? Signing a dozen-odd films, instead of choosing the best and carving a niche for myself.

It was going to be my showreel for life, and I had to make sure it was studded beautifully with precious ones rather than anything and everything.

I had to build my own position, and his words gave me the strength and assurance that I could.

After that meeting, my perspective towards my work changed. I stopped signing any and every film that came my way.

I only took those which had my heart jumping with what I heard, the roles that I really wanted to play, the directors I really wanted to work with.

Slowly, but surely, word spread that Divya Dutta 'doesn't take up every role, so find something really exceptional to offer before approaching her'.

Gradually, my films were being talked about, so were my role choices.

Most journalists would say, 'If you are in a film, there has to be something special -- you choose well.'

I had one man to thank for this.

I had worked hard but this wouldn't have happened without those words.

In life, you always need that someone who directs you to the right path, who shows you the way.

It is always your own journey, but it's a blessing if someone shows you the path. In my case, I was very fortunate it was Aditya Chopra.

Strangely, I didn't get to meet him after that or tell him this too. But I am sure he knows.

Because he knew. He always knew.

Excerpted from The Stars in My Sky by Divya Dutta with the kind permission of the publishers, Penguin Random House India.

Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com

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