Seasoned theatre actor, Lillete Dubey, had no ambitions of becoming a movie star. But after saying yes on an impulse to a few Shyam Benegal and Mira Nair films in her mid-forties, there was no looking back. From Amitabh Bachchan and Victor Banerjee to Judy Dench and Maggie Smith- Lillete’s costars constitute an impressive bunch. The thespian talked to the Dhaka Tribune Showtime’s Sadia Khalid about her most curious career trajectory and her thoughts on the brand-new film- Season’s Greetings, a heartfelt tribute to Rituparno Ghosh
Film actor by accident
I started my film career at 45 or 46 when other actors pack up their bags and move out of this business. I never thought of a career in films. I was very much a theatre person. I got offered a role in a movie with Akshay Khanna, followed by a Shyam Benegal film. So, I came into this realm by accident. Had I chosen this career for myself, I’d start in my twenties.
Playing small roles in big movies
I had no baggage. Once you are a big star, you only want to do films which gives you very prominent parts. You don’t want to do experimental works. Now times are changing though. I had a huge body of work in theatre and was well-known there, but in films, I had no hang ups about playing smaller parts. As soon as my first film came out, I realized people from all over India and many parts of the world have seen my work now, as opposed to the small niche of theatre audiences I was used to cater to. So, I thought let’s try this as a parallel career.
A mixed bag of Hindi films
I had done TV serials before when they were a hundred times better than what they are today. I wanted to try everything. I’ve done very big commercial films like Kal Ho Na Ho (2003) and Houseful (2010) to very small, indie, arty ones like My Brother Nikhil or Punk. My last commercial film was with Rishi Kapoor- Jhoota Kahin Ka (2019). It was a very fun part. It was the last film he did before he died. I wouldn’t be working with Amitabh Bachchan if I wasn’t doing commercial cinema. I have a good time making these films and the recognition helps me in my theatre work as well.
Monsoon Wedding (2001) was one of Mira Nair’s best works. She put her heart and her money in it. It was a story she really wanted to tell. She’s a very passionate film-maker, and a friend of mine. That film received massive international acclaim.
I’ve done series for BBC and Channel 4 (Indian Summers, 2015-2016). The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films had an amazing cast. Even the smaller roles there were given to top of the line actors. My last film Tryst with Destiny (2020) was with Victor Banerjee. It’s a very, very interesting film shot in four or five languages. It was the only Indian film invited to the Tribeca Film Festival this year and it won Best Screenplay award there.
Avoiding being typecast
What I’m looking for is to play something entirely different each time. I’m very restless creatively and I like to challenge myself. Theatre offers me much bigger challenges than films. You can play different characters of different ages on stage. But on films, you can’t even see a tiny fraction of that.
I was in a film called Zubeidaa (2001), which was one of Shyam Bengal’s best works featuring the most haunting score by AR Rahman. After that, people started offering me similar roles. They’ll put you in the category of Bhabi (sister in law), sister, friend, mother, vamp, naughty aunty and will keep repeating these stock characters. Just be there in five scenes, decoratively, as “Hero ki ma”. I didn’t care if the film had a big director, producer or actor attached. I told them they needed a prop, not an actor, for these roles. Now things have changed.
I don’t care about whether there’s enough masala in my films. If I considered how many people would like to see a Bharatnatyam dancer in her sixties, I wouldn’t have signed up for Season’s Greetings. Ram (director Ram Kamal Mukherjee) believed in his story and was so insistent saying: “I won’t make the film if you say no to this part.” You shouldn’t believe it when a director says that, but it’s very seductive. (laughs)
I don’t know if the mystery character at the end represents Rituparno. Maybe Ram meant that in some oblique way. To me, it represented the freedom to choose your lover irrespective of gender, age and social norms. To me, that character was a woman whom I love.
I loved the theme and I resonated with the character, as I also love to sing and dance. I too have a daughter. Mother-daughter relationship is one of the most complex relationships. The fact that it was a tribute to Rituparno was also a reason I was drawn to this project.
A Tribute to Rituparno Ghosh
I loved his style, his stamp on every film. He wasn’t dictated by labels. He was fearless in the subjects he chose. I’ve always wanted to work with him.
You start from a place where you want to create something. I think they are the best film-makers, who are not influenced by what is going to sell. Even the Bollywood actors acted in a very different fashion in Rituparno’s cinema.
I’m also a big fan of Satyajit Ray. They were very real, true and authentic. Their films were about the human condition, which is why it appeals to anyone in the world. I think the greatest art talks of the common denominator which binds us all, our humanity.
A Mughal show on Netflix
The next things I’ll play is a Mughal character in a Netflix series. We start shooting from August. We haven’t announced the name yet. It’s by a Bengali director, producer. I keep collaborating with Bengali makers through some karmic connection.
Memoir coming out in 2021
Harper Collins wanted me to write an autobiography. But I’ve settled for a memoir instead. Autobiography has to be brutally honest, candid and truthful. I don’t know if I’m ready for that yet. Maybe when I’m half senile, I won’t mind. To write a memoir, however, you don’t need to bare all. I’ve asked for a year to write it.
Thirty years of Primetime Theatre Company
We’re celebrating 30 years of my theatre company in February next year. We may move it back for the pandemic. I’m also doing two new theatre productions and some of my older plays- a total of 30 shows for this celebration.
Coming to Dhaka
I’ve been dying to come to Dhaka. I love Bengali food and Dhaka sarees. There are so many places I’d love to visit in Bangladesh. I was just telling a friend of mine that I wish we could take one of our shows to Dhaka. But now everything is uncertain.