In her latest series Kaun Banegi Shikharwat

'As an actor, I feel age has liberated me. It’s finally cut me free from people’s expectations of wanting me to fill in the glamorous roles because I am the former Miss Universe,' says Lara Dutta.

From being the second woman to win the Miss Universe title in 2000 to being a successful Bollywood actor, a proud mother, an entrepreneur, and also a fitness enthusiast, Lara Dutta has been donning several hats.

In her nearly two-decade career, she has played glamorous women who turned heads and set hearts aflutter, but now, the actor feels she is being finally being offered layered and well thought-out characters.

In her latest series Kaun Banegi Shikharwati, the 43-year-old actor will be seen playing Rajkumari Devyani. The show revolves around a dysfunctional royal family where the old king stays in the palace, and owing to the overdue heavy wealth tax of Rs 32 crore, he calls up all his daughters to the palace, who otherwise stay separately.

In an exclusive interview, Dutta talks about her character in Kaun Banegi Shikharwati, her journey in the Hindi film industry, the importance of playing a lead, working with Naseeruddin Shah, her thoughts on getting older in a business that is notoriously ageist, and much more. Excerpts:

What made you say yes to Kaun Banegi Shikharwati? Tell us something about your character?

It was a no-brainer. I was getting the opportunity of being able to work with Naseeruddin Shah, who is playing my father. He is somebody who was on my wish list for the longest time ever. Naseer Saab is light years ahead of us in terms of his craft. One of the biggest reasons for me to do the show was for him. And Raghubir Yadav Ji is a master of comedy, and as an actor, I have always enjoyed doing comedy. To have the opportunity to learn from both of these gentlemen was something I couldn’t have missed. That apart, even the character that I am playing is strong. Devyani is the eldest. She has her reasons to grow up overnight. She is like a proxy mother to the other sisters. She is highly competitive from childhood, and she is a perfectionist and likes being in control of things. Playing a character with so many layers is always a blessing for actors.  

What was your reference point to prepare for the character?

I have many friends who are royalty. There is a certain grace in the way they live and present themselves. They live a very normal life in Mumbai or Delhi, but there’s this part of them that changes when they are back to their principalities. I have observed them over time. The kind of rich the royalties are is very different from your normal rich – getting that right was a challenge. I had to emote that through my body language without making it look fake.

How is shooting for a film different from working on a series?

Surreal! The USP of the show is that it has been shot on a very big scale. The family dynamics have been portrayed just like we do in films. It has the feel of watching a film. You’ll be able to build a relationship with each character over the episodes. The experience has been amazing. Shooting for OTT content is far more exhausting. You are creating content that is going to be eight to 10 hours long as compared to a two-hour film. The investment into the character is a lot more as you have to hold the attention of the viewers for a longer time without making things boring. It was hectic to shoot during the pandemic. We had tight SOPs in place but had a great opportunity to bond with the team.

Any BTS scenes that we will not see but have been special?

It was like being on a picnic. Spending time with Inaya (Soha Ali Khan’s daughter) was probably the best time.

How was it working with Naseeruddin Shah and Raghubir Yadav?

With Naseer Saab, I was extremely nervous. The table reads helped in breaking the ice. He is cool, and doesn’t expose his cards right from the start. At the table read, we didn’t know what he is going to be like when he’ll be on the sets. He has got so many aces up his sleeves that you never know what he is going to throw at you on sets. You are enthralled when you start working with him – the way he takes pauses between the dialogues, his expressions are just amazing. There have been times when I used to forget my dialogues as I was focused on looking at him. Naseer Saab didn’t expect to enjoy our company but he was surprised. He had fun with us, and yes, we made many boomerangs together.

Raghubir ji is such a pleasure to watch, and he takes away the scenes without any effort. He used to play flute for us every morning. It was absolutely beautiful to be around him.

From being Miss Universe to playing the character of Hetal Patel (Housefull), Naina (Partner), Vasudha Rao (Hiccups & Hookups), Indira Gandhi (Bell Bottom), and now Devyani… How do you see your journey?

It’s been fun. I have no complaints. 2020 and 2021 have been incredible years for me.

Theatres are again closing owing to an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases. What do you have to say about it?

We have seen how things change when theatres are shut. 83 is a lovely film but it didn’t do the kind of business as it would have done in a normal scenario. Even the trade is not able to understand why a film like 83 didn’t perform well at the box office. It is a hard time for the industry but I don’t think you can take cinema away from the Indian psyche. It’s harder for producers and actors, and I feel there’s going to be a trickle-down effect after so many films have been announced but eventually will be delayed. I think the industry also realises that for most Indians, entertainment and cinema are one of the biggest stress busters, and you need that to feel normal.

When we talk about Bollywood, actors need to look a certain way, be of a certain age. What do you have to say about that? How do you process getting older in a notoriously ageist business?

Honestly, as an actor, I feel age has liberated me. It’s finally cut me free from people’s expectations of wanting me to fill in the glamorous roles because I am the former Miss Universe. I feel coming in my 40s is the best time for me as an actor. Now, people are looking at my capabilities and talent. The kind of roles I am playing has depth.

You have credible actors like Kajol, Madhuri (Dixit), Rani (Mukerji), and in that matter, even me, yet when they come on screen, people pass comments like “ab buddhi lagne lagi hai” or “yaar ab moti ho gai hai,” and at the end of the day, you can’t help it. Like everyone else, even we are ageing. I feel even the audience does not allow the liberty for actors to age gracefully, but I genuinely believe that actors who have come before us are rewriting roles for us. Look at Neena Gupta, Ratna Pathak Shah, they just inspire us. They are doing incredible work.

Do you think OTT is changing the game for women? Are women characters are now being shown in a better light?

I definitely think so, and the credit should go to the women writers and directors we have now in the OTT space. A woman writer writing a female character makes a lot of difference. When a male writer attempts to build a character, for them, a woman is either the long-suffering wife or the mother constantly sacrificing for her family. Things have evolved, and now you have women who know how to flaunt their flaws with grace and they are being portrayed in the same fashion.

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