“I gravitate towards design, towards poetry and things that are delicately expressed between the lines. I have loved art since I was a child, without knowing it was called art!” Sobhita Dhulipala sums up what makes her the perfect muse for HELLO!’s Art Special, as we prep for an early shoot on a balmy Thursday morning in Mumbai.
Notwithstanding her ill health, Sobhita is effortlessly gorgeous when she arrives on set. Her thick mane, strong jaw, prominent pout and kohl-rimmed wide eyes alluring, but overshadowed by her undemanding poise and warm, friendly disposition towards all.
“I remember going to the India Art Fair in Delhi a few years ago and being bowled over by the variety that we have in our country. Such tremendously talented artists...” she shares. “I had a Jamini Roy print of a Santhal girl, which somehow became part of my experience growing in the past few years. There’s also an Umakant Kanade piece that I find really, really beautiful.”
Sobhita’s innate love for the arts is evident in the passion with which she speaks about her favourite works. Be it cinema — her chosen path — sculptures, paintings, music or other kinds of performance arts, her perception of the field lays bare the maturity of an experienced eye and an appreciation that’s often missing in those concerned with other creative mediums.
“Every medium has its way of reaching people and touching different parts of their soul. And I don’t think one’s more effective than another. That’s a very shallow way of looking at art!” she says, ready to face the camera before a special hand-painted backdrop that pops against the black and white of the ensemble she wears.
“A sculpture, for instance, stands the test of time. When we look at the Ajanta-Ellora Caves or other such marvels, we draw from them. That’s a very different way of reaching people than, say, music or cinema.”
There’s a brief pause as she thinks harder on the impact of the visual arts and its transformative power. In the meantime, a member of the crew touches up her makeup as she mulls over it.
“Art shouldn’t be treated as merely a medium of conveying a message or reaching audiences. Art exists for its own sake, for the sake of expression itself, not necessarily for this expression to reach people. That will happen in its own course if it has to...”
A Coin Toss That Changed Her Life
Humble beginnings in Visakhapatnam, coupled with supremely supportive parents, brought Sobhita to the glamour that surrounds the image of Mumbai in her late teens. Born in Tenali, Andhra Pradesh, into a simple household — her father’s a sailor and a mother, a teacher — not particularly extroverted and a model student is how she describes her upbringing.
“It was a sweet, simple childhood that was not marked by any grand events. It was a simple life,” says the 30-year-old, smiling. It was after graduating from school that a feeling akin to an inner calling, as she expresses it, compelled her to move to a different city, a bigger city. And the events that ultimately led her to B-Town are quite astounding and — some would say — amusing.
“Although I didn’t know anything outside of Vizag, I was very stubborn about wanting to move some place else. It was a very dramatic decision to move to Mumbai because I literally made a list of all the big cities in India. And when it came down to Mumbai and Bangalore, I tossed a coin while sitting by a beach in Vizag. And Mumbai it was! So it was quite a remarkable event, that one.”
Fashion To Films: ‘It Rocked My Life’
It was another impulsive decision that led her to winning the Miss India Earth title in 2013 and down the road to fashion. Fascinated by high-end glossies and the all-round appeal of the industry, she went on to become a much sought-after model, yet felt something amiss, not entirely fulfilled.
“I had a creative voice that wanted release, but I didn’t know how to find that. As a model, I’d often audition for ads, and one day, I ended up auditioning for a film. That was for Raman Raghav 2.0 — I got the first film auditioned for! I was also nominated at the Cannes Film Festival for my performance in the movie, and it really rocked my life. I finally felt like I found my calling.”
Since then, Sobhita has gone on to play many an intriguing character — ones that have been relatable, ones with grey undertones, ones entirely intriguing. From Tara in Made in Heaven and Sharadamma in Kurup, to Vaanathi in the blockbuster Ponniyin Selvan: I, she’s had a good run in the industry since her debut, and today, she rides high on the success of The Night Manager. The journey, though, hasn’t been without its share of peaks and valleys…
“The past few years have played out interestingly, but there have been highs and lows, as with everybody. There were days I felt like a million bucks, but I can also clearly recollect moments when I wasn’t feeling my best. Though overall, when I look at the larger picture and reminisce, I feel a sense of fulfilment. I’m doing what I wanted to do, and I’m doing it sincerely. There’s a joy that comes from that.”
‘Cinema Is Cinema’
For Sobhita, a Telugu-speaking girl from Andhra Pradesh, who started her career in the Hindi film industry in Mumbai, there was never a difference between Bollywood and movies that shine from the rest of India. To her, this “crossover” — so to speak — didn’t seem like an interesting development and was as natural as her own transition from Vizag to Mumbai.
“It all boils down to how dedicated someone is to the craft. Be it Zoya Akhtar or Anurag Kashyap in Hindi, Mani Ratnam in Tamil, or Dulquer Salmaan’s team in Malayalam, I’ve worked with filmmakers who are extremely passionate about what they do. Maybe I just attracted such experiences because I desperately sought them. I wanted to work with people who inspired me.”
On the constant comparison today between Hindi movies and the films from South India that garner pan-India appreciation, she says: “In my experience, cinema is cinema. And not just Indian cinema. I’ve worked on a Hollywood film with Dev Patel that’s awaiting release this year. I didn’t feel much of a difference there either. At a fundamental level, cinema is about storytelling, packaging, reaching the masses with the song in your heart...”
Steering Clear Of The Box
“Unconventional” is a tag that appears to follow Sobhita around. Be it her looks, her persona or the projects that make up her filmography, she’s been labelled “different” — albeit only in the best of ways. Flattered as she may be, it’s a perception she’s “frankly, bored” of.
“What is unconventional?” she exclaims, sounding exasperated. “Perhaps someone who goes against the grain. On one hand, I’m grateful because these words have been attached to me with kindness, not as criticism. And I have made choices in films that are distinctive. But on the other hand, these labels put you in a box the same way being conventional does. It conveys the message that I’m not someone who’s ordinarily relatable, which is very untrue! I’m a very simple person in my everyday life. I’m as goofy or as silly as anyone!”
Proud of the path she’s chosen for herself, Sobhita beams as she thinks back to how she picked from the best from the opportunities that came her way. What she aspires for, however, is to be labelled as someone who could be trusted with a variety of roles, “the aspiration for any actor...”
Fashion As Art, A Medium Of Expression
“I think the desire to do an art issue is quite noble,” she says, when asked about her long-pending shoot with HELLO!. It was all quite serendipitous, we could say, given her affinity for art and all things design and fashion.
From the get go, Sobhita is very involved in the styling, exclaiming at the various choices picked out for her. Be it the deep blue Gavin Miguel, the sheer mesh gown by Bloni or the black-and-white top by Rimzim Dadu, she’s a vision in graphic makeup and slicked back hair. Having played muse to many a designer — she recently walked the ramp for Tarun Tahiliani at Lakmé Fashion Week x FDCI — and her experience in modelling, fashion, to Sobhita, is a form of art, one she uses to express herself when words fail her.
“It really is a medium of expression for me. There have been so many occasions in my life when I didn’t have the confidence to be open or say certain things. But I sure could dress like that person in my head I wanted to be. I found it empowering,” she explains.
“My personal sense of style reflects my mood. And since I’m a fairly moody person, I’m pretty inconsistent in my dressing. I feel like I have a bunch of personalities, maybe because I’m a Gemini (laughs). Although, I’m unafraid to experiment and I enjoy discovery through design. That’s what I think of as fashion as an art form.”
Experimental in her style and drawn towards vintage and glamour-forward attire, it isn’t about comfortable or chic for Sobhita. Rather, a mix of the two is non-negotiable for this actor.
“You could wear something rebellious, or something completely experimental, demure, or sophisticated. But comfort is that underlying layer that comes from within and how you embrace the outfit you choose for yourself.”
Finding Joy In The Everyday
All through our conversation, there’s an inherent playfulness in Sobhita that comes to the fore, revealing her penchant for living life to its fullest. She’s chirpy, smiling and enthusiastic, belying her poor health, determined to not let it hinder what she had scheduled for the day.
“I feel extremely lucky that I have the capacity to pursue the things I want to. I have my physical and mental faculties in place. I have a family that’s given me independence but also taught me accountability from a very young age...”
“It may sound morbid, but I find comfort in the fact that we’re all going to die someday. That we’re all going to pass on pushes me, so I might as well live this life to its fullest, embrace it and find joy in each moment.”
When not in front of the camera, Sobhita spends her time cooking or reading, especially “a lot of random articles on the Internet, like essays and columns, a lot of it on science. Yeah, I’m quite geeky like that!” she says.
“But what I’d like to do is have a hobby like playing a musical instrument, so maybe I should take that up. Thanks, guys, for pushing me to do something useful...” she smirks.
Her year started with the incredible success of The Night Manager and appears packed with an equal — if not stronger — measure of excitement in the months to come. Readers and fans, you’ll be happy to know that Season 2 is already in the making. And also in the pipeline are Season 2 of Made in Heaven, her Hollywood project Monkey Man, and “a lovely project I shot for last year that I can’t talk about yet!”
“So it looks like a very exciting year. I’m charged and ready for takeoff!” And we can’t wait to see where she finally lands...
Photos: Akula Madhu; Creative Director: Avantikka Kilachand; Senior Stylist: Yukti Sodha Junior; Stylist: Anushree Sardesai; Assisted By: Jhanvi Khatwani; Makeup: Sonam Chandna Sagar; Hair: Sourav Roy
This story has been adapted for the website from a story that was originally published in Hello! India’s March 2023 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!