It speaks volumes about an actor and her presence when they can draw the eye despite sharing the screen with firebrand co-stars such as Pankaj Tripathi, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Shefali Shah and Ali Fazal. Rasika Dugal manages the feat with an ease and elegance that sets her apart from her contemporaries and an innate versatility that surprised even her as much as the next person.
She’s broken stereotypes, challenged societal beliefs with her portrayal of strong- headed women and displayed an ingenuity in her craft that’s long been missing, barring a few. Be it as the shrewd and unapologetic Beena Tripathi in Mirzapur, which made her a household name countrywide, as a protective mother in Hamid, police officer Neeti Singh in Delhi Crime, or as a supportive wife in Manto, Rasika’s top-notch, nuanced performance in every project has made her bankable star, one we could dare say has changed the content game with her diverse choice of scripts.
However, much of the roles she’s essayed are supporting characters, albeit powerful ones that helped drive the story. But Rasika has no regrets. If given the option between playing a lead in a film or movie with a subpar script, versus a supporting character in an ensemble cast when the writing is outstanding, she says she’d pick the latter any day.
“There’s nothing an actor can do if the writing doesn’t support it, if the director hasn’t envisioned it, if the cinematographer hasn’t visualised it, if the editor hasn’t found the rhythm to it, if the co-actor hasn’t experienced it with you... The list can go on!” she explains. “Filmmaking is a highly collaborative exercise and a deeply personal journey at the same time.”
Rasika isn’t part of the clan that always knew they wanted to act. A chance encounter with a piece of news on the Film and Television Institute of India inviting applications led her down the path. She chalks it off to her constant need to experiment and ability to follow a whim — as well as “a general inability to strategise.”
“In school, I always loved being on stage, but acting as a career was never a part of my dreams. I didn’t understand (back then) that being a performer would give me the greatest joy...” she says, sharing memories of enjoying theatre in college and a paper on film studies.
Evidently, this was the universe sending her the signs... While she had wandered into the course, unlike most others in her batch who came with years of acting experience and fierce ambitions of stardom, a budding fascination with the many demands of being an actor eventually had Rasika thanking her cards for setting her down this road.
“I knew then that this is what I wanted to wander with for a long, long time...”
Her fine performances aside, Rasika has carved out a niche for herself, portraying strong-willed, passionate women — some outspoken, others exuding authority in their silence. In fact, when we look at the content being produced for the over-the-top space today, the shift in focus and variety and the depth of characters written becomes glaringly apparent — more so with how women are portrayed. And Rasika agrees.
“It’s about time! Finally, there are people who want to invest in telling stories with women at the centre, and there are writers who can pen nuanced, in-depth parts for us. It’s also heartening to see that even in the smaller roles, women are no longer written just as cardboard cutouts, thus reinforcing gender prejudices,” she says, further highlighting the flipside.
“Sometimes, even with the best intentions, creators subconsciously end up playing to stereotypes. I guess that for too long, our references have been gendered and regressive. But we may be headed in an interesting direction.”
On being recognised for portraying compelling women, she draws a parallel between the reel and real, giving us a glimpse of an introspective, understanding Rasika, traits that extend to not just her near and dear ones but to her characters, as well.
“All the characters I’ve played are strong and weak, powerful and vulnerable — just how we all are in life. Everyone has their moments of strength and weakness, of power and what not. We respond to things around us and don’t just live a type. The attempt is always to do the same with the characters l play. So neither are my characters only strong and powerful, nor am I.”
“I think there’s immense strength in vulnerability. And I like to explore that side of all the characters I play. Beena Tripathi is a good example. Here’s a woman who knows how to navigate a testosterone-driven world, but there’s a vulnerable side to her... I hope to never tire of being vulnerable in life.”
Over the years, actors from various mediums have eschewed tags associated with their work, with some questioning the need to be labelled a “TV actor” or “Bollywood actor.” But not Rasika. When we wonder whether it’s a drawback for stars, directors or anyone in the industry to be dubbed an “OTT artiste,” pat comes her response: “Not at all. At least, not for me. I don’t subscribe to labels, but if I did, I would proudly wear this one.”
“While the quality and variety of work I’ve had in the last few years have been pure joy for me, I still find myself reasonably befuddled about many things. On one hand, I feel empowered because I’m often in a position to be able to choose from a few offers. And on the other hand, I find the decision-making process daunting.”
When it comes to the debate between OTT and the big screen, on whether one is surpassing the other in popularity and reach, Rasika believes that the growth of online platforms doesn’t necessarily diminish the importance of the silver screen, as both offer audiences distinctive experiences.
“Theatres provide a communal and immersive experience, while OTT platforms offer convenience and the freedom to watch content at one’s own pace,” she says. “While theatres will always hold their own charm and significance, there’s no denying that OTT has become a powerful medium in its own right. The digital space allows for diverse and experimental content, providing platforms for narratives that may not have found a place in traditional cinema, which makes this an exciting time for actors, filmmakers and audiences.”
For Rasika, preparing for a role is no daunting task. In fact, she finds it rather fun. “What’s boring is to not prepare at all and just head to the set... The script has nearly everything, but it’s an actor’s job to embellish what’s there with details that align with the director’s vision. To be able to fill in the details, one has to create a world in which the character exists. So you have to spend time expanding your experience,” she says, on getting into the minds of her characters.
And expand she does. Rasika’s congenital, near-compulsive attention to detail comes to the fore when she’s getting into character. Before shooting for Hamid, for instance, she spent time with the local residents of Baderkot in Kashmir, trying to pick up their accent and joining them in their daily chores. To prep for Delhi Crime, she shadowed an IPS officer, which allowed intricacies from the interactions she witnessed to become part of Neeti Singh.
“Before filming for Manto, I started reading all of Saadat Hasan Manto’s work. I didn’t need it to transform into (his wife) Safia, but I enjoyed the reading. One day, I found his column on Nargis, in which he wrote about Safia and her sisters. Those lines gave me such a beautiful insight into what Safia might have been like...”
“I’ve been working almost continuously for the last few months and am finding it hard to remember what I do when not filming!” she sums up our next thought. “Personally, I need to learn how to take time off from work. I often prioritise work over everything else. I’m lucky to have family and friends who understand and support this, but I’ve to learn to not take that for granted.”
The life of an actor, especially one ruling a medium as diverse as OTT, is as chock-a-block as one can imagine. Finding time to return to reality, must be taxing, but the interests Rasika develops — often for a role she’s set to play, like singing, playing the piano, or trying her hand at volleyball — keep her occupied away from sets.
When not napping for hours (“I’m not the kind you’ll find dancing on a table”), Rasika loves to binge-watch movies and shows. Although a stack of unfinished books waits patiently on her shelves, she’s found a healthy substitute to her abandoned reading habit in podcasts.
“I also love the hills, whether it’s exploring new terrains on a trek or just to be...”
Before she takes off for the mountains, Rasika has interesting projects lined up for the year. Be it a new genre, look, skill or an accent, she’s tried to explore something new for each of these. And true to her word, we’ll see her next in a motley of movies — in supernatural thriller Adhura; a sports drama series, Spike, where she plays a volleyball coach; Lord Curzon Ki Haveli, which is a dark comedy thriller; improvised film Fairy Folk; and Little Thomas, a dramedy.
Despite this variety, it’s hard to keep our bias aside when it comes to Beena Tripathi. Season 3 of Mirzapur is soon returning to Amazon Prime Video, as is Delhi Crime, which “has been greenlit for a third season.”
“I’m looking forward to being Neeti Singh again soon,” she smiles, signing off.
Photos: Vaishnav Praveen; Stylist: Pranita Shetty; Makeup: Anigha Jain; Hair: Simran Shah
This has been adapted for the web from a story originally published in the July 2023 issue of HELLO! India. Get our copy of the latest issue right here!