JUST A DECADE AGO she was a geeky teenager with her head buried in a Harry Potter book, in the library of a school in Visakhapatnam. From genetic mutation to geography, she had read up every available encyclopedia she could lay her hands on. And she hated films. This year, when this tall lanky girl, with big eyes and bigger dreams introduced us to the crazy world of Delhi’s high society on Amazon Prime, we all wondered who she was. Sobhita Dhulipala had done two Hindi films and one super hit Telugu film prior to the hit web series Made in Heaven, but it’s this show that has made her a household name. She is an archetype Hindi film ‘heroine’ in appearance, but her big break came from a digital show that speaks of broken marriages and double standards within Indian families.
“I used to think watching movies was a waste of time. I’d rather stare at the ceiling and think about the world,” she says with a hint of a smile, sipping ice-coffee at a suburban Mumbai five- star hotel. She’s well aware of being ‘the hot new girl on the block’, but she wears that lightly. She’s the new version of the newcomer that Bollywood has been waiting for; smart but down to earth; eloquent but unabashed. “Tara struggled to belong, and so did I through most of my childhood. My years of isolation helped me etch that character, and somehow I became a version of her. I thought I already had my break with my film Goodachari (2018) that became a huge blockbuster, but Made in Heaven changed the way people looked at me,” she says.
Dhulipala is proof of how the year has been for Bollywood. Six months into 2019 and it’s no secret that this is a year that’s already realigning content, from ambitious wannabe blockbusters to smarter, more substantial content. While major productions like Kalank have tanked, edgier stories like that of Uri and Gully Boy have emerged as winners. Plus, there’s content online that’s being lapped up like never before. Numerous viewers prefer to get their daily dose of drama on their phones, than spend a few hundred bucks on a bad film, in a movie hall. What we have as a result, are actors who are not here to be just heroes or heroines, but who have risen beyond the standard definition of a newcomer in Bollywood.
Who would have thought that in a film where Ranveer Singh was playing the title role, a new boy named Siddhant Chaturvedi will be spoken about in almost the same light? As MC Sher, Chaturvedi (who debuted last year with the web series Inside Edge) played Murad’s friend and mentor with such heart and skill, that it is hard to believe that he hadn’t discovered rap till he was signed the film.
Chaturvedi remembers how he grabbed director Zoya Akhtar’s attention at a film party by asking the DJ to play a song and performing to it. “If you want something, you can’t be laidback and leave it to fate. I feel like I planned every move of my journey subconsciously. When I was dancing at the party, all I wanted was Zoya to look at me and consider me for a part. The very next day I was auditioning for MC Sher.”
Mumbai-boy Chaturvedi who was studying to be a chartered account always had a plan-B in place, but what he achieved with Gully Boy exceeded that. The impeccable ensemble of that film allowed him to shine in a way few debutants have in the recent past. When people walked out of the halls it wasn’t just Murad’s victory, but also Sher’s loyalty that they carried back in their hearts. “I don’t know how and when I became Sher, but I know that it wasn’t till a few weeks into the film. Zoya walked me through all of it. Sher has a big heart, and genuine passion for the culture and voice of rap. It was bigger than himself or anyone around him. It was important for me to achieve that, so I am that friend to Murad who sees him soar and is so proud of it,” he says.
“I am glad to be a part of a new wave, because this is the time for the thinking actor, who won’t shy away from expressing themselves and their dilemmas” - Sobhita Dhulipala, actor
For both Dhulipala and Chaturvedi, the characters they played are difficult to come by, especially for new actors. Tara was a complex and layered character, while Sher was both magnanimous and devoted to his music. Tara’s vulnerability pierces you, while Sher is someone you wish you could be. The authenticity they brought to their roles prompted the appreciation they enjoy now.
However, for someone like Mithila Palkar who found her audience not through a film, but a YouTube video, the journey has been different. She has carved a unique niche for herself. Three years ago one afternoon, Mumbai theatre actor Palkar put up a rare song online which she calls the ‘Cup Song’. She sang a Marathi number and synchronised beats by tapping a plastic cup and a wooden table. The video hit more than a million views in 24 hours and she became the brand new internet sensation to watch out for. The 21-year- old didn’t know what had hit her, till she had youngsters walking up to her at malls for selfies, just a few months into this. Palkar then found her space as an actor through one off internet sketches, and hit web shows called Girl in the City (2016-17) and Little Things (2016-19).
Her character Kavya in Little Things, who is trying to figure out her personal and professional life, became a favourite among the 15-25 year-old viewers. “The internet, I believe, makes you more relatable as an actor because it is a more personal medium. On the internet you are here to tell a story as opposed to being a hero or heroine,” she says.
Every time Palkar is on screen she plays off her own effervescent personality which becomes the soul of her characters. She’s both likeable and relatable. Be it your sister or your girlfriend, she always reminds you of the idiosyncrasies of someone close to you. “Playing someone like Kavya makes me more approachable because she could very well be your friend or girlfriend or your next- door neighbour or that girl who works in your office. Also the repeat value of shows online helps you build a relationship with the character. She stays with you for months on end. Though films have a different impact, my experience as an actor on digital platforms is what makes me who I am today,” she says. She now has over a million subscribers on YouTube and can be seen in films with established actors like Irrfan Khan in Karwaan (2018) and Abhay Deol in Chopsticks (2019).
“I was preparing to become the Bollywood hero, ticking every box to make it to that point. But today I know that what I am getting is way better than that” - Siddhant Chaturvedi, actor
She’s young, but very aware of the impact her choices have on those who are following her. “I am the same as anyone who writes to me on YouTube or Instagram. I want to stay that way because then I don’t lose sight of my real self, despite my profession,” she adds.
These are actors who might be new, but they are mature enough and determined to make choices that don’t limit themselves to one hit or one flop. They don’t believe in old-school hero-worship, and want to be part of a community of compelling storytellers. They have had their own struggles to get to where they are, and have no misconceptions about the volatility of the profession they are in. They are all rank outsiders, who have made their own mark in the industry.
Like Dhulipala who won the Miss India title right after college, and came to cinema after being disillusioned by the world of modelling. It was a time when she couldn’t even speak Hindi, let alone mouth dialogues in the language. “Modelling as an industry wasn’t rewarding in India. I constantly felt like I was punching below my weight. I was reduced to my body and my looks, and I felt conflicted. I had so much more to say. I then gave hundreds of auditions and taught myself Hindi. I used to translate Hindi songs to English and that’s how I learnt the language. Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016) was my first film audition, and within 30 minutes of it, I knew this is what I wanted to do,” she says.
Few know this, but Dhulipala was nominated by critics for best supporting performance when Raman Raghav 2.0 premiered at the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes 2016. “It was unbelievable for me. I felt liberated. And though that film didn’t work, it changed everything for me. It was then that I knew that I had to make choices that may not bring me endorsements, but genuine satisfaction about doing what I want to do,” she adds.
For Chaturvedi, it was not so much about convincing his father before quitting his education mid-way to be an actor, but proving it to himself. He’d audition for weeks on end and then not have any gigs in hand for a few months after. He waited patiently and told his father that if he didn’t make it in the next two years, he would go back to his books. “I trained myself through theatre. I didn’t even know how to look into the camera. My challenges really began after I bagged my roles. I was a footballer, but in Inside Edge I had to be an ace fast bowler. I grew up on Kishore Kumar songs, but in Gully Boy I had to rap my heart out. That’s when I started to recognise how much I enjoyed performing, and transforming for the role.”
“The internet, I believe, makes you more relatable as an actor because it is a more personal medium. On the internet you are here to tell a story as opposed to being a hero or heroine” - Mithila Palkar, actor
“I was preparing to become the Bollywood hero, ticking every box to make it to that point. But today I know that what I am getting is way better than that. It’s timeless, and I can be who I want to be even beyond my roles,” adds Chaturvedi.
On the other hand, Palkar who hails from a family of musicians and grew up with her grandparents in a modest Marathi household had the tough task to make her 90-year-old grandfather understand what she did. “Till very recently they didn’t know what being famous on the internet meant. I had to sit him down and make him understand that I was making a difference. He was worried because nobody from our family was in the film business, and I had no one to hand-hold me. But today, he archives every article of mine from newspapers and magazines and shares them with his friends who come home. He looks for me on YouTube and gives me feedback. He’s from a completely different generation, but he understands what I’m doing and that makes me so happy,” she says.
Palkar, who can be seen in the latest Netflix offering Chopsticks, adds, “I started with a video in my little bedroom and now my work is on a global platform like Netflix. So I want to be open to the possibility of anything new coming my way, because it’s not an opportunity everyone gets.”
Their journeys are nothing like those of Bollywood newcomers till even five years ago. A successful debut in Indian films was always defined by limited traits. Most newbies either had to be launched by a big banner, or be cast opposite a superstar to be acknowledged. And few had a life beyond it. But Sobhita Dhulipala, Siddhant Chaturvedi and Mithila Palkar, and the journeys of others like them defies the norm that was. Being an actor is just a part of who they are, and not the whole.
“I’m an individual who loves to study people, watch them, imbibe their mannerisms and live inside their heads even if it’s for a brief time. I genuinely enjoy it, and it helps in my performances. That’s a plus. I am glad to be a part of a new wave, because this is the time for the thinking actor. Someone who won’t shy away from expressing themselves and expressing their dilemmas, be it existential or survival,” says Dhulipala who is awaiting the release of her next web series Bard of Blood, and her next film Moothon which is a bilingual (Malayalam and English) story about a young boy looking for his lost bother.
Dhulipala calls actors like herself ‘outsiders within outsiders’. “We are actors who live in our heads and live by no one’s rules. We are actors who have been given a voice when we didn’t even know we had one. So now we better use it,” she says.