A reluctant actor, Dolly Ahluwalia, best known for her performance in Vicky Donor, is coming back on the big screen with Gagan Puri’s Doordarshan. An alumna of National School of Drama, Ahluwalia is playing the role of a woman who wakes up from coma after 25-30 years and finds the world around her has changed from Doordarshan to Netflix. “When I got a call from Gagan, he seemed a little hesitant. All he told me was that he had a script ready with him and there was a character in it for which he had me in mind. When I read the script, I loved it for being honest. I told him that I could see some scope for improvisation and he immediately assured me that I was free to improvise,” says Ahluwalia
She is a good performer, but, for many, she is a celebrated costume designer. For her very first film ( Bandit Queen) , Ahluwalia bagged the National Award for the Best Costume Design. Around two decades later she won it again; this time for Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider . She has also been awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for costume design.
Tell us about your part in the film. How did you prepare for it?
The character that I play is that of an elderly lady who has been in coma for the last 25-30 years. One day, she suddenly regains consciousness. That’s when the comedy kicks in as the doctors warn the family that she is not in a position to take in so much of change that has happened over the decades. So the only way out is to take her back to the era in which she was before entering coma. Now, I really liked the character and could actually see myself playing it from the word go. I felt the character had a great scope and that’s what got me started. In order to get a hold of the character, I personally did a lot of research as I wanted to be sure that a person can actually stay in coma for so long. Once I got my answers, I was completely geared up to play it.
It was very important to be in absolute control of the character at all times as otherwise one can drift into the zone of slapstick comedy or caricature. Whenever I felt that I went a little over the top, I used to ask Gagan to go for an extra take. It was mentally and physically quite a strenuous role for me but I had a great time on the sets. The nostalgia of reliving the golden era of Doordarshan that gave us shows like Buniyaad , Hum Log , Ramayan , and Mahabharat made it even more special.
You have been very picky when it comes to acting. Do you ever regret being underutilised as an actor?
It makes me little jittery and upset when I get calls for roles from big banners that are on the lines of Vicky Donor . I really am not interested in doing the same thing over and over again. I like to challenge myself as an actor. If I can be good in comedy then I can be good in tragedy also. I have to get pregnant with the project and the role so that I am able to deliver one of the most beautiful babies! That’s my life’s aspiration.
You have been a leading costume designer in the country. How do you usually approach a project?
I feel that Hollywood pays a lot of importance to costume designing. But, sadly in our country, it’s still not there. Costume designing, for me, is the skin of any character as costumes are a great way to understand the characters. A costume designer has to have faith of the actors. Then only it can come together. Let me give you the example of Saif Ali Khan’s character Langda Tyagi in Omkara . When I had to go to Saif for a meeting he was totally expecting a Shakespearean touch with his costumes. Now, he is a very emotional and a sincere actor and so when he learnt that he will be wearing a gamchha and khadi kurta he got a big shock. But I had really gone prepared with my sketches and swatches of fabrics and so I explained him everything to the last detail. Gradually, I saw him getting transformed into the character. So, by carefully choosing the right costumes for him, I was able to give him the confidence needed to build the character. Of course, he made the most of it.
You are an acting graduate from the NSD. How did you get associated with costume designing?
Although I am a gold medallist in acting from National School of Drama, I have always had a thing for costumes. I haven’t had any formal training but my guru, Ebrahim Alkazi, just observed me and said that I had an eye for costume designing and that I should concentrate on it. I think this came from my family. My aunt was very conscious about dressing up and I used to observe her a lot. Also, I observe a lot in nature. It’s the best source to give you the understanding of textures, colours, and movements. You see, different trees have different movements. So you can pick up all these details from nature and translate that into your work.
From the time you started as a costume designer on Bandit Queen, how has the scene changed?
Bandit Queen was a wonderful learning experience for me. Shekhar Kapur gave me the confidence to come up with the most authentic set of costumes for the characters. The idea was to keep things as realistic as possible. And I still miss Ashok Mehta, the cinematographer. He literally taught me how to use colours and make costume designing cinematic. He would take me along with him in his crane and show me things from up there. Now, over the years, there have been a lot of positive changes. There is greater awareness about costume designing. Also, the budgets are bigger. Earlier, it used to be very difficult to manage things in the absence of a decent budget. But at the end of the day you have to be honest in your work. Also, it’s important to have that level of passion. If you don’t have the hunger to outdo yourself each time, you have very little hope to taste success.
Today, VFX has become so advanced that the technology allows artists to work on costumes in post production. How has that affected your work as a costume designer?
Well, to be honest, that’s one of the reasons why I am withdrawing myself. With the new changes I am not able to be honest with my profession and my creativity. If someone hires me, it is because of the faith that person has in my craft. And it’s my duty to reciprocate it. Now, I am not saying that it’s wrong to use technology. But it just doesn’t work for me. That’s why these days I have grown very choosy even with the kind of costume designing assignments I take up.