No pigeonholing, please!

Photographed by Anna Radchenko

Midway through answering my very first question, Ayesha Dharker remarks, “The camera is a mythical beast, the face of a machine and the arms and legs of a human, caught in an eternal present and waiting to swallow your soul.” Effusively gracious to a fault, what makes her endearing is her refusal to hide her longstanding love affair with film and theatre. From talking about her first film in 1989 to her most recent role as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, it becomes abundantly clear that she lives and breathes to perform. “After all these years I still can’t walk past a building site smelling of fresh wood because it smells like a film set. Film and theatre are my work and my play,” she adds.

Dharker was a few years my senior at the South Mumbai girls’ school we both attended, known for its strong dramatic bent in those days. She was already something of a legend, having landed a lead role in her first film at the age of eight. “I was picked out of school to be in a French film about reincarnation (Manika, un vie plus tard). I guess I was hooked, filming in wonderful places I had only heard about, meeting actors and directors who took me seriously and being in a room with wonderful technicians and machines.”

The allure of being treated like a grown-up didn’t wear off, and when she was 12 she was cast in City of Joy with Shabana Azmi and Om Puri. In Azmi, she found a role model, “a blueprint for what I aspired to be. My very own Frida Kahlo who I could ask questions and get answers from. She also did things because she believed in them and had something to say as an artist.” The breakthrough moment in her career, albeit at 16, was Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist. “It did several things for my own view of my career. It cemented the kind of cinema I wanted to make, it did extremely well internationally. I loved going to festivals and seeing other independent films, it illustrated to me that my taste in projects meant that I had to work in more than one country.” Her “roller-coaster” ride began after a meeting at Heathrow Airport with a director who had made music videos for the likes of Michael Jackson.

Mumbai continued to be the city she returned to until she got married in 2010 and moved to London. For a long time though, she says, “I had a tiny Samsonite suitcase and I didn’t come home for four years. I ended up doing stuff that I would never have put myself forward for.” Such as Star Wars. Few actors can recount a tale that involves being recommended by John Malkovich and Samuel L. Jackson (whom she’d never met) that ultimately led to her role as Queen Jamillia, with an elaborate mask and costume, “looking like a penguin but not being able to tell the costume department in case I made them sad, filming in Italy in a room full of digital cameras… having a script made of holograms so it couldn’t be copied. The whole thing was wonderful and odd.”

Throughout her career, Dharker found that being Indian “was an asset rather than a burden. I look very Indian and often I would be auditioning for something that was not too specific, in which case the director or the casting director would decide to make the character Indian. Other times, it didn’t matter what I was because they were being less literal, so I could do a Chekhov play and play a Russian person because it was set in a different place.”

She’s also had her moments battling being pigeonholed into certain roles. “I remember being on Broadway and meeting people at CBS and NBC and they were trying to put me into TV shows where the story lines were all about doctors forced to have an arranged marriage and I felt that though it was tempting to be in a TV show, the stories were very stereotypical of what they imagined Indian women would be going through, when the reality I was seeing and experiencing was very different.” Gradually, she began to take a stand and flatly turn them down. “Sometimes it hurts, but I think you have to take responsibility for the story you are telling. In the past I would keep my mouth shut and just do the best I could in the project. Now I will make a polite suggestion or question and see how open someone is to interpreting material. I cannot and do not want to change every project I do, but if there is a way to be specific and correct when it comes to issues of ethnicity then it is something I will stick my neck out for.”

All while maintaining a pukka Mumbai accent. “I have tried to keep it in all my jobs. I look Indian so I might as well sound Indian too. That extends to Shakespeare, and I was very pleased to be able to keep my accent for all the projects I have done with the Royal Shakespeare Company.”

Next on her plate is a play at London’s Arcola Theatre about the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Sri Lankan civil war, for which she has been rehearsing furiously. “When I’m not on stage or rehearsing I am a professional geek and live in museums — especially the V&A.” She hasn’t been back to Mumbai in two years, but hopes her daughter, now four, will soon become her travel companion to explore India. She still remembers her days at the old Mumbai studios, earning 1,200 rupees a week working on TV shows. Things have certainly changed since then. “There is so much variety in the kind of films being made. I am really pleased that films like Parched, Angry Indian Goddesses and women-led stories are being made and doing so well.”

With a career that spans sci-fi, a Broadway musical, Shakespeare and a brief stint on the hugely popular British soap opera Coronation Street, one would think she’s done it all. Not quite; her wish list still includes “the voice for an animated film. I would also love to be in a ghost story. I don’t know why, because I am the jumpiest person I know. I believe in everything a little bit and am fascinated with other-worldly stories.” In everything she does, Dharker seems to seek out the perfect blend of “myth, magic and cold hard reality”. And a dash of drama.

This article originally appeared in Verve magazine, November 2016.