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Interview | Neha Dhupia: I welcomed getting older with open arms

Interview | Neha Dhupia: I welcomed getting older with open arms – She is one actress who has mastered the art of reinvention. She may be getting older, but she has found a way to not only stay connected with the masses through cinema but has also become relevant to the youth, thanks to her TV outings. We are talking about Neha Dhupia who made her debut as a glamorous heroine in 2003 with Qayamat and soon got tagged as a sex siren with Julie. But she managed to shed the image by playing significant parts in small-budget films like Mithya, Phas Gaye Re Obama and Moh Money Maya. Today, she has impressed everyone with her acting prowess in content-driven movies such as Tumhari Sulu and Qarib Qarib Singlle. In a freewheeling interview, Neha talks about embracing age, playing good roles and keeping up with the times.

You grabbed attention 15 years ago with your bold roles and now have emerged as the go-to actress for strong supporting roles. How did the metamorphosis come about?

I welcomed getting older with open arms. I didn’t shy away from it. I kind of have goosebumps saying this because I have never said this before, but even I wonder what happened. I’m not being immodest but am saying this with a lot of gratitude. When I came into the industry, a lot of people said, ‘You’ll be done in four-five years, what will you do after that’? I was working towards being an IAS officer, I was raised believing I would serve the country. Then, I got into movies and I kind of started believing people around me, that my stint would only last for five years. Then I thought to myself, we can change that. Times are changing as people are looking at good content. Everything doesn’t have to be about others’ idea of what it is supposed to be. Everyone is doing so many different things, looking at different role models. My role model is Karan (Johar), he does everything including making films! He is the cultural export, the first face of Indian cinema. He is seen everywhere from award shows to world economic forums.

What really changed was the way I look, the skills that I have, and me getting older in the business. The one thing it taught me is to hustle every day. My biggest strength is I’m not a lazy person. My mind ticks like a time bomb. It’s a combination of getting older, being a little restless, understanding what the audience wants and knowing where you stand. People are not coming to me with lead roles, but good parts. It will be stupid if I think, it’s not the lead, why should I do it? I’m not that person. My decisions are based on instinct.

After films like Qayamat, Julie, etc there was a phase when you did small-budget cinema with the likes of Rajat Kapoor and Ranvir Shorey. What changed for you? 

Everything, personal or professional, is like a pack of biscuits that comes with an expiry date. I emerged in a bikini from the water when I started off in Qayamat. I did Julie, in which I had an author-backed role. But what happened with that was it gave me a certain image. Now, either I am happy that I have an image — sometimes it takes a lifetime — you do interesting work but you don’t have an image. I had one and I was playing on that. But then I realised this image is going too far, I needed to change that. So, I took two steps back. I did not take up any work. One day, I met Rajat Kapoor in the gym.  He said, ‘I have been looking for you for almost a year now, where were you?’ It was a random run-in and he told me, ‘I will call you in two months once my script is ready’. In April 2006, he met me and gave me the script of Mithya. He said he wanted me to play the part of Sonam. That was it, and I ended up doing five-six films with all of them — movies like Ek Chaalis Ki Last Local, Raat Gayi Baat Gayi, Phas Gaye Re Obama up to Moh Maya Money. I thought Moh Maya Money was a great film, but it didn’t work at the box office. That’s when I realised it’s time to reinvent myself. I thought I’m older so I need to crack the youth market.

Is that how Roadies happened?

Yes. I got this show and I decided to take it up as the youth are the most discerning audience. To win them over — I knew I won’t be doing Student Of The Year anytime in my life — so Roadies was a great way to get into the youth audience. After that I opened my production house with NoFilterNeha and did two seasons which led to BFFs with Vogue.

What is exciting about hosting  BFFs with Vogue? 

I always consider myself a rank outsider, I am not from the business, so for someone like me just to wake up and do work that I love is the most exciting thing. I like being in conversation — it’s like asking a cricketer to do cricket commentary. Listening to people and hearing their stories is something that I genuinely enjoy. It comes organically, it is not forced. The other exciting part are the guests. I know most of them like Karan and Shweta (Bachchan) Nanda and while talking to them at one point, I forgot the camera. I just sat on the lounge and chilled with them. But there are some celebrities like Juhi Chawla, Radhika Apte and Rani Mukerji, who I have been a fan of, but hadn’t met, and it was great interacting with them. Also, I don’t see many women, especially of my age, hosting a talk show. Usually the talk show hosts are much older and a little bit of overachievers which is a pre-requisite. I don’t fit into that category. So for me to be able to host such a show is flattering.

Will you be working on the third season of NoFilter Neha?

I don’t know yet, but I am hoping for it. I remember I was in a coffee shop and talking to my writer about doing something interesting. I have so many live sessions with friends from the industry discussing all the madness we went through. I thought this needs to be out in the open. I met Rishi Malhotra (he owns a digital streaming service) who said that I have a good sense of humour, which people don’t know about, and I need to have my own talk show. That’s how NoFilterNeha came about.

Was it easier for you to get celebrities on your show?

It’s never easy to get celebs. But I must say the first one was easier than the second. After the first season, celebrities who had seen it were like, ‘Hope we are not invited as there are tricky questions’. But trust me they are all brighter than me. They know how to swerve around them. Season 2 was more interesting as we used a different way of doing it and were fortunate enough to not repeat the guests. Everyone who was on my wishlist on season 1 and season 2 has appeared. If I have a third season, I definitely want Shah Rukh Khan to come because I want to have a conversation with that man on record.

Talking about Shah Rukh Khan, you once made a statement, ‘Only SRK or sex sells in cinema’. Would you say the same now?

I think a lot of things are changing, but that still doesn’t take away from the fact that SRK and sex sell!

Interview | Neha Dhupia: I welcomed getting older with open arms