Ira Dubey: count on your talent, not looks

8th Sep 2014
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Ira Dubey is among the most talented and intelligent young actors in the country today. After completing her studies at the Yale School of Drama she has appeared in various films such as ‘The President is Coming’ and ‘Aisha’. She is an established theatre artist and television hostess. Her acclaimed solo performance in ‘9 Parts of Desire’, where she essayed the lives of 9 different Iraqi women in conflict ridden Iraq, has brought her much praise and appreciation.

Ira

Ira discusses the current situation of the Indian theatre industry and what it means to be a woman in this profession.

On growing up in a family of actors…

While growing up, I was literally my mom’s ‘pooch ’. I used to be backstage helping, ushering, and giving brochures since I was six or seven. Theatre is pretty much a part of who I am. My mother is involved in it, both my aunts are involved in it, they have a children’s theatre company and people joke that we are a ‘nautanki’ family. So theatre is ingrained in my personality. For me theatre is quite an important and sacred space.

On how the industry and the audience have evolved over the years…

I think it’s a process that’s so heartening to see. There are so many young people interested in theatre. It is wonderful to see how committed they are to the craft.

I think audiences in general have become supportive of theatre.

There is nothing like the feeling of an audience who is there to connect with you and is going through the entire experience with you. At the end of the day theatre is the text, the actor and the audience. Without the audience the actor is nothing, the play is nothing. It’s a quid-pro-quo one cannot exist without the other. And what is heartening to see is that there is a lot of original work, a lot of freshness and vitality that we are seeing in the theatre world today as far as young people go. People like Atul Kumar and Akarsh Khurana, who are upholding that flag and waving it very high and are very committed to the craft, are encouraging a whole new generation of not just theatre practitioners but theatre goers too.

The only lacuna that I see is in the teaching area. We don’t have enough schools. I really admire people like Jehan Manekshaw who started an acting school like ‘Theatre Professionals’. Venues are another problem. Bombay has a serious lack of good venues.

On opportunities for aspiring actors…

Ira

There are a lot of opportunities for actors today. One has to just be able to go out there and find them. I just wish there was more opportunities for them to train themselves and learn their craft.

On the financial uncertainty of the profession…

Acting is also a function of economics. As a theatre person one knows that one cannot survive purely off theatre unless one is totally committed to it and is able to make it a commercially viable enterprise. As an actor we have to strike that balance between plays we love, which may not be commercially viable and plays we may not love but are a commercial success. Whether you churn out 12 plays a year or two plays a year, you must know the commercial viability of that play. Know what reasons you’re doing it for and what audience you are doing it for. The target audience of that play is also very important.

On ‘9 Parts of Desire’…

My solo which I am taking to South Africa in September is called ‘9 Parts of Desire’ which is set in Iraq. It’s about 9 Muslim women. Although it is powerful, it is also very moving, and is an important piece of work, which is well written and quite dramatic.

I’ve got very good reviews for it, and I have got standing ovations for each and every show. Personally, it has been the most challenging piece of work that I have ever done, and I was petrified. It was one of the most rich and satisfying experiences. It was important for me to get under the skin of not just these characters but also of Iraq. It’s a very different culture, a completely alien country. One has to understand its social and political history. I did a lot of research and that really helped me start living and breathing these people.

Ira

Heather, the writer, was very helpful. I wrote her a lot of letters and I asked her a lot of questions; she was very supportive. I think that a lot of interesting things happened with my voice and body when I was reading the text. Voice and body dictated how these characters would come alive. The intensive rehearsals where I was able to lock and get a grip of these characters were very helpful. For example, Amal is a very fat woman and is full of life and her innocence is so appealing and funny, so once I found that ‘sur’, I was able to play on that. I have a lot of references for these characters.At the end of the day what will make the Indian audience connect to these characters is that they are real, they all laugh, have heartbreaks, and go through suffering. At the end of the day, good work must be universal. The work must be able to move an audience.

On how to recover from accidents on stage…

Well what is really messing up? I think what happens is, with experience you are able to sort of cover it up. Whether it’s a fumble in a line, messing up an entry, or dropping a prop, you make it part of the act. For example, if you have a cold or you’re nervous, with experience you learn to use it in your performance. Of course, I have never had these huge mishaps but I remember there was this one time in a play where somebody forgot a line and there was this awful moment of silence and when that happens obviously the audience is aware. But the audience also is surprisingly sympathetic; they are sharing this experience with you.

On her style of acting…

My focus has always been on finding the truth or being truthful as an actor. It sounds simple but it is actually very difficult. As you have more experience you can tend to become more mechanical and that’s the kind of actor I never want to be.

You may have very good delivery, you may have a lot of stage presence, you may have a lot of experience, you may be very articulate, you may know your lines, you may understand your character but what I’m always afraid of is one never wants to be mechanical and one never wants to be completely from the head. I think that’s where some of my training has helped me.

On her schooling at Yale

Ira

I don’t believe in any particular school of acting. I have grown up acting on stage. I have my mother who has been a very big influence of course. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to drama school and I contemplated that a lot because I didn’t know how it was going to help me when I came back to India. If I wanted to live and work abroad it would have definitely helped me but here I wasn’t so sure.But I went abroad, and I deliberately chose to go and study acting even at an undergrad level. And there I learned all the various schools of thought — be it Chekov, Stella Adler or Lee Strasberg — but I have realized one thing that all of them are valid in their own way but each and every actor fine tunes their own method. That is what makes that actor unique. I have always admired Meryl Streep because for the most part of her career she has been able to play a part to perfection and really become a character and yet be Meryl Streep. For me it’s a very tricky sort of balance to maintain.

On being a woman in the India film/theatre industry…

This is a very male centric industry. It is changing now. I think actresses like Vidya Balan are changing the way it is, showing that we can hold our own. My mom is a very good example of someone who is very successful. My message to women is that keep at it. I think we have as much to offer as any man in terms of talent. I think the film industry needs to focus on talent rather than looks. One thing I appreciate is that there are so many actors out there who are not the best looking but are brilliant actors. That is something we should encourage here.

I think young women today should take their craft seriously and not compromise. Be true to themselves and do the kind of work they want to do rather than focus on being a superstar. At least that’s what is important to me.

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