In a 2013 interview, Dimple Kapadia said, “It’s not just about the films, it’s also about living my life.” And what a life it has been. She was an instant star at 16, after the release of her first film Bobby (1973). Gave up her career that same year to marry Rajesh Khanna, the country’s biggest superstar. By 25, she’d had two children, separated from her husband and made a comeback. At 36, she bagged a National Film Award for her role in Rudaali, the woman who couldn’t shed a tear.
Kapadia stepped in and out of the limelight at will, launched a business of scented candles, and now, at 63, has made her Hollywood debut. She’s being called the best thing about Tenet, the time-travelling Christopher Nolan film that’s somewhat baffled critics and audiences alike.
Kapadia’s career is technically in its fifth decade, but it can be quite neatly compartmentalised into four phases. The first and briefest innings was as a teen sensation, a phase that came and went in a blink, but with a film that continues to define her career. The second period began when she captivated Rishi Kapoor and Kamal Haasan in Saagar (1985) and home audiences with the Crowning Glory soap advertisements.
She had said she would not take on roles where she had to cry copiously or wallow in self-pity, and this is evident from the action films she starred in in the next phase, films like Zakhmi Aurat (1988), where she plays a policewoman who decides, when the law fails her, to mete out justice to her rapists herself.
By this point, her contemporaries had either quit acting or had moved on to character roles. But Kapadia managed to go against the grain and thrive as the leading lady. Throughout, she remained confident in her physicality and sexuality, putting on a bikini in Bobby, a one-piece in Saagar and sensually rising out of water bodies in her soap commercials.
“She lives life on her own terms. She didn’t get into the race of being the number one. Her personal choices have made her priorities clear,” Nikkhil Advani, who directed Kapadia in Patiala House (2011), says.
It certainly was unusual for a single parent to be playing glamorous lead roles in Hindi films at a time when the industry was even less progressive than it is today. For every intense role, in films like Kaash, Lekin and Rudaali, there was also the mainstream commercial blockbuster, like Jaanbaaz, Insaaf and Ram Lakhan, as Kapadia slipped in and out of genres with an instinctive ease.
In her third evolution, in the 1990s, she committed herself to parallel cinema and art-house directors, working with Gulzar, Kalpana Lajmi, Govind Nihalani, Mahesh Bhatt and Mrinal Sen. In an interview with a news magazine in 2013, Sen said, “Her face is a landscape of desolation,” as he described his Antareen actress.
By the turn of the century, filmmakers were writing special parts and seeking her out specifically, and the fourth phase had commenced. Farhan Akhtar visualised her as the heart-broken alcoholic Tara Jaiswal in Dil Chahta Hai (2001). Somnath Sen cast her as Leela, the professor who falls in love with a teen, in the 2002 film of that name. Homi Adajania found her to be the perfect Katy Sethna in Being Cyrus (2005). Even if she consents to the odd Welcome Back or Dabbang, they’re mere detours.
It is as Neena Walia, the controlling mother of a starlet in Luck by Chance (2009) and as the cranky Rosie in Adajania’s Finding Fanny (2014), that Kapadia has found her groove.
“Dimple relies a lot on her instinct and this makes her characters fresh every time. She is a director’s actor and is unwavering once you gain her trust,” Adajania says. “Considering the several ‘unreal’ experiences she has been through, from such a young age, there are a few people as real as Dimple Kapadia.”
A fifth phase to the Kapadia career might still be in the making. Kicked off by Nolan, who cast her as the elegant and poker-faced arms dealer Priya in Tenet, it introduces the self-confessed “reluctant actress” to a global audience.
In interviews, Kapadia has admitted she has only auditioned twice in her career — first for Raj Kapoor and now for Nolan. She describes both as “Cinderella moments”.
In a life that has been anything but predictable, it’ll be interesting to see what she turns into, the next time the clock strikes twelve.