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Published: Verve Magazine, Features – Multiplex cinema, July 2007
Photograph by Kunaal Roy Kapur

She calls herself ‘an accidental film actress’. Lillete Dubey has made a mark for herself as an acclaimed character actor in films like Monsoon Wedding, My Brother Nikhil and the soon-to-be-released Bow Barracks Forever. In a freewheeling chat with Sitanshi Talati-Parikh, she describes how small-budget films have given rise to an independent, alternative voice in Indian cinema


As I wait for the husky-voiced, charming character actor of substance, I potter around her intimate boudoir with its coffee-table tomes, old family photographs and bright silk cushions. Finally I meet the “died-in-the-wool theatre person”, who insists on calling herself an “accidental film actress,” whilst she is getting primed for the Verve shoot. Over lemonade and cheese toast, the intuitive, friendly and very “non-filmy” Lillete Dubey, jumps right into the topic at hand.

When I ask her whether alternative cinema began getting a decent showing after the mushrooming of multiplexes, she begs to differ. Dubey strongly believes it is the changing expectations of the audience that has given rise to a different kind of cinema. Multiplexes have given a platform, an alternative to mainstream, commercial cinema; but it was something that was coming – people were getting tired of having no choice. Everything, she believes, is a by-product of audience tastes.

Lighting a cigarette, Dubey explains that in her younger days, the audience did not have the choice to see anything besides Doordarshan. Today, due to the sudden advent of cable TV, media exposure and foreign films, there is a much more sophisticated audience. Their demands and expectations are different. The new discerning audience is not happy with the “seven-dances-in-Switzerland” kind of cinema. A synergy between all these elements, including the rise of multiplexes, led to the creation of what she calls, the “small-budget film”. “There isn’t ‘art’ or ‘offbeat’ cinema, simply “big-budget” and “small-budget” cinema.”

Small-budget films have given rise to an independent, alternative voice in Indian cinema, the likes of My Brother Nikhil, Bheja Fry and Monsoon Wedding. Here, the story and performances drive the film. Dubey believes this is what differentiates the two kinds of cinema and why so many movies with huge stars and hype are not hits. This is the reason why a ‘multiplex’ film, made well and within a tight budget, has very high chances of doing well, whilst the risks of a big-budget movie are commercially much higher.

Dubey rues the dearth of good character roles, especially for women, in Indian cinema, a fact that is slowly changing with the advent of smaller, independent films. The talented actress, whose upcoming ‘multiplex’ movie is the ensemble English film, Bow Barracks Forever, about Anglo-Indians in Kolkata, says thoughtfully, “Most actors (including me) would say, ‘I’ve never got the role that does me justice.’ That may sound presumptuous, but it is the remark of someone who is still striving to better than what they’ve always done. Any intelligent actor will always hanker for something richer, better, more complex, more difficult and more challenging. That’s the nature of the animal.”

Dubey agrees that a film-maker should keep trends, profiles and tastes of audiences, economics and universal appeal in mind when making a film. However, she strongly believes that if a film is made from the heart, with a good story, it will work better than a movie contrived with too much agenda. “In the end,” she smiles, “good cinema or any creative art is simply about illuminating the life we live.”