Sobhita Dhulipala, our November digital cover star, is cinema’s rising female lead and she’s here to stay
From constantly feeling like an outsider to finally finding her feet, she's come a long way
She still remembers the number of the bus (210) she rode at 4 every morning to get to the train that took her to college in Mumbai by 7am. She remembers the war hero welcome she got when she returned from an NCC camp at Yarada when in school in Visakhapatnam. Even further back, she remembers being the girl with the long hair till below the butt, always participating in quiz contests and essay writing competitions, always nerdy, always weird. Now 5’ 8”, with cheekbones that could double as paper cutters and a pout made in lipstick heaven, Sobhita Dhulipala is a rising star of cinema and streaming services. The girl who never felt she belonged anywhere and wrote poetry to escape into her thoughts, is finally at ease with her body and her work.
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The former Miss India (Earth) 2013, Dhulipala has had a banner year being the female lead in two bold face streaming service series, Amazon’s Made in Heaven (2019), and Netflix’s Bard of Blood (2019). As Tara from Lakshmi Nagar who transforms her entry-level corporate job into a marriage with a south Delhi farmhouse-owning shehzada, she is all fire and ice, posh armour and occasional cheap chinks, all-too-malleable wife but steadfast friend. Show runner Zoya Akhtar who cast her recalls her being “as mysterious as we wanted Tara to be. She has huge expressive eyes but there are times you can’t read her and it was that aura that we felt fit Tara to the tee”.
Ironic, since fitting in is not something Dhulipala was familiar with while growing up. “I was a curious kid, forever introverted. It gave me the space to be a spectator”—too tall, too bookish, too self-contained to simply “hang out”. A chance entry into what her teacher mother thought was a personality development contest during the summer after school ended saw her becoming Miss Vizag. From then on, it was a fairly smooth ride to the Miss India pageant. But not before she wrote a letter to her sailor father saying she wanted to leave Vizag and “go to a different place”. When her father returned home from his Merchant Navy tour, it was with admission forms to various Mumbai colleges. Just as they show in the movies (not that she had watched many) the family moved to Mumbai, bag and baggage. “My mother always wanted a better lifestyle for us (Sobhita has a younger sister, now a doctor). She didn’t want to limit her children,” recalls Dhulipala, marvelling now at how her parents uprooted themselves for her.
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Three years at HR College, where she landed in her embroidered bell bottoms and oiled hair, “looking like an alien” among all the cool kids of Mumbai, only solidified her sense of being an outsider. “Until 17 or 18, I was a real child,” she now says. “I had no life experiences, no exposure, no social graces. But I was very responsible.” Winning Miss India (Earth)—“I wanted a little validation— and then a three-year stint at modelling should have finally given her the insider chic she was hungry for. “Instead, among all those gilded butterflies, I felt like their brother,” she now says. She disliked modelling, where she felt she was underpaid, overworked and undervalued. Auditions for advertisements didn’t go too well either. She was not the pretty, fair-skinnned, bubbly Delhi girl that everyone was looking for. “It smelled like defeat,” she says.
Until she finally listened to those who had been telling her to consider movies. She stumbled into her first audition after a workshop which enabled her to address her inhibitions and read an intense scene from a movie starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and a newbie named Vicky Kaushal. Forty minutes later, she got a call back. A meeting with Anurag Kashyap and she was cast as the feisty Simi in Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016). That was August 2015, a few months short of her self imposed deadline of leaving Mumbai forever if she didn’t make a success of her career.
Her world shifted on its axis. “I hadn’t seen anyone like Anurag,” she says. “I realised you don’t have to belong. I felt an urgent need to send him my poetry which I’d been writing since 15. He was so shocked and emotional. That allowed an openness between us.” It liberated her as an artist and allowed her to make choices that moved her, rather than those that merely made her look pretty. Movies followed quick and fast, parts in Chef (2017) and Kalaakandi (2018) with Saif Ali Khan, a leading role in Telugu hit Goodachari (2018) (it made a lot of money and her parents were delighted), the clutter-breaking Made in Heaven, and then Netflix’s Bard of Blood. She’s no “papa ki pari”. Nor is she a star girlfriend. Dhulipala is here to stay in Mumbai—and now increasingly elsewhere, with parts in Geetu Mohandas’ Moothon and opposite Dulquer Salmaan in Kurup. Also next up is a part in mentor Anurag Kashyap’s segment in Ghost Stories, co-anchored by Dibakar Banerjee, Karan Johar and Zoya Akhtar, and the lead role in RSVP’s Tara ki Shaadi to be directed by Vandana Kataria.
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Alankrita Srivastava who co-wrote Made in Heaven and directed the last two episodes, says Dhulipala just “gives herself totally to the process. It’s not that she doesn’t have fears or insecurities. She does. But she is transparent about it.” She also has an innate intelligence and a lack of inhibition about her physicality which allows her to fully inhabit her characters rather than worry about her skin tone or her mascara.
The 27-year-old whose phone cover still has Harry Potter inscribed on it is sufficiently “cool” now for Calvin Klein to send her its latest athleisure collection and Reebok to ship her the latest models. But the girl who never consumed popular notions of beauty while growing up can still dig into her much delayed breakfast while speaking, drinking tea, doing an interview and answering the hotel room door, and contemplating a future as an artiste in India. “I’m very affected by the disparity in the streets. It breaks my heart and there are things around me I cannot un-know,” she says, and indeed, her Twitter feed is proof enough of a social conscience. “I want to reflect all that in my work. I want to be that person I look up to.” While always retaining the quirkiness, one hopes, of the girl who grew up idolising Amartya Sen and Kaushik Basu, crushed on Raghuram Rajan and whose idea of heaven is wherever Shashi Tharoor’s vocabulary comes from.
“I’m a fool,” she says, “but not an inconsiderate one.”
Photographs: Tarun Vishwa; styling: Malini Banerji; hair and make-up: Deepa Verma; assisted by: Pujarini Ghosh, Tejaswini Sinha (styling), Aishwarya Bahl, Sejal Goyal (intern); digital realisation: Prashish More; decor: carpets, The Carpet Cellar