Not many actors can boast a serendipitous career highlight like Lara Dutta’s. The Bollywood actress, who plays former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi in the coming film Bell Bottom, received first-hand information for the role from her father, a retired pilot who flew the politician for many years.
“I grew up hearing stories about her from him. So when I got the role to play her, he became my greatest source of information,” Dutta tells The National.
The former Miss Universe, 43, whose transformation into Gandhi made headlines when it was revealed last week, said her dad, retired Wing Commander LK Dutta, gave her valuable insights that helped her get into the skin of the character.
“He flew her on many occasions, from election rallies to events. And from him, I got a lot of insight into her nuances, of what she was like in real life,” Dutta explains. “From the way she gave her commands to the way she reacted around people. What was she like when offered assistance? Did she take it willingly or did she resist it? There were so many things that archived footage of her would not reveal.”
Gandhi, India’s third prime minister and the country’s first-ever female leader, served from 1966 to 1977 and again from 1980 until her assassination in 1984.
The action thriller Bell Bottom, out in cinemas on Thursday, is a fictional story set around real-life plane hijackings in India in the 1980s during Gandhi’s rule. Actor Akshay Kumar plays the lead as a spy, code-named Bell Bottom, tasked with recruiting a team of agents to help stop the crimes.
Dutta, who was last seen in the 2018 film Welcome to New York, said she “grabbed the opportunity with both hands” when Kumar offered her the role of Gandhi.
“It was in May 2020 and we were in the midst of the first lockdown. It was a time of high anxiety and there was no vaccine in sight. There was so much uncertainty. Akshay called me and said, ‘We’re doing this film and we’re casting the role of Indira Gandhi and I want you to play it,” Dutta recalls.
“I started laughing because there was nothing going on then. And Akshay is one of the biggest pranksters in the industry. So I thought ‘he’s got so much time on his hands and he’s picked me today to play a prank on’.”
But Kumar, one of the highest-paid actors in Bollywood, wasn’t kidding.
“He said they were looking for an actor who had a certain kind of personality and gravitas and poise. So to give Akshay full credit, he saw me as Indira Gandhi way before I saw myself [in the role].”
The process of becoming Gandhi was painstaking, Dutta says.
“I have no physical resemblance to Mrs Gandhi. So I first sat down with Vikram Gaikwad, our head of makeup and prosthetics, who created a mould of my face and then used that to create silicone prosthetic pieces, from the nose to the jaw to the eyebrows.
“We also had to get her distinct hairdo right… her classic coiffure.”
The second stage involved watching hours and hours of footage of Gandhi.
“We really broke down all the nuances of her body language, like the way she moved her hands. Mrs Gandhi didn’t use her hands a lot, regardless of how animated the conversation was. She was always someone who was very staid, very in control, which is very different from me because I tend to use my hands a lot when I’m talking.
“We also broke down the way she stood, sat, her eye movements etc. What triggered her? What drew her reactions? The events in Bell Bottom are quite dramatic but she was the kind of person who, regardless of the exterior environment, was always in control. There were very few times you could provoke her into an animated reaction. So we had to keep all of those factors in mind.”
Finally, Dutta said she had to study the state of the country in the year the film is set in.
“1984 was possibly the peak in her life and tenure. There was a lot going on in the country at that time. So given what was going on, how would she have reacted to that particular incident at that time? So it was understanding all of this, in order for me to play the character accurately on screen.”
She’s not concerned that the expectations the film’s trailer has built might eventually work against her.
“Everyone will have varied opinions and everyone is entitled to their opinions. But I think as an actor, it was important to give a 100 per cent. I am happy with the way it’s shaped up,” she says.
“I don’t think I’m anxious or nervous. I’ve seen the film and I’m very content with the way my role has shaped up. And now I’m just excited to see people’s reactions.”
Dutta, who’s married to Indian tennis star Mahesh Bhupathi, won the Miss Universe crown in 2000. She also mentors contestants at Miss Diva, the organisation that sends India’s representatives to the Miss Universe pageant. In April, she launched her online masterclass on becoming a model and beauty queen.
“At Miss Diva, I only get the chance to work with the 20 women who are selected. But there are so many other women not just across India but around the world who could really benefit. I wish I had someone to tell me all the things I’ve learnt in the past 21 years when I started. So that’s why I’m grateful for the opportunity to do the masterclass.”
Dutta is also a film producer and in 2019 launched her vegetarian, cruelty-free line of beauty products called Arias.
“I’ve never really boxed myself into a square. I love the fact that through every decade I’ve always transitioned," she says. "And I don’t think you’ll see me stopping any time soon."
'Bell Bottom' is out in the UAE on Thursday