Like us, did you also go, ‘Is that Lara Dutta?!’ when you spotted the actor playing the part of Indira Gandhi in the trailer of Bell Bottom. Hours and hours of prosthetics and an assured act from Lara has gone into transforming her into India’s first woman Prime Minister, causing quite a bit of chatter ever since the trailer of the thriller — that is frontlined by Akshay Kumar and also stars Vaani Kapoor and Huma Qureshi — dropped.
With Bell Bottom slated to be the first big-budget film to release in movie theatres after more than a year — the date is August 19 — The Telegraph chatted with Lara on her incredible transformation, her equation with Akshay and what she looks for in a part now.
Is ‘Oh my God!’ the predominant reaction you are getting ever since the trailer of Bell Bottom dropped?
(Laughs) Pretty much! Pretty much! For the last 48 hours, it’s mostly been that....
Given the drastic transformation, weren’t you prepared for it?
Not at the level at which it has been happening, to be honest! I was excited to see how people would react to it, and I think it’s been pretty phenomenal. A lot of appreciation has come in from the film fraternity, it’s always nice for your efforts to be recognised by your peers. But for me, one of the biggest compliments has come from my dad. He was Mrs Gandhi’s personal pilot... he flew her for many, many years when he was in the Air Force. And for him to think that I look convincing enough makes me feel it’s a job well done.
What was your first reaction when you were offered the part of Indira Gandhi?
Well, honestly I thought Akshay (Kumar) was joking with me. We were in New York last year right in the middle of the lockdown with absolutely no idea what the way forward was for everyone. Akshay called me saying, ‘I am doing this film called Bell Bottom and there is the role of Indira Gandhi...’ And I actually started laughing! (Laughs) Akshay being Akshay, I really thought he was pulling my leg.
Secondly, I didn’t know what resemblance he saw between me and Mrs Gandhi. But then he said that they needed an actor who had a certain kind of body language and gravitas, and he felt I could bring that to the part. I said I would do it, but then the responsibility of doing such a part dawned on me. I was wary about playing a political figure of her stature in the right way on screen.
What was it like slipping into the skin — quite literally — of the character? The behind-the-scenes video of the prosthetic work you shared online recently illustrates how strenuous and time-consuming it must have been...
It was purely the hard work and diligence of Vikram Gaikwad and his team who did the prosthetics. We tried to get as close as possible to the way she looked, and the rest comprised understanding the body language, her tone of voice, imbibing as much as I could in terms of how she sat, stood, spoke....
The third aspect was about getting into the mind of Mrs Gandhi, and understanding what the scenario was like in the country at that time. Year 1984 was quite volatile... there was a lot going on. The story is inspired by a real-life hijacking that took place then... so it’s a rather dramatic event. But Mrs Gandhi wasn’t someone who was dramatic... she was always centred and in control. She wasn’t really ruffled by all that was happening around her. I had to understand how she reacted to situations, and that took a fair amount of prep.
Lara Dutta Bhupathi as Indira Gandhi in Bell Bottom, releasing in theatres on August 19
As far as the prosthetics were concerned, I had to spend about three-and-a-half hours on the make-up chair before I stepped on to the set, and then it took me one hour every day to take it all off. This went on for about a week at a stretch.
What was your daughter Saira and husband Mahesh’s reaction to your transformation?
Saira was pretty intrigued at the beginning. She would come and see me getting the prosthetics done and see mama with this silicone face. And then she said, ‘They will suffocate you to death!’ (Laughs) She was kicked by all the prosthetics and when she saw me in character, it didn’t matter to her who I was transforming into... she was only concerned about the fact that I didn’t look like her mom at all! She was like, ‘Mum, you just look weird!’ (Laughs)
Mahesh wasn’t there for the look test. He saw me for the first time live in character when he stopped by on the sets in Glasgow. He came during lunchtime and seeing me just freaked him out! He was like, ‘I am not going to hug you, I am not even saying hi. You don’t look like my wife!’ (Laughs)
Even though this isn’t a political film, did you have any second thoughts about playing a political figure in a country which is quick to take umbrage?
The film doesn’t really make any kind of political statement. It’s not about Mrs Gandhi, and the film focuses on events that happened as part of history. It’s not something new that we are writing or even rewriting. I had no reservations as such. She is such an incredible figure to portray on screen. I am not the first actress to play her and I won’t certainly be the last. It’s just making the most of an opportunity that has come my way.
Given that Bell Bottom will be the first big Bollywood theatrical release in more than a year, how important is it for you to be part of a film which is being looked at as the messiah of the movie exhibition business in India, so to speak. ‘Unlocking Cinemas’ is the message that the film is coming in with...
Bell Bottom went on the floors when nothing, whether in India or even internationally, was being filmed. It was a huge risk and a huge amount of responsibility that was vested on the producers to restart the whole industry. So I feel very proud and fortunate to be part of a film that, in a way, has created history by being the first to start filming. Akshay, being the megastar that he is, really put his might behind the project. We started shooting the film at a time when no one even knew what the way forward would be like with safety protocols.
But we did all that we had to do, whether it was quarantine or limiting ourselves to the bio bubble that was created. It was a pretty restrictive and challenging environment for shooting. But once we settled in, we also felt quite safe. We are in one of the rare professions where you can’t do your job with your mask on. So, this film in a way showed the rest of the industry that shoots can be carried on safely even in the middle of a raging pandemic.
Covid is not going to go away in a hurry. And the producers deciding to release Bell Bottom in theatres this month is a huge gesture. Life has to go on. We are here to tell the audience that we are excited to be back in theatres and that they can come in to watch the film keeping all safety protocols in mind, both by them and the movie theatres.
You started your career with Akshay in Andaaz 18 years ago and have, since then, done more than a dozen films with him. How has your personal and professional equation evolved over the years?
Bell Bottom is my 13th film with him, and the equation has really evolved over the years. I consider Akshay as family and I know he considers me the same. Doing a film with Akshay has never felt like work, it’s always like going on a picnic. He’s tremendously disciplined, brings in a lot of positive energy and makes sure that he cares for everyone on set, that everyone has a good time. We share a camaraderie that’s pretty effortless. We have come to a point now that in a scene together, he doesn’t need to convey to me how he wants me to react. I can pick up cues from his performance and vice versa. There is an extreme amount of comfort in working with him.
When we had connected last year, you had said that you are enjoying this phase of your career, but aren’t really looking at frontlining projects. Has that changed?
I have never just been an actor. I also produce content, I am an entrepreneur and a mom. I am pretty hands-on on all these aspects. For me to take time away from everything else and put my 100 per cent into a film would require the role to be worth my while. Visibility no longer matters to me. Now it’s about stepping out of my comfort zone and doing something that surprises me as well as the audience.