Dimple Kapadia talks about working with Christopher Nolan on his time-bending thriller, and why she almost ran away from the role
After the terrible disappointment of the semi-autobiographical and hideously expensive Mera Naam Joker in 1970, Raj Kapoor decided to make a teen love story. That it was inspired by Archie comics is possibly apocryphal, but Bobby (1973) tells the story of teenagers Raj (Rishi Kapoor) and Bobby. The movie was a blockbuster. Apart from the lovely songs and seductive look (Aruna Irani’s back gave an award-winning performance), the female lead, 16-year-old Dimple Kapadia, became the nation’s sweetheart.
When she pushed her hair from her face with floury hands (supposedly inspired by Nargis), Dimple became the girl everyone wanted to date. We know what happened next — she got married to the reigning superstar, Rajesh Khanna, had two children, separated from Khanna and returned to films. Through the 80s, 90s, noughties and 2010s, Dimple made her presence felt in ‘masala’ flicks as well as art-house films. She rocked her auburn locks and champagne eyes in diverse roles, from rolling in the hay with Anil Kapoor in Feroz Khan’s Janbaaz (1986) to Kalpana Lajmi’s Rudaali for which she got the National Award in 1993. The millennium saw her effortlessly shining in everything from the aspirational Dil Chahta Hai (2001) and as the feckless Katy in Being Cyrus (2006) to Homi Adajania’s latest, Angrezi Medium (2020) where she plays Kareena Kapoor Khan’s mum.
Veterans on set
From her Bobby days, when her knotted, polka-dotted blouses and shorts set off a craze, to everyone wanting a ‘Dimple’ haircut even if they did not have her crowning glory, she has always been a style icon. Her character, Priya, in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet — the time-bending espionage film that just might entice you to step into a theatre next week — keeps up the good work.
- Bobby (1973): This is the movie that started it all. As Bobby Braganza, the feisty granddaughter of rich boy Raj’s (Rishi Kapoor) governess, she captured the nation’s heart.
- Saagar (1985): The Bobby team reunited in Dimple’s comeback film directed by Ramesh Sippy. As Mona, the barkeep’s daughter, Dimple was memorable.
- Prahaar (1991): Nana Patekar’s directorial debut saw Dimple play a young widow, Kiran, who tells her neighbour, Peter D’Souza (Gautam Joglekar) to follow his heart and become a commando. This brings him in contact with Patekar’s Major Pratap Chauhan.
- Dil Chahta Hai (2001): As divorced alcoholic architect Tara Jaiswal, Dimple was riveting in Farhan Akhtar’s directorial debut.
- Cocktail (2012): As Gautam’s (Saif Ali Khan) mum, in this Homi Adajania rom-com, Dimple has fun playing the very orthodox Kavita, ‘man-o-pause’ and all.
Priya with her fitted jackets, paisley shawls, stately saris and chunky jewellery is very much the personification of the iron fist in a beautifully-tailored velvet glove. Jeffrey Kurland, who apart from designing all the sharp suits for the gentlemen and putting the 6’3” Elizabeth Debicki in vertiginous heels, also designed for Dimple. “Everything was completely supervised by Nolan,” says the actor, over the phone from Mumbai. “From the colour of my hair… he wanted to see how it would look, when it should go from auburn to brown… it was all supervised by him.”
Former footballer John David Washington (of Monster and BlacKkKlansman fame) plays the protagonist, called Protagonist (yes), trying to stop the end of the world as and when we know it. “It was a fabulous experience working with him. He was so comfortable; I think that is half the battle won. He is so warm and he made me feel like I am the veteran and he is the newcomer [laughs]. As far as I am concerned it was just the opposite.”
A co-production between the United Kingdom and the United States, Tenet features a multi-national cast, including British actors Robert Pattinson, Michael Caine and Kenneth Branagh; Debicki is Australian and Washington is American. Diversity in casting is almost a given these days, especially in action films, and Dimple says, “It is wonderful that people from all over the world are getting the opportunity to showcase their talent.”
Nolan the maniac
Branagh, who plays a Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (with suits and an accent to match), had recently remarked about how Nolan had promised him a bespoke working experience. The 63-year-old Dimple concurs, describing the director as a maniac on set. “I cannot believe his energy levels, his passion for filmmaking, and the effort he puts into it. He is so focussed and absorbed that you don’t want to step up to him out of fear that you might distract him. The level of concentration he had on the entire shoot was absolutely amazing. That is what drove the entire crew. All of us put our best foot forward, everyone was on the same page, we had no choice but to give our best.”
Dimple has been quoted admitting she was nervous before shooting. But, according to Branagh — who didn’t get to share screen space with the actor, but says she has a “smashing part” in the film — both Nolan and Washington were bowled over by her. After a rehearsal, they had said, “If that is nervous, I don’t know what calm is”, going on to describe Dimple as being “awesomely brilliant”. When I tell her this, she laughs. “My God, those are very, very kind words. But yes, I have always been a bundle of nerves and I always will be a bundle of nerves irrespective of the number of films I do. That is not changing.”
Her anxiety also gave the actor her best memory on set. “Before the shoot, I was standing next to Nolan having a bad case of nerves. He gave me his hand to hold for a second. That will be my dearest, most beautiful memory of the shoot,” she says.
Like so many of us, Dimple worships at the temple of Nolan. “The first film I watched of his was The Prestige (2006). And it completely blew my brain. I watched it four times and in the fourth viewing I finally made sense of it,” she recalls. “I called my nephew, who loves films and told him, ‘If you want to know what cinema is, you have to watch this film.’ It transports you into another world. I think that is what good cinema is all about. It grabs you and takes you to a different world. I think it is every actor’s dream to work with Nolan. Thank God, I got the opportunity.”
- Nolan describes Tenet as a classic spy story. In an interview posted by production house Warner Bros, he explains how he grew up loving spy movies, “but to make it sing to today’s audiences, I wanted it to have bigger possibilities”. So he brought in the concept of inversion — the idea that entropy (which dictates the movement of energy between objects) could be reversed. “It is very cinematic; it is something you have to see on the [big] screen to fully engage with it,” he says.
How did she get the chance of a lifetime? “There was this girl, Purvi Lavingia [Vats, a Mumbai-based talent manager]. She called me and said I needed to give an audition,” says Dimple. “I didn’t believe it. I told my nephew that such-and-such a thing has happened and he said it is Christopher Nolan!” With a bad memory for names, Dimple did not immediately put two and two together. “I said, ‘Who Christopher Nolan’ and he said, ‘It is your favourite director!’ As the audition got closer, I got nervous as ever and thought of every excuse in the book to run far away from it. Then better sense prevailed.”
With Nolan coming to India for a recce, Dimple took her nephew along for the audition. “I was sure I would not get the role. So I thought he could take a picture with Nolan. But it happened; I got the role. It was my second Cinderella moment — Bobby was my first. It was destined.”
Early reviews have been good. Variety magazine stated that the “wonderful Dimple Kapadia” gave “the film’s wiliest performance”; closer home, stars, including Sonam Kapoor, took to social media to praise her role. Daughter Twinkle Khanna chipped in too, tweeting, “Mom is so laid-back that she refuses to do any publicity around Tenet, but she is incredible.” Dimple, however, insists that the best thing about her character was Nolan. She says: “It is only Nolan, forget about me, I have got nothing to do with it.”
Tenet is scheduled to release on December 4.