IN Made in Heaven season two, there is a scene where Sobhita Dhulipala’s character Tara, from the wrong side of the tracks in class-conscious Delhi, air kisses a Mercedes-borne friend from her past life outside a tony designer boutique, before grudgingly getting into her grubby Uber, with its shabby interiors. Separation from a farmhouse prince has been tough on her— financially and socially. But neither is Tara written as a bechaari naari (poor woman), nor is she played as one by the former Miss India Earth 2013. The girl who was too tall (at 5 feet-8 inches), too thin, too nerdy and too much of an outsider, is now the toast of Indian cinema, playing parts across languages and genres, from the royal companion Vaanathi in Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan to Kaveri, a rich man’s mistress in Disney+Hotstar’s The Night Manager.
Since her stunning debut as Vicky Kaushal’s fearless girlfriend in Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016), Dhulipala has made a place for herself with courage, sensitivity and sheer professionalism. Directors praise her ability to transcend the written word and co-actors are in admiration of her transparency. In a long line of screen women, stretching from a R&AW operative in Netflix’s spy drama Bard of Blood (2019) to the brave hotel guest in Major (2022), her steady gaze and perfect pout have captured the screen as has her willingness to dump the inherent coyness that comes with being a Hindi film heroine.
Raja Krishna Menon who cast her as Saif Ali Khan’s friend in Chef (2017) when she was fairly new recalls this particular quality. “I offered her the role and while her manager said they’d get back after checking her calendar, she just said straight up that she had nothing scheduled, and said she’d do the role. She is forthright, honest, and so candid. I found it so endearing,” he says.
She may not always have been this confident, but she has always known her mind. As a 16-year-old, she wrote a letter to her sailor father saying she wanted to leave Visakhapatnam and “go to a different place”. When her father returned home from his Merchant Navy tour, it was with admission forms to Mumbai colleges. Like most middle-class parents who live for their children, the family moved to Mumbai, bag and baggage. “My mother always wanted a better lifestyle for us. She didn’t want to limit her children,” recalls Dhulipala. (Dhulipala has a younger sister, Samantha, now a doctor, at whose wedding Dhulipala played a wedding planner.)
She still remembers the number of the bus (210) she rode at 4 every morning to get to the train that took her to HR College in Mumbai by 7AM. She spent three years there, “looking like an alien” among Mumbai’s swell crowd, with her embroidered bell bottoms and oiled hair. Winning Miss India (Earth)—“I wanted a little validation”—and then a three-year stint at modelling should have finally given her the club cred she was yearning for, much like Tara in Made in Heaven season one, who goes from her routine corporate job to marrying the boss with a little help from a carefully planned sexual encounter. She disliked modelling, where she was not the pretty, fair-skinned, cheery Delhi girl that everyone was looking for.
After hundreds of auditions for ads, she got an opportunity to test for a film (not knowing who was in it or who was making it) and ended up getting the part. That became Anurag Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0. Says Kashyap, “The first time I saw her, it was those eyes. It was her incredible screen presence, which for me is the most important thing for an actor, her intensity and the unwavering eyes in the audition like they were challenging Vicky Kaushal. Then I met her and discovered her mind, her intelligence. Then we became friends and I discovered the curious reader in her. She is extremely intelligent and a passionate human being.”
Dhulipala is quite grateful for the journey, the sense of having earned her place at the table is most gratifying, she says. The once-gawky girl is quite the gilded lily now. Ask Zoya Akhtar why she cast her, and among the obvious reasons—her talent and her openness to experiment—is that she’s a clotheshorse (“because we’re shallow,” quips Akhtar). From Sabyasachi saris to Bodice dresses, Dhulipala inhabits every beautifully tailored garment in Made in Heaven with an ease that seems inborn. But one only has to see images from her days as Miss India Earth to notice how she has transformed herself, working on herself inside out, whether it is the poetry she writes or her confident stride.
Her roles have crisscrossed industries. Parts in Chef and Kaalakaandi (2018) with Saif Ali Khan, a leading role in the Telugu hit Goodachari (2018), Prime Video’s Made in Heaven, and Netflix’s Bard of Blood. She has essayed parts in the Malayalam film industry, as Rosy, the sex worker, in Geetu Mohandas’ Moothon (2019) and as nurse-turned-wife opposite Dulquer Salmaan in Kurup (2021), a pregnant woman in Kashyap’s segment in the Netflix anthology Ghost Stories (2020), and a role in Major, which reunited her with her Goodachari co-actor Adivi Sesh. “A thorough professional,” Sesh calls her. “Her greatest strength is that her performances seem effortless, but it’s actually a careful, nuanced portrait masked by a natural demeanour. We come from similar backgrounds and are both from the same city so it’s particularly nice to see her shining.”
So how is the girl from Visakhapatnam coping? “I’m not just coping, I may be thriving! I have found great peace in transit. Wherever I go, I’m learning to grow both roots and wings,” she says.
Her relentless gaze, directed at all manner of people—from former lovers to potential partners—can freeze or melt as desired. Perhaps her opening scene in cinema in Raman Raghav 2.0 remains her leitmotif—even as one man holds her by her waist, his hand spanning it, her head is turned away, looking at another, Vicky Kaushal, who is burning up the dance floor. This elusive quality is channelled in her most recent work as well. Meeting her former husband played by Jim Sarbh in a restaurant, she tells him about her current lover, with just a hint of a pout when she says, “But he isn’t you.” Sarbh’s character doesn’t have a chance. The next he knows, she is astride him, literally and figuratively.
Alankrita Shrivastava, who directed her in Made in Heaven says in season one, she was relatively raw but so open and understanding about her character’s roots. “She really enjoyed working on the scenes where she is grappling with her past, reflecting on her choices. We were able to bring out the conflict between who she was and who she has become. She was so alive to understanding depth, context and layers. In season two, she was more mature, grown up, more polished but still with a childlike quality to her. I don’t think anyone else could have been Tara, with that hunger for more in life.”
“I’m not just coping, I may be thriving! I have found great peace in transit. Wherever I go, I’m learning to grow both roots and wings,” says Sobhita Dhulipala, actor
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In many ways, it is an urge like Dhulipala’s desire to fit in when she first arrived in Mumbai. It is a situation in which she perhaps finds herself often, in an industry where the women are encouraged to work on externalities rather than go deep, where character study is sacrificed at the altar of commercial viability, and where ‘brave’ is usually a synonym for career suicide.
What draws her to her screen characters? “To be honest,” she says, “from the beginning I’ve picked my characters from the pool that was realistically accessible to me. And then gave my 100 per cent to it. I’m very aware of how deeply I care about the craft of acting and I know I’d pour myself into them no matter what cards I get dealt. Having said that, I’m most drawn to ordinary characters placed in extraordinary circumstances.” Indeed, whether it is Tara who refuses to be judged for her choices, or Kaveri who refuses to apologise for who she is, Dhulipala’s women are often rebels with a cause.
While superficial packaging gives form, what gives truth to characters is their inner landscape, she says. “Their fears, their aspirations, their paradoxes and value systems. It is important to crack that. And I strongly believe in preparation to allow for eventual spontaneity on set,” she adds. Language for her is a tool when it comes to storytelling, not the very medium. And while she has relished her experience of working across languages, in her most personal or important moments, she finds that she thinks in Telugu, her mother tongue.
She hasn’t found too much of a difference across film industries. “The difference really comes in when it’s a matter of scale of production. A well budgeted film versus an indie production and the way resources are juggled. That’s the main difference in operation. It has nothing to do with regions or language at all,” she says.
As for the celebrity-dom that comes with her profession, “the coin has both sides. In the words of the prolific Shakespeare: uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” she says with a laugh. But she still does her own housework. Kashyap says, “The most incredible discovery was when I went to her home for lunch the first time and discovered that she loves her solitude and is minimalistic, contrary to what one may perceive about her. She does her own cooking and cleaning, she has no boy or house help or anyone who does anything for her. She does her own chores, she takes care of herself and she can really laugh at herself and everything else. She is all kinds of amazing. It feels good that now the world is discovering her more and more.”
She reads, she writes (“sporadic and mood driven but very truthful”). She says, “I write to release, and usually in poetry form.”
She is now awaiting the release of a unique project she shot for, last year. And there’s Monkey Man, directed by Dev Patel, her Hollywood debut. “I’m in a very inspired state of mind. Much change and peace co-exist in my personal quarters,” she says. And professionally, she can only soar higher.