An Eye On Aye­sha

She's more about in the UK to­day than Aish­warya rai, Priyanka Cho­pra or Shilpa Shetty. Why then is Aye­sha Dharker one of In­dia's least dis­cussed ac­tresses?

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - FRONT PAGE - By Neil Davey

arker is ar­guably the us In­dian ac­tress in the dom to­day. ya Rai, Priyanka hilpa Shetty might p and so­ci­ety pages edia but, to the er, Aye­sha is h an in­cred­i­ble e West End An­drew Lloyd TV claimed e BBC’s n the UK’s long­est run­ning and most pop­u­lar soap opera, cel­e­brated art-house films like Santosh Si­van’s The Ter­ror­ist and Hol­ly­wood smashes like Star Wars: At­tack of the Clones.

More re­cently, Aye­sha won per­haps the most cov­eted stage role of the last 12 months as Ti­ta­nia in the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany’s land­mark pro­duc­tion for the 400th an­niver­sary of The Bard’s death of A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream.

The Chameleon

You may have no­ticed the ‘ar­guably’ in that open­ing line. Why ar­guably? Be­cause, while Aye­sha’s face is in­stantly recog­nis­able, not ev­ery­body in the UK knows her name.

There are two good rea­sons for this. First, Aye­sha is a chameleon. While ut­terly strik­ing – par­tic­u­larly the eyes and ex­pres­sive mouth – she has a rare abil­ity to in­habit a role, and it’s the char­ac­ter you re­mem­ber more than the ac­tress. The sec­ond, more charm­ing rea­son is that, ac­tu­ally, it’s how Aye­sha wants it.

When I sug­gest she’s the In­dian Pa­tri­cia Clark­son – per­haps Hol­ly­wood’s best, yet least fa­mil­iar char­ac­ter ac­tress – with ‘the ul­ti­mate what-have-I-seen-them-in­be­fore-face’, Aye­sha laughs, agrees, and tells me how peo­ple often do a dou­ble take as she walks by.

“Some­times there’s an in­stant recog­ni­tion, but other times peo­ple come up and chat be­cause they think I was at school with their kids or was in their par­ents’ group! Some­times kids walk past and tug their par­ent’s arms be­cause they’ve seen me in some sci-fi thing. That’s re­ally nice.”

Tucked sub­tly away in that

“For me, the idea of be­ing an ac­tress was loaded with the idea of be­ing fa­mous. I wasn’t in­ter­ested in those things. I was in­ter­ested in sto­ries and sto­ry­telling.”

para­graph is a hint of the self­dep­re­ca­tion that pep­pers our chat. By “some sci-fi thing” Aye­sha means ei­ther Star Wars or the hugely pop­u­lar Dr Who. “I’m a kook,” she tells me more than once, also dis­miss­ing sev­eral thought­ful, mea­sured re­sponses with “that doesn’t make any sense, does it?” or words to that ef­fect.

It strikes me later that this mod­esty could be what’s en­deared Aye­sha to the au­di­ence in her adop­tive Bri­tish home: that and her ap­proach­a­bil­ity.

If they saw Aish­warya Rai be­ing glam­orous at Royal As­cot, the av­er­age Brit would: a) know she was Bol­ly­wood roy­alty; and b) stare from afar. If they saw Aye­sha, they’d go and have a chat. It’s prob­a­bly ap­pro­pri­ate then that she calls the UK home, al­though, as she ex­plains, set­tling here took some time.

“When I was 20-ish I left Bom­bay,” she ex­plains. “But that wasn’t my base any more. I was work­ing in the UK, the US and In­dia, more or less in­ter­change­ably. I had this Sam­sonite suit­case and I lived out of that for about four years. It wasn’t un­til I mar­ried that I thought about set­tling in one place.”

The rea­son she hadn’t set­tled was work. A lot of work, across three decades which – in­evitably and in­cor­rectly – Aye­sha de­scribes as “dumb luck”.

The Prodigy

Aye­sha’s worked steadily from her 1989 de­but – a French film called Manika, Une Vie Plus Tard (aka The Girl Who Lived Twice) – at the age of eight, to where we are now, back­stage at the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany. It is, as men­tioned above, a stun­ning CV – and dou­bly so for some­one who ad­mits “act­ing was al­ways some­thing I re­fused to take se­ri­ously.”

“My par­ents [jour­nal­ist Anil Dharker and poet and artist Im­tiaz Dharker, now di­vorced] are quite po­lit­i­cally ac­tive and I could see they be­lieved in, and loved, what they were do­ing. For me, the idea of be­ing an ac­tress, was loaded with the idea of be­ing fa­mous and I wasn’t in­ter­ested in those. I was in­ter­ested in sto­ries and sto­ry­telling.”

“Then I got an op­por­tu­nity to work with peo­ple like Sha­bana Azmi and Om Puri [ City of Joy, 1992], and it was in­cred­i­ble to be taken se­ri­ously by peo­ple like that. They took me un­der their wing, and in­spired me. That was the first time that I thought this was a job I could do.”

Al­ler­gic To Net­work­ing

Aye­sha’s un­con­ven­tional at­ti­tude to her ca­reer ex­tends to the cast­ing process. In­deed, af­ter weeks of work­shop­ping Bom­bay

Dreams, she didn’t put her­self for­ward for the pro­duc­tion! “I didn’t think I was the mu­si­cal type,” she shrugs. Hap­pily, she bumped into one of the pro­duc­tion staff on au­di­tion day. “I used to fid­dle about mak­ing bits of jew­ellery, and there’s a bead shop next to their of­fice…” She laughs. “I re­alise now how weird that sounds, but I didn’t want to waste their time…

“I’ve al­ways been slightly al­ler­gic to the idea of net­work­ing. I be­lieve things hap­pen when and how they’re sup­posed to hap­pen. It’s all very well go­ing for op­por­tu­ni­ties when they present them­selves, but I don’t feel that push­ing your­self ar­ti­fi­cially nec­es­sar­ily works. If you go with the flow a lit­tle you’ll be amazed at the stuff that comes at you. All you have to do is to try and make as au­then­tic as pos­si­ble choices as you can…” Aye­sha trails off and smiles. “That sounds re­ally up it­self, doesn’t it?!”

“Be­ing an ac­tor is a weird job. You’re not in con­trol of it and the more in con­trol you try to be, the more you frus­trate your­self. Just trust that if you want to put some­thing into the world, there will be an op­por­tu­nity for you to put it into the world.”

“We work much bet­ter to­gether at telling sto­ries and telling cer­tain kind of sto­ries that are im­por­tant, that’s a very sig­nif­i­cant thing. When the ‘Brexit’ news broke, I was shocked, but I was so happy to be do­ing this

“Shake­speare holds the ab­so­lute roots of what Bri­tish­ness is, and also what hu­man­ity is. He hyp­no­tises, the labyrinth of his words takes you on an ex­tra stroll !”

pro­duc­tion, be­cause this pulls to­gether what I be­lieve in.”

That po­lit­i­cal divi­sion of the United King­dom has touched most conversations I’ve had since the Scot­tish ref­er­en­dum, so it was in­evitable it would come up here, par­tic­u­larly as Aye­sha is uniquely placed to com­ment – partly as an ‘out­sider’ who’s cho­sen to make the UK her home, but also be­cause of the na­ture of this cur­rent pro­duc­tion of A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream. While many of the roles are played by Aye­sha and her pro­fes­sional col­leagues, the Me­chan­i­cals – the labourer char­ac­ters such as Bot­tom, Snug and Peter Quince who put on the play within the play – are played by ama­teur ac­tors from across the coun­try.

“We have been to 14 dif­fer­ent cities, worked with 14 dif­fer­ent ama­teur com­pa­nies,” ex­plains Aye­sha. “And school­child­ren too, with ages rang­ing from seven to 12. In many places that’s chil­dren who’ve never seen a play, let alone per­formed on stage to 2,000 peo­ple. It’s a lot of pres­sure but I’ve seen what it’s done for their self-es­teem.”

For some­one whose own ca­reer started at the age of eight, it’s been a rev­e­la­tion. “It’s been weird to look in that ‘mir­ror’,” ad­mits Aye­sha, “I have been in their shoes and act­ing changed my life in ways I can­not even en­cap­su­late, I can­not even imag­ine what I would have done with­out it, but I think ei­ther way, at that age, it is just a won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence and em­pow­er­ing for chil­dren to be taken se­ri­ously.”

“I’ve al­ways been slightly al­ler­gic to the idea of net­work­ing. I be­lieve things hap­pen when and how they’re sup­posed to hap­pen.”

Bot­toms’ Up

Dis­cussing the pro­duc­tion re­veals another rea­son why the Brits might be so fond of Aye­sha: she has our [Bri­tish] sense of hu­mour. The na­ture of the show means she’s been up against 14 dif­fer­ent Bot­toms. Ahem.

“That NEVER gets old,” laughs Aye­sha. “They hap­pen to have picked the one per­son for whom Bot­tom jokes will never cease to be funny.” She adopts a se­ri­ous ex­pres­sion. “That is what at­tracted to me, the pro­lif­er­a­tion of Bot­toms… .”

As well as the op­por­tu­nity for school­boy hu­mour, this am­bi­tious pro­duc­tion has kept things fresh and ex­cit­ing for those like Aye­sha in for the ‘long haul.’

“I thought it would be a chal­lenge but it’s been the loveli­est thing. I’m not an artist paint­ing in my room on my own, I paint with 39 other peo­ple, on stage. The joy of that col­lu­sion is the per­fect an­ti­dote to what is hap­pen­ing right now.”

“We need to be look­ing not for dif­fer­ence but for things that draw us to­gether. The love of Shake­speare, of theatre, is a great con­nec­tion. To come to­gether for the love of some­thing, there’s noth­ing bet­ter than that. If I walked past the peo­ple who’ve played Bot­tom in the street, I wouldn’t think we had any­thing to chat about. But we’re cut from the same cloth, and that’s the loveli­est thing. I think hu­man be­ings are ca­pa­ble of such joy and bril­liance and weird­ness. [Brexit] has hap­pened, now we have to do more of what makes peo­ple be­lieve in pos­i­tive stuff. And read more Shake­speare!”

“Shake­speare holds the ab­so­lute roots of what Bri­tish­ness is, but also what hu­man­ity is. He hyp­no­tises, the labyrinth of his words takes you on an ex­tra stroll you don’t need to go on in or­der to un­der­stand an idea, to take you to the core of how peo­ple feel.”

“What do I know?” asks Aye­sha. “I’m just some silly lit­tle ac­tress.” She smiles. “But I do wish Shake­speare was around this week, to get his re­sponse on it.”

Ac­tress? Yes – and a damned fine one. Lit­tle? Un­doubt­edly – but only in stature not per­son­al­ity. Silly? You re­ally couldn’t be fur­ther from the truth… .

Top: Dharker in a scene from Royal Shake­speare Com­pany’s pro­duc­tion of Othello, and

A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream (above). “The love of Shake­speare... is a great con­nec­tion. To come to­gether for the love of some­thing, there’s noth­ing bet­ter than that,” she says ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE

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