National award-winning actor Dolly Ahluwalia on connecting with the past in her films

Parul
Dolly Ahluwalia

Dolly Ahluwalia in Jug Jug Jiyo

National award-winning costume designer and actor Dolly Ahluwalia is devoting her time and creative energies on herself, as she treads on new paths, both personally and professionally. Having designed costumes for films like Water, Bandit Queen, Omkara, The Blue Umbrella, Partition, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Haider and Midnight's Children, and for many theatre productions, 50-something Ahluwalia, an alumnus of National School of Drama, is excited when she talks about her two new films - the Hindi feature film Doordarshan and Punjabi film Azaab. "I was taking work a little slow, spending time with myself. I am thankful for how things are. I come from a school of thought where I have to get pregnant with each creative project, that's the way I work. I can't resonate with the new fast food way of working, where I have to create matter in a few days. So, I decided to reflect and work at my own pace, till I got an offer for Doordarshan and Azaab, both deal with subjects that are close to my heart," says Chandigarh-based Ahluwalia, who received a National Award for her role in Vicky Donor.

Released this week, Doordarshan, Ahluwalia says, is a story that everyone will connect to, especially the generation which saw television sets enter into their homes for the first time, like she did. She recalls how when the first TV came to their locality in Delhi, at a neighbour's home, the children would dress up and stand in a line to watch Chitrahaar, the Sunday movie, but many went back disappointed as there was no space left in the television room. "And, when it came to our home, I would be the one to go to the roof to set the antenna, to get a clear picture. We would all sit together on the floor. That was a different era. When I read the script, Gagan Puri, the director, said that he had me in mind when he had conceptualised the role of the grandmother in the film. It was a walk down memory lane, reliving the precious moments. The team of the film, Manu Rishi Chadha and Mahie Gill, were so fantastic," says Ahluwalia. The story of the film revolves around a grandmother, played by Ahluwalia, who was bedridden and in a coma since 1989. In 2019, she suddenly regains consciousness. At a time of digital entertainment and social media, the grandmother is still living in the past. "Her doting son and the entire family recreate the world of the '90s in the house, so that she is not shocked, but the whole family goes mad over the situation. Her make-believe world is so lively and hilarious. The role was very demanding, as it required me to work on my body, movements and character who was living in two different worlds. It was important for me to know that coming out of a coma after so many decades was possible. I researched to read cases where it had actually happened. The film has a subtle message said in a lighter vein, as it makes us look back at the stupid mistakes we make," shares Ahluwalia.

A still from the film Doordarshan

Azaab, on the other hand, is based on the Partition. The Punjabi film by Mukesh Gautam is based on author Pali Bhupinder's work. The film looks at the changing relationships, levels of trust and friendship between the Hindu and Muslim communities in those painful and tough times and how times change our sensibilities and the bitterness that comes. "But it's humanity that emerges strong, time and again. I read the script and I know that I belonged to this film. So many of us have lived through this phase through the harrowing experiences of our grandparents, parents and families. Strangely, it's a subject that I have worked in Deepa Mehta's 1947: Earth, an Indo-Canadian film Partition and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag - each time, there is a new facet that emerges from this tragedy," says Ahluwalia.

Ahluwalia in the film Doordarshan

Theatre continues to be an integral part of her life, as she recently designed costumes for NSD's production Karan Gatha, staged in a classical form. The story depicts the inner soul of Karan. "What is heartening is that there is now money for theatre. I remember designing for a play like Shatranj Ke Khiladi in a budget of Rs 15,000. Now, there is more to play with, but that hasn't changed my philosophy of recreating, reusing and recycling costumes. Theatre remains such a joy," says the actor, who was recently seen on stage in Jug Jug Jiyo.