Filmmaker Homi Adajania jokingly calls Dimple Kapadia “shaanaa”, a slang term for clever in Marathi. And he loves her for it. Adajania recalled how the actress called him over to discuss her character in his film, Angrezi Medium, only to realise that he was, in fact, there to shoot her audition for an upcoming Christopher Nolan film. “Four hours I stood in her house with my phone trying different versions,” says Adajania in an interview done in February. Filmmaker Rahul Dholakia (Raees) also chipped in. Kapadia, though, remembers it differently. “One told me he was coming; the other just decided to drop by on the same day. I thought ‘both of you get to work now’.” Nolan’s Tenet releases on December 4 in theatres.
Kapadia has always been, as she calls herself, a “reluctant actor”. She made her debut at 16 with Bobby (1973) and took a sabbatical immediately after for marriage and motherhood. She returned on set a decade later. Fame came again with Saagar (1985), and accolades with acclaimed dramas like Lekin (1990) and Rudaali (1993). In 2001, she found herself in the spotlight as the enchanting divorcee who Akshaye Khanna falls hard for in Farhan Akhtar’s directorial debut Dil Chahta Hai. Thereafter, Kapadia did films sporadically, including Adajania’s Being Cyrus and Finding Fanny, and played Salman Khan’s and Kareena Kapoor Khan’s mother in Dabangg and Angrezi Medium, respectively.
Having entered the sexagenarian club, Kapadia had no plans to make a Hollywood debut. So when talent consultant Purvi Lavingia came to her with the opportunity to work in a sci-fi action thriller being made by one of the most successful Hollywood filmmakers, Kapadia was “petrified”. Her children (Twinkle and Rinke), though, were thrilled, and her nephew [Karan] and grandkids were “over the moon”. “I told my family I am not doing it, that I don’t need to do this. I used every excuse because I was scared of how I will do it,” says Kapadia. “I was hesitant because I couldn’t believe they wanted me. Thank god, better sense prevailed and I at least gave it a try.”
In a brief but pivotal part, Kapadia delivers an assured performance as Priya Singh, an arms dealer who guides the protagonist (John David Washington) on a perilous mission. Nolan described Kapadia to Priya as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”. With her elegance and calm demeanour, though, Kapadia comes across more as a gazelle. Casting against type was part of Nolan’s plan, says the actress.
Making sense of Tenet in the first viewing is not easy; even for Kapadia. “The first 30-40 pages flew over my head,” she says. “Despite being a voracious reader, I couldn’t understand what the hell was happening. I wondered why I could not understand. I got the gist of it, but still didn’t understand how it is going to unfold on celluloid. I did the film, I still didn’t understand; I saw it, I still didn’t understand. I will have to see it again.”
It is by enticing viewers with complex narratives, laden with philosophical thoughts and scientific ideas waiting to be decoded, that Nolan makes his films equal parts tantalising and perplexing. “He weaves these gems into his screenplays which are so subtle that you need to see it again and again to appreciate it and realise, ‘oh my god, this is what he meant’,” says Kapadia. After the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception and Interstellar have added to his devoted fan base. In 2018, when Nolan visited Mumbai for a Film Heritage Foundation event, ‘Reframing the Future of Film’, his Indian fans turned up to hero worship. His itinerary included a 70mm screening of Dunkirk followed by a discussion at the Tata Theatre where a fan begged him to accept his self-published treatise dissecting Nolan’s films.
Kapadia is aware that Tenet is a beautiful coincidence in her career, a film “unimaginable” in scale and spectacle. But finding Indian actors in tent-pole films is not unusual anymore. Ali Fazal, who after a fleeting part in Furious 7 and a titular one in Victoria & Abdul, will feature in Death on the Nile, part of Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Agatha Christie novels. Priyanka Chopra Jonas is part of Matrix 4. But Kapadia is not calculating her next Hollywood project. Back home, too, she’s playing it by ear. More recently, she quit a Hindi film she had signed on before the pandemic. Next year, she appears in a desi big-budget, visual effects-heavy action spectacle, Brahmastra, and makes her streaming debut with the Amazon Prime show Tandav, a political drama featuring Saif Ali Khan. “There is no planning here,” says Kapadia. “Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be a role. You just need to go air yourself and you just get to work.”