Lara Dutta's transformation in 'Bell Bottom'
Lara Dutta's transformation in 'Bell Bottom' Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News and Supplied

Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar’s recent blockbuster ‘Bell Bottom’ had a string of famous familiar faces, but there was one character who underwent a dramatic transformation and stood tall among a sea of male actors.

We are talking about former beauty queen and actress Lara Dutta who played the iconic political figure and former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi in the hit espionage thriller ‘Bell Bottom’, out in UAE cinemas now.

She is unrecognisable and, most importantly, convincing in her latest role in the film that signals that Bollywood movies are now ramping up their game when it comes to transformations and prosthetic make-up.

“I give Vikram Gaikwad and his team full credit for getting the resemblance as close as they have been able to … It was a collaborative effort and as an actor it took me tremendous amounts of patience to be sitting on that chair for long hours every single day,” said Dutta in a Zoom interview.

Gaikwad, a two-time National Film Award winner for Best Make-up Artist, is one of Bollywood’s leading make-up and prosthetic designers.

Dutta embraced her sedentary side for this film, as Gaikwad and his team spun their magic as the actress spent at least three and a half hours a day to get her look right. Even her husband and tennis player Mahesh Bhupathi failed to recognise her, or so the Bollywood folklore goes.

“And once my make-up is on after three and a half hours, we were filming for the next eight to ten hours. During those hours, you can’t scratch your nose or rub your eyes. I had to literally sit on my hands the entire day. And that was the most gruelling process physically for an actor who’s playing a real-life figure and is covered in layers of prosthetics … But it’s all been worthwhile when I look at the results,” said Dutta.

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While Dutta’s look in ‘Bell Bottom’ has been lauded for its authenticity and similarity to Gandhi, Bollywood films were earlier notorious for getting their prosthetics wonky and had questionable standards when it came to consistency or believability.

Akshay Kumar’s 2010 comedy ‘Action Replayy’, where he’s sporting an outlandish look as a bald man with pronounced buckteeth, are some of the well-documented prosthetic misfires. But Kumar seems to have made good with ‘Bell Bottom’, perhaps backed by producers who understand the importance of funnelling funds to the oft-neglected prosthetic departments to elevate their film’s appeal.

Films in the recent past such as Amitabh Bachchan’s ‘Pa’, where he played a man afflicted by the rapid ageing disease Progeria, and the late actor Rishi Kapoor’s turn as the 90-year-old grandpa in ‘Kapoor & Sons’ indicate that Bollywood filmmakers are willing to spend money to authentically transform the characters being portrayed on the big screen. Hollywood prosthetic artists are often flown down for Bollywood films that require heavy prosthetics.

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According to reports, the ‘Kapoor & Sons’ producer spent Rs20 million (Dh1 million) on a daily basis to get actor Kapoor’s nonagenarian look right. But spending money isn’t the only criteria for getting a dramatic transformation right. As Dutta says, looking the part of the formidable political leader Gandhi was just the first hurdle. The actual battle was to get her essence of her being right.

“It was a tremendous amount of responsibility to play Mrs Gandhi. For any female actor to be offered a role as iconic as Mrs Gandhi on screen is an opportunity of a lifetime. But along with that opportunity came a great amount of responsibility. It can never be my interpretation of the character. I had to be as close as possible to the actual person herself,” said Dutta.

‘Bell Bottom’ chronicles the valiant efforts of India’s Research and Analysis Wing to save passengers whose flight has been hijacked by extremists. Dutta’s character plays the late former PM who had to make some tough decisions which had geopolitical ramifications.

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“‘Bell Bottom’ is a story inspired by an event that took place during Mrs Gandhi’s tenure … Mrs Gandhi was herself a person never really prone to dramatics. She was never a dramatic person and she was always in control of any given situation. So, regardless of the amount of cinematic liberty that’s taken around the event itself, you can’t really take that kind of cinematic liberty with the character. It was my responsibility to make sure I played her as accurately you possibly can,” said Dutta. She added that matching the physicality was just scratching the surface.

“It took a lot of prep and understanding … Understanding her psyche, stepping into her shoes, getting into her brain a little bit and understanding the sociopolitical environment in India in 1984 was also important … As an actress, this was one of the most gratifying and fulfilling roles of my career.”

Her biggest challenge, apart from sporting a fake, pronounced nose and a bob with silver streaks, was getting Gandhi’s body language right.

“If you look at Mrs Gandhi’s interviews, she rarely used her hands to talk and her face was not animated. She was very cut and dry in all her communications. I am not like that. My face is a mass of animations and when I talk, I use my hands a lot. Putting away all that and getting something as simple as the tilt of my head and the movement of my eyes was important. I paid a lot of attention to that too … Looking the part is just the first step and I will never forget this film for a lifetime.”

Dutta, who made her film debut opposite Kumar 18 years ago with 2002’s ‘Andaaz’, is also thrilled that she’s being offered roles that aren’t conventional even at this juncture in her career. Bollywood heroines have often lamented about putting up with ageism, but Bollywood is seeing a makeover not just in the prosthetics department. Her stoic and straight-laced role in ‘Bell Bottom’ is just scratching the surface, believes Dutta.

“Such roles are the reason why I stepped into Bollywood in the first place. Now in my ‘40s, I am playing women characters that are closer to my real age on-screen, women characters that are far more layers than being just a hero’s girlfriend, wife, or the long-suffering mother. Now, we get to play women who are ambitious, manipulative, diabolical, loving, and larger-than life. These are the things that you live for as an actor.”

“I am not surprised when people say they couldn’t recognise me. Even I couldn’t recognise myself. It took me a really long deep look into my eyes to realise that I am still Lara back here behind all of this."

- Lara Dutta on her transformation in 'Bell Bottom'

Here’s a look at some of the most dramatic transformations of actor in Bollywood films:

Amitabh Bachchan in ‘Paa’:

The legendary actor played Auro, a child battling the rapid-ageing disease Progeria. International make-up artists Christien Tinsley, whose credits include ‘Passion of the Christ’) and Dominie Till of ‘Lord of the Rings’ fame) worked on Bachchan. The duo also won the 2009 National Film Award for the best make-up.

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Amitabh Bachchan and Abhishek Bachchan in 'Paa'

Rajkummar Rao in ‘Raabta’:

Indian make artist Zuby Johal, who has worked in films such as fantasy horror ‘Tummbad’, was on call to transform Rao as a 324-year-old man. ‘Raabta’, starring Kriti Sanon and the late actor Sushant Singh Rajput, wasn’t well-received, but Rao’s role didn’t go unnoticed.

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Rajkummar Rao in 'Raabta'

Rishi Kapoor in ‘Kapoor & Sons’:

The late actor famously hated sitting in the make-up chair for hours to play the 90-year-old grandfather, but Oscar-winning make-up artist Greg Cannom made sure that all that physical effort paid off.

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Rishi Kapoor as a 90-year-old in 'Kapoor & Sons'

Deepika Padukone in ‘Chhapaak’:

Female make-up expert Clover Wooton, who worked with Anushka Sharma in ‘Pari’ and Ranbir Kapoor’s ‘Sanju’, was on call to make Padukone look the part of an acid-attack survivor. She did a commendable job here.

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Deepika Padukone in 'Chhapaak' Image Credit: Supplied

Ranveer Singh in ‘Padmaavat’:

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Ranveer Singh in 'Padmaavat' Image Credit: Supplied

National Award-winning Indian make up artist Preetisheel Singh was in charge of creating the characters of ‘Padmaavat’, a sweeping fantasy film directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. “When working with Bhansali Sir, one has to be ready to always put in that extra bit as he has such a keen eye for aesthetics and detail. I read the script and understood the characters — how they dealt with people. Visualised the environment they would have grown up in, their likes and dislikes, their personality et cetera,” said Singh in an earlier interview with KoiMoi.