Bollywood actress Aditi Rao Hydari
Bollywood actress Aditi Rao Hydari Image Credit: Supplied

Indian actress Aditi Rao Hydari has a bone to pick with writers who tend to reduce women's roles to hapless victims in the face of any tragedy. When we met her at a hotel suite in Dubai, the star had her back against a massive vertical roll-up of her series ‘Taj: Divided By Blood,’ out on Zee5 Global now.

Her character in this period saga, as this ethereal courtesan Anarkali, is dressed in a mustard tunic and looks defiant, almost filled with latent rage.

“It’s not latent rage, but latent determination … It’s very easy to make a character like Anarkali, a bechari [a helpless woman] who is resigned to her destiny and walks around with a ‘woe is me victim’ vibe. But I pushed back on that narrative,” said Hydari in an interview with Gulf News.

The actress, who flew into the UAE to promote LuLu’s ‘Celebration of India’ in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, remembers sitting down with the series’ creative team, a global bunch of talents, to discuss why the writing was inherently problematic and needed to be tweaked.

“I told them: ‘Don’t take me wrong, but this role has been written by men.’ I wondered why she is being represented like this because none of it is her fault,” said Hydari.

In the series, Anarkali's agency has been stripped away by a powerful emperor, played by Naseeruddin Shah.

“None of this is her fault, so I didn’t understand why the role was written in a way where she was feeling sorry for herself … In my understanding, Anarkali will push back and stand with dignity, and she won’t even lower her eyes. Since she was a 12-year-old, she was wrong. It’s his wrong, not hers. So she must look at him in the eye and be fearless,” said Hydari, glancing at the massive poster behind her. Apparently, the team of the series listened to her patiently and made the changes she suggested.

“They were so open to this … There was no ego, and it was so beautiful because they felt I was right,” said Hydari.

Apparently, her makeup artist often joked that she is always incredibly persuasive but never aggressive in her tone. Diplomacy comes naturally to this actress, and couching truth bombs in a palatable form is her “superpower.” Perhaps that has helped Hydari thrive in an entertainment industry ruled by fragile egos and a good dose of narcissism.

“People think I am very diplomatic and non-confrontational. But I say what I have to say in a way that doesn’t hurt somebody or make them feel like vermin. I don’t want to hurt anybody, and I want to hear them out … My makeup artist says I can get away with anything because I don’t make anyone feel like [expletive]. I just tell them the truth,” said Hydari.

She has also worked with a range of directors who know their craft and are open to new ideas and criticisms. The actress has worked with some of the best minds in India. Think Rakeysh OmPrakash Mehra (‘Delhi 6’), Vikramaditya Motwane (‘Jubilee’), and Sanjay Leela Bhansali (‘Heeramandi’). She made her Tamil film debut with Mani Ratnam’s Kaatru Veliyidai (2017).

Aditi Rao Hydari
A look at Aditi Rao Hydari being the perfect clotheshorse as she attends film festivals around the globe

While she isn’t armed with a to-do list, she says being cast as a ‘Mani Ratnam’ heroine has been a part of her wishlist for a long time.

“I have no career countdowns, but I have dreams, subconscious checklists. I had a one-point agenda since childhood: to be a Mani sir’s heroine. When that happened, I understood it’s important to believe in your dreams and their naivete. And it’s possible that the universe will conspire to make it happen, like the great SRK [Shah Rukh Khan] once said.”

Hydari was alluding to the hit scene in Khan’s reincarnation blockbuster ‘Om Shanti Om’ in which he played a struggling actor who believed that the world has the potential to manifest his dreams of becoming a superstar. Hydari also believes that she’s what you call the proverbial “director’s baby.”

“I love the feeling of being on a set – which should ideally be a combination of challenge and nurture. And that can come only if it’s a great director with years of experience behind him… I love to be on a set and absorb … I have always believed that a director chooses you because they need to believe that you can be a part of their vision.”

But how difficult is it not to be pigeonholed as an actress? Hydari’s slender frame and delicate facial features could be limiting.

Aditi Rao Hydari in Sufiyum Sujatayum (2020)1-1594187254208
Aditi Rao Hydari is a big name down South India. Here we see her in Malayalam film 'Sufiyum Sujatayum'

“I think every actor at some point gets put into some kind of box, and that’s natural, right? Whatever works or whatever people like or if directors think this is the way to cast a person, you get put into a box. But it’s up to us to break that pattern by wanting to do other things. When the box gets tight, you need to jostle for space,” said Hydari. Apparently, after ‘Yeh Saali Zindagi’ released, Hydari was slotted as this sweet girl next door, and currently, she’s in that phase where she’s the go-to talent while casting for period dramas.

“But the key is to fight it when it gets claustrophobic,” said Hydari. But she lets us in on a secret. She savours those “little boxes” because it’s ultimately a token of acceptance from her fan base. But is there more work ever since Over-The-Top platforms and web series began writing strong roles for women? As soon as she heard this question, Hydari had a quick correction.

“Many great directors were creating incredible female characters before OTT. Directors like Rituparno Ghosh, Mrinal Sen, Satyajit Ray … But I agree that somewhere after them and our current phase, there was a lean phase for women’s roles. But now it’s different. I hope we reach a place where these labels like a heroine-centric film will go away, and we don’t base everything on gender,” said Hydari.