Musician and Actress, Monica Dogra has gained global recognition with some critically acclaimed performances in both Hollywood and Bollywood. Besides acting in films, the multi-faceted personality has released five studio albums with band Shaa’ir and func, two solo albums as well as numerous singles. She has hosted four seasons of Cannes nominated music-docu series ‘The Dewarists’ and was also on the jury panel of India’s first english music talent show ‘The Stage’.
Having found a strong foothold in Bollywood with her debut film ‘Dhobi Ghat’ alongside Aamir Khan, Monica continued garnering appreciation for her roles in many other films. Her last film was Netflix top 10, called ‘What Are The Odds’.
Known for pushing boundaries and taking chances in all her performances, she recently starred in Alt Balaji’s web series ‘The Married Woman’ which is currently the 2nd most streamed digital show in India.
The free-spirited artist never ceases to reinvent herself. She creates, experiments, and pushes past limits managing to continuously surprise both her audience and herself.
In an exclusive conversation with Impact Magazine, Monica Dogra candidly talks about her indie music & acting career, her life journey & growth as a person and the massive impact spirituality has had on her.
Q. How did singing & music happen to you? Story behind stepping into the Entertainment Industry?
My mom definitely gave me a love for all of art. When I was little, I studied ballet, tap, kathak, piano, ice skating, gymnastics. My mom made sure we had a piano in the living room. Instead of playing the songs that my teacher taught me though, I enjoyed playing songs I made up. I never really knew I was going to write my own music though. I studied musical theatre at NYU. I remember it was difficult being the only Indian in the program, also it was a struggle to pay for school. This feeling I was meant to do something bigger was always in my being. I used to write poetry. By a series of accidents I ended up in India. I was writing songs at this point. India swept me up and swept me away. Before I knew it I had written an album, started performing live and was offered a film.
Q. How would you describe the Indian entertainment industry?
It is more vast than I think the media covers it to be! There are so many incredible musicians, artists, art directors, directors of photography…managers….its an ecosystem so vast and complex and concentrated with real revolutionary creative energy. I am barely an expert. The more I discover the more I realize I know next to nothing.
Q. What were the initial struggles you faced & how did you overcome them?
I struggled with earning a living. People always viewed what I did as niche but recognized that it garnered a large enough audience to want to include me or partner with me, but not pay me. I also think the misogyny was difficult for me to deal with. I was always sidelined or exploited for the fact that I was a woman. To be fair, sometimes it worked in my favour. But it’s never nice to hear that you are where you are not for your talent, but simply because you’re a girl. Also that I’m an NRI has been both a blessing and a curse. I’m not your typical NRI of privilege, though that is often the label people tagged onto me. I always say I’m too mainstream to be indie and too indie to be mainstream. I’m Indian in America and American in India. So that’s just become my thing, that I don’t really fit so easily in anywhere and the people for me are the ones who feel the same.
Q. How & when did you decide to move to Bombay to try your hands at acting? Was Bollywood always on the cards?
Bollywood was never a goal for me. My career reflects that. I am so grateful for the opportunities that came my way and all the doors that opened as a result of the film industry. I love telling stories, through song, dance, film, TV, poetry, writing. Story telling is an extremely powerful medium.
Dhobi Ghat happened because my band Shaa’ir and Func was on the cover of Time Out Mumbai. We were rising in fame and people were talking about us. It was one of the greatest accidents of my life and I’m eternally grateful to Kiran Rao.
Q. What were the breakthrough points in your career that established you as a successful Indie Singer and an actress?
I’ve had a few. Shaa’ir and func was the first. After that Dhobi Ghat, then hosting the Dewarists. After that definitely being the first and only female judge on The Stage. Oddly enough, when I did my first mainstream TV show, Khatron Ke Khiladi, a lot changed for me. Then when I started to DJ and perform solo. I have diversified and multiplied so much in my career. In a way, it’s been how I survived so many years in the business.
Q. How life has been post success?
I don’t think there is a linear way to look at things…I have been in the midst of some of my greatest “successes” and not felt the success for various reasons. Maybe I wasn’t promoted, marketed, maybe I wasn’t paid properly. I still feel like the best has yet to come. Nothing has really fallen in line easily so to speak so far. I want that.
Q. You also write poetry? Where would you say your writing comes from?
I do. My writing comes from some place else, when I’m in a flow state. Often I write what I do not live. My human mind is so limited, but when I can just let go and allow something larger to take over…beautiful things happen.
Q. How do you choose roles that you’re a part of? Is there a certain criteria that you follow?
Not really. I pick work that inspires me, or people who inspire me, or I do things out of financial necessity. I would like to marry all three now. Do things financially profitable, with people who inspire me, around content that lights up my heart.
Q. Is it daunting to live up to expectations or you feel privileged to be in a position where you started off as a musician but are now seen as someone who has a strong voice outside of the creative space?
I’d say I take whatever voice I have in whatever medium as a great gift and great responsibility. Waking up to the responsibility part of it, took me some time, because I’m quite a no filter type of person who grew up believing that the very least we can do is raise our voices…so I raise mine often, and in moments when I haven’t spoken with enough clarity, or hadn’t been informed ENOUGH, I have experienced the shadow side of celebrity.
Q. Tell us something about your character in the web series ‘A Married Woman’? Was it easy to play the character keeping in mind the show’s sensitive subject?
I play a character called Peeplika Khan. The show is essentially about two women who fall in love….and the complexities of finding that freedom in a binary world that is divisive. The character was easy to play in a way because so much of life I have actually lived was useful to channel in order to bring the layers and nuances of this character to life…but this is also what was so difficult about Peeplika. So many gates of my own trauma had been closed for years, and I needed to reopen them to bring her authentically to life. That was hard on my heart. I am very grateful to my director Sahir Raza, for holding endless space for me to do that, and for my creative director Mehak. She was my guardian angel throughout the process.
Q. Looking back at your early career & initial few music videos, do you see a different person in you today?
In some ways yes, in some ways no. I believe I have become less desperate in every way, but that is something that happens as you get older quite naturally. But, I have always seen someone from the start until now, who really is in service to the expansion of consciousness to make room for endless diversity, in thought, and action….so long as you are not hurting anybody.
Q. You’ve opted for roles that actors in India generally are inhibit to play, especially in films that focus on sexual diversity. Your thoughts?
For whatever reason, I have this nature…it’s a calling from a place I cannot describe. My work does tend to focus on themes combining, sexuality, and spirituality. I don’t know why…but it is what naturally seems to happen.
Q. Do you think more celebs & icons of the industry should speak out & be more vocal about social issues & happenings around us? (Like you & few others have been doing it)
I think that it is a weighted risk that everyone must make. No doubt, when you stand up and speak out in India, you get brought down…I do think that my career has suffered to a certain extent as a result of my activism but I’m ok with that. If I had a larger profile, I’m sure it would be even worse than what I’ve experienced, so I don’t stand in judgment of those who choose to stay silent. Do I wish that more would speak up and speak out, hell yes. It think there is strength in numbers. I do believe the people have the power.
Q. While performing a song, how do you revive the sentiments you had when you wrote it? Do you have a stage ritual or trigger?
This is a technique I actually studied in college…it is acting for singers. I believe one day, I can teach it.
Q. You come across as an independent fearless soul. How can one be that?
First of all thank you. Secondly, I really don’t know! I don’t identify as fearless. I am full of fear. I just have the courage to confront it.