Indian theatre personality and Bollywood actress Lillete Dubey borrows a hat from a 17-year-old spectator. We are inside Johannesburg’s red velvet-upholstered Auto & General Theatre On The Square, and this is an hour before the staging of 9 Parts Of Desire, a play directed by Dubey starring her 30-year-old daughter Ira.
“I woke at 5AM, have had a long day and must be looking a mess, maybe the hat will compensate,” says Dubey, before the photo session. She needn’t have bothered. At 60, she is slim, svelte and spunky, despite the “old rehearsal T-shirt” and sherpa boots she is wearing.
The hat is perhaps symbolic of the many she wears every day. Mother, wife, actor, director and recently, Richard Gere’s co-star in the sequel to 2011’s Judi Dench and Bill Nighy-starrer The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel that will release worldwide in February.
Snacking on a cheese-tomato sandwich, and between mouthfuls, Dubey’s glowing description of her handsome co-star is predictable: “He’s paired opposite me romantically and chases me in the film. Richard Gere is such a lovely, warm, charming, affectionate guy.”
Her first meeting with Gere though was anything but predictable.
“I had just thrown up after a bad reaction to something I had eaten. So when I was introduced to him, and he prepared to hug me, I said ‘please don’t come near me, I have just puked’. And he said ‘I have had a number of reactions from women, but this is a first’.”
Dubey had visited Johannesburg three years ago, as director of the long-running off-Broadway hit Dance Like A Man. The play has just completed its 505th show globally. Despite starring in 40 films in Bollywood and internationally, theatre remains her first love.
“Theatre is a jealous mistress, it leaves me with little time for anything else,” says the Mumbai-based Dubey, who is currently working on six stage productions. She had “stumbled into” Bollywood after 20 years of theatre, and is instantly recognizable in India’s thriving film industry.
Film credits include Shyam Benegal’s Zubeidaa, Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding and notable blockbusters with Bollywood royalty Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan.
9 Parts Of Desire, written by American-Iraqi playwright Heather Raffo, details the lives of nine Iraqi women between the first and second Gulf Wars. Dubey’s daughter Ira is outstanding essaying all nine women.
“It’s a serious play, has some humor, but is hard-hitting,” says Dubey, ecstatic about the response she received in Durban. The play was staged in South Africa as part of Shared History 2014: The Indian Experience in South Africa, in early September.
She regrets her trip to the country is brief. On her wish-list is a visit to the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town. But she’s not sure if she can make it.
“South Africa is steeped in music, dance and theatre. I wish I had the time to experience some more of that.”
Dubey is also thrilled about her newest film, Dr Cabbie, a Canadian production that has just released. “Yet, my heart is in theatre,” she says, before blowing our way kisses and disappearing back-stage to a realm that she calls her own.