Meet Ayesha Dharker, Britain’s most recognisable Indian actor

  • Neil Davey
  • Updated: Jul 23, 2016 20:35 IST
For the average UK viewer, Ayesha is more famous than Aishwarya Rai, Priyanka Chopra and Shilpa Shetty. (©Tristram Kenton)

Ayesha Dharker is arguably the most famous Indian actress in the United Kingdom today.

Aishwarya Rai, Priyanka Chopra and Shilpa Shetty might make the gossip and society pages of the British media but, to the average UK viewer, Ayesha is more famous, with an incredible CV that takes in the West End (and Broadway) for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams, TV dramas such as the acclaimed Indian Summers and the BBC’s The Indian Doctor, a year in Coronation Street, the UK’s longest running and most popular soap opera, celebrated art-house films like Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist and Hollywood smashes like Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.

More recently, Ayesha won perhaps the most coveted stage role of the last 12 months as Titania in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s landmark production for the 400th anniversary of The Bard’s death of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The Chameleon
You may have noticed the ‘arguably’ in that opening line. Why arguably? Because, while Ayesha’s face is instantly recognisable, not everybody in the UK knows her name.

There are two good reasons for this. First, Ayesha is a chameleon. While utterly striking – particularly the eyes and expressive mouth – she has a rare ability to inhabit a role, and it’s the character you remember more than the actress. The second, more charming reason is that, actually, it’s how Ayesha wants it.

When I suggest she’s the Indian Patricia Clarkson – perhaps Hollywood’s best, yet least familiar character actress – with ‘the ultimate what-have-I-seen-them-in-before-face’, Ayesha laughs, agrees, and tells me how people often do a double-take as she walks by.

“Sometimes there’s an instant recognition, but other times people come up and chat because they think I was at school with their kids or was in their parents’ group! Sometimes kids walk past and tug their parent’s arms because they’ve seen me in some sci-fi thing. That’s really nice.”

Tucked subtly away in that paragraph is a hint of the self-deprecation that peppers our chat. By “some sci-fi thing” Ayesha means either Star Wars or the hugely popular Dr Who. “I’m a kook,” she tells me more than once, also dismissing several thoughtful, measured responses with “that doesn’t make any sense, does it?” or words to that effect.

It strikes me later that this modesty could be what’s endeared Ayesha to the audience in her adoptive British home: that and her approachability.

If they saw Aishwarya Rai being glamorous at Royal Ascot, the average Brit would: a) know she was Bollywood royalty; and b) stare from afar. If they saw Ayesha, they’d go and have a chat. It’s probably appropriate then that she calls the UK home, although, as she explains, settling here took some time.

“When I was 20-ish I left Bombay,” she explains. “But that wasn’t my base any more. I was working in the UK, the US and India, more or less interchangeably. I had this Samsonite suitcase and I lived out of that for about four years. It wasn’t until I married that I thought about settling in one place.”

The reason she hadn’t settled was work. A lot of work, across three decades which – inevitably and incorrectly – Ayesha describes as “dumb luck”.

The Prodigy
Ayesha’s worked steadily from her 1989 debut – a French film called Manika, Une Vie Plus Tard (aka The Girl Who Lived Twice) – at the age of eight, to where we are now, backstage at the Royal Shakespeare Company. It is, as mentioned above, a stunning CV – and doubly so for someone who admits “acting was always something I refused to take seriously.”

“My parents [journalist Anil Dharker and poet and artist Imtiaz Dharker, now divorced] are quite politically active and I could see they believed in, and loved, what they were doing. For me, the idea of being an actress, was loaded with the idea of being famous and I wasn’t interested in those. I was interested in stories and storytelling.”

“Then I got an opportunity to work with people like Shabana Azmi and Om Puri [City of Joy, 1992], and it was incredible to be taken seriously by people like that. They took me under their wing, and inspired me. That was the first time that I thought this was a job I could do.”

Allergic To Networking
Ayesha’s unconventional attitude to her career extends to the casting process. Indeed, after weeks of workshopping Bombay Dreams, she didn’t put herself forward for the production! “I didn’t think I was the musical type,” she shrugs. Happily, she bumped into one of the production staff on audition day. “I used to fiddle about making bits of jewellery, and there’s a bead shop next to their office…” She laughs. “I realise now how weird that sounds, but I didn’t want to waste their time…

“I’ve always been slightly allergic to the idea of networking. I believe things happen when and how they’re supposed to happen. It’s all very well going for opportunities when they present themselves, but I don’t feel that pushing yourself artificially necessarily works. If you go with the flow a little you’ll be amazed at the stuff that comes at you. All you have to do is to try and make as authentic as possible choices as you can…” Ayesha trails off and smiles. “That sounds really up itself, doesn’t it?!”

“Being an actor is a weird job. You’re not in control of it and the more in control you try to be, the more you frustrate yourself. Just trust that if you want to put something into the world, there will be an opportunity for you to put it into the world.”

“We work much better together at telling stories and telling certain kind of stories that are important, that’s a very significant thing. When the ‘Brexit’ news broke, I was shocked, but I was so happy to be doing this production, because this pulls together what I believe in.”

Dharker in a scene from Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Othello

That political division of the United Kingdom has touched most conversations I’ve had since the Scottish referendum, so it was inevitable it would come up here, particularly as Ayesha is uniquely placed to comment – partly as an ‘outsider’ who’s chosen to make the UK her home, but also because of the nature of this current production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While many of the roles are played by Ayesha and her professional colleagues, the Mechanicals – the labourer characters such as Bottom, Snug and Peter Quince who put on the play within the play – are played by amateur actors from across the country.

“We have been to 14 different cities, worked with 14 different amateur companies,” explains Ayesha. “And schoolchildren too, with ages ranging from seven to 12. In many places that’s children who’ve never seen a play, let alone performed on stage to 2,000 people. It’s a lot of pressure but I’ve seen what it’s done for their self-esteem.”

For someone whose own career started at the age of eight, it’s been a revelation. “It’s been weird to look in that ‘mirror’,” admits Ayesha, “I have been in their shoes and acting changed my life in ways I cannot even encapsulate, I cannot even imagine what I would have done without it, but I think either way, at that age, it is just a wonderful experience and empowering for children to be taken seriously.”

Bottoms’ Up
Discussing the production reveals another reason why the Brits might be so fond of Ayesha: she has our [British] sense of humour. The nature of the show means she’s been up against 14 different Bottoms. Ahem.

“That NEVER gets old,” laughs Ayesha. “They happen to have picked the one person for whom Bottom jokes will never cease to be funny.” She adopts a serious expression. “That is what attracted to me, the proliferation of Bottoms… .”

Dharker in a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “The love of Shakespeare... is a great connection. To come together for the love of something, there’s nothing better than that,” she says

As well as the opportunity for schoolboy humour, this ambitious production has kept things fresh and exciting for those like Ayesha in for the ‘long haul.’

“I thought it would be a challenge but it’s been the loveliest thing. I’m not an artist painting in my room on my own, I paint with 39 other people, on stage. The joy of that collusion is the perfect antidote to what is happening right now.”

“We need to be looking not for difference but for things that draw us together. The love of Shakespeare, of theatre, is a great connection. To come together for the love of something, there’s nothing better than that. If I walked past the people who’ve played Bottom in the street, I wouldn’t think we had anything to chat about. But we’re cut from the same cloth, and that’s the loveliest thing. I think human beings are capable of such joy and brilliance and weirdness. [Brexit] has happened, now we have to do more of what makes people believe in positive stuff. And read more Shakespeare!”

“Shakespeare holds the absolute roots of what Britishness is, but also what humanity is. He hypnotises, the labyrinth of his words takes you on an extra stroll you don’t need to go on in order to understand an idea, to take you to the core of how people feel.”

“What do I know?” asks Ayesha. “I’m just some silly little actress.” She smiles. “But I do wish Shakespeare was around this week, to get his response on it.”

Actress? Yes – and a damned fine one. Little? Undoubtedly – but only in stature not personality. Silly? You really couldn’t be further from the truth… .

Ayesha’s career

* Manika, Une Vie Plus Tard, feature film (1989)

* I Misteri Della Giungla Nera, TV mini series (1991)

* City of Joy, feature (1992)

* A Mouthful of Sky, TV series (1995)

* Saaz, feature film (1997)

* Awarded Best Artistic Contribution by an Actress at the Cairo International Film Festival in 1998 for her role as a suicide bomber in Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist (right)

* Actor John Malkovich saw The Terrorist at the festival and adopted the film as a kind of post-facto executive producer (the reissued film’s titles read “John Malkovich Presents”)

* Split Wide Open, feature film (1999)

* The Mystic Masseur, feature film (2001)

* Played Queen Jamillia in the Hollywood blockbuster Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)

* Played Lata in a radio play A Suitable Boy, serialised on BBC Radio 4 (2002)

* Anita and Me, film, based on a book by Meera Syal (2002)

* Bombay Dreams, a Bollywood-themed musical (2002 -2004)

* Was the narrator in audio book Brick Lane by Monica Ali (2003)

* The Mistress of Spices, feature film (2005)

* Colour Me Kubrick, feature film (2005)

* Enacted Mephastophilis in the play Dr Faustus (October-November 2006)

* Outsourced, feature film (2006)

* The Commander: The Fraudster, TV Movie (2007)

* Loins of Punjab Presents, feature film (2007)

* Dr Who, TV series on the BBC (2008)

* She was part of Coronation Street, the UK’s most popular soap opera (2008-09)

* Played a doctor’s wife in 15 episodes of the BBC series The Indian Doctor (2010)

* She is playing Iago’s wife Emilia in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Othello (2016)

From HT Brunch, July 24, 2016

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