One half of the band Shaa’ir + Func, actress-singer Monica Dogra, best remembered for 2010’s Dhobi Ghat, is out with her first solo album called Spit. We quizzed her on her poetry, her acting career and the lessons she learnt as a jobless musician in New York. Excerpts:
Why call your first solo album Spit?
It is a word that provokes. It has a world-view that can be seen as negative. But actually, it is our acids. It’s how we speak. It’s how we taste, how we love. It’s how we kiss. Also it reminds me of a particular time. How I began writing songs when I would step up to the mike and spit. In New York they say, ‘Just step up to the mike and spit’. That’s what MCs do. Also, when I was writing the album, the word kept popping up. There is a song with lyrics that go:
And I wonder, if you will ever,
untie your tongue
and spit your loving out.
New York seems to be a leitmotif in many of your songs. Do some lyrics emerge from your struggle there?There are always new struggles one faces. Often you feel you have evolved and all of a sudden something happens, that makes you experience exactly the same emotions you felt when you were 12. Something disastrous happens and you are back to being as vulnerable and weak as you once were.
That time in my life was particularly difficult. I wasn’t in touch with my mother for 11 years. My father did not support me being in art. And I was just nuts. Every lover I ever had left me. I used to call myself Lady Love from the Far. It was really easy for me to love someone, but it was never easy for me to make them stay. My mother left me, my father left me and even music left me. And then you begin to define yourself with these sob stories. But now after acting in six films, recording multiple records, there are still moments when I feel I have nobody and I feel afraid, but I am able to dismiss those emotions as just immaturity.
Did those tough New York days leave you with certain life lessons?
Oh God, yeah! I wonder why nobody asked me this question before! I used to audition for every musical. I finally got a couple of musicals before I moved to India. I would get negative feedback and I would sit on the street, watch people walk by and cry and cry and cry. And I used to think ‘F*** it! Maybe I should just give up and maybe I am not good enough.’ And then I would pick myself up, go buy myself a coffee, take myself out on a date and say I don’t do this for anybody else and I will keep doing it whether anybody hires me or not, pays me or not. And when you know that, no amount of struggle and failure can stop you from waking up in the morning and doing what you love.
After so many years, I’ve taken the time to define myself as an artist. Everything I’ve done is in line with what I have believed in but somehow, a huge controversy hit me last year [she was badly trolled when she sought funding online for herself to ostensibly fund a project on LGBT and human rights]. I had not felt that kind of backlash in
so long. Obviously one does not want to be talked about in this negative way.
How do you see yourself in terms of musical genre and lyrics?
My sound is experimental, it goes anywhere from big-band jazz, rock, drum and bass to folk music and house. I am a major in music from NYU. I have a bachelor’s degree in music and I can play the piano and the guitar. All my lyrics are focused around the idea of identity, sex, searching and finding. I think art has the capacity to make extremely large projects extremely personal, thereby being a vehicle for social change.
How do you hone your skills as an actor?
The best practice is doing. My film with Himesh Reshamiya, Teraa Surroor, just released. Last year, I was in the crime drama The Spectacular Jihad of Taz Rahim. I don’t take on projects based on how many people are going to watch them, or how much money it gives me. I look at whether the script inspires me. Also, I never allow dead energy in my life. If someone is not coming to me with work, I am making work for myself. I am busy conceptualising a music video, filming my TV show, writing a new album, writing a script or a book. That’s how I hone my skills as an artist.
How do you see the indie music scene in India evolving?
In the country’s independent music scene, we’ve had institutions close down. No one is buying music anymore. I think with the middle-class as large and as profound as it exists in India, we have many opportunities to create shifts that are at the leading edge of social change just by virtue of population. Because we are all smart enough to talk about it. It isn’t very difficult to do.
I take inspiration from lyrics from a song called Pockets in the album, which go:
Ruin me once before I die,
so I build the strength to keep creating.
Is that your life credo?
Life works that way. The second you trust the ground beneath your feet is exactly when the universe comes and shakes it. And when you recognise it, that is the moment to rise to the opportunity of reinventing yourself. Whether it is losing a job, a broken marriage, losing a lover or losing all your money, when you lose something, it is an opportunity to reinvent and take on something greater.
From HT Brunch, March 20, 2016
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