Interview: Bollywood Actress, Singer & Model Monica Dogra

She sings. She hosts. She listens. She connents. The beauty is no longer in the eye of the beholder but in the grace of every note sung. This December, get to know Monica Dogra as she brings magic to music.

I don’t have anything against the “mainstream scene”. I just feel the mainstream scene has not really like me. Maybe, I’ve always been different and maybe I’m always been different and maybe I’m doing that a little less now. At the end of the day it is not up to me. It has to be a synergy, a symbiotic relationship because I will not alter who I am. I like that I live different.

On Gaurav Raina of Midival Punditz:

He’s one of my best friends. Before that, I went to NYU and I danced with his university troupe. We choreographed Chandni Chowk (which is a Midival Punditz song). I choreographed his music before I met him, before he became my friend and before I started touring with him. I know him, I’ve seen him at his best and worst and that’s a perfect relation for a collaboration because you have no ego. It’s hard for an established producer to quit his own view points and let my voice to be the strongest. It takes a real man to do that.

On Grime Riot Disco:

The problem is that access to independent culture is really costly. What about people who can’t afford 500 rupee beer or a 500 rupee entry? They love the music, they love the artist and they want to get involved. That’s why me and Kunal, my partner, created Grime Riot Disco. It’s low budget, wear chappals, wear torn jeans. That’s the next step, figuring out a way to make independent culture accessible to all.

On Prashant Mistry of Engine Earz:

I met him when I performed at the Royal Festival Hall. The day I met him, we sat together and sang for an hour just improvising. Since that day we knew we needed to work together. But our relationship was on facetime, whatsapp, skype. Then I got a job touring in American and they were flying me to UK for a week and that helped.

We’ll begin with your solo album in December – tell us more about it.

I’ve wanted to write and record a solo album for maybe 4 years, maybe more than that. It’s been one of those things that’s really painful and really beautiful at the same time. I feel a lot of pressure now, you know, because I’ve written and released 4 albums already and I’m onto my 4th record with my band. I’ve now sung for film, collaborate with some of my biggest heroes. I’ve kind of reached this point in my life where it was really pivotal, because in the last 4 years I’ve released a film with Aamir Khan. I’ve released 2 records, I sang for movies, I traveled all over the world and I’ve spent my whole life dreaming I would do this. I’d never had to think about what next. You know, that feeling when you feel like you’re established?

But I kind of felt like an umbilical cord was cut off to my dream and I was just flailing around in outer space. I was just like what do I dream of now, what do I focus on now and saw I’ve always been an artist that’s collaborated. When you’re in films, you do what the director tell you. I’ve hosted The Dewarists and in many ways the show was not my concept but my solo album from start to finish is of my own accord. No one else’s influences, no one else calls the shots except me. But that’s also scary because I’ve always had somebody to tell me ‘Monica, that’s good’. So I’ve had to decide what’s good or bad, it’s freaky and awesome.

Did you miss Randolph while working on your solo album?

I did, but at the same time I haven’t stopped recording full-fledged with Shaair + Func so I don’t get too much time to miss him. But I had a great experience on one my songs on my solo, a song called ‘pockets’. I had written it many years ago by myself on a beach when I got him to track the guitars and I heard him play like the never did before. He did what I asked him to. see that’s what happend when you collaborate with people. You discover things inside of you that would never have come out if someone didn’t pull it out of you. So, for people like him who have pulled so much out of me, this is my opportunity to pull something out of him. Especially since it’s so unlike something he’s ever done.

How would you say the sound of your solo album is different from the music of Shaair + Func?

My solo album is much more languid. It’s stripped down. It’s a bit more intimate. I initially set out to write a record which has nothig to do with dance music, because Shaair + Func is all dance music. But then, I noticed that the dancer in me would never keep quiet. There’s something to be said, you know, when you got to a house party and somebodyplays the guitar and somebody else starts playing tabla on a table. There’s something to be said about dance music that’s really organic, really acoustic and not heavy at all. It still makes you move. Whether I wanted it or not my solo record still has acoustic, organic elements of dance music or movement music rather. But it’s definitely quiet.

More like downtempo dance music than upbeat dance music?

It’s not even down tempo. It’s more like fold acoustic. There’s also this song which is swing on the album.

You’re also going to appear in a yet untitled movie with Naseeruddin Shah. After seeing you in 4 movies, is yours to be as a regular face in the movies?

I relaly hope so. Initially, my goal was to do 2 films a year. Now, I’ve upped my goal because I’ve realized the thing about films is that while you’re filming you have no guarantee your film will release especially for somebody in the art film bracket or independent film bracket. I’m not going out there and do just about anything. I’m okay with that. But at the same time, I want my work to be seen. So, it’s a double edged sword. It’s like you have to balance being a celeb actor with also wanting as an artist for your work to reach minds, hearts, eyes and that’s not in my control. I just have to have foresight.

Also, the last few years shooting for The Dewarists took up 4 months of my year and it was every single day. That also make it difficult. I got more films my way but I had to say no. The Dewarists was a passion project but now it’s more than that. It’s in music festivals, it’s in movies, it’s a pregnant belly of independent culture in India. TV is one of the most powerful mediums in this nation and it’s a one of a kind. The Dewarists was trailblazing and we all did it for very little return with only a vision and a belief. I feel that’s my role.

Speaking of The Dewarists, this is your 3rd year of hosting it. Have you every gotten tired of so much travelling, that too to distant random places?

OMG Yes! When I talk to people with real jobs and I’m like “I’m so jealous of you, man”. Although I would never trade it, it’s not easy on the body, on your inner organs, on your relationship. I can’t plan anything because you’re never sure where you’d be next.

I’m never sure… I’ve just stopped asking. So many times, in the city, I have no idea where I’m going to, who booked my flight, whether it’s happening, am I going or not. The last year the longest stretched I worked was 7 months withoug missing a single day off. That being said I throw parties so I don’t compromise anywhere. I might shoot for 18 hours and I’ll still go party because it’s my party, wake up at 5 am and I also have training. It’s great, it’s all my choice. That’s my new goal actually. Last year I was not good, but this year I’ve decided everything that I’m doing is 100% my decision. However busy I am, it’s 100% my choice. It’s my choice, I know I ‘m going to be tired, whatever, sleeping is for wussies. It’s fine.

Would you ever want to change anything in your journey from Maryland to Mumbai to forming Shaair + Func and now?

Maybe. This is the first year I feel really comfortable and confident of who I am. I thing I regret a little bit even though I think regrets are really bad. If I wish something could be a tiny bit different, I wish I could be a tiny bit more confident earlier on, that I look more chances. In my effort to stand for something, I would be really intense – I don’t believe I should lend any of my energy into anything I don’t believe in. When I first got here so many people were pushing me to do so many things that I was like ‘are you crazy.?” I won’t do an item song, I won’t VJ your show, I wont’t do reality television shows where I’m made to be an idiot along with othef idiots. There were many things I said no to. I think I got a little too intense, I think I could’ve had more fun. I believe if you want to change the system, you have to change it from within. I think I was always on the outside judging and I’m starting to do that less, I’m starting to have more fun.

Is there a conscious shift to the mainstream scene rather than the alternative counterpart?

I don’t have anything against the “mainstream scene”. I just feel the mainstream scene has not really like me. May be, I’ve always been different any maybe I’m doing that a little less now. At the end of the day it is not up to me. It has to be a synergy, a symbiotic relationship because I will not alter who I am. I like that I live different. I liek that I speak different. I like my fashion. If other people don’t that’s ok and I won’t change that. I’d like to be better, I’d like to be more fit. I’m on that road every day. I won’t undergo plastic surgery, act in a film that for me will completely erase the intelligent work I’ve done so far, just because I’m desperate. What’s great is that I can write music. I can write a script if I want to. I’m smart enough to create a road if it doesn’t exist, so if no one like me has walked on the highway that is mainstream then I’ll create a parallel road that’s just as smooth for people like me. I get it. It’s cool.

What were your biggest takeaways from this season of the Dewarists?

I think I was most excited when I was approached to do Season 3. Sameera, a friend and one of the creators of the show, said the show has ben reformed to now incorporate dancers, artists, videographers and so on. She said it so shyly but I was ecstatic. That’s exactly who I am. When I started in India, I started acting in movies but I also sang in a band and I also studied Mohininattayam.

But everybody was like “what’s your fist love”. You can’t be an actor and a singer and a dancer. since the beginning of time the Bharatnatyam shashtra said that you have to learn how to play with dancers, you have to learn dance, you have to learn the natya, you have to learn the stories. You have to learn the song, you have to learn the taals. The better you get at one, the better you get at the other, it’s all related. That’s a way of thinking that’s existed long before Bollywood. Then Bollywood came and somebody can’t dance and somebody can’t sing and sometimes somebody can’t act. But they’are all still working and that’s wrong in my opinion. Look at Madhuri Dixit. What a dancer, what an actress! Especially if our films have song and dance, then you oughta know it.

So that’s the biggest straw of Season 3. Finally, a show that is acknowledging the inter-relationships of all art forms and the way they must exist together. For when they do, it’s an extraordinary kind of image.

It’s something new to India. Definitely so…

Now every show is making music. You have Coke studio and you have travelling channels like Fox Travel but no othe rshow is combining music and dance. It also gives the independent artists in this country, say street performers, puppeteers a platform.

How was your experience interacting with so many passionate musicians?

Amazing. Incredible. I’ve met people who, met and collaborated with people who don’t speak English, grew up in a house where they have generations of musicians. People, who’ve literally come from nothing, people who’ve built ashrams for untouchables.

You know, every time, I want to talk about my journey ‘people don’t get me’. I’ve met peopel who’ve had it so much harder, who’ve come so far with nothing and that’s just the greatest gift.

It makes you more humble?

It also makes you more ambitious. If they can do it so can I. I also feel like it gets tricky because the more known you become, more fame you acquire, wheter you want to not, there’s a part of you that’s gets really guarded. Almost like verybody wants something from you, everybody’s looking at you. Then you meet these peopel who are so much better than anybody and they’ve done so much more with the world and for themselves; it gives you the respect that you need. That thought that I don’t really matter that much and no one really cares. That’s great because when you begin, is when you’re the most innovative, you take most risks. Then you acquire recognition, you start to do things because you think it’s expected out of you. That’s not really true and most artists get stuck there. The manicuring gets better but the spirit just dissolves.

One day I’m at an ashram in Keralal for untouchables and the next day I’m wearing a gown at an awards show. These awards, I respect what it means and it’s a lovely experience, but one is not greater than the other. If we all approached it that way, then we’d do a lot more for the other side. The amount of attention and money gets pumped into this should also go to that. You know what I mean? It’s also the disparity we see in India as a nation. Everybody will clean the inside of their house but not the outside.

Music royalties and piracy is a big thing these days. Many indie artists have taken the Parikrama route (that’s releasing their songs digitally) and uploaded their songs for free. What are your thoughts on this?

For our 3rd album, we released our music for free. I think I’ve even seeded my own music on pirate websites. Especially in India, when you’re growing in a scene that didn’t exist 7-8 years ago. We’ve had a really intense metal scene. It was either Bollywood or metal. Then, it became trance and techno. Then other genres like drum and bass, the first ever reggae party, dub, house. All these other genres pretty much had little to no platform and yet the internet kids grow up liking what they like. What they listen to at the touch of a button influences them to listen to the music they end up listening. You knows, bars restaurants, there’s no knowledge what the hell is that. Because of that artists at the forefront of change like Parikrama, Shaair + Func, Pentagram or Midival Punditz, Karsh Kale all of us had probably encouraged people to download our music and we’ve relied heavily on our tours. That’s great because we get paid for shows. When we show up to a festival playing, 10000 people are singing every word because they downloaded our music. Abroad people who go to concerts are waiters, taxi drivers. But here you never see a rickshaw wala go to concerts. When I see a rickshaw wala go to my show that’s when I’ll know I’ve made it.

You know, every time, I want to talk about my journey ‘people don’t get me’. I’ve met people who’ve had it so much harder, who’ve come so far with nothing and that’s just the greatest gift.

MONICA over the Years

2004: Graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Music from NYU

2005: Formed the electro-rock group Shaa’ir+Func with guitarist Randolph Correia.

2007: Released New Day: The Love Album.

2008: Guest appearance in movie Rock On and released Light Tribe

2010: Dooriyan Bhi Hai Zaroori with Vishal Dadlani for the film Break Ke Baad, released Mantis.

2011: Debutted as an actor in Dobhi Ghat. Also The Dewarists started off with her as host.

2012: Worked in the film David and Fireflies. Meanwhile, The Dewarists season 2 is bustling with songs from various genres.

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