Devika Bhise interprets Janaki in The Man Who Knew Infinity and takes charge of her career with a women’s collective. By Udita Jhunjhunwala
Devika Bhise, 24, was born and raised in Manhattan, New York, but has been visiting India twice every year, enjoying the best of both worlds. The young actress, who has been touring the world with her first major feature film, The Man Who Knew Infinity, is the epitome of the blend of western and eastern culture. Born to Maharashtrian parents, she speaks Marathi and English at home, but is also comfortable with Hindi, French and Italian. Under the tutelage of her accomplished dancer mother, Swati Bhise, Devika is a proficient Bharatnatyam dancer, a skill that helped her land the coveted part of Mathematician Ramanujan’s wife Janaki in Infinity. Trained in theatre and the arts at John Hopkins University, USA, it was a part in Partition, a local play on Ramanujan that got her noticed and shortlisted for the part in the film, which also stars Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel. When not practising dance, reading film scripts and acting in TV shows or plays, Devika focuses on her jazz singing. The petite, pretty, confident and multi-faceted Devika speaks to us from Goa on the eve of the Indian premiere of The Man Who Knew Infinity at the International Film Festival of Goa.
Was it easy for you to land the part of Janaki in Infinity, having acted in The Partition on stage?
Not really. I had to work hard to convince the filmmakers that I could do it. In The Partition I played Namagiri, the goddess who protected Ramanujan. The first thing was to convince the filmmakers that I could pull off the Indian accent. I also convinced them that my familiarity with Indian dance would help me with the body language and movements. Even after I got the part, girls were still sending in their tapes because it was such a coveted part. So I had to be sure and confident. But as soon as I read the script I knew I was perfect for the role of Janaki. The greatest compliment I got was when her nephew saw the film in Toronto and said that I had done a great job in interpreting Janaki.
You wrapped the shooting of Infinity in South India last September. How has the year been?
The last year, since the wrap of shooting till the premiere in India at IFFI has been a year of growth — first the acting, then the post production, then the promotions and film festivals. I have also been in a couple of episodes of the American TV show Elementary. I am reading scripts and looking at projects which are in contrast to the South Indian period setting and the girl I played in Infinity. This is why I am so excited about Shambhala (the survival drama starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers), which I start shooting in January.
What attracted you to Shambhala?
She is so different from Janaki. I play a precocious, confident college student who is not Indian. My character is ethnically ambiguous, which excited me. I loved playing an Indian character but I also want to play as many different parts as possible. This is a new stage in my acting career where I am competing for roles that are harder to get and far more competitive. This is the challenge of this phase. My scenes for Shambhala will only be shot in Singapore.
You have so many interests and talents. How do you balance them all?
At this point all I know is that doing one thing over and over again would bore me. I have always been interested in a variety of things from dance to singing and acting, and I like to take advantage of the opportunities that come my way. Once you start acting regularly it is hard to find time for other things but I sing when I can and if I feel the quality of my singing is not up to my standards, I practise more. It’s important not to lose the skill and passion, and the only way is to do the riyaaz and to practise.
Your mother is a dancer and your father is in aviation finance. How did you realise your calling was acting?
There are videos of me as a three-year-old putting on plays for my parents. Since as early as I can remember, I wanted to act. When I was young and we would go to hotels and there would be bands singing in the lobby, I would ask if I could sing. They thought it was cute. I was five then. So I think I always wanted to be in the spotlight. But my parents insisted I get an education first.
What do you see as the next opportunity you might want to explore?
I am increasingly becoming interested in production and having control over the kind of work I can do. Acting is great, but it’s a waiting game. I am part of an all-women’s collective in New York where we develop stories and short films because we believe there aren’t enough parts or stories for women being written by women. I want to be proactive about my career and become an actor-producer in a couple of years. But I am an actress foremost and this profession gives me the flexibility to do everything else too.
What was it like shooting in Chennai and South India? Did you get a chance to explore much?
It was a while ago now and I don’t remember too many places we visited. We were mostly shooting, but if we got a day off we just wandered around and stumbled upon places. I do remember Auroville and some beautiful art and artifact stores in Pondicherry.
You have a home in Goa too. What do you like to do there? Are you a beach addict?
I love to stay in my home, to sit in the garden and read or look out at the water. It’s very meditative. Or, I spend time in the pool or play with my dogs. I rarely go out. Goa is the place where I am most boring! It’s the place where I get away from everything entirely.
The Man Who Knew Infinity opens at IFFI today.
The film festival will showcase 187 films from 89 countries in the
World Cinema section, along with 26 feature and 21 non-feature
films in the Indian Panorama section. Details: iffi.nic.in