Dolly Thakore has straddled many roles in her life—actor, newscaster, columnist, casting director and advertising professional. Now she has slipped effortlessly into a new one, that of a memoirist. Together with writer-theatre director Arghya Lahiri, she has penned stories of struggle, heartbreak, infidelity and motherhood with immense candour and wit. She has presented episodes from her life as they are, without opinion or judgement, leaving it to the reader to make the connections and reach their own conclusions.
Thakore, 78, started writing her memoir, Regrets, None, in 1982. But while stories from her childhood spilled on to the paper with ease, she hesitated to reveal those from her adult years. “In the weeks after (my partner) Alyque (Padamsee) left, Protima Bedi dragged me to a series of astrologers, palmists, shadow readers, tarot-card diviners and clairvoyants. Each of them suggested I make a record of my feelings, that I distil those experiences,” she writes in the book. When she started writing, she didn’t have a format in mind, just an urge to share her stories. She poured her heart out but then, as work and other commitments took over, the writing gradually came to a halt.
Thakore returned to the project in 2011. “I knew now why I had stopped. Maybe I was still looking for approval back then. Maybe I didn’t want to be judged. But now, this book has a simple purpose: time is running out. I feel that keenly,” she writes.
She has known Lahiri for 20 years. “I had a 3ft-high heap of pages and Arghya read through them all. He asked me questions, recorded the answers and put it all together. While it is my heart in the book, the assembly has been done by Arghya,” Thakore says in a phone interview.
The memoir, published by HarperCollins, begins with Thakore’s birth as Dolly Rawson in a Christian family in Kohat, Peshawar, in 1943, travels to her stint with the BBC in the 1960s and as host of Femina Miss India events in the 1970s, to her role as the Indian casting director for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) and her first Zoom play during the pandemic this year.
It offers a deeply humane side to personalities we have grown up hearing about. There is this delightful chapter about Thakore having been chosen to perform in the annual play at Miranda House college as a student. Three boys from other colleges were part of the cast too—Kenneth Maharaj Singh and Anwar Abbas from St Stephen’s and Amitabh Bachchan from Kirori Mal College. “I remember him being shy and laconic, a well-mannered, very tall and very thin young man. There’s a photo of all of us lined up for our curtain call. Amitabh’s head is bowed, looking steadfastly at the floor. He says that it was because he’d fluffed his lines, and his mother had come to watch,” writes Thakore.
There are stories of Saeed Jaffrey, in his post-Madhur Jaffrey phase, of working with Alyque Padamsee and M.S. Sathyu on an ad campaign for Maharani Soap, splitting a cold coffee with Kabir Bedi and Shakti Maira at La Guffa in Connaught Place after a successful AIR audition, and Shabana Azmi taking Thakore’s son Quasar for loo breaks while Thakore reviewed plays at Prithvi. There are intimate sketches of the men Thakore entered into relationships with—the oft-vacillating Dilip Thakore and the tempestuous Padamsee, among others.
What really stands out, though, is the way Thakore describes the role of some very strong women in her life—Rani Aunty, her maternal aunt, who did not marry and supported her family financially; Zulie Nakhooda, whose sole mission was to empower underprivileged children; Protima Bedi, whom Thakore calls her soul sister; Femina’s former editor, Vimla Patil; and actor Valerie Agha. “The first woman who influenced me, and whom I respected and loved madly, was my maternal grandmother. Then there was Rani Aunty, with whom I lived till I was six years old. She is 97 years old today,” says Thakore. The influence of the two women, and their values, has stayed with her. “None of us were religious, or observed formalities of any kind. But they were hard-working, dedicated, all-embracing, caring and helpful. A lot of that has rubbed off on me.”
Her many friendships, forged over time, continue to this day. Thakore describes herself as a loyal friend, someone who never forgets people. “Protima passed away 23 years ago. But she is still very much a part of my life through her daughter, sisters and their children. They have a family group, and I am included in that,” she adds.
Regrets, None has some interesting parallel narratives, where the personal and the sociopolitical intersect. She writes about growing up in Jawaharlal Nehru’s India, being a newscaster during the Emergency (1975-77) , and more. One can almost trace the evolution of Bombay’s cultural scene through the pages, with people like Gerson da Cunha, Bal Mundkur, Shyam Benegal, Lalita and Yashwant Das and polymath Adi Marzban populating the memoir. “I have been very much a part of the scene anywhere, whether Hyderabad or Mumbai,” she says.
Having lived through Partition, Thakore has remained politically aware. It has informed her debates, influenced her choice of plays, newscasting and encounters through the years. “Religion didn’t play any part in my life. But politics certainly did. And that impacted the kind of theatre I did,” she says. Whether it was Arun Sachdev in Delhi or Zubin Driver in Mumbai, she worked with directors who were very aware of an emerging society. “Alyque’s theatre was very conscious too. He adapted Julius Caesar to the Emergency, with Usha Katrak playing Indira Gandhi,” she says.
When she was directed by her son, Quasar, in All My Sons in 2001, Thakore realised just how much the approach to theatre had changed. During the 1980s, people had 9-to-5 jobs and were free to pursue their interest in theatre or music. Post- 9pm, they had a social life. “When Quasar’s generation started to do theatre, work didn’t finish at 5pm. As a result, rehearsals started much later, by 8.30pm. There were all sorts of workshops and exercises, which we didn’t have in our days. We read and re-read the play, analysed the character to get to know every motivation,” she says. Actors would arrive for rehearsal and immediately get into limbering and voice exercises. “And I would say, let’s just get into the play! It was a great emotional clash,” she says.
What has stayed constant through the years is her love for theatre with a social cause. That was evident in the last few plays she performed with Padamsee, namely A Streetcar Named Desire and Death Of A Salesman, or Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, which she has been doing for almost 20 years. “We have never talked about menstruation or delivery in public. Eve brings out those aspects beautifully, and it is refreshingly mind-blowing. During the pandemic, we have had Zoom readings. And now, I have acted in my first ever Zoom play, Turning Point, written by Meher Pestonji, about a paraplegic and his mother. I am a techno dumbo and I am not embarrassed to say it. But my domestic help, who doesn’t know how to read or write, is so brilliant with technology, and he comes to my aid. I am doing this at 78 bloody years of age, and it’s great” laughs Thakore.
The same humour and irreverence peppers her memoir. As she writes, “This is my life, warts and all (a phrase I first heard from the late Richard Attenborough).”
Regrets, None, by Dolly Thakore and Arghya Lahiri, has been published by HarperCollins. It is priced at ₹599.