Her first visit to India sans family — a five-day vacation to Mumbai in 2005, after the completion of her theatre and music studies at New York University — changed Monica Dogra’s life forever. On the very first evening, she somehow got hold of passes to a music event, made a few friends and ended up at a house party. At this gathering of amateur musicians, she got jamming in the wee hours of the morning with others present. One of them, Randolph Correia, today forms one half of Dogra’s band Shaa’ir + Func, one of India’s most popular alternative electronic music acts. “I went back to New York after those five days with so many memories and a germ of a dream of becoming a musician. I chose to follow my instinct — I moved to Mumbai and started the band with Randolph,” says 30-year-old Dogra.
Ever since, Dogra hasn’t ignored her impulses. It also played a crucial role in kick-starting her movie career — she had first turned down Kiran Rao’s offer to audition for Dhobi Ghat. More recently, it helped her take up the character Noor in Bejoy Nambiar’s upcoming release, David. “Noor is the love interest of the David that is played by Neil Nitin Mukesh. She is a servant, but not subserviant. Noor speaks her mind, she can spit fire but is vulnerable too,” Dogra states.
This duality in Noor, she says, is akin to her own personality. “You will see that evident in my lyrics. Noor is more like Shaa’ir, who is almost like my alter ego,” she points out. This duality in Dogra derives from her past. “The musician in me comes from my mother, whose side of the family consists of musicians. My parents separated when I was young and I grew up with my father, so there is much of him in me as well,” explains the actor.
In her early years, Dogra remained confused. With roots in Jammu, she grew up in Maryland but had an extremely traditional upbringing. “My parents were stuck in the India of their times, so I was not allowed to wear clothes that exposed skin or talk to boys. I would spend my weekends training in Indian classical dance or at social meet-ups for Indians,” she recalls. As a result, Dogra couldn’t fully understand her inclination towards music although it was her graduation subject.
At the same time, Dogra heard from her other Indian friends about how her home country was changing. Her curiosity brought her to Mumbai. “I was in shock when I came here — India was unlike what I had grown up believing it to be. The experience freed me up,” she explains. She could think freely, put these thoughts into words, lyrics, which made her Shaa’ir.
Dogra, however, is multi-talented — a writer and vocalist with her band and an actor in Bollywood, few are aware that she is also a trained dancer in Ballet, Kathak and Mohiniyattam. This aspect makes movement and expressions a crucial part of her performances on stage. “But I am unable to do it always because it takes too much energy.
I wish I could sing and dance at the same time like Madonna,” she rues. “But I’d love to do a Bollywood musical,” she adds.
However, till she is offered one, Dogra is busy making music as part of her band, which has until now released three albums — New Day: The Love Album, Light Tribe and Mantis. She also has a packed schedule of gigs in various cities, has already spent four months shooting for the second season of The Dewarists as its host, and is wrapping up her next film Fireflies opposite Rahul Khanna. “I am living the life of my dreams,” she says.