Elevate Difference

Monica Droga: Indie Musician, Bollywood Star, Feminist

Interview with Monica Dogra

Gone are the times when people would migrate only to the West to find better lives. Now we witness a reversal of sorts, with NRIs going back to India to seek the same opportunities that their parents or grandparents had left India to find. Monica Dogra is one such NRI who is rocking the independent music scene in the homeland. She’s one half of what is arguably the most successful indie music band in India, Shaa’ir n Func, and is also making her film debut as one of the leads in Aamir Khan's upcoming Dhobi Ghat, directed by Kiran Rao. Here’s her exclusive interview:

Tell me a bit about your background. American born confused desi?

American born desi, definitely not confused. I was born and brought up in Maryland, just outside of Baltimore. My parents had migrated to the U.S. from India. I was always a super active performer from a really young age.

How did you get into music in the first place?

My mom is a singer as well so I grew up around Hindustani classical music, going to classical concerts when I was young. And then my parents split up when I was twelve and I was raised by my dad. He was the opposite, like, be a doctor, go to business school, etc. But I still had such a deep-rooted love for music that I couldn’t deny it.

How do you balance being American with being Indian?

I think kids today are much more aware of other cultures because of examples in the media. But we were reminded of being different every single step of the way. People would ask, “Where are you from? What’s your ethnicity? Why don’t you have a red dot on your head?” Those are things that we grew up with, even though you’d have an American accent and you were born and raised in the U.S. We would reply with, “Do you mean where are my parents from? Or where I was born?” What box should I check today? I am American, but I am also through and through Indian.

What sparked the move to India?

I just decided to go to Bombay for five days to check it out and I ended up falling in love with the city, the culture, with the monetary freedom I had there. My savings could take me so far. In those five days I was free writing for hours every day. Stuff was just pouring out of me in real time. So I went back. I just had a feeling that I needed to be there.

How did you meet Randolph and how was Shaa’ir n Func born?

In those first five days, Randolph came to a party. It was a room of twenty people with no smoking, no drinking allowed. There was a saxophonist, a bansuri player, I’m a singer and a poet. There was a girl doing interpretive dance. It was so tripped out. It felt like a scene from a movie. So Randolph walked in, he had a guitar, and he started playing. I liked his vibe a lot. Our music is a combination of influences. We do heavy doses of rock, electronic music, spoken word and funk. We call it conscious dance music.

When I went back to Bombay I bumped into him and I asked him to play with me. I wrote the record, he and I recorded it, we got a distribution deal, we were getting paid to do shows, and it all kicked off. Sometimes when you do the right thing, life is like “good job, I’ll give you this.” And that just kept happening, not without a lot of sweat and hard work though.

Most of your fans are young women, which is a surprising demographic to be so supportive of alternative music in India.

I pride myself on having such a big female following. I’m a feminist and seeing these beautiful women loving our kind of music is empowering, especially in a country where it’s not easy being a woman. Every day, before I walk out of my house in Bombay, think about how I’m going to get reacted to on the streets, “Oh I need to cover this, I need to cover my legs.” My friend got her butt grabbed in the middle of the street. Those are things that are not okay. There’s still a need for feminism. I’m going talk about how there are only ten female directors in Indian cinema because it’s true. We still need to work on that. It bothers me how feminism is a dirty word. I see myself as an empowered, intelligent, sexual female. I find intelligence to be sexy. I put that into my music and everything that I do.

Do you think there’s a divide between the mainstream film-centric world in Mumbai and the indie scene?

The indie scene is so anti-Bollywood, but I’m not like that. In order to change the system you have to change it from within. Most bands are English-speaking and completely anti-traditional anything. I’ve never seen things that way. I grew up watching Bollywood movies and for me that was my only reference point for India. Another reason for this divide is the dependence on connections. “Who’s your mom? Who’s your dad? Why should I pay attention to you?” That kind of vibe is off-putting. But things are changing, more rapidly now than ever before.

That brings us to your film debut. Tell us about Dhobi Ghat and working with Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao.

It came out of nowhere. Kiran saw me in a magazine and wanted me to audition. I was touring at the time in London. When I got an email from her production house I was like “Thanks, but that’s okay.” They emailed me a couple of times. So out of curiosity, I auditioned. For my second screen test they said, “You have to come tomorrow but we just wanted to give you a heads up that you have to do your screen test with Aamir Khan!” Deep breath. Freaking out. I prepared as much as I could. I walked in, he introduced himself and then said, “Let’s begin” without giving me the chance to be struck by his star presence. The reading went well. I got the role the very next day.

What was it like working with the Kiran and Aamir duo?

Kiran is such an amazing woman. She’s so talented, so beautiful and truly unique. There’s no one like her in the industry. Aamir Khan is such a normal guy with such normal desires. I admire him because he uses his star power and does something with it. He is the only one who is really doing it and doing it well. The film has turned out beautiful and I can’t wait for it to be released.

What do you see in your future? And the future of indie music in India?

There’s a powerhouse of talent in India, a huge range. It’s my firm belief that if people are given the platform to get their talents out there, the arts scene would seriously just explode in ways that we’ve never imagined. Shaa’ir n Func is three albums old and our audience is constantly growing. We’ve done shows all over India and hopefully we’ll make more music and reach out to more people. Actually, the real goal is to write a song that I wouldn’t mind playing twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I want to write that song.

As a NRI who’s returned to the homeland, do you see India as your land of opportunity?

It’s odd that both my mom and dad struggled to provide me with the opportunity to grow up in the U.S. and have access to everything, and then I would have to go back to India to emancipate myself, to feel comfortable with who I am. India has become my land of opportunity because I made it that. I created my opportunities. I was willing to give up a lot of things to achieve my dreams. India, for me, has a kind of freedom that the U.S. lacks. I love that chaos, I needed that chaos. And it has helped me thrive.

Cross-posted from The NRI

Written by: Pulkit Datta, November 6th 2010