Former beauty queen and actress Lara Dutta is playing an intriguing character called Wilayat Hussain in the new murder mystery Charlie Chopra & The Mystery Of Solang Valley. The thriller series is directed by Vishal Bhardwaj. In an interview with City Times, Lara talks about the series, her break from acting and finding her 'ikigai'.

Charlie Chopra sounds exciting. What are you doing in this murder mystery?

Charlie Chopra & The Mystery of Solang Valley is an adaptation of The Sittaford Mystery, a novel by Agatha Christie and you have Vishal Bhardwaj helming this project. It’s got an incredible set of actors — from veteran actors like Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah, Neena Gupta and Gulshan Grover to some upcoming actors like Wamiqa Gabbi and Priyanshu who are absolutely brilliant. I play Wilayat Hussain, who is actually a character that enters the Rockford Estate where pretty much all the murder suspects belong to. Wilayat claims to have returned to India from Dubai. She is possibly the most enigmatic character. Nobody really knows where she came from or who she is. She is a bit of a mystery. Wilayat has that quality that says everything is not what it seems.

This is Vishal Bhardwaj’s first series in the long-format storytelling. What makes his set different and how was the shooting experience in Himachal?

It was on my wish list for the longest time to work with Vishal ji, the reason being the way he moulds his characters on screen. The shooting in Manali and Solang during winter was not easy. We were in the midst of snow and it was physically the most demanding shoot. But the extreme cold was the least of it because to carry the whole equipment up — cameras, light, trolleys, all the things up to that kind of altitude to shoot is no easy task. Everybody just picked up what they could to make life easier for the team. When you’re shooting in situations like that it’s a great leveller. There is no hierarchy. The way Vishal ji treats his unit made the show very special.

We can see you are having great fun on OTT. There was Hundred (2020), Hiccups and Hookups (2021), Kaun Banega Shikharvati (2022) and now Charlie Chopra. Do you think you are finally getting an opportunity to play more real roles on OTT?

Yes, for sure, and I think OTT gives superb opportunities to women — better written, realistic characters. Whether it is playing the cop in Hundred or a vulnerable divorcee mom still looking for love in Hiccups and Hookups or a career woman in Ishq-E-Nadan recently released on Jio Cinema. These characters are very relatable today. Earlier, you weren’t getting a chance to address an audience between the ages of 35 and 55. There was nothing written for women between those ages. You were either the young nymph, girlfriend of the hero or you were playing his mother. There was nothing in between (laughs).

You took a long break from screen. What was the reason? Did you miss acting in those years? And finally how did the comeback happen?

Yeah, I took a break. When I met Mahesh (Bhupathi) both of us were not sweet chickens. We had done quite a bit in our lives and careers. When we decided to marry each other and then have our daughter, we had our priorities clear. I decided that my daughter was my priority and I’ll give her complete attention for the first five years at least. I had done everything that was to be done in my line of work. One has to find a proper balance in life. I had the career that I always wanted. I wanted to enjoy motherhood to the best, so I took the time off to be with my daughter. And I credit Mahesh for really encouraging me to come back to the screen, especially the OTT with the series Hundred. He said it is the future; if you don’t get on the bandwagon now you are going to get lost somewhere along the way. I was very excited to come back and make that space for myself in OTT.

There are so many high points in your life — a young girl from Bangalore conquering Mumbai, being Miss Universe 2000, a successful film career, being an entrepreneur. How do you look back on your journey?

It sometimes seems unbelievable. I definitely don’t feel my age today. If somebody asks me what’s next, there are hundreds of things on my list and I’ve always been that kind of a person. I never felt that I wanted to position myself in one category. You mentioned a lot of things — a mother to pageant winner, actress, entrepreneur. Every decade of your life brings you different opportunities and you have to be ready to not just adapt but embrace it. For me as a woman, having achieved what I did, I feel there is so much more than winning a beauty pageant, so much more than just being an actress. As a woman in my mid-40s, I want women to know that it’s not too late to create something. It’s never easy, there are a lot of sacrifices to be made but you can do it with hard work and commitment.

The clarity of thought and conviction is admirable. Do you think you are in the best phase of your career? And how do you want to be remembered?

I think I am just getting started (laughs). You know, you read all these fancy books and use fancy words like I just did. But my philosophy in life is very simple: to find what motivates you. What is it that wants you to get out of bed every morning? To me it’s very simple. It’s been like that since I was a teenager. I am an entertainer. I want to entertain. That is my 'ikigai'. So tomorrow, at the end of the day, and years later, I should be able to feel that I entertained. I don’t keep on thinking I should do a film that should become a legacy like Mother India. I think it will happen if it’s in my destiny. But I get up every day and I say I should entertain. That’s my job.

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