Hollywood Movies

Sobhita Dhulipala of ‘Monkey Man’ Charts an Unusual Path to Hollywood

April 6, 20246 Mins Read

Sobhita Dhulipala considers herself an outsider — wherever she is.

She grew up in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, making her an outsider in the country’s financial and fashion capital, Mumbai. Her native tongue is Telugu, making her an outsider in predominantly Hindi-speaking Bollywood.

And now, with the release on Friday of the high-octane, Jordan Peele-produced “Monkey Man,” in which she stars alongside Dev Patel, she is again an outsider, thrust into Hollywood’s limelight. In fact, the premiere of the film at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, last month was the first time Ms. Dhulipala, 31, had ever set foot on American soil.

“In India, I’m South Indian,” Ms. Dhulipala, who lives in Mumbai, said in a video interview from her hotel room in Los Angeles. “When I come to America, I’m Indian.”

“It’s amazing that I get to come to this country with a film,” she added. “It’s like I come with an offering.”

That real-life feeling of being an outsider is the undercurrent for many of her onscreen roles. In the Amazon Prime series “Made in Heaven,” Ms. Dhulipala’s character is a low-income nobody who schemes her way into upper-class circles. In “Monkey Man,” she plays Sita, a call girl whose business is the pleasure of powerful but despicable men.

To her, being able to make a career out of playing characters on the margins who defy easy categorization is a point of pride. “Those are really beautifully complex humans,” she said. “To be considered someone who can be trusted with characters like that is really an honor.”

Acting was never Ms. Dhulipala’s career plan. Her family was full of academics, including her mother, who was a middle-school science teacher, so she figured she would do something similar. “I didn’t grow up thinking that I would be an artist or some such — it was such an irresponsible thought,” she said. “Being creative was, like, an indulgent hobby.”

She was studying for a master’s degree in corporate law in Mumbai when she first dipped her toe in entertainment by taking on a hodgepodge of modeling gigs and TV commercials. In 2013, she entered and won the Miss Earth India pageant. As she started landing more jobs, she dropped out of her master’s program and, in 2016, starred in her first Bollywood film, the psychological thriller “Raman Raghav 2.0.” She then starred in several Tollywood films (Telugu films made in southern India) before being cast in “Made in Heaven,” which was released in 2019.

But it was before she was seeing any success in India, even before the release of her first film there, that she auditioned for the role of Sita in “Monkey Man,” she said. It took the team several years to get back to her — she had assumed they had moved on and found someone else — and when the call finally came, in 2019, Mr. Patel told her that he had decided that she would be perfect for the role from the moment he saw her audition.

Ms. Dhulipala said she had been drawn to “Made in Heaven” in part because the show addressed issues — including gay rights, colorism and the caste system — that weren’t typically touched on in mainstream Bollywood hits.

“If something inspires me or there’s some value I can bring to the story, I want to belong with it,” she said.

“Monkey Man” has just the sort of array of lightning rods that attracts Ms. Dhulipala: an enclave of combative transgender women, an anti-establishment sex worker and an anti-police plot. Working with Mr. Patel on his directorial debut could have been a risky move for a Hollywood unknown, but Ms. Dhulipala said the dynamic had felt especially collaborative. “It’s a different kind of relationship altogether,” she said. “There’s trust, fear, vulnerability, and you move as one pack, one team.”

“There’s a certain purity and passion there — working with a first-time filmmaker,” she added. “So I came on board, I jumped on board.”

Granted, in this film, she barely has a few dozen lines of dialogue, and her character would not pass even a generous version of the Bechdel test. (There’s something poetic, she claimed, in portraying “the moments between the words.”)

Her willingness to buck trends spills over into her style choices, too. Early in her career, she recalled being styled by a bunch of people “who probably did not get my vibe so much,” she said. “Because I didn’t really have that much of a voice, I’d just give in.”

But now, she often follows her instincts, leaning into Indian designers and traditional styles. At the “Monkey Man” premiere last month, she wore a stereoscopic dress designed by Amit Aggarwal, and last year, she walked the runway at India Couture Week in a bejeweled silver lehenga.

“I figured that I don’t have to rely on one person’s vision for me or a stylist’s psyche of what I should look like,” she said. “I can just try things I’m gravitating toward.” A lot of times, her interest in an outfit or look is laced with nostalgia. “I love a sari because maybe that’s my memory of my mother, my teachers in school. There’s a certain grace and dignity, but also sex appeal.”

DietSabya, an influential fashion and celebrity-focused Instagram account that has over 400,000 followers, named Ms. Dhulipala as one of its top picks for best dressed of 2023. Her style is a hit with fans, too. A bodycon dress by Sabyasachi that she wore in the second season of “Made in Heaven” prompted the show’s audience to label it India’s equivalent of “the revenge dress.”

Similarly, in what she said feels like another small act of rebellion, Ms. Dhulipala’s been embracing her natural curly hair. “In India, you’re just constantly wanting to look more homogenous. So everyone’s constantly trying to blow-dry, straighten — I’ve been through that journey as well,” she said. Now, she added: “I’m just like, I like my hair, the texture. Hair is history, right? It’s part of your identity.”

In keeping with her unconventional choices, Ms. Dhulipala has her eye on either sci-fi or more action movies in the future. But in the next film, she wants to do more of the action herself, she said. And perhaps a little more talking, too.

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