Dalai & Deepti and the Art of Womanhood

Dalai & Deepti and the Art of Womanhood

Mother, Deepti Datt, and daughter, Dalai, are artists. Both are equally occupied with beauty: of art, of words, of experiences, of life. Interviewing them was a pleasure and an honour. There is something so special about seeing mothers and daughters together, talking about life, about womanhood; the challenges and the joys of it. They tease each other gently, laughing and nodding along when the other is talking. How far has Deepti made Dalai the person that she is, how much of Dalai has formed Deepti?  The following interview is an edited and condensed sliver of all the stories they told and ideas they covered over the course of an afternoon.

Dalai, an actor, made her on-screen debut at the age of eight playing Madhuri Dixit’s daughter in the latter’s big comeback movie, Aaja Nachle. She’s since worked on multiple web series and her upcoming show, Big Girls Don’t Cry, set in an all-girls boarding school, releases 14 March 2024 on Amazon Prime.

Deepti’s varied interests are evidenced in her prolific career which, though primarily focused on writing and producing, has also involved a bit of designing, acting, and more. She co-owns the production house, ‘Copacetic Films’ and their website consists of a single page with a write-up mulling over the origins of the word and a little bar where you can write in. Nothing else. 

Knowledgeably and with care, she tells me about the etymology of ‘copacetic’, offering a fuller picture of the world that the word comes from. ‘Copacetic’, she tells me, has its origins in Black American slang and, in essence, it means, ‘Everything’s cool, man.’ 

It made me think about the power of words, how I myself have a tendency to mark each passing year off with a word that I think summed it up the best, and go into each new year with a word I want to align myself with. 

Photography: Anannya Shinde | Interview: Rabia Kapoor Creative Production: Sreesha Shetty

Pictured above: Dalai wears the Santi Studs, Reclaim Tornado Choker with Lune Letter "D" Pendant Necklace.

Do you have a word like that right now?

DEEPTI: I think ‘surrender’. It’s the opposite of what we are indoctrinated into literally from birth, which is ‘control’. 

I understand words only as images. So, the word ‘control’, for me, is a visual of a multiple-armed-kraken-like-monstrosity — equally as ugly to itself as the suffering it causes upon all that its tentacles attempt to conquer, oppress, own, seize, accumulate. 

Surrender’ is letting go, it’s ease, it’s the discipline of freedom. ‘Surrender’ is a visual of a river glistening in the sunlight. After a lifetime of pumping ferocity, my work on myself now, at this age, is surrender. 

DALAI: The word I’m resonating with this year is ‘serendipity’. And it’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, in the sense that I wished for this year to be filled with very good surprises. And even though it’s only been two months, I feel like that has come true for me — knock on wood. 

Simultaneously, feeling very much in the space of surrender, and Mama has said the two words have a lot of overlap. Whatever happens and comes is for my highest best and good. 

Pictured above: Deepti in Long Chunky Tornado Studs, Tornado Cuff, Lune Letter "D" Pendant Necklace with Lune Rings.

Deepti, among many things you’ve done, you’ve also designed jewellery yourself. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with jewellery? Did you wear a lot of it when you were younger? What led you to designing your own? 

DEEPTI: I’ve always worn a lot of jewellery. When I was younger I would wear a lot of silver and then as I got older it morphed into gold. It was another expression, an expression of the artistic self, for me. 

The circles that I was a part of in LA, we were always making stuff. We never bought stuff from malls or brands. We all made our own clothes — all my friends had a sewing machine in their house — even if we did buy new things, we’d reform them. Everything was an expression of oneself. 

Later, when we started our restaurant and art gallery in Goa we’d had a cook for one period from this place which is on the border of Texas and Mexico. It’s like the Jaipur of that area because all the stones from that region come there. He’d grown up there and was one of the finest lapidaries. He just knew stones so, so well. I learnt a lot about lapidary from him. Some of the first stuff I did was with him. 

Lune, I got introduced to by Dalai, because she did something with them a couple of years ago. Overtime, I got to know the people there. It’s a really endearing company for me; that it’s run by women, that’s it’s Sreesha, this young girl — who I’ve found out is my birth mate. We’re both Cancerian — and just spending some time around them, learning more about what Lune is, what their motivations are, where their creative compulsions come from. As with everything, I’m very into the story behind it. 

Pictured above: Dalai & Deepti wear the Baby Lucia Rings, Mie Family Rings, Juana Circle Ring, Macro City Rings.

Dalai, you studied in LA briefly, and — always creatively inclined — intended to specialise in fine art. Why fine art? And can you talk a little bit about the transition into acting? What was the allure? 

DALAI: This is actually one of my favourite stories. So, I did my first acting job when I was about eight or nine years old. That first movie came about in a serendipitous way and it just kind of fell into place. After doing that film it really struck me: I’m going to be an actor. This is it. I’m going to be hounded for the rest of my life. 

However, my mother said, ‘That’s not going to happen. Go back to school. That’s the end of the conversation.’ And honestly… That was the end of the conversation.

I was always artistically inclined, always surrounded by art and artistic people, be it at home or at school. It somehow seemed like a very simple career in my young mind. It wasn’t something I sat and thought about too much. I just had this idea that I was going to have a gallery and it was going to have an adjoining coffee shop, and I was going to bake pastries, and people would buy my art and buy my pastries.

Pictured above: Dalai wears the Santi Studs, Reclaim Tornado Choker with Lune Letter "D" Pendant Necklace and Deepti wears the Long Chunky Tornado Studs, Tornado Cuff, Lune Letter "D" Pendant Necklace with Lune Rings.

I guess it helped that you grew up in Goa where a lot of people do do that.

DALAI: I think that probably heavily informed it as well.

DEEPTI: You also grew up in an art gallery. 

But I think the biggest thing, even before the film, was that her father is also a really talented photographer. Within minutes of her being born, he had started photographing her. Her life is really well documented thanks to Ranjeev’s photographs. 

It was such a common thing that there were times when Ranjeev was photographing an object or certain people, and Dalai — crawling along as a baby, on her fours — would see him with his camera and just crawl and get in front of him! That was her life: Ranjeev’s camera was always aimed at Dalai, photographing her every moment, so it just got impacted in her mind that if there was a lens aimed, she had to be in front of it. 

DALAI: So, what you’re saying is, I’ve been classically conditioned into wanting to be an actor. 

But no, but I didn’t think about acting again until we went to the States when I was in the eleventh grade. I went to this art high school in LA where you could apply to any one stream and I applied for the visual arts. 

We landed up in LA, and then we realised, right before starting, that there had been some sort of admin error and I had been put into the performing arts division instead. For some reason this sent me into a tailspin of a panic when it really wasn’t that complicated. It was just, ‘Tell them that you applied to the visual arts section and they’ll reassign you, it’s fine.’ And my mom said as much. But even to this day, I don’t know what happened. I just remember it being the biggest panic of my life. 

I remember driving to school for my first day, to register and begin high school.  And the whole drive there I was having this complete meltdown about what I was going to do. And I will never forget this moment: my mom was driving. She looked at me and she went, ‘I think it’s really simple. If you could do anything with your life and you knew you would succeed, what would you do?’ 

And without a thought I said, ‘I would act.’ 

So she said, ‘Well, there you go then. Just don’t tell them they made an admin error.’ 

Pictured above: Deepti wears the Chunky Tornado CuffBaby Lucia Rings, Juana Circle Ring, Macro City Rings and Signet Ring

You have both moved around a lot through your lives. Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship with ‘place’? 

DALAI: I think I’ve come to a very, very solid feeling and understanding of place, which is something I struggled with as a teenager. I felt like I had no place, like my entire goal in life was to find that ‘place’. For a long time, it was referencing stories my mom would tell me about her growing up in LA, and the kind of life and community she had. I became very fixated on the idea — the idea — of Los Angeles. 

And there was also this nostalgic retrospective desire to be in Goa because I had left this very specific, distinct community which, from where I was in Bombay, seemed magical and brilliant… I was sort of clutching and grabbing at everything I thought I didn’t have. But it wasn’t that I didn’t have it, it’s just that other people had different things. 

And the whole time I was so present in such a rich and vibrant and artistic community, and everyone I was surrounded by was a wonderful, amazing, interesting person, and I had all these adventures of my own, but I’d almost dismiss them because it wasn’t the right idea of place to me.

Now I realise that it’s the people. The times when Bombay — I’ve been a teenager here, I’ve had such distinct experiences here — doesn’t feel like home is when the people who feel like home are not there, and the same goes for Goa, where my family is. It’s a very clichéd answer but very distinctly for me, place has had to become people. 

DEEPTI: Yeah, same answer. It’s the people, isn’t it. 

My dad was in the Navy, then he worked for a company that built oil pipelines between countries — that shall remain unnamed — but he was the manager of all these projects and was always posted somewhere… Places where you couldn’t take family. So the family would be living in the HQ of the company. 

Libya, Germany, Canada, the States, we were always in these places where there was oil but never any other Indians. And because we were always moving, I don’t have any established relationships with anybody that go back to my childhood. The first friends I made were in high school in Oklahoma, and they’re still my friends. 

I was born in Bombay, but I grew up all over the place, so it’s very much the same thing: it’s where your people are. In my case, it happens to be that they’re kind of spread out. My brother still lives in LA, my dad lived there until very recently, my mom was in Toronto for a long time, then moved back to India, to Delhi — the only reason I ever go to Delhi is to see her. 

Delhi is like this weird place where my mom lives but I don’t feel at home. There’s nothing that attaches me to the city other than that my mom lives there. 

Bombay is very close to home, I guess, because I was born there. If someone were to ask me, ‘What’s home to you?’ I’d say Bombay is home. My first early years were there and then I worked there for many years.

DALAI: It’s so interesting to me how you feel like Bombay is home because you were born here, but I was born in Delhi and I do not feel like that’s home at all.

DEEPTI: No, but I’ve spent my zero to seven [years] in Bombay, and then also when I first came back to India, I was in Delhi for three months and then it was Bombay. So, that was really foundational. Starting to work with Channel V, and then MTV, Meeting Ranjeev. All of these big foundational things happened. So if someone were to ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ I always say Bombay because that’s the most recent place. I used to say LA for a very long time.

DALAI: I think that zero-seven and ‘big milestones’ thing is a big one because, even though I’ve spent so much more time in Bombay, when people ask where I’m from I always say Goa. 

Pictured above: Dalai wears the Santi Studs, Reclaim Tornado Choker with Lune Letter "D" Pendant Necklace and Deepti wears the Long Chunky Tornado Studs, Tornado Cuff, Lune Letter "D" Pendant Necklace with Lune Rings.

You did your first movie when you were about nine, Dalai. Were there any surprising challenges you faced as a child actor? Did you ever feel like you weren’t being taken seriously because of your age? 

I always had a lot of confidence instilled in me by my parents. My self-esteem, insecurities, self-questioning, all came much later. As a child, I felt very comfortable with myself and my place in the world, so when this very new scenario with very new people arose, rather than feeling insecure or questioning my worth I just questioned everything around me and why it wasn’t meeting my standards. I would see — don’t write this down — I would see Madhuri Dixit with an umbrella, or Konkona and I’d be like, ‘Why don’t I have an umbrella?’

DEEPTI: Oh, my God, yes! She saw Madhuri come out of her trailer with her posse, somebody holding her umbrella, her makeup man, and Dalai would be like, ‘I want an umbrella.’ 

And I was explaining why [Madhuri] had an entourage and an umbrella, but Dalai didn’t understand it, so I tried to do it from her child framing. I said, ‘Who will carry the umbrella for you?’ 

And she turned to me and said, ‘You will.’ 

I was like, ‘I’ll kick your asteroid into the next galaxy, carry your umbrella!’ 

DALAI: I thought, ‘You’re coming to set everyday. You’re here… I’m working, I’m earning my keep. What are you doing?’ Meanwhile she had only just had my baby brother, had taken time off work to chaperone me on set. I think that really encapsulates my energy in the moment. So, in terms of lack of surety, I had zero, clearly. I was having a great time.

But I do remember — and this didn’t shake my confidence in any way — but I do remember being frustrated when I wasn’t included in conversations. Because obviously, when there are people in their twenties and thirties, they maybe don’t want to hang out with the eight year old who’s like, ‘Watch me, I can put my foot on my forehead from behind me.’ 

DEEPTI: They were such an amazing group of people. And I think the director, Anil Mehta, the way he worked with everyone, especially how he worked with Dalai as a child — I think she got an entree in the finest possible way you can imagine.

DALAI: And I will actually say: I never felt infantilised by him. It always felt like he was speaking to everyone, including me, on a level playing field. And I think that’s actually a really, really rare trait. So many people are so happy to dismiss a child, even if you’re in a working environment. 

Forget child, even if you’re the youngest one. There’s a different tone taken with you. Until I started acting again, the most respect I’d gotten as the youngest person on set was when I was eight and working with Anil

I think, again, my parents always speaking to me like I was as intelligent as everyone else, and then having someone like my director, Anil, respect me that way during such a formative experience, made me spend the rest of my life not accepting when somebody spoke to me any other way. 

Pictured above: Dalai wears the Santi Studs, Reclaim Tornado Choker with Lune Letter "D" Pendant Necklace, with the Baby Lucia Rings and Mie Family Rings.

And it also means you’re probably not going to take that pattern forward.

DALAI: No, never. 

As adults, as women, do you find there are times when you’re not being taken seriously?

DEEPTI: Yeah. A lot. I’d say primarily in the corporate context. Even when I’ve had really high level positions inside a corporation, the systemic structure in corporations tend to platform shitty behaviour to promote the shittiest person who will fail upwards. Except in very rare cases it is those people who will go on to become the managing directors and CEOs of corporate set-ups because that’s how it works. 

I do have the authority of ‘Auntydom’ now — there’s a certain respect you end up getting from the aam janata once you’re aunty-level and have white hair and all of that — but I think in the early days, when I was working and the kids were young, there was some really toxic shitty behaviour specifically in the corporate jobs that I’ve had. It was always from men who held higher positions. But also, unfortunately, women tend to internalise misogyny in a very strong way. These systemic structures, corporate hierarchies et cetera, they bring out the worst in people. Let’s just put it that way. 

But it’s a phenomenon that’s prevalent inside any systemic structure where there’s a hierarchy, where someone has more power over you. Which is why I say, knock on wood, Dalai, you guys have all been really lucky to have the kind of people that you have around you, that have been there — not just as a break of those systems but also as protection of who you are as young women. 

DALAI: The hierarchical structures exist very much on film sets as well and, as an actor, you’re quite removed from a lot of the goings on. By virtue of your position you don’t have to deal with much of that politics or misogyny. I think maybe the kinds of roles I’ve had have protected me to some extent too. 

But even in the brief time I spent on film sets before being an actor, I experienced it almost every day. Not necessarily in ways that made me question my worth or deal with any heavy emotions, but instances where I was completely ignored by every single person who needed to respond to me when I was an assistant in the art department. I’m sure it was a combination of age as well, I was eighteen, but it was definitely also being a young woman. Within two seconds of a male assistant director arriving next to me, other people appeared. 

And other instances like producers asking me if they heard correctly that I wanted to act and saying, ‘Alright, why don’t you meet me later on,’ or approaching me in hallways when I was alone. 

And this collective understanding; being told by seniors, ‘That’s a man you don’t want to find yourself alone with,’ just being told these things from older women who didn’t necessarily want to be in that position, and were very much acknowledging how horrific it was that they even had to impart that kind of information, who knew that they didn’t have control of him but what they could control was your experience and make sure you were safe in those scenarios… I remember very distinctly having this thought to myself once, later, about how position and proximity to power is all that protects you.

Pictured above: Dalai wears the City Cuff paired with the Phases Hand Harness, Baby Lucia RingsMie Family Rings, Macro City Rings and Spirit Band Ring.

I thought I’d steer the conversation in another direction because I had a feeling this would go in a dark direction: what do you enjoy most about womanhood? 

DEEPTI: It does take that turn for everyone, doesn’t it? 

What do I enjoy about being a woman? I mean, everything. There isn’t a thing I don’t enjoy about being a woman. 

Being a mother, I think, has been for me, the highest experience I can say, of all the amazing things I’ve been grateful for and fortunate enough to experience.

I know it’s controversial to say this now, in this day and age and time with the feminist fervour that’s all over the place – especially here in India with the influencer class –  but it’s the most inherently natural thing that you can do. It’s the apotheosis of being female, for me.

Having spent the better half of my life inculcated in Western ideology, it took a long time to come away from that, all the things that we tag unto ourselves in America, being democrat, liberal, progressive and associating with those ideals. It took a very long time for me to have my eyes opened and see all of it for the indoctrination that it really is and come to centre, to find what it is to be a woman for me. For me, this is what the truth is. For me it feels like the apotheosis of womanhood; family and relationships and childbearing and raising children into the world. What a gift. What a beautiful responsibility. What a big responsibility, to raise human beings into the world. 

DALAI: I really love the community aspect of being a woman, that it’s just a given. It’s a given that, if you find another woman and you have a certain conversation, there will be a resonance that exists purely because you both are women. I think that’s amazing. If I take a second to actually think about it, I find it so profound. 

I have felt so joyful at every juncture of womanhood, every change, every evolution of what it has meant to be a child and then a girl and then a teenager and then a woman. I have just been blissed out. I think it is the most rockstar thing to be a woman.

I think a lot of that has to do with our mothers. I don’t remember your mother or mine ever talking about how tough it is to be a woman. They have had struggles, and they have talked about what it is to be a woman in the world, but the framing has never been that it is a woman’s burden. 

DEEPTI: I think it’s also the Western feminist framing that keeps you in this perpetual victimhood at the get go. You’re made to feel like a victim and therefore you have to fight against it. But what are you fighting against? You’re fighting for some chimera of equality. I’m not looking to be equal to a man. I give birth to them! 

‘Feminism’ was essentially an economic tactic to get women into the workforce, to increase the tax-base by over fifty percent. In the West at least, the youngest awakening generation of women are coming to realise, as a friend, model & blogger IshtarTheMoon said recently, ‘If anyone’s begging to be oppressed it’s Western women: begging to pay fifty-fifty, begging to work full time, whilst also being full-time moms, begging to be objectified, pornified and ran through. Begging to be single mothers with several baby daddies. So liberated!!! Millions of us Western women are waking up to the lie of Western feminism and aren’t drinking the kool aid anymore.’ There you have it!

  So I have to say, for me, for my awakening process, it has been to free myself from that lifelong western, feminist indoctrination. Essentially, I don’t want to be told how to be a woman by a man or a woman! And you know I love good, solid women as much as I love good, solid men.

DALAI: I also love men.

DEEPTI: I’ve been so fortunate and lucky. I was raised by my dad, I grew up with him and my brother. What really brought it home for me was, as an adult, being around India and finding out a lot about what kind of stuff goes on, discovering that we were, in fact, not the norm but the exception in the kinds of ways women can be subjected to abuses, the horror stories… So realising that – albeit late in life – for me, it was utter gratitude for the men in my life.

There’s such a gentleness to men that is different from — what is normally understood to be — the gentleness of women. I’ve found it to be that men have more heart, are so much softer and gentler than women actually. 

DALAI: I completely agree. I think women are hardcore and men are just full of heart. 

DEEPTI: We are hardcore! We’re built to survive in a very different way. And when you really get to know that aspect of men: the provider, the protector, the caretaker, the brother, father, son, husband, friend, the authentic masculine is the most beautiful.

DALAI: And I’ll take off from that and say that another thing I really love about being a woman is being a woman in relation to men. When there are good men around, the kind of woman that I am able to be? Love it.

Pictured above: Dalai wears the Santi Studs, Reclaim Tornado Choker with Lune Letter "D" Pendant Necklace and Deepti wears the Long Chunky Tornado Studs, Tornado Cuff, Lune Letter "D" Pendant Necklace with Lune Rings.

What have you inherited, Deepti, from your mother? What would you like Dalai to inherit from you? 

DALAI: I have an answer.

DEEPTI: I think strength.

DALAI: I was going to say! Ferocity.

DEEPTI: Yeah, ferocity is an aspect of that strength. I think strength and grounded-ness in who you are, and the ability to stand clear in the self is something I’ve inherited from my Nepali mom and would like to see Dalai inherit too. Obviously, it changes with time what that strength means. In each generation and each time that strength is going to manifest in a very different way. 

Pictured above: Dalai wears the City Cuff paired with the Phases Hand Harness, Baby Lucia RingsMie Family Rings, Macro City Rings and Spirit Band Ring.

What have you inherited, Dalai, from your mother? 

DALAI: I think what I value most that I’ve inherited has been my confidence in myself, that I have learnt by seeing her. Just seeing how, no matter what adversity or circumstances she has weathered or dealt with or lived with, she’s never diminished her morals, values, or herself for other people’s comfort or convenience. I have always valued that, and I think it has always held me very steady in many different ways, to be able to have that unwavering belief in myself and who I am.