Although most Americans have probably never heard of Baltimore native Monica Dogra, she has rapidly become a household name in India. As though breaking into the emerging indie music scene in Mumbai weren’t enough, Dogra quickly expanded her career to include Indian film and television. Even more impressive is that she’s just 29 years old and accomplished all of these achievements in the last seven years.
Dogra is the Indian-American daughter of Kashmiri immigrants and the niece of Prakash Sharma, a well-known Indian folk singer. She grew up in a polyphonic family, listening to Hindu devotionals and Bollywood tunes as often as Madonna and PJ Harvey. When she was just 16 years old, Dogra made her debut at Carnegie Hall. She then threw herself into the New York music and theater scenes after moving to the city the following year.
Dogra received formal training at New York University, where she received her undergraduate degree in musical theater. After graduating, she moved to Mumbai on a whim but didn’t intend to settle there. Sometimes, however, fate intervenes. Within five days, she met her musical partner, Randolph Correia, at a party and they soon formed Shaa’ir + func (s+f).
In four years, s+f released three albums to critical acclaim and became one of the most successful bands in the country’s independent music scene. In Rolling Stone, Karsh Kale described s+f as being “like a supernova exploding in the night sky.”
The success of s+f allowed Dogra to tour the world and grace the covers of countless magazines. One of those magazines was Time Out Mumbai, which serendipitously led to Dogra’s next big opportunity: a lead role in a Bollywood film. Director Kiran Rao had to court Dogra for months before she finally agreed to audition for the role.
“I wasn’t too interested initially in Bollywood,” says Dogra. “But I’ve noticed that the industry is changing and I want to be a part of that change.”
After reading the script for Dhobi Ghat (also called Mumbai Diaries), which is devoid of conventional Bollywood flamboyance, Dogra fell in love with her character, Shai. Shai is an American Indian investment banker who takes a break from her stressful career to explore a passion for photography in Mumbai. It’s easy to see why the role resonated with Dogra. When Rao offered her the part the day after she auditioned, Dogra accepted without hesitation.
Dhobi Ghat premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2010 and then enjoyed a worldwide release. The film received excellent reviews, and catapulted Dogra into the spotlight once again, which opened the door for the next opportunity.
As the host of the television show The Dewarists, Dogra has been able to travel to locations throughout India to facilitate musical collaborations between Indian and international musicians. The collaborators then performed their creation together. When the first season wrapped up last year, Dogra returned to touring with s+f and focusing on her music, but she’s back on the road for Season Two, which begins later this month.
Amid all the activity, Dogra still managed to find time to pose for a PETA campaign and model on the side. “I see myself as an empowered, intelligent, sexual female,” Dogra explains. “I find intelligence to be sexy. I put that into everything that I do.”
This ambassador of “The New India” continues to make waves. She will be starring in two more movies in 2013 and shows no signs of slowing down.