Geetanjali Kulkarni
I met Geetanjali Kulkarni on a busy Sunday afternoon at a very crowded Prithvi adda, just a few hours before the show of PIYA BEHRUPIYA. PIYA BEHRUPIYA had been staging all its shows to a full house at Prithvi theatre from Thursday onwards till Sunday night. Despite the hustle bustle surrounding her, and the constant greetings of each of her fellow cast members as they arrived, not once did Geetanjali Kulkarni’s focus move from the story she wanted to tell. The actress recalls her journey in the theatre, her days at the National School of Drama, and of her experience with different directors. Through it all, there is a humility, perhaps best exemplified in her work with school going children in the taluka Wada in Maharashtra.

 By Gaurangi Dang

Gaurangi Dang (GD): What was it like growing up in a typical Maharashtrain household? How has it influenced you?

Geetanjali Kulkarni (GK): Theatre is my culture - the smell of batata wadas and gajras as we awaited the third bell, followed by the sliding of the red velvet curtain. I used to crave those visits to the theatre because they gave me such a high. It didn't matter whether I understood the play or not; what mattered to me was being in that space. It was where I felt most at home. I've been performing for as long as I can remember. Initially my mom and dad loved that I was making everyone laugh but as I grew older they began to worry. I wasn't very good at academics and they felt that theatre was nothing but a distraction from my studies.

GD: Then?

GK: Then, kya. I was also stubborn and eventually I ended up going to the National School of Drama (NSD).

GD: What was the experience of going to a Drama School?

GK: I was initially very uncomfortable at the NSD. All the ease that I had with acting vanished the moment I stepped into a schooling premise. It was because I had to now become aware of each and every thing that I was doing in order to be able to recreate it again and again on stage. It was fun but also very difficult at first. I wasn't sure of anything I was doing and I kept questioning myself again and again. But I've been very lucky. Good directors and good cast members – they were always ready to swoop in and help whenever I needed it.

For instance working in PIYA BEHRUPIYA has been a great experience for me as an actor, because there has always been help when I have wanted it. Since it's a huge cast with collaborative work, somebody else can improve upon my deficiencies and vice versa. I've done my best work in an ensemble setting.

GD: At the NSD you attended lectures by GP Deshpande on Indian arts and aesthetics. What is the importance of such lectures for an actor?

GK: These are very important for an actor. If I had done only Marathi plays and commercial theatre then I would be a very different actor and person from the one I am today. I'm very grateful to a place like the NSD because it opened me up to various kinds of people and processes. It evolved me as a human being and allowed me to spread this knowledge to other people. NSD was the best decision of my life. Those three years were a game changer for me because they changed my whole approach towards life. I think there were only two of us who attended GPD's (Gopu Deshpande) classes on history of modern Marathi drama. There was this entire history of Marathi theatre that I literally knew nothing about. I belong to a certain caste that believes to be the frontrunner of Marathi theatre, but GPD completely destroyed that notion.

GD: Who are the people that have influenced you?

GK: A lot of people. Everybody influences me, including my cook. I'm like a sponge and I want to take in every amazing thing that people have to offer. Of course, the main influence was the NSD. It completely transformed me.

GD: You graduated from the NSD at twenty-three and your first commercial play was at twenty-seven. The big shift from school into the real world. What were those five years in between like?

GK: I was still doing a lot of experimental theatre before MUKKAM POST BOMBILWADI. I also worked with Paresh (Mokashi) during that period. We did about a hundred shows of one play and a Company Theatre produced it. I did another play, which managed to do about fifty shows. I also did many TV serials but those four years were very difficult for me. I simply got lucky because I found some incredibly good people during that period. I got to work with Awishkar, and then there was Paresh with whom I ended up doing three plays.

GD: You have worked with at least four directors: Paresh Mokashi (MUKKAM POST BOMBILWADI), Mohit Takalkar (ELEPHANT STORY), Sunil Shanbag (SEX, MORALITY AND CENSORSHIP and in DREAMS OF TALIM) and Atul Kumar (PIYA BEHRUPIYA). What was your approach while you worked with these very different directors?

GK: I had learnt so many incredible things at the Drama school and was introduced to this whole new world that I didn't even know existed. However, once I was out I didn't really know how to apply my theatre theory and practice in the real world. You see, what you learn in a classroom is one thing and to actually be able to apply that learning in a production on your own, is quite another thing. Paresh's plays, if you've seen his work, are comical in nature and his style very performative. We did five hundred shows of BOMBILWADI. That itself was like another Drama school for me because of the huge learning curve that it provided.

Marathi theatre keeps you on your toes because you could be constantly travelling with a play. Mostly we'd reach a venue just in time for the show, perform, pack up and be on our way to another venue. I've performed at every type of venue you can possibly imagine. All I remember from those three years is that I performed, slept and travelled. That entire period completely changed me as a human being, and my temperament as an actor. I can now perform in every kind of condition without any qualms. I remember that my father passed away on the 20th of March and I had a show on the 23rd and I knew I had to do it. It was important to me. It made complete sense for me to do it. Working with Paresh gave me a chance to hone all the skills I had learnt. It gave me the confidence to rely on my ability as an actor and I'm very grateful for that.

Mohit's process is very different from Paresh's because he doesn't tell you anything. He'll give you all the time and space in the world to simply explore your character. Then one day during rehearsals, he'll make a suggestion like, ''Can you just try to look at this person while speaking and keep your hand down.'' It is a very tiny suggestion, but that little instruction could change everything about your character. Mohit's process is very organic and somewhere changes your entire being. He's like a painter; one that starts with bigger strokes and then eventually goes on to add smaller nuances. He's very accommodating of his actors and gives them the time and space to work. I absolutely love it because I can't take a lot of direction.

Atul Kumar's process is again very different. Atul is very demanding and he constantly keeps you on your toes. That is definitely not my process and I believe that's what was so amazing about working with Atul. I had to let go of a lot of things that came naturally to me and instead stepped into his zone. It challenged me as an actor and helped me tap into abilities that I didn't know I had. Also, the timing was impeccable because I got to work with Atul right after I had worked with Mohit.

I believe Sunil (Shanbag) and I are on the same page at an intellectual level. I can always visualise what he is saying and that's why we work extremely well together. He has a certain understanding of the world, because he comes from an intellectual school of thought that creates its world rooted in a certain historical, cultural and sociological context, and that method appeals to me as an actor.

GD: I remember talking to another contemporary of yours the other day and she said that in Mumbai, it's near impossible to make money with a play. It's only when you travel with a production that you actually end up making money from it.

GK: I don't think that you can actually make money doing just theatre. I mean you can survive, but only to a basic extent and even then it requires a lot of support from your friends and family. Either that or you have to be really rich. Things were different when I started. I could survive with fifteen to twenty thousand rupees a month because it was in the nineties. I used to pay six or seven thousand rupees as my EMI, travel was another two thousand and even then I managed to save around two or three thousand rupees every month post my other expenses. You can't do that anymore. Workshops were an absolute blessing. I realised that I was very good at teaching. I still try to discover my process each time with a new role. So it's easy for me to empathise with another student because I know what they're going through. I believe that everybody can act if they desire to and are willing to work hard. Art as far as I am concerned is for everybody.

: Your character as Nutan in Chaitanya Tamhane's film 'Court' took a lot of rehearsals and minimum thirty takes. Tell me about this ability that Chaitanya Tamhane has to what is spoken of as taking the ''acting out of the actors.'' How did you manage to create your public prosecutor's character that apparently bears an uncanny similarity to the persona of the real life ex- public prosecutor Rohini Salian?

GK: I didn't know Rohini much. I had only read about her but had never seen her. I believe that this is where my theatre training really came handy. Of course my own personality helped me a lot because it pushed me to be patient and to work even harder. I was okay to give over thirty takes because I believed in Chaitanya and the story that he was attempting to tell. Sometimes I wasn't able to get it right. I would struggle with instructions and so it was frustrating but we'd all manage to get through it together. It was a process. I wouldn't exchange the experience for anything in the world because this is a film that I'll always treasure. Everybody on the set, from the crew people to the director worked very hard to make it happen. I had followed another female prosecutor around in order to prepare for my role for the film.

It was only after the film that the comparisons to Rohini began. I actually learnt a lot more about her once the film was out. I am however glad that I didn't get caught up with trying to make my character more like her because who knows how that would have turned out. This way I got to spend time with the prosecutor that I was studying. I visited the court with her and saw things from her perspective. The fact that the character eventually turned out to be similar to Rohini Salian, was purely coincidental.

Chaitanya's process was nearly a six month long process through which we had workshopped almost every tiny detail of the film, from the dialogues to the costume to work with the camera guy. It was a lot of work and everyone was very sincere. Sometimes it got pretty intense because everyone was constantly working. At times we did sixty takes in a day.

GD: In the time I've known you as an actor, I've seen two sides of you. One that does these incredibly massive big budget productions and tours all over the world. Then there is this other side that spends all her free time in Wada, working with the children there. Tell me about it.

GK: About twelve to thirteen years ago, my husband Atul and I were introduced to this incredible man named Nilesh Nimkar through our mutual friends. We were both frustrated at the time and believed that we needed a stimulus other than acting to keep us going. Here's what happens in our line of work: as actors we eventually tend to become very self-centered. If we do not realise it, then that selfishness permeates every level of our lives. Atul and I had reached a place where we no longer wanted to live that way, and so we went looking for ways in which we could help devote our time to something other than our selves.

Nilesh's idea was to reform education at the primary level, with an attempt to reform government policies and to train teachers to conduct classes in a certain way. In the villages in Maharshtara many of these children happen to be the first generation of school goers in their families. So it's important that we give them a good base, so that they can go on to have a better future.

I work with the teachers who teach these children and we often end up doing shows at these schools. There is so much I've learnt from these little children. In the city, we are always complaining about there not being enough audience for theatre, but that's because we tend to make our art exclusive. There is plenty of audience if you go looking for it. The village audience is an incredible audience because they're so giving; they're with you every step of the way during a show. Art I believe needs to become more inclusive because everyone is capable of creating it and enjoying it, regardless of where they come from.

*Gaurangi Dang is an English Literature graduate from the University of Delhi and a student of The Drama School (DSM), Mumbai. She likes to tell stories :)

More about Geetanjali Kulkarni
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