ACTOR with a CAUSEby Khalid Mohamed March 25 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 17 mins, 13 secs
Khalid Mohamed’s heartspeak with Atul Kulkarni, the actor of substance and spleen, who has lately been making waves with his performances in A Thursday and Rudra.
At the outset a confession: It’s been totally my bad that I haven’t sought out the actor of spleen and substance before. His roster of performances, both in quantity and quality, has been one of a kind, shuttling between roles, which cannot be facilely ghettoised or slotted.
Yes, we’ve exchanged some WhatsApp messages occasionally, which have been genial, but so far and no further. Ergo, when a chance materialised to interview him on his acting prowess, and his personal life, which has been uncontaminated by the mandatory shibboleths of show business, there I was initiating a parlez-nous with Atul Kukarni over three sessions on the phone.
As an adjunct, I have to add that it turned out to be unlike any other interview I’ve done in eons. Sure, he adds the conventional ‘ji’ after the names of his senior confreres. Besides that politesse, there were no tropes, no pauses, no limits. I just had to ask, and the responses were fired at bullet speed. Over to the q and a:
Has there been a question you’ve never been asked before?
What! Okay, I can’t really say. In my acting career of 27 years, 22 of them being in films of various languages, the question I’ve been asked constantly is, “What would you have been, if not an actor?” And I’ve always said that whatever the profession may be, it cannot be anyone’s entire life. There are important parts within us, which go way beyond the professional.
For the last 15 years, I’d been heading the NGO, Quest, to pursue quality related issues in early childhood and elementary education, and teaching development through action and research. I have retired from this lately. In fact, at the age of 56, I’d like to be in a semi-retired zone. As one advances in age, it is inevitable to be conscious about the prospect of death and physical deterioration.
Why are you being so negative?
According to me, that’s positive thinking. Professional achievements and material gains are not the aim but the means to lead one’s life. This is not to suggest, in any which way, that my love for acting has diminished.
One goes through the Brahmacharya stage, which involves assimilating one’s education and learning skills. Next comes the Grahast stage devoted to one’s family and the procreation of children. My wife (actor Geetanjali Kulkarni) and I, by choice, had decided never to have children. Because there are already too many human beings on this planet.
Next comes the Vanaprastha phase, retirement from one’s family life, and to go away. I will continue to act, of course, but not as a priority, I hope to become more selective.
Are you rich enough to choose this semi-retirement plan?
Relatively, yes I’m rich enough to lead the rest of my life the way I want. After one is gone, what’s the point of money deposited in the bank? That’s why I travel in a Fortuner. I had decided not to buy a high-end car since I didn’t want to waste on insurance companies or banks. If getting work means stepping out of a swanky car at the studios, then I don’t want that work.
Currently, I’m going through the process of reducing my assignments. It’s just a coincidence, because of the slow-down caused by the pandemic, that two of my series, A Thursday and Rudra, were on the streaming channels, in quick succession, back-to-back.
I never expected our interview to go this way. You haven’t answered my first question though.
(Laughs) Because I didn’t have an answer for that. If you insist then I’ve never been asked when I’ll retire. I’m from a typical middle class Maharashtrian family - I was born in Belgaum, Karnataka. Because of my father’s business in the wholesale trade of cigarettes, we moved to Solapur.
He would have liked me to become an engineer or a doctor. I couldn’t. I had failed my 12th standard school exams, passed after another try, then joined the College of Engineering in Pune. I failed the first year of engineering four times. So, I dropped out. My sister and cousins were way more adept in studies.
By the way, speaking about cigarettes, you looked like an absolute novice while smoking in A Thursday and Rudra.
Really? On the contrary, I was told that I looked like a pukka chainsmoker. My late father was one, so are quite a few friends. I must have invested some of their traits in my performances. In real life, I don’t smoke. I’ve never ever touched a drop of alcohol either. Even Aamir Khan would try to force me to try a sip during the Rang De Basanti days. I would always say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
You sound like a saint. No vices, no affairs.
I wouldn’t agree with that. Affairs are not a bad habit, sex is a natural instinct. But before marriage, never, otherwise you would have read about it in the gossip columns.
How come you accepted the series City of Dreams in which you were hardly visible?
Maybe I wasn’t too visible in its first season. When (director) Nagesh Kukunoor narrated the script to me, he said I would get shot in the first scene, go into a coma and wake up in the last scene. That’s a risk I took. The eight episodes of Season 2, though, focused on my equation with my daughter. When the script in its entirety and the director are competent, then an actor is given all the ingredients on a platter.
Since you were playing the part of a Chief Minister, did you have any role-model?
Not at all, that would have gone against the script. I performed the role keeping in mind that politics is an extremely vital profession - it catalyses change.
I respect politics. I don’t go with the view that politics is dirty. By that standard every profession is dirty, be it the film industry, banking, journalism, to name just a few. Every human being has a valid 50-50 percent quotient of virtue and vice in him or her.
For instance, I sometimes have an uncontrollable temper. Recently, at a shoot, the production assistant had goofed up, making it miserable for the actors on the sets. I yelled my head off at him. But the next day, I gathered all the unit members and apologised to the assistant profusely. I had misbehaved.
How would you rate yourself as a husband?
Terrible. I shouldn’t have gotten married. I’m not marriage material. I could have been a better friend than a husband. Geetanjali and I end up yelling at each other occasionally, I guess like all married couples do.
Any reason why your wife has come into prominence belatedly, with her terrific performances in the series Gullak, Taj Mahal and Unpaused.
Our profession depends on opportunities and then popularity. Court, the Marathi film, was the first one which earned her due recognition. She was acclaimed as a theatre actor earlier, especially for her performance in Piya Behrupia, an adaptation of Twelfth Night directed by Atul Kumar. Today, we keep going off to different studios.
Or else we’re both at our farm in Wada, two and a half hours away from the city. Our flat in Goregaon is our second home. We don’t have an air condtioner, no TV, no washing machine, no bed, no sofa. We sleep on the floor. None of our photos or awards are on display. A 20-years-old fridge, which had been bought by my mother, is our most expensive possession.
What about your enviromental project in Satara?
Thanks to a group project, we managed over some 15 years to grow more than 5,000 trees on 24 acres of barren land, which has now been donated to an Environmental NGO.
Are you truly so selfless?
I’m not selfless, I’m selfish. I’m doing it for myself by fulfilling my social responsibilities. This was sparked within me ever since I was a kid and would wonder about concepts like God and religion. I was interested in politics, too, since I must have been 12 or so during the Emergency.
I’m a product of the Emergency, which was a unique period when the country was closed to freedom. Mrs Indira Gandhi subsequently lost the elections and returned to power with a thumping majority. Whenever there’s a major election nowadays, I’m glued to the results on my phone.
Do you intend to join politics?
No, never. That would mean a 24-hour involvement with one’s constituency. Anyway, it’s too late for me, if at all I should have joined politics at a young age.
The formation of India was an experiment in nation building to bring so many different cultures and ideas together - it is called anekta mein ekta. To date, social, communal, discrimination and caste issues continue.
However, I was quite struck by what the Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari has stated in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind - that the post-World War II years have been comparatively peaceful. We have seen worse.
I quoted Harari to make an anthropological point. I’m certainly not justifying what is going on. It’s terrifying. The only explanation for this is that politics is at its root animalistic. Violence is being used to assert power and dominance, and that is almost all across the world.
Are you secular or not?
Is that a question to ask? I am absolutely secular. And I don’t follow any man-made ‘isms’. Once, I would call myself an atheist but then atheism is also an ism. I don’t pray or identify myself with any one religion, which I think is normal.
Who have been your influences?
My family elders never had an inclination towards the arts. So, I’d go over to the home of one of my retired school teachers, Tatake Aajoba, and talk to him for hours. There I could read the Maharashtra Times, edited by Govind Talwalkar then, which came to Solapur late in the afternoon. I read the autobiography of Winston Churchill and would pore over the issues of the Marathi children’s magazine, Kishore.
The first film I saw was Haathi Mere Saathi, which I loved. After a few years, I saw Shyam Benegal’s Mandi repeatedly and persuaded my aunts and cousins to watch it with me. They were shocked and walked out in the interval, grumbling why should they see this film about sex-workers. Clearly, they were denying the reality around us.
At school, I’d watch students rehearsing Pu La Deshpande’s play Tuze Aahe Tuzapaashi. The era of plays by Vijay Tendulkar, Badal Sircar and Mahesh Elkunchwar was ebbing. I didn’t know if I wanted to act, but yes, my goal then was to complete my graduation, which I did from the arts faculty of a Solapur college, to get my B.A. degree.
Mentally, I was ‘the ugly duckling’ of the family. At the Solapur college, I acted on a whim, in the one-act play Katha Dinachya Mrutyupatra Aachi and became an overnight star on the campus. For a boy who had been written-off, to become a star in the eyes of two to three thousand spectators was a psychological boost. I felt I could act at least.
Why did you join the National School of Drama over the Film and Television Institute of India?
Because the acting course had been scrapped for a while at the FTII. Professionally, the NSD was an option to gain a holistic experience, which I did with the exposure to world theatre, literature and cinema. In the three years there, under the directorship of Kirti Jain, the faculty and the guest teachers must have given me the experience of 10 years. We learnt the theories of Stanislavski, classical Indian theatre, and Parsi theatre, which has been the basic format of Bollywood. One of the plays I staged there was a Hindi translation of Girish Karnad’s Kannada Anju Mallige, which is about a flower.
It was difficult for a Solapur person to adjust to life in a Delhi hostel. In fact, I was 30 when I graduated.
Your love story with Geetanjali Kulkarni happened at the NSD.
Yes, she was a year junior to me. One fine day when we were walking around the lawns of India Gate, she brought up the question of marriage, asking casually, “Will you marry me?” The sanskars instilled in me by my family had kept me away from a sexual relationship. I was a virgin till I was 30.
It did take me some time to agree to marriage, which according to me is an unnatural institution. It’s there because of the compulsion of the man to know whose child his wife is giving birth to. It’s as if the child is a property. Otherwise, men and woman are naturally polygamous. Jo bhi, I was not getting any younger, so I agreed to the proposal.
You could have easily fitted into the Amol Palekar mold of a middle class hero.
Every film is a reflection of its times. I was acting in the play Gandhi Viruddh Gandhi. Kamal Haasanji had seen me in it and contacted me for Hey Ram. I was portraying Gandhi in the play. It’s still a mystery to me why Kamalji wanted to cast me as someone who wants to kill Gandhi, perhaps he felt I understood the character of Gandhi closely.
After seeing the film, Madhur Bhandarkar cast me in Chandni Bar. So, I was at the right place, at the right time. For both the films I won National Awards. When the phone call came about the Hey Ram award, believe me, I had no idea about its importance as the country’s highest form of appreciation.
Of your stock of films in various languages, which do you consider the most memorable?
For me most of them have been memorable in every language, whether it was a hit or a flop. Before Hey Ram, which I feel was way ahead of its time, I hadn’t ever faced the camera. Kamalji taught me how to act, not by giving me lectures. I would watch how he directed, and from his unit too, which included cameraman Thiru, set designer Sabu Cyril and costume designer Sarikaji.
From a big film with big stars and big canvas, I went straight into Chandni Bar, which was made on a small-budget in a realistic style on authentic locations. I’d started reading books, and watching more films, I’d gotten into the groove, attained another level of confidence as it were. It became a cult, super-hit film. For my performance, I’d give 100 per cent credit to Tabuji. On the third day of the shoot, the lovemaking scene had to be filmed. It was Madhurji’s second film, Tabuji was the most experienced of us all, she ensured that I was comfortable with her throughout the shoot.
Followed Rajkumar Santoshiji’s Khakee with Amitabh Bachchanji and Akshay Kumar, which was again a learning experience. They’d been big stars for a long time, they had a certain quality about them, I could sense that their popularity has been for valid reasons.
Could we talk about your big ticket Rang De Basanti?
I was the first actor signed on for the project, which dealt with so many topical issues. I still get emails and messages about the film, which became a milestone. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehraji and I used to have multiple readings of the drafts of the script at his Tardeo office. Next, Kunal Kapoor was auditioned. I was in the process of Rang De Basanti right from its inception.
Then Aamir came on board, and the project shaped out beautifully. Although it was a five-actor ensemble, Aamir was insistent that every character should have equal importance. In fact, I’ve written the script of his Laal Singh Chaddha, the official remake of Forrest Gump. During the Rang De Basanti shoot, the atmosphere was very friendly. We’ve remained permanent friends, which doesn’t happen with every film. Otherwise, we’re like gypsies, and move on.
Wasn’t the climax of the take-over or a radio station implausible?
It was the kind of film, with its own reasons for cause and effect, in which that climax was entirely plausible. It wouldn’t have been in Chandni Bar. Plausibility is flexible, depending on a film’s genre. My character of a brainwashed fanatic who changes diametrically, does a 360 degrees turn-around, connected with the audience because it was written and directed with conviction.
Oddly you’ve never featured in the films of such frontline production companies as YashRaj, Dharma and Excel Entertainment. Do you detect ‘campism’?
I don’t know, it doesn’t matter how good an actor you are. An actor is always at the receiving end, accepting or refusing an offer. There’s no ‘campism’, as far as I can detect. I’m not in the category of a hero, hence my being in a project wouldn’t make a difference to its market value.
There could have been the danger of typecasting you as a cop or a don. How did you deflect that?
By knowing how to pronounce the magic word, “No.” I may have been a cop in Chandni Bar, Don and Dum… but in Delhi 6 I played the mohalla’s idiot, Gobar, whom everyone would make fun of. Since the film didn’t do well, that performance went under the cracks.
And after portraying Gandhiji in Gandhi Viruddh Gandhi, I refused to play the Mahatma again, at least 20 times, including projects being planned by Rajkumar Santoshij and Jabbar Patelji, and believe it or not, even as a showstopper at a fashion show in Ahmedabad.
Among your Marathi films, Natarang is perhaps the most well-known.
Natarang, Happy Journey, Premachi Goshta, Devrai and Dahavi Fa are most well-known. At that juncture, the Marathi film renaissance and the multiplex boom still had to happen. Natarang was especially satisfying since I was playing a wrestler who aspires to have his own tamasha troupe. I had to gain 15 kg to portray the wrestler and lose them again to play the ‘mausi’ of the troupe. The film, which is a milestone for me, dealt with the struggle of the tamasha form to survive and also gender bias, which allowed me to explore my feminine side.
To move on to the series Bandish Bandits, I noticed that you were particularly restrained.
My role of a modern-day Karna was conceived that way by the director Anand Tiwari. Karna had been wronged by his father, the Sangeet Samrat played by Naseerbhai (Shah). I did contribute the idea that my character still loves his father unconditionally, he’s always there for him in a crisis. That made my character more positive. Anand agreed and two or three scenes were added.
Is shooting for a web series remarkably different?
The technical shooting process isn’t but the length of the role is. An actor must have a graph in mind of what the final edit of all the seasons and episodes will look like. After all, there are so many characters and parallel sub-plots. A web series is like doing almost three films in one.
Lastly, do you have a recurring dream?
I do dream frequently and Amitabh Bachchanji keeps recurring in my dreams. I am clueless why. Maybe it’s a father figure kind of a thing. It’s strange, yes, but Amitji is so often visible in my dreams.