Geetanjali Kulkarni: 25 years an Actorby Aparajita Krishna March 10 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 14 mins, 42 secs
Aparajita Krishna views actor Geetanjali Kulkarni’s life and career through the prism of her cutting-edge work in theatre, films and web-series.
Geetanjali Kulkarni owns the stage with her performances and is at a very interesting stage of her acting career. On stage she has played an elephant, a man, among many other parts.
Reputed writer and theatre critic Shanta Gokhale’s appraisal of Geetanjali’s act in Gajab Kahani reads (Mumbai Mirror, June 2, 2011) “Gajab Kahani tells of an elephant’s extraordinary journey from Lisbon to Vienna. The wise, gentle, enduring Solomon is played with complete conviction by the slightly built Geetanjali Kulkarni. What gives her stature, is her crinkled grey sharara and bell-sleeved top (Rashmi Rode’s costumes), her deep rich voice, wide arching movements and a chhau walk, which she uses sparingly to suggest latent strength. When she is not moving, she stands on the central platform swaying gently, almost imperceptibly, in perfect synchronization with an internal rhythm. Kulkarni’s versatility is such that she would put life into brick and mortar if she were called upon to play a house.”
Sunil Shanbag, veteran theatre director, has directed Geetanjali in his noted plays ‘Sex, Morality and Censorship’ and ‘Dreams of Taleem.’ His evaluation says, “Geetanjali Kulkarni has that unique balance of a strong instinct and a strong intellect as an actor. Working with her is a delight because she invests so much into her performance. There are never half measures. She illuminates her characters with nuances and dimensions that surprise and delight the viewer.”
Senior journalist and film critic Namrata Joshi says in an article, “The most significant thing about her as an actor is that she does not have the ego that so often makes a star/actor overpower the character she/he is playing. She allows the character to own her. She has the ability to lose herself in a role, invisibalises her own personality to acquire that of her role. That also underscores her versatility. It gives her the ability to be several different kinds of people, do various kinds of films than get confined in a box. She is free as a bird.”
As a very credible, established actor of Indian theatre, television, Marathi and Hindi films, OTT shows, Geetanjali Kulkarni talks of her journey, her work, and life with actor-husband Atul Kulkarni.
Your acting career is firm-footed, looking ahead, but when you look back do you feel satisfied with the offerings and parts you lived and acted?
It’s been 25 years that I have been in this profession. I feel that the kind of actor I was 25 years ago, I have come a long way. There is sure to be growth in my craft and am happy about that, but yet I feel there is a long way to go. As far as opportunities are concerned, considering the kind of person I am, I became part of the world I was comfortable with. For example acting in plays, doing roles or being part of stories, which I really wanted to be.
Do tell us about your familial background? I read that you grew up in IIT Powai, East Mumbai area. Theatre germinated in the skits and dances you would do for the Ganpati festival. Do you recall your first baby step on stage?
Hahahaha…. Ya. I used to participate in all the cultural activities in my colony. I think I was hardly 4 years old. My mom had taken me to a circus. The very next day at my KG school, I was in the centre and children were around me. I was trying to copy the clown in the circus and everyone was laughing.
Was theatre-going part of childhood? Maharashtrians are very culturally-theatre driven.
Yes… absolutely. Of course a particular type of theatre. Though I had watched some artistic plays which IIT used to organise.
Did films and television figure in your childhood, young years?
Yes. I was a Doordarshan kid. I used to watch all the serials, regional films, art-house films, foreign films on TV. Was a great admirer of Satyajit Ray films. I didn’t necessarily understand everything, but I used to like to watch films with that kind of flavour. I liked actors like Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Anita Kanwar, Raghuveer Yadav, Pankaj Kapoor and of course Naseer sir and Om Puri sir.
You went to Ruia College where the drama society was very active. Tell us about your participation in plays through the college years.
I participated in college plays. Was part of a play called Sati which won many awards at competitions. I always liked the process of rehearsals, but didn’t enjoy these competitions. Maybe because I was in the mob and not playing any important character. Nevertheless I realised that I was liking the atmosphere of rehearsals and shows. I used to observe our director Chandrakant Kulkarni and was fascinated by his command over the group; the way he used to give instructions. That’s when I decided that I would like to learn this craft.
Then you went to the National School of Drama, Delhi. How did the academic training affect your growth as an actor? Who were the seniors you looked up to as actors, directors? Who were your contemporaries? There are lovely photos of you in the NSD production Romeo Juliet along with Nawazuddin Siddiqui, directed by Anuradha Kapur.
I was at the NSD from1993 to 1996. NSD changed me completely. I think that it was my rebirth. It changed my world-view and my perception towards life. I am not sure whether I learnt the craft or not, but the exposure, the teachers, classmates, seniors and the overall atmosphere really made me very serious about my work and cultivated a temperament of an actor or a theatre person. I liked Seema Biswas a lot. She was in the repertory at that time.
My classmates were Jilmil and Swanand Kirkere. They had a great impact on me. I also liked Violet Nazir’s work. I still remember a play called Raste where she played a Naxalite, which was written by GP Deshpande and directed by Satyadev Dubey. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Chittaranjan Tripathy, Subrat Dutta were my classmates. Ashwini Dighe, Ashutosh Rana, Mukesh Tiwari and Yashpal were my seniors.
Did the legendary E.Alkazi’s ghost play at the NSD? Was he a point of reference for your generation? I had the good fortune of interacting with him over an assignment. He communicated to me in informative and biting talks.
Unfortunately he didn’t come to the NSD at that time. He had his own acting school by then. I had watched plays directed by him. I feel that because of his hard work and systematic approach, the school still exists. Now it is our generation’s responsibility to take that ahead. Which seems difficult in today’s times.
Atul Kulkarni, a very fine actor, your husband, you had met at the NSD. He was your senior or classmate?
Ya, we met at the NSD. I fell in love with him and proposed to him. He was my senior. He had this quality of bringing people together, which I adored a lot.
Do inform of the trajectory of your future soon after graduating from the NSD. You returned to Mumbai and joined Marathi theatre here. You worked with playwright-director Paresh Mokashi. Who were the theatre stalwarts who you looked up to?
When I went to the NSD my dream was to do Marathi Commercial Theatre after coming back. So I started working at Avishkar, an experimental group run by Sulbha Deshpande. I did two-three plays with the group. Then I met Paresh Mokashi during a play’s rehearsal, which actually didn’t happen. But I became part of his play and then did my first commercial play with him called Mukkam Post Bombilwadi, which was a hit. We did almost 500 shows of this play. His next play Lagna Kallol also got critical acclaim and I won my first award as best actor in a supporting role.
Did television acting run parallel back then? Was it more Marathi serials or also Hindi ones?
I didn’t do much TV. In the beginning when there were weekly serials, I was part of Swaraj by Manju Singh and also Bhains Barabar by Sumitra Bhave. But after that I didn’t quite fit into any TV series. I tried, but was never comfortable. So when I got Marathi commercial plays, I only did that as I didn’t have the time to do anything else. For 4 to 5 years from the year 2000, I was only doing Marathi plays. After that I tried to do daily soaps, but soon realised that I was not fit for it. I am a little slow. Didn’t have that smartness, which daily soaps required.
You produced the play ‘Ek Rikami Baaju’ (An Empty Side). It was about breast cancer.
Ya. There was a phase when I was not getting any Marathi commercial plays and was doing TV. So, I had some money. I thought of producing a play for myself. This became a gamechanger in my life as I realised the kind of stories I needed to be a part of. After that I started working in Hindi Experimental Theatre and also conducted workshops to earn some money.
Did you form your own group? What did you name it?
It was a self-proprietary firm. It was called Theatrix. But that was the only play I produced.
Your theatre in Mumbai has seen you in landmark plays like ‘Sex, Morality and Censorship’ and ‘Dreams of Taleem’ with Sunil Shanbag, ‘Piya Behroopiya’ with Atul Kumar, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, ‘Haath Ka Aaya … Shoonya’ with Manav Kaul and ‘Gajab Kahani’ with Mohit Takalkar. I have seen you on stage. You own it. Tell us about the lessons from these plays or any other ones. These plays had a long run.
Actually when I started doing theatre in Hindi I got a lot of experience. So I was quite a confident actor. I enjoyed doing these plays and working with these directors. I really love artistic work. I think I feel comfortable in the experimental zone. It helped me reach a pan-Indian audience. And the best part was performing at the Globe (Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London), and touring internationally with Piya Behrupiya. I learnt a lot from these plays. It gave me a different kind of awareness about my craft and understanding of my search as an actor. Whatever I had learnt at the NSD or my experience while I was doing Marathi plays went further when I was working with these directors. I got a broader view as an artist.
It is very interesting to work with Sunil Shanbag. His political, social, economic awareness feeds an actor. When I worked with him on plays I had come with an experience in theatre. I had already done a lot of work in Marathi theatre. I could sense what he wanted. In Sex Morality and Censorship I was doing an excerpt from Sakaram Binder. The character of Laxmi. I really enjoyed doing it. Sunil explained to me the character, her thoughts. While reading the play I do not think I had grasped all of that. It was a very interesting process for me. I love his understanding of the play, of the whole social, political, economic structure. He has a sense of history. I really liked working with him.
Tell us about the idea behind QUEST - Quality Education Support Trust and Goshtarang and their work in Wada in rural Maharashtra with local actors. You’ll do fellowship programs.
I am no longer associated with QUEST or Goshtarang. But it is an important part of my life. Again this is one more thing, which made me aware of many things I wouldn’t have thought of. When Atul (Kulkarni) and I were doing our professional jobs we thought that we should find and engage ourselves in some activities other than acting and things related to it. So one of my friends introduced me to her uncle Nilesh Nimkar who was working in the education field in tribal areas of Maharashtra. We liked his approach and the kind of work he wanted to do in the field of education and so joined hands with him.
I worked with QUEST for nearly 13 years. We started a programme called Goshtarang where dramatization was used to enhance engagement in reading, writing activities amongst Adivasi and rural children. Now that work has increased and since I am not much interested in admin-work, I have left the NGO. Working with village children gives me more joy. So I’m doing that.
Films (Marathi, Hindi) are a part of your artistic trajectory. Noted ones chronologically being Ragini MMS 2 (2014), Court (2014), P Se PM Tak (2015), Mukti Bhawan/Hotel Salvation (2016), Photograph (2019), Anandi Gopal (2019), Bombay Rose (2019), Vegali Vaat (2020), Cobalt Blue (2021), Karkhanisanchi Waari/Ashes On A Road Trip (2021), Humble Politician Nograj (2022). What did you take away from them?
I think Court changed my life. I try to be selective. It’s not possible every time, but I try. My favourite is Court of course. I also like Karkhanisanchi Wari a lot.
Court got a lot of attention. It was released in 2014 at the Venice Film Festival. It was India’s official entry for the Oscars in 2015. You got your home base audience to recognise you majorly in this film. You played the lawyer, public prosecutor in the trial. It streamed on OTT. Tell us of the best moments attached to this film.
Best was attending the Venice Film Festival. It was a wonderful experience to be on the red carpet and that too with a film, which I was truly proud of. On every set that I go to, there are people who love Court. When young directors or actors say that they are fans of Court, I really feel very proud.
Your chosen work on TV/Web series are: Selection Day (2018), Gullak (2019 - 2021), Taj Mahal 1989 (2020), Operation MBBS (2020), Unpaused: Naya Safar (2022). Tell us about them and specifically about Gullak, which had two seasons and a third season due? You got nominated for awards too. What worked for it?
Gullak was a gamechanger for me. I was only getting Marathi background characters and when I was approached for Gullak I knew that this was the opportunity. It took a lot of effort and fortunately the series was liked and my work was appreciated. Gullak3 is streaming soon.
In Cobalt Blue you have an important role. It has an unusual premise.
The film is not released yet. It is stuck because of some issues, which I am not aware of. Ya it is an important role. I hope Netflix releases it soon.
You are in Aarya 2 (web) and as you have said, in a small role. A cop named Sushila Shekar. It did very well.
Ya, it was a small part. But the series was huge and for the first time I was working with a big production house, so that was a different experience. And Ram Madhvani and his team are amazing to work with.
A review of Aarya 2 by Srishti Magan says “Much like season 1, Sushmita Sen is in fine form, ably supported by a truly brilliant star cast. But for me, the one actor whose performance rivalled Sen’s, and at times even surpassed her, was Geetanjali Kulkarni.” Another one notes, “A Lasting Impact In A Brief Role: Geetanjali Kulkarni Serves A Masterclass In ‘Aarya’ Season 2.”
Tell us about any other upcoming work.
I am doing Rangbaaz 3 produced by Jar Films for Zee5.
That brings me to OTT as a medium. Trust you must be very happy with it. Sir (2018) could not get a theatrical audience, but played on OTT. Is the OTT original content in India falling into a trap or giving actors a vast variety of roles?
Actually Sir was released in theatres for a limited time. Of course OTT is giving actors opportunities. I think it hasn’t settled yet. Slowly corrections will happen I feel.
On a personal note how does Atul Kulkarni evaluate you as an actor? You must be sharing a fine camaraderie. He too is a very fine actor. Which is the one acting-role that you most admire him in?
Hahhaha…he will be the right person to answer this question. He does not like all my work. I think he likes my play Piya Behrupiya a lot. I loved him in his debut Hey Ram and of course Natrang is also one of my favourites. I also liked him in Bandish Bandits.
Atul is the scriptwriter of the upcoming film Lal Singh Chaddha, starring Aamir Khan? That’s very interesting. Anything you would want to share?
He wrote it around 10 years back. It took a long time to get the rights to the film. I remember I had gone for a tour and when I came back he told me that he had adapted Forrest Gump. It was quite a surprise for me.
Geetanjali Kulkarni’s Acts in their silver jubilee year of 25 await even greater parts.