Kitu Gidwani: Distinctly Yours!by Aparajita Krishna December 31 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 20 mins, 51 secs
Aparajita Krishna flashbacks and forward with the life and times of Kitu Gidwani – an actor with, perhaps, the most well etched repertoire of work across so many years.
I don’t know if I am a journalist, but I do know that in the course of exchanges with fellow-beings there are times when one feels a sense of conversation that informs you, provides camaraderie, assures you as a person, woman, citizen. My interaction with the very individualistic Kitu Gidwani for the making of this article is one such exchange.
Indian ouch-potatoes of today and just yesterday may find it hard to believe that the day-before’s Indian female protagonists on Indian television were not the reverential-poojniya Tulsi, Parvati and likes, but characters of Pride and Prejudice adapted to Trishna as say Lydia Bennet as Roohi, as an Air Hostess, a Svetlana in Swabhimaan, with all their modern strengths and foibles. Kitu Gidwani represents the female face of the television of my time. Her super svelte modeling career and acting roles have covered print, stage, television from good old DD days to satellite television, to movies, to web series. Documenting her very credible and selective repertoire of work is in a way also documenting our start-up with the television medium and its trajectory till now. In the present we talk of her professional path, chronicle the person behind her roles and her world-view. The gorgeous photos add to the text. I could have also titled the article Ooh La La!
Kitu, to start now. Has the experience of these corona times given impetus to a new theater, film narrative, web-series via the streaming platforms, digital sharing, conference theater, via Facebook link? The present and future is the web, or, will movie-halls, theaters, live stage get their audience back?
I don't know about a new narrative in film or theater or television. I think the new wave of writing started much before the pandemic. And I think it picked up when we were rudely interrupted by the lockdowns. Theater is definitely not a medium for Zoom. I will never do Zoom theater as I believe in the direct physical participation of audience and actor. We have had enough of being glued to our big and small screens and I do not think that is healthy for the body or mind. Zoom and Facebook are useful for me for learning through lectures, seminars and workshops; something I did a lot of during the lockdowns!!
I really pray that people start filling up theaters and cinemas soon, as those experiences are so entertaining and enriching. We have locked ourselves up in our homes long enough and human interaction is the basis of society.
Potluck, a web-series on Sony liv is your latest act. It is publicized as a family-comedy. Directed by Rajshree Ojha it is a light-hearted family drama highlighting the importance of family bonding and togetherness. Govind Shastri (Jatin Sial), the father, wants to bring his family together after retirement and so he and his wife (Kitu Gidwani) fake his illness. This forces their daughter and two married sons to reunite. The coming together of families with different opinions, lifestyles and priorities leads to a comedy of confusion. What made you say yes to Potluck? It seems like a slick urban comedy. You are quoted saying, ‘Normally people ignore the upper-class urban demography. I really love comedy.’
I liked Potluck because of the writing. It is very American in its style - throwaway delivery and casual comedic style. Very today. And it is based upon the theme of keeping a family together, which I guess touches everyone. It does not ever become maudlin, which is another great point. That is a big unlearning for all of us Indian actors who have been brought up on high drama and over-emotionalising. It is quite a challenge to bring pathos without the teeniest bit of overindulging yourself. Add to that a great cast and director and I could not say no. The story lines also have moments that everyone can relate to.
Director Rajshree Ojha tells us “When I first met Kitu for Pramila Shastri I could not think of anybody else but her. I think she was the first or the second person to be on the show. She was Pramila for me. As for working with her it was a dream come true. She is a fabulous and a fine actor. She understands the essence of the scene. You just have to explain the essence and then you just let her be. I think that kind of an actor is very rare. I loved that she was a team player. Which is also fantastic. As a director she is a dream to work with.”
Do update on your upcoming work.
I am currently finishing work on a murder mystery set in Goa called Margaon - The Closed File. I play a humble, eccentric Goan sleuth who solves the murders. It has Zeenat Aman and Pallavi Joshi also among the main cast members. Seasons two and three of Potluck are scheduled to be shot next year. I am in talks for another exciting project, which also happens to be a dark murder mystery.
At 54 is age just a number or some kind of stock-taking of life does start? Trust being single, as in unmarried or independent of a marital home and hearth, is a choice that comes with its fair share of advantages and disadvantages. It takes courage to be one. How do you view it from a person and a woman’s point of view? I am also asking this as a kindred fellow-traveler.
I have been blessed that being an older woman and actress has not been very painful for me. Since I never fell into the trap of thinking that I needed marriage to be a real woman, I was able to go ahead with whatever gave me the most satisfaction in life.
I was extremely lucky that I was given free rein by my parents to explore all avenues right from when I was a child. So I did not receive a lot of "marriage conditioning". I was able to experience life from many angles and come to my own conclusions without having to swallow whatever society told me.
In fact I think that being a single mature woman has not been as painful as being a mature actress!!! Indian society has gone ahead of our film industry that does not see older women as having much use!! Ironic!!! I think older women are much more accomplished and useful and entertaining than younger ones! I certainly am more fearless and adventurous now!
I think that when you have the courage to own who you are, then the phases of life don't have that much of an effect on you since you are constantly on an even keel. You are constantly taking stock of your life decisions and course correcting as you go along.
I have learned that I have to be my own best friend under all circumstances no matter what life throws at me. And believe me, as an actor that is my greatest strength! Being rejected for roles is as painful as losing a partner!
How do you politically and culturally see India and the world poised in 2021? If with concern then wherein lies the hope?
This is not a direct answer to your question. India is such a complicated civilization that no generalizations can be made I feel. We have so many languages, dialects, ethnicities, cultures, subcultures, jaatis, varnas, philosophies, religions and political parties, that we can't pin down India. I feel India is a country with many countries inside her. This is what makes me a lifelong student of India.
India fascinates me. I am in awe of her ancient philosophies, cultures and art. I try to study as much as I can about her - her pulse, her heart. Every time I dig I find several layers beneath. This has always been in the past a land of diversity, pilgrimage and inclusion and tolerance.
Currently, like so many governments around the world, our government is pandering to the lowest common denominator and the basest instincts of the people. These are low-hanging fruit and always ripe for exploiting. We don't have leaders anymore with lofty ideals and far-reaching vision like we had when the country was founded.
So I try to concentrate on our cultural, philosophical and spiritual heritage - something that gives me great joy, peace and solace. I am about to embark on a study of the Bhagavad Gita for the next five months. Something I have always wanted to do!
Now to go back to the very beginning. Your talks, interviews, give a peep to you being very progressive, of an inclusive world view. I suppose being Bombay born and to parents of liberal thinking made you so and your education as well. Tell us in brief of your familial background and what went into opting for the creative art as a career?
I think I was born in an amazing generation that could perhaps only have been spawned in a place like South Bombay!!! It was the right mix of Indianness and Westernness. In those days we kids were left to ourselves, with no helicopter parents regulating our every waking moment! A perfect petri dish for an imaginative, curious child like me. It was an unsullied (I think) and innocent time with much less cynicism than today.
Add to the mix a father who headed an international airline, and with lots of travel, I was able to really broaden my horizons. I was curious about books, art and music. I was encouraged a lot by my father. My mother worked in an American oil company till the day she retired. So quite unusual for both parents to be working in international corporations.
Maybe that had to do with my developing a worldview that could be inclusive and broadminded. So I was listening to jazz and Indian classical music at the same time. Rock and qawwalis at the same time. Learning piano and Bharat Natyam at the same time. I like to study a lot of things!
Since I traveled a lot to the West I was able to imbibe a lot of progressive Western ideas. And as for being inclusive - is there any other way to be today? This world is fragmented and divisive enough as it is. I have always been an idealist in all spheres of life - whether in my personal life or regarding the planet.
You studied in Fort Convent Bombay and did your post-graduation in French. From which institution?
I did my schooling in the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Fort. Then I attended college at HR College of Commerce. I did 5 years of French language studies at The Alliance Francaise de Bombay. At age 30 I started reading for an MA in French at Bombay University, but could not complete it due to my work. I really regret that.
Do inform of your stage debut and the theater path you chose.
I discovered a certain freedom to express myself on the stage when I was in high school. I would take part in our annual school plays once I discovered the magic of theater. There is a certain liberation in taking on the persona of another person and emoting through them. This curiosity continued and I continued to explore theater through my college years.
Learning French at the Alliance Française also allowed me to explore further and it was then, doing numerous plays in French, that I realized I had a talent. I did plays by important playwrights like Moliere, Anouilh, Ionesco and Marguerite Duras in French - all important French playwrights. By this time I was doing experimental theater with numerous Bombay groups and I also started with commercial theater - doing farcical comedy and drama as well.
Soon I was working with Naseeruddin Shah's Motley Theatre. I did plays by playwrights like Chekhov and Shakespeare and Camus with Naseerbhai. Learning from Naseerbhai was an invaluable part of my theater education.
I also performed and toured in the UK in 2014. I was chosen by Bapsy Sidhwa (who wrote Earth) to do the lead role in her play "Sock Em With Honey" with the Kali Theatre, London. This led to a trajectory of a 30 year love affair with the stage and it remains my primary passion. I wish I could do much more of it. My recent performance in 2019 was with Danish Husain's Hoshruba Repertory, in a play called Untitled-1, by Annie Zaidi. I did the play Siren City with Lillete Dubey in 2000.
In 1987 you also acted in a French film ‘Black’ in which you played a Brazilian girl. Was this your first connection with films?
In the very early days I was contacted by a French woman who had seen my photos and interviews to act in a French film that she was assisting in. The film was Black and was directed by a Guadeloupean director named Christian Lara. I flew to Paris and played the role of a Brazilian actress, acting in a film about the experience of being black in France. So quite a surreal experience since I am neither black nor Brazilian!!! It was a wonderful experience, shooting in Tunisia and Senegal, and being surrounded by wonderful black, French actors. The film got a release on one of the major French television channels.
However, much later, I worked in another French film, And They Lived Happily Ever After, with the great Charlotte Gainsbourg in the lead role. The film also has Johnny Depp in a cameo. Another wonderful experience.
Did modeling happen first or acting? You were a very noted model for print and advertising-films. I recall your persona as so distinct and modern. Do pick some of your favorite modeling assignments and share some anecdotes.
Modeling happened to me by chance. I was at a loose end after my college years, and Shantanu Sheorey happened to shoot some pictures of mine. Willy-nilly I was thrown into the world of modeling. I never really thought of myself as good looking!!!
I did notable campaigns such as Sungrace Mafatlal Fabrics, Graviera Suitings, Orkay Fabrics, Lacto Calamine, Halo Shampoo, Vicks Herbal, Fanta, Thums Up, Cadbury's, Wills, to name just a few. All the while I was pursuing my passion for acting on stage. I must say I thoroughly enjoyed my modeling life. It afforded me freedom and the ability to continue acting. My first television serial, Trishna, soon followed and I was extremely busy from then on for 15 years until the year 2000.
I really enjoyed working with advertising filmmakers like Prahlad Kakkar, Suraj Rai and Kailash Surendranath and photographers like Shantanu Sheorey and Adrian Stevens.
You made you television debut in 1984 with Trishna and through the 1980s, 1990s partook in serials that laid the ground for TV entertainment - Air Hostess (1985), Katha Sagar (1986), Khoj (1987), Uppanyas(1988), Junoon (1994), Saahil (1994 to 1996), Swabhimaan (1995 to 1997), Yeh Kahan Aa Gaye Hum and Ye Unn Dino Ki Baat Hai (2018). You have been a part of Indian television from its near start on DD and the early satellite years. The series Air Hostess had you in the lead. Swabhimaan was one of the first Indian daily soaps and with you as a protagonist. How do you look back on your TV work of the past?
I am very proud of my work in television. I am grateful to the Indian television industry for embracing me and giving me all those wonderful opportunities to play so many different roles. From Airhostess to Junoon to Shaktimaan to Swabhimaan, I had a wonderful and varied television career in the 1980s and 1990s.
Vinod Pande, producer and director of Air Hostess recalls, “Air Hostess was done at a time when Indian television was still green, especially in the space of fictional storytelling. Few attempted narratives with depth, complex screenplays and layered character sketches. Theatricality and Bollywood shadow was still the defining norm. We could venture out on our irreverent steps only because we found the actors of exceptional talent who had the chutzpah and the intelligence of embracing challenges. Kitu Gidwani was indeed one such person. She enriched our show immensely by her gifted and inspired underperforming, which not many had the confidence of undertaking at that time. Our creative collaboration was not devoid of defiant moments but it surely and ultimately was a very fulfilling working together.”
Amit Khanna, the producer and lyricist of Swabhimaan, recalls, “I had known Kitu for years. When Shobha De first narrated the story of Swabhimaan I told her that Swetlana will be played by Kitu Gidwani. Dubeyji (Satyadev Dubey) who was with me encored my choice and Shobha too was excited. I came to the office and told Mahesh Bhatt. He said ‘If you are so confident I’ll go with your choice.’ Kitu went on to give a memorable performance.”
Ironically Indian television in its start-up was a most modern and progressive medium with fine content. But with the passage of time and hyped commerce it has become shockingly regressive and time-warped. But the confusion is that I find many young and happening, modern lifestyle women, men too, glued to this banal fare. Maybe we live a life of duplicity, schizophrenia. What is your take on this? You have played roles that epitomize modern, real women as protagonists.
I don't know what happened to Indian television in the 2000s. Maybe it was the amount of money that got poured into it around that time. That corrupted the goal and vision of content makers. The 1980s and 1990s were more innocent; and producers still thought that good ideas led to money. Later, in the Balaji era, good ideas went out of the window in favor of money, money, money. Add to that the herd mentality of the TV channels and you got the incredibly appalling level of television content for 10 years. I participated to a very limited extent during that time. Kulvaddhu being one of the stillborn projects was one I worked in during those forgettable years. I also did a few small feature films during that time. Hello Zindagi and Traffic being among them.
However, it looks like that with the advent of OTT, the content producers and writers and directors are rediscovering their freedom. So far. We must hope and pray that the general exposure to content and ideas from all over the world have a positive influence on Indians films and web-series.
I'm afraid I haven't watched Indian television for the last 20 years and so I really can't say why younger people are watching these regressive serials today. It could be societal conditioning of women that makes them cling to old and hackneyed ideas!
Your act on the big screen debuted with Holi (1984). However, it was director Govind Nihalani's film, Rukmavati Ki Haveli (1992), that saw you in a major role. This was followed by Govind Nihalani’s Drohkaal. Deham was your last collaboration with the director. You are quoted saying “I couldn't have done better than what I've done in Deham. Some directors are happy with less, but not Govindji. For every scene we were pushed to give our best.” Do inform more.
I had a very special relationship with Govindji. I was a big admirer of his work. I did three films with him - all very dark. Maybe he saw in me some gravitas or depth that even I was unaware of back then!!
My first film with him was Rukmavati ki Haveli, an adaptation of Federico Garcia Lorca's play ‘The House of Bernarda Alba’. The second was Drohkaal in which I had a cameo and the third was Deham - based on Manjula Padmanabhan's play ‘Harvest’.
With Govindji I was able to dig deep and expand my range as an actress. He taught me how to be fearless in the face of challenging subject matter. India needs directors like Govindji to tackle taboo subjects.
Among your films Dance of the Wind (1997), 1947 Earth (1999), Shadows in the Dark, Fashion (2008), Dhobi Ghat (2010), Ek Burra Aadmi, Student of the year (2012) get mentioned. Do apprise us with your takeaways from your chosen films. Pardon my opinion, but in Fashion, with the usual Madhur Bhandarkar take on feminism and the likes, yours was the only nuanced and believable character. In this convoluted, playing to the gallery film you gave immense dignity to your characterization.
Of my films I would rate Dance of the Wind as the most artistically satisfying and memorable experience. I won Best Actress at a big French festival for that performance in 1987. That was the Festival of Three Continents in Nantes, France. I am extremely proud of that performance and I think it was pitch perfect. I play the role of an Indian Classical singer who goes through the journey of the dark night of the soul after her mother (who is also her guru) dies.
Earth, directed by Deepa Mehta, was also a wonderful experience, and I think I carried off the role of a young Parsi woman in Lahore rather well. I am extremely proud that in all of the above films – in Fashion, Shadows in the Dark, Earth, Dance of the Wind and Dhobi Ghat, I carried off extremely different and distinct characters. I consider that to be my strength. The film Ek Bura Aadmi was very interesting for me as I play the chief minister of UP - a role I would have never dreamed I would be able to play!
Your passion for animals reverberates. A post on social media says, “In search of Duende. Fighting for animals till my last breath. Dance dance dance. Ayam Atma Brahm.” Was it always a passion?
Currently, billions upon billions of sentient beings are slaughtered for food every year on the planet. Huge factory farms and slaughterhouses have overrun the planet. The animals are abused and tortured from the moment they are born till the day they are brutally killed. They never even see the light of day. The only time some of them see the outside world is when they are being transported to the slaughterhouse!!!
These are all creatures with mothers. They need their mothers. They feel joy, pain and terror. They suffer. A mother cow who is brutally separated from her male calf feels immense pain. Mechanical pumps are attached to her udders to take away her milk while her baby desperately tries to suckle her before he is snatched away to be drowned or otherwise brutally killed.
Pigs are kept bound down by metal bars on their side from the day they are born till they die. The mother suckles her babies on her side, bound down, unable to move. Picture hundreds of these helpless creatures inside a huge factory farm!!!
I can go on and on - the horrors are too many to describe. Any animal feels joy and pain just like us. The saying goes, "If we could hear the screams from the slaughterhouse, we would all go vegan."
You are quoted saying in Bollywood Hungama, ‘The problem with today’s world is that everyone has a very dogmatic view of life, dogmatic view of feminism. And I don’t think anyone has a right to tell me what feminism is.’ So, how do you define it for yourself?
Feminism and the protection of women’s' rights are under threat today. All the progress made in the last century by brave women activists is being attacked today. It is even more urgent for all of us to stand our ground and reclaim our rights and protections. So I feel we should introspect and decide for ourselves where we draw the line in each perilous situation. Whether it comes to forced marriage, abortion, abuse, alimony, rape, torture, equal pay, housewife's rights, dress, etc. We cannot allow warped agendas on the left or right to tell us who we are and how we should behave.
Women must support each other - intragenerational and intergenerational. We cannot allow the last century to be thrown into the garbage can. This planet needs real women. Strong women. Not women who have been moulded into some image of men.
So, I have always tried to make my own decisions about who I am and what I stand for. Whatever my situation might be in any stage of life. For this we women really need to dig deep and get in touch with our core and understand our unique capabilities and gifts and strengths we can offer the world. We cannot let anyone define us.