Geetanjali Kulkarni’s acting career soared during the pandemic. She has starred in the web series Taj Mahal 1989, Aarya 2, Humble Politician Nograj, Selection Day, Unpaused and Rangbaaz. Her performance as a harried housewife in Gullak is surely one of the reasons for the show’s popularity.
Kulkarni had already stacked up an impressive resume in theatre. She honed her craft in amateur college plays before enrolling at the National School of Drama in Delhi. Apart from Marathi productions, her Hindi plays include Atul Kumar’s Twelfth Night adaptation Piya Behrupiya (in which she played male and female twins) and Mohit Takalkar’s Gajab Kahani (in which she portrayed an elephant). After a breakthrough role in Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court, Kulkarni starred in the films Mukti Bhawan, Photograph and Karkhanisanchi Waari.
Acclaimed for adding layers of energy or stillness, depending on the role, Kulkarni remains firmly grounded. For an interview with Scroll.in at a coffee shop in Mumbai, she arrived in a white summery outfit, no make-up on her face, drawing no attention to herself. Simplicity, whether on the screen or off it, is an important value for Kulkarni, she said during a wide-ranging interview.
After years of working in plays and films, you have found your feet in streaming.
Nowadays so much of work is happening, and actors of my age are required a lot. Also female-driven roles are happening because of the long format, and characters are well written.
In films, only the main leads have any space. Film stars can attract viewers to a web series, but after a point, you need good actors and good stories. This has become very beneficial for actors like us, who have some experience, who have done theatre and independent films. So I am getting the kind of roles that I never expected.
Streaming creates unforeseen opportunities but is there a flip side too?
Because there are so many actors, directors, storytellers across platforms, there is space for everybody, but at the same time, that also means there is no stardom for any one.
I am not very ambitious. I am not insecure either as an actor. But for young people, it is difficult being lost in the crowd. On the one hand, there is so much work that people are earning from acting, which is so rare. On the other, it is very tough to compete.
My basic nature is that I need equality in the whole set-up. I can’t take the star system, and in today’s scenario that equality is there. Even in theatre I could work with a director like Paresh Mokashi, because he was the kind of guy who would come early and clean the stage.
I belong to the school of collaborative work, which is why I like working in web series. All are equal, there are young people who focus on their work. Earlier, there was this culture of, I am giving you work. Nowadays, with casting directors, a new person can audition and get a lead role.
You cut your teeth in theatre. How important is the stage to you?
Thank god I have theatre, I have my sanity, I have experience, I have something to go back to. So I am happy, otherwise I would have felt lost.
It is very difficult to find focus. Luckily, I know my direction very well, what kind of work I want to do and what kind of work I don’t want to do. And what kind of lifestyle I need.
It scares me to do something just for money. When I was doing commercial Marathi theatre, the money was enough. I used to travel by train because all the theatres were near railway stations. We ate idli-sambar and drank chai. Even autos were cheap then. I used to pay the EMI for our flat and still save some money.
Despite your success, you don’t have a publicist or a stylist.
I don’t have a huge following on Instagram so I don’t have a stylist. I don’t have a fashion sense, and I don’t like to waste my time on it. My friends help me out. I wear what I have, or for a special occasion, buy something, but I don’t give my look too much thought. It’s too much effort.
You were Geetanjali Sherikar before you married Atul Kulkarni, your senior at the National School of Drama. Tell us about the name change.
That is the tragic story of my life! I didn’t change my surname for four years after marriage. We wanted to buy a house. As actors we didn’t have that kind of income, or a salary slip. The bank which helped us with a loan asked why I had not changed my surname. My mother said, if that what it takes to get a loan, do it. I succumbed because we needed that loan.
Both of you are renowned actors. Yet, you continue to live in the same two-bedroom apartment.
We didn’t buy a bigger apartment, because why waste money? Instead we built a house in my village in Wada. We have space to do meaningful work and it feels good. The flat in Mumbai is like a transit house, we are travelling so much, either shooting or shows, or spending time in Wada.
I sleep on the floor at home. We don’t have a bed or an AC. We lead a minimalistic life, because we humans have already used up a lot of the earth’s resources. We cannot go back to how the earlier generation lived. We need phones and laptops, so we need to reduce this materialism as much as possible.
I work in Wada with kids, which keeps me very grounded. I don’t want to grow my nails so that I can’t cut vegetables, and I don’t need people serving me. I clean my home, toilets and everything. I don’t like cooking, so we do have a cook.
I never wanted a Mercedes, I occasionally drive [a Celerio], but I mostly travel by rickshaw. I walk around a lot too.
I remember a funny incident when, on the way to an awards function, I was stuck in traffic a few metres from the venue. I was wearing a sari and heels, so I stopped a two-wheeler, hopped on and asked him to drop me.
What’s it like being married to an actor? Is there ever any professional envy?
We fight about everything, but there is no envy. The reason being that when I went to NSD, I was 20 and had very little experience. I had done college plays, but I had not read many plays and what I had seen was mostly commercial Marathi theatre. Atul guided me – he and Swanand [Kirkire]. He took my speech classes when I was cast in Romeo & Juliet. He was almost like a teacher to me.
We have different opinions about work, or argue about a film we watch. That is good, because if it had been just mutual admiration, or if one of us had deferred to the other, then we would not have been able to maintain our individuality. After 25 years, we are both equally independent. There is some connection that has kept us going. Our philosophy of life matches – no showing off, no wanting this or that. It’s strange that we have never worked together.
You are a Marathi speaker who played a North Indian character in Gullak. How did that happen?
After Court, I was being offered either a Maharashtrian mother or a Maharashtrian background character. Mukti Bhavan and Photograph were exceptions, but they were small roles.
Nikhil Vijay and Amrit Raj Gupta, the writer and director of the first season of Gullak, were big fans of Court. Nikhil Vijay is from a Maharashtrian family from Nagpur, but he was born and brought up in Delhi, where they didn’t speak Marathi at all. I think my features resemble his mother or something, so they were keen on casting me, but they were sceptical about my accent.
I did 10-20 days of workshops, because it is a peculiar dialect, not regular Hindi. They shoot the series like theatre, so we have to rehearse a lot. There was some pressure about whether I would be able to do it. It was purely because of the theatre style of rehearsal that I was able to pull it off. Thank god they took this risk, and thank god I made the effort, because it worked well for me and for the series too.
Between plays and series, you did a few films. What was that experience like?
When I returned from NSD, I was not even interested in films, because I knew how difficult it was to get good roles and that too, in films that I really believed in. After four years, I tried doing films, but I could not go to every office and give my photographs, so I thought theatre is my thing.
Even though I wanted to do commercial theatre, I could not do just any play. It had to have meaning for me. My work affects me a lot, I can’t do it in a detached way. I question myself after doing anything.
It’s more intense with theatre, because you are continuously working on a play. In films, after the shoot is over, you can detach yourself. So, I thought, I won’t do anything for money, at least in theatre I will do what I totally believe in.
Interestingly, all my experimental plays in Marathi did very well – Buddhibal Ani Zabbu, Sangeet Debuchya Muli, Mukkam Post Bombilwadi, Sangeet Lagna Kallol. From 1996 to 2005, I was continuously doing theatre. At the time, weekly serials were happening, so I did Swaraj with Manju Singh and Bhains Barabar with Sumitra Bhave. This kind of work, a bit of TV along with theatre, was how the earlier generation of Marathi actors also managed. Everything changed when the daily soaps started.
What roles do you tend to reject?
I don’t want to get stereotyped, or go by whatever formula is popular at any given time. I try my best not to repeat anything. I see who I am working with. People are very important – the makers and their vision. Fortunately, I have always been part of projects that I felt I should be a part of. I have never worked with indifference.
I turned down two-three films because the roles were like Gullak and there was nothing new for me to do. I don’t mind playing small roles. I did a small role in Aarya, but it was something different for me. I had a chance to do something – lookwise and attitude-wise, she is a go-getter.
In Rangbaaz 3, I play a mother who is fighting for her son. She has a 40-year graph, so it’s challenging. I don’t mind playing aged characters if the role has some length to it, or, if there is no length, there has to be something I have not attempted before.
After 40, all women get mother roles only, but I am fortunate that today the mother’s roles are also being written with some variety, not the typical, silent mother who comes in and exits. In Gullak, she is a homemaker but she has a stand and she is fighting with her family.
Is there a series you would like to have been a part of?
I would like to do something like Mare Of Easttown – what a great part!
Any plans to return to the stage?
Before Covid-19, I had planned to direct a musical play, but it had to be dropped. Now I don’t have the time or mindspace. I would return to theatre in a beat if an exciting role were to be offered.
Everybody thinks I am busy, so no play comes to me. A couple of offers were there, but they were the realistic kind, and at least on stage, I should do something different. I like the process of theatre, I enjoy rehearsals and shows. It is the stage in between the two that I find tiring.