“And above all Radhika Apte” is how the actor is billed in Vasan Bala’s Monica, O My Darling. The description might remind viewers of the manner in which the popular villain Pran was credited in his films: “And Pran”.
There’s a touch of evil to Apte’s police officer Naidu, one of the players in a game that begins with blackmail and ends in murder. Apte’s character Naidu is a skinny jeans-and-boots wearing police officer assigned to an investigation that threatens to implicate Rajkummar Rao’s robotics expert Jayant. Naidu’s chief aim is to make Jayant hot under the collar, a responsibility that Apte portrays with evident relish.
The role is a departure for Apte, who is usually called upon to portray the spectrum of intensity. She has been this relaxed only once before, in Sriram Raghavan’s Andhadhun (2018), in which she plays a cafe owner who gets entangled with a pretend-blind pianist.
“I was so nervous – I have never played a part like this,” Apte told Scroll.in. “The situations could have been funny or not funny, since timing is key in comedy. But Vasan’s faith [in me] was one of the main boosters. I wasn’t an obvious or conventional choice.”
One of the aspects of Monica, O My Darling that appealed to Apte was its gender-agonistic nature – both male and female characters behave in ways that challenge expectations.
“You don’t see gender but only characters,” Apte observed. “This is a great balance that Vasan has got right. Naidu has an extremely chilled-out life, which is the opposite of whom I am. I am an extremely anxious person. If it rains during a shoot, I feel guilty, as though it’s my mistake.”
Monica, O My Darling is out on Netflix, with which Apte has been associated for better or worse since the streaming platform began operations in India in 2018. That year, Apte starred in Netflix’s first original show Sacred Games, the anthology film Lust Stories and the horror series Ghoul. Memes on social media about Netflix’s dependence on Apte now resurfaces every time a film starring the 37-year-old actor turns up on the platform.
“This trend wasn’t started by my team or Netflix,” Apte said. “Anybody who will give it a little more thought will know it’s not true.” Netflix subverted the trend by releasing a video with Apte, titled Omnipresent.
The joke has worn thin but refuses to stop. Apte recalls a birthday party in London, where she lives with her husband, the music composer Benedict Taylor, whenever she isn’t in India for work. “This random person whom I’ve never met before said, so, how is everything at Netflix? I told him, how would I know, I don’t own it, right? It was hilarious.”
Monica, O My Darling is Apte’s second release in recent weeks. She starred in Pushkar-Gayatri’s remake of their Tamil film Vikram Vedha. The Hindi version, which was out on September 30, underperformed despite its megawatt stars – Hrithik Roshan and Saif Ali Khan – and clever premise, possibly because of the easy availability of the source film across streaming platforms.
Apte stepped into the lawyer’s part played by Shraddha Shrinath in the original movie. Apte thoroughly enjoyed her time working with Pushkar and Gayatri, the married couple who jointly write and direct films and series (including Suzhal on Amazon Prime Video).
“The older I grow, the more I want to work with people I really get along with – and Pushkar-Gayatri are lovely,” 37-year-old Apte said. “I have never met a couple like that – two people who are married, work together and have such wonderful harmony. During the promotions of Vikram Vedha, one of them had to take an earlier flight and the other one was so sad and said, this is the first time we are travelling separately.”
If Apte’s fans don’t see as much of her on the screen as they would like to, it’s because she has been taking it nice and slow after years of cramming her resume.
“This year, I have said no to almost everything that has come my way,” Apte stated. “Nothing has been exciting me, whether films or series. Some are remakes. Besides, there aren’t so many roles for women. I have decided to be extremely choosy, even though it’s hard and scary to reject roles. I just feel that if I can’t give my 100 per cent to a project, I can’t do it. I am now in my prime, and I can’t be doing things that don’t intellectually, physically or emotionally challenge me.”
Raised in Pune, Apte cut her teeth in Marathi theatre before moving into films in 2005. Her drudge phase lasted longer than most, even though she had early hits to her name and noteworthy turns in such films as Shor in the City and Lai Bhaari.
After finally getting noticed in Sriram Raghavan’s Badlapur in 2015, Apte moved into more high-profile roles, including the 2018 British production The Wedding Guest, directed by Michael Winterbottom and co-starring Dev Patel. Apte has continued to pursue international productions. She played the Indian-origin British spy Noor Inayet Khan in Lydia Dean Pilcher’s A Call to Spy in 2019. Two of Apte’s upcoming projects are by American and British producers.
Coping with the pressures of filmmaking and Mumbai itself, a city as cruel as it is welcoming, hasn’t been easy.
“Bombay is like a swimming pool of insecurities,” Apte observed. “Unnecessary tensions and anxieties push you into doing things you really don’t want to do. It has been very hard, I won’t lie. Most of the time, you feel so small. You are put into a vulnerable place. You get rejected so often. Whoever say they don’t get rejected is lying. You get used to it and learn not to take it personally.”
She gradually picked up a few showbiz hacks, and made sure to pursue other interests, including reading and watching movies. “I learnt to put my foot down, understand what I didn’t like, and what I would like to change if I was in a situation with some power,” Apte said. “I also learnt to like my art. You go through so much rubbish and you realise that you are still here because you like it. The best part is that you meet so many wonderful people. It’s one of the gifts of this profession.”
If her fallow phase taught her the value of patience and perseverance, her purple patch has inspired her new pursuit. Apte has been training herself to write and direct films. “My writing is at a very nascent stage,” she said. “I am working on four projects, including a thriller and a comedy. They might not even actually happen. I am learning how to structure and take the story forward.”
After years of carrying out somebody else’s vision, Apte is finally ready to follow her own ideas. She might just direct a film someday. And it could well turn up on Netflix – or not.