on the actor's trail

‘Kuchh Bheege Alfaaz’ actress Geetanjali Thapa: ‘I want to care about the character I am playing’

Best known for her intense performances in ‘ID’ and ‘Liar’s Dice’, the actress is playing the lead in a romantic film for the first time.

In her first film, Kamal KM’s ID (2012), Geetanjali Thapa had to run across some of the dirtiest locations in Mumbai for almost an hour in reel time.The next year, for Geetu Mohandas’ Liar’s Dice, which got her a National Film Award for Best Actress, she had to run all across Delhi, harried and desperate. Last year, Thapa got to play the relatively non-taxing role of the protagonist’s lover in Vikramaditya Motwane’s Trapped but was on screen for only five minutes.

The one film where she plays the lead opposite Emraan Hashmi – Danis Tanovic’s Tigers (2014) – has not been released yet in India. Amit Kumar’s Monsoon Shootout, in which Thapa has a role, was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013 but got released only in December 2017.

Finally, Thapa has her first full-fledged lead role in a romantic drama, Onir’s Kuchh Bheege Alfaaz.

Billed as a “Whatsapp kinda romance”, Kuchh Bheege Alfaaz’s slice-of-life nature makes it a very different film from Thapa’s usual projects. Thapa describes her new film as a “nice peppy romance which you can watch on a rainy day with a cup of soup”.

Set in Kolkata, Kuchh Bheege Alfaaz looks at the relationship that develops between a radio jockey, Alfaaz (Zain Khan Durrani), and a brand designer Archana (Thapa). There is, however, an edge to Thapa’s character: Archana has leucoderma. The movie will be released on February 16.

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Kuchh Bheege Alfaaz.

After doing a string of intense films, Thapa was on the lookout for something lighter when Kuchh Bheege Alfaaz happened. “I wanted to be in a set which was about love, romance and relationships,” she said. “I am like her [Archana, her character] but also not like her. She is an independent girl in a big city trying to do something for herself. I wanted to learn more about myself. What I can and cannot do.”

With Kuchh Bheege Alfaaz, the Sikkimese actress has acted in films set in all the Indian cities in which she has lived till date. After completing her schooling in Sikkim, Thapa moved to Kolkata for college, which is where she had her first brush with modelling. She stayed in Delhi for a while before finally moving to Mumbai. She recently shot a film in Sikkim with National Award-winning Malayalam director Biju. Titled Painting Life, the film revolves around a film crew stranded in a remote location.

“I somehow always end up doing films which talk about important things that are brushed under the rug,” Thapa said. “I got all these films after auditioning, starting from ID to Liar’s Dice to Tigers.”

The first film Thapa actually worked on was Amit Saxena’s Tina Ki Chaabi (2009), which was never released. Casting director Mukesh Chhabra discovered Thapa for ID. Her role of Charu – a woman from Sikkim who has moved to Mumbai and is trying to find a job in the big city – was tailor-made for her. After a house painter falls unconscious and later dies in the hospital, Charu goes from pillar to post trying to find the man’s identity. Charu descends from her suburban apartment to the dirt and squalor of Mumbai’s slums.

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ID (2012).

“We did a lot of workshops before shooting ID,” Thapa said. “For almost a month, I trained. Kamal sir [Kamal KM], Rajeev Ravi [producer] and Madhu Neelakandan [cinematographer] taught me a lot. The dirt and stink got to me and we shot for crazy hours, but I really wanted to make it work.”

Shooting for ID also got Thapa up close and personal with a side of Mumbai to which she had not been exposed. “As outside, we think it [the slums] stinks and people shouldn’t live there but those living there are a lot nicer and genuine than people elsewhere,” Thapa said. “Everywhere I went, people sat me down and offered me tea and asked someone to get me some Parle-G or whatever. They wanted to listen to my stories. It opened my eyes to a new lifestyle away from Versova or Bandra.”

With Liar’s Dice, Thapa became a well-known name. She plays Kamala, a single mother from a snow-capped town by the Himalayas who travels to Delhi with minimal resources to find her missing husband. The National Film Award win, however, did not immediately flood her with offers or make her a star.

But that’s alright for Thapa. “I do not want to do projects just for the sake of it or to get visibility,” Thapa said. “I want to care about the character I am playing and enjoy my work so it’s alright.”

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Liar's Dice (2013).

Winning a National Film Award left an emotional rather than a practical mark on Thapa. “More than anything else, it’s all about the validation you get – how people treat you, especially your family,” she said. “My mother and father stuck with me through thick and thin when there were a lot of pressures and questioning coming from my relatives. My parents sheltered me through all that. Now, I see the smile on their faces and how proud they feel. That is what is most important. And the questioning has stopped too.”

After acting in a series of sombre films, Thapa says that she wouldn’t mind a big song-and-dance film, provided the character is well etched. She has never been asked to audition for any such film except the one time when she was asked to do a “little jive” to a song.

“In all my auditions, I have to go into backstory and finding my character and here I was being asked to groove and I was like ‘Huh what?’,” Thapa said.

In her short career, Thapa has worked with Anurag Kashyap (the short film That Day After Everyday), Motwane, Onir, Tanovic and Bjiu, among others. Is there any director on her wish list? “Maybe, someone out there is writing a brilliant role for me right now in what might be his or her first film,” Thapa said. “Maybe, that’s what I am waiting for now.”

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That Day After Everyday.
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.