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.
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.
“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.”
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.”