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Interview: Radhika Apte on ‘Sacred Games’, playing a spy and the need for transparency in Bollywood

The 32-year-old actress will be seen in a range of projects in India and Hollywood this year.

Radhika Apte kick-started the year with a movie in which all the attention was devoted to the leading man. In R Balki’s Pad Man, Apte plays the submissive wife of Akshay Kumar’s homegrown low-cost sanitary pad inventor.

The rest of the year holds out the promise of shifting the spotlight back on Apte: the acclaimed 32-year-old actress has two Netflix original series, at least three Hindi films and two overseas projects in her bag.

“I don’t know how they are all going to be received, but I’ve had a lot of fun doing these starkly different roles,” Apte told Scroll.in over the phone from New York City.

Apte is shooting for British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom’s The Wedding Guest, which also stars Dev Patel and is set largely in India. She cannot reveal anything about the film yet: “They are very strict about it.”

The other overseas production is American producer-turned-director Lydia Dean’s untitled World War II drama about British female spies. The film tells the story of British intelligence officer Vera Atkins and the two women she sends into France as spies, one of whom is Noor Inayat Khan.

Apte plays Khan, who was also the subject of Shrabani Basu’s book Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan. Basu’s account is a birth to grave story of the “unlikely spy” of Indian origin who was the first female radio operator to be flown into occupied France during the war, and who continued to work under dangerous circumstances.

“After evading the Gestapo [the official secret police of Nazi Germany] for months and practically operating on her own following the betrayal of her Resistance circuit, Khan was finally captured and killed by the Germans at Dachau concentration camp in September 1944,” a statement from the publicity team of the film stated.

Apte said there were many reasons she wanted to do this film. “It is an international film and nobody knows this character,” she said. “The director is amazing too. Another reason is that many of us often get stereotypically cast in foreign films. This character has had a very international existence: born in Russia, her mother is American, father is Indian Muslim, she’s a British national who grew up in France. So I felt that the role really does break all stereotypes.”

Apte’s other projects include Gauravv K Chawla’s Bazaar, alongside Saif Ali Khan and Chitrangada Singh, Sriram Raghavan’s untitled thriller with Ayushmann Khurrana, and Anurag Kashyap’s Love and Lust anthology.

“For me, choosing a project really has to do with the kind of mindset I’m in at that point or at what point I’m in my career,” explained the actress, who has a long list of acclaimed films to her credit such as Shor In The City (2011), Badlapur (2015), Hunterr (2015), Phobia (2016) and Kabali (2016). “In general, the project has to excite or interest me. So it is that straightforward. But, of course there are other considerations too: artistic ones, the satisfaction of doing a film, the need to earn a living, and the commercial viability of the project itself. There’s one other element: some people I blindly trust. I don’t even ask them for the plot or the script. This includes directors like Anurag Kashyap and Sriram Raghavan. I know they will not make me do something that I wouldn’t want to do.”

Apte agreed to appear in Sacred Games, the series directed by Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane and based on Vikram Chandra’s novel of the same name, because it was a Netflix production. Sacred Games, set to be launched on July 6, details the reasons for the mysterious death of Mumbai gangster Ganesh Gaitonde. Saif Ali Khan plays Mumbai Police officer Sartaj Singh, who investigates Gaitonde’s death.

“Everybody watches Netflix and it has come up with such good content,” Apte said. “I was just like I’d love to be a part of that. Shooting for Sacred Games felt really amazing for me on many levels. First, it is a Netflix show and everybody gets to see it. Second, it is really good quality work. To be honest, it wasn’t too different from shooting a film – it was the same process and the same effort – but the main difference was this sense of complete freedom to say what you want to say or do what you want to do. Not that we were abusing or went all out in the series. But you know when you’ve been given complete freedom in terms of being able to perform, it affects your body language and actually affects your psychology. You are so relaxed and free. That was a really refreshing feeling.”

In Sacred Games, Apte plays Anjali Rathod, a Research and Analysis wing agent who takes over the investigation into Gaitonde’s death. “Anjali is a very no-nonsense character,” Apte said. “There is this impression with a RAW agent that she should be someone badass. We [Vikramaditya Motwane and her] wanted to make her very normal. Vikram is really good with his actors. We did think about how Anjali would react, how she’d walk, what her focus will be etc. There’s a lot of research that went in. The production team had also arranged someone who gave us a lot of information about a RAW agent and his or her functioning. I consulted that person about the process, what they had to go through and so on.”

Sacred Games is, at the end of the day, a story about Bombay, Apte added. “I can’t say much because we will be promoting the series and I’m on a non-disclosure agreement with the makers,” she said. “But everybody has heard about Sacred Games and it’s a story about Bombay, essentially. Why the series will hold appeal for the world is because it is probably not how people have seen Mumbai before.”

The other reason the series stands out is its multi-lingual aspect. “Characters in this series speak in their own languages,” she said. “Therefore, you get the feeling that the country is represented.”

Radhika Apte in Sacred Games. Courtesy: Netflix
Radhika Apte in Sacred Games. Courtesy: Netflix

Over the past few months, Apte has discovered the difference in working styles between Mumbai and the rest of the world. “When you’re shooting for a foreign film, and say the schedule is for half a month, they keep you on board for the rest of the time too,” she said. “So you don’t get to go home like you generally do when shooting for a Hindi film. Back home, when there’s a gap in the schedule, everyone sort of runs back to some other commitment or to make an appearance somewhere and so on. It’s such a different culture abroad – you’ll just see everyone trying to explore a new city together. Michael’s film, for instance is like this. And I’ve had such a great time because you’re completely focussed and you get time to rest too.”

The other difference is the extent of involvement of each department in a film unit. “Every department in the unity knows every page of the script,” Apte said. “In our films, the work process is excellent and every department knows its job well. The difference is only that here, every department also knows every bit of the script including what dialogue is being said that day. I don’t want to generalise since I’ve worked only in a few projects abroad but there’s also this strict adherence to time and punctuality here. They really go by a 12-hour shift and when it is wrap time, it is wrap time.”

Apte has also recently given her perspective on another difference between a foreign film industry and India’s Bollywood: the lack of a #MeToo movement. Apte is one among the few actresses to have spoken to BBC for the documentary Bollywood’s Dark Secret about sexism and harassment in the film industry.

“There are lots of reasons why Bollywood does not have a Me Too movement of its own,” Apte said. “Bollywood is very different from other film industries. The process of getting work is a little different. Like, if you see other industries abroad, people come from acting schools. That’s normally the path. Then you find an agent or you get into theatre, or you’re picked up from your college or drama school. There’s a system in place. In contrast, here, we don’t have a system.”

The reluctance to speak up against harrowing conditions at work or exploitation stems from a range of fears, Apte added.

“In our country, Bollywood is regarded as something that is unaccusable – something out of this world, something extremely magical,” she explained. “It is not. It is a film industry. But because of the way it is viewed and the way the country functions, people come to Bombay with the dream of becoming a Bollywood star, and they have nothing to fall back on. They are so ambitious and are ready to do anything. Like anywhere in the world, there is flirtation for power, and it’s not just gender specific. Whether it is men or women, age is exploited.”

Rather than wondering about why people don’t speak up, it is important to have a system in place, she said.

“There are various reasons why people don’t speak,” Apte said. “First, they are very concerned about their careers and second, they don’t think their voice matters. What we need to do instead of saying, why don’t you come out and speak, is probably install a system in place which is more transparent about casting, how pay is going to be etc. Just have rules about various aspects – have minimum pay, have it all out in the open and transparent so that there’s less exploitation taking place.”

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