Television shows, web series, film and theatre – veteran actor Neena Kulkarni has played the role of a mother across platforms.

In 2016, she took her maternal role to the other side of the globe with the French-language film Noces (A Wedding), about a Pakistani-origin woman in Belgium who is forced into an arranged marriage by her conservative parents. Kulkarni also appears on Indian television every night as the protagonist’s mother in the long-running Star Plus soap Yeh Hai Mohabbatein and earlier this year, played the titular role in Niranjan Iyengar’s 2018 short film Maa.

Apart from her prolific acting output, Kulkarni has also produced the National Award-winning Marathi film Shevri (2006). Speaking to in Goa during a recent event, Kulkarni recounted her journey from a guide for French tourists to an actor.

How was your experience of working on an international production, ‘Noces’?
I have done international projects sporadically before, like Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and the French television series Rani. This movie [Noces] came to me through word-of-mouth. They were looking for an actress of my age who speaks French and Urdu. The character need not speak French but they wanted someone who can understand the language. For me, the character began there.

What was amazing was that it was an international integration. There was also an actor from Iran and one from Greece alongside French actors.

How was your character in ‘Noces’ different from the roles you have played before?
The character of Yelda Kazim, despite staying in another country, doesn’t integrate into that country at all. [This extent of] sticking to what you are and where you have come from are almost inconceivable things for me. There’s also the concept of internet marriage. Imagine a girl from Brussels, she is grown up there, has to get married or have her nikaah on the internet.

Yelda is stuck to her fanaticism or beliefs. But, she is not a villain at all as she is caught in circumstances. It was not difficult to identify with the character in that sense. Also, the film was shot with a single camera with tight close-ups, so it was more of expressions and emotions.

Noces (2016).

You have played the mother in several movies. Have the nuances of the role changed over the years?
For me, being a mother is incidental. She is a woman or a human first and it is her relationships with her children. Seldom have I played goody-goody mothers [except] initially perhaps in Hindi films. I didn’t stay there as I became a character actress.

If you see my career in theatre, I played a 40-year-old mother when I was 22 . In the play Mahasagar. the mother’s character has a lot of layering. Also, the way in which she reacts to a situation makes her real. Like the mother in Maa makes a choice and the child is destroyed and she tries to put up a front after that. For that role, I worked really hard to hunt in very dark corners of my life.

In the web series Breathe, I play the role of a Catholic mother to R Madhavan’s character. She realises that her son is a killer and in a way, she gives her consent. That makes her real. It is not about right and wrong. I never think characters are about right or wrong. They behave in a certain way because of their circumstances.

I would have been finished [as an actor] if I had to play just one angular character. Even the goody-goody mother or character has to be real. I keep on searching for that and that process is internal.

Along with films, you are also involved in television. How has your experience been?
I am playing the role of Mrs Iyer for the last five years now in Yeh Hai Mohabbatein. For that role, I learned a little bit of Tamil to get nuances of the character and be authentic, as South Indians [characters] are always caricatured.

Television gives the actor the freedom to perhaps delve inside into the character. It is an ongoing process, unlike films. It was always considered as a poor cousin of films. But, now youngsters get into it as a career option because they have understood the medium. It was new to us. But once I’ve understood it, I love it.

Maa (2018).

Is television similar to theatre?
Yes, it is closer to theatre than films, contrary to what people think. Here, you can etch out your character. It’s tricky and that’s why it is challenging.

You have worked in almost all mediums, from theatre to television, films, and now digital platforms. Which is your favourite? And do acting styles from one medium to another?
I can’t say which one is a favourite as it is a journey. I did only theatre for 25 years and then I did television, then films, then television again. I look at it project-wise. Also, I am fortunate enough to get these offers. I like to try and experiment.

Yes, acting style changes with mediums but the basic prepping is the same. For me it’s about the characterisation first, then about the medium. And in every medium, the director is very important for me, including television, where every 15 days, the director changes.

Does this change in directors affect the character you are playing on television?
The character should not get affected. For example, I am doing this character of Mrs Iyer for five years now and if a new director tells me to change the entire outlook and make it louder, I can’t do that. But instead of arguing, I find a via media.

Yeh Hain Mohabattein

You have worked with such stalwarts of Indian theatre as Satyadev Dubey and Vijaya Mehta. Can you elaborate on your journey as a theatre artist?
The theatre is the beginning of any actor. Nowadays kids start with television and ad films but then they go to the theatre. You have to visit that place as that’s the alma mater of every actor. This is where you learn how to get into the character.

I think I was fortunate – actually, our generation was, as we could work with both stalwarts. That was the golden age for theatre [the 1970s and 80s], mainly for Marathi theatre. I did plays in three languages – Hindi, Marathi, and English.

You have said in earlier interviews that you are an accidental actor.
In my time, becoming an actor was not a career option. It was just an extracurricular activity and the money aspect was not there. We did for the love of it. I realised that it could be a career option when I stopped taking French tuition or being a French guide with MTDC [Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation] as slowly all these options fell away. That’s when I realised that acting is my career. It was around late 1980s. I got frightened and I said, Oh my god! I am an actress.

So until the late 1980s, you never felt that this is what you would be doing for the rest of your life?
No. After my BA [Bachelor of Arts], I asked my parents to give me one year. This was before meeting Vijayabai [Mehta], I was doing Dubey’s plays. Fortunately, I met Bai that year and got into plays. For me still, it was not a career option. A career meant a film career, and that was a big no-no. Films were a big bad world where girls from good homes didn’t go. Theatre was a continuous journey as I was doing play after play. The career is what I am doing now, and want to act everyday.

What do you consider to be your career milestone?
In theatre I would say Dubey’s play, Are Mayavi Sarovar, in which I got noticed, Vijaya Mehta’s Mahasagar, which gave me recognition and characterisation, Chandrakant Kulkarni’s Dhyani Mani and Willy Russell’s Educating Rita.

In films [it would be] my role in the Marathi film Sawat Mazi Ladki. It was great casting by director Smita Talvalkar. I won all the awards for this role only because of Smita. It was the easiest character to play as I could fit in the bill completely.

Then, other Marathi films like Uttarayan and Shevri. For me, Shevri is the best role – not to do anything on the screen and just be on the screen is the lesson I learned from this role. There’s also my role of a singer in the film Dil e Nadan (one of the stories in the anthology film Bioscope), and my role in the upcoming film Photo Frame [which is awaiting release]. In television, it would be my first show, [Marathi serial] Adhoori Ek Kahani, and all my international projects.

Sawat Mazi Ladki (1993)

Where do you draw inspiration from for these diverse roles?
There are different techniques of acting which I learnt from Dubey and Bai [Vijaya Mehta] and also by reading books on acting. I collect acting trivia. Also, I learnt a lot of things from my guru, Bai, as I worked with her, stayed and travelled with her. Her discipline is inherent in me. Also, I like to watch work of actors of my age, like Meryl Streep.

Are there roles being written for actors like you or is it still a struggle?
I believe there was brilliant writing, especially in Marathi theatre, earlier as compared to now. Those characters had a lot of depth. Now also it’s there like my character in Photo Frame, which is a Marathi movie. I am playing a central character and probably that’s why it is not getting released. Actually, three of my Marathi films haven’t seen the light of the day.

You can’t always get great roles and then you have to do some chota mota [small roles]. You have to be a caterpillar to become a butterfly. Also, you can’t expect to get roles sitting at home. You have to get rid of your ego. I also go for auditions as now there are excellent casting directors who call you for specialised work. One has to change with time.

You also turned producer in 2006 with the Marathi film ‘Shevri’. Are there any plans to produce more films?
No, not again. Shevri is an emotional film for me. At that time I had lost my husband [actor Dilip Kulkarni] and he was always interested in production. And Gajendra [Ahire, the film’s director] knew that. So, he came to me with the story and told me to produce it. So this film was a tribute to him [Dilip Kulkarni].

Productions, direction, acting – they are all different faculties, and I don’t think that I can do production again. Fortunately, I recovered my money as I got the national award for Shevri.

If you produce your own film, will you have the freedom to get a better role?
That’s a silly notion. I feel the biggest high for me is that other people are still calling me. At the same time, the character should interest me. Also every year or two, I change my strategy. That day I wrote on Twitter “Time to be choosy again”. Now I am hungry for better roles. You only get enriched with more experiences as an actor.

Shevri (2006).