“A fantastic trip” is how Sonali Kulkarni describes the current phase in her career. Said trip began in 2017 with Prasad Oak’s National Film Award-winning Marathi drama Kaccha Limbu and has lasted through 2018 with Sachin Kundalkar’s Proustian saga Gulabjaam, Sudip Bandopadhyay’s Hindi family drama Hope Aur Hum and Abhijeet Deshpande’s Marathi biopic Aani Dr Kashinath Ghanekar. Kulkarni will sign off the year in style with Swapna Waghmare Joshi’s November 30 release Madhuri. In the Marathi comedy, 44-year-old Kulkarni plays a middle-aged woman suffering from retrograde amnesia.
“Any actor would die for this phase in his or her own lifetime,” Kulkarni told Scroll.in. “I feel really proud that writers and directors are willing to trust me, there are roles written with me in mind. It is terribly glamorous when you have a super-hit film followed by a Filmfare award-winning film the same month. I have literally nothing to complain about.”
Produced by Urmila Matondkar and Mohsin Akhtar’s Mumbapuri Productions, Madhuri will see Kulkarni returning to comedy after Kedar Shinde’s Aga Bai Arechya 2 (2015). The trailer reveals that Kulkarni’s character has forgotten that she is a mother of a young adult daughter. Kulkarni’s Madhuri behaves like a 20-year-old woman, which includes indiscriminate partying and cramming her wardrobe with short-length clothes, causing embarrassment to her family members.
The loss of memory was also one of the themes in Sachin Kundalkar’s Gulabjaam. Kulkarni plays a middle-aged woman who has recently woken up from a coma caused by an accident. She has no past but only her skills as an expert in traditional Maharashtrian cuisine. “I have faith in few people, and Sachin is one of them,” Kulkarni said. “He is a fabulous storyteller. I knew that Gulabjaam would make for a lovely story on screen because I enjoyed listening to the story when Sachin narrated it and while he improvised and shaped my character.”
Kulkarni hadn’t anticipated that a comedy would follow the sombre Gulabjaam. “When I was done with Gulabjaam, I was wondering what next because as an actor you can only wait – unless you become a producer or a writer yourself,” Kulkarni said. “Also, as an actor, after each film or a play, you hit a zero, for you don’t know what’s next. That’s when Swapna and Mohsin approached me with this brilliant script. I was bowled over with their surprise. It is a fantastic role and I have waited to do something that is as crazy and unique as this. And I would have never imagined that it would come my way because so far, even though I have dealt with humour or comedy, it has been limited – be it Dil Chahta Hai or Aga Bai Arechyaa 2.”
Kulkarni was also taken aback that Matondkar, despite being an actress, chose her for the role. “When you have a bombshell in-house diva, why would you go looking for an actress outside,” Kulkarni said. “She fearlessly, and without any doubt, offered a role from her home production to me. I don’t want any bigger compliment.”
Preparing for Madhuri was easy – all Kulkarni had to do was travel down memory lane, unearthing all the “paagalpan” from her youth. Kulkarni also recalled Waghmare Joshi’s instructions to her during the shoot: “Please don’t prepare, just be yourself.”
Kulkarni recalls being “crazy, fearless and wild” while growing up in Pune. “And I think my producers and director recognised that streak of madness in me,” she said. “Generally, my friends know me as a complete crackpot. I love hosting friends, cooking for them, sharing funny anecdotes. I keep boring everyone with my silly jokes. In fact, I’m not quite like my screen roles at all.”
Kulkarni has played the sombre, serious and socially-conscious woman many times over in a career spanning over 25 years. She made her debut in 1992 with Girish Karnad’s Kannada-language Cheluvi. Her first big lead role was in Jabbar Patel’s Marathi political drama Mukta (1994), in which she played a US-returned student who joins the anti-caste movement in Maharashtra. Some of Kulkarni’s earliest characters, whether it’s in Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukhtankar’s Doghi (1995) or Amol Palekar’s Daayra (1996), have similarly found themselves yearning for social change.
“I guess it is the way one cultivates one’s personality or life,” Kulkarni said about choosing her roles. “Somewhere I felt I could relate to a Doghi or a Mukta and went for it. I obviously didn’t have an insight about everything and kept learning along the way.”
Kulkarni credits two people with shaping her thought processes and beliefs: theatre director and actor Satyadev Dubey and rationalist Narendra Dhabolkar. “Dubeyji has been my friend, philosopher and guide,” Kulkarni said. “And I worked with Narendra Kaka for 16 years right from my college days. His daughter, Mukta, was in my class from the 12 standard to graduation. More than being a family member, he took me into the entire movement and I could see the world from his point of view. I could build my beliefs because of his push. He didn’t say, believe in this and that, but urged me to build my own faith and beliefs. I cannot believe that he was assassinated in Pune by my people. It has left a huge scar on me, on us.”
Alongside the socially-conscious characters, Kulkarni has also played been in light roles, including in Dil Chahta Hai (2001), Dil Vil Pyar Vyar (2002), Bride and Prejudice (2004) and Taxi No 9211 (2006). Some of these roles have been crisp in length, but that hasn’t stopped Kulkarni from making her presence felt.
“I have been extremely spontaneous and instinctive,” Kulkarni said. “I’m not a writer, neither am I a producer, so I cannot actually plan the roles that I do. I have been trying to be wise enough to choose. One can give credit to everything in your life, to your teachers, family, theatre, dance, everything. But somewhere, I feel, it is your instinct. When you say yes to a film, you say no to a couple of other films. I am happy about what I’ve chosen and stood for so far.”
Kulkarni’s only principle is to fall in love with her work and go through life at her own pace. “I have never said, let me encash my youth and be available for roles now because in the next few years, I’ll cross 25 or 40 and so on,” she said. “I have patiently waited for all the phases of my career and I genuinely love my work. I’m hopelessly sincere. I like saving my producer’s money, being on time, rehearsing my lines and falling in love with my character. So far, all of this has worked.”