Priya Bapat is nearly bursting out of her chair. Can the artificially chilled confines of the coffee shop in Mumbai contain her enthusiasm about her acting career and her most recent performance in the web series City of Dreams? There are times when it appears unlikely.
Yet, when the 32-year-old actor auditioned for City of Dreams director Nagesh Kukunoor, she dialled herself down several notches. “The first thing I had to do was calm myself down – I am a super-excited person in real life, I am bubbly and chirpy and extremely talkative,” Bapat told Scroll.in. “But I approached Nagesh with a no-nonsense face. I kept myself controlled. He believed that what he was seeing was what I was really like.”
Deception is a hallmark of Bapat’s character in City of Dreams, which has been produced by Applause Entertainment and is being streamed on Hotstar. Bapat is top-billed in a series whose cast includes Atul Kulkarni, Siddharth Chandekar, Uday Tikekar and Eijaz Khan. Bapat plays Poornima Gaikwad, the daughter of influential politician Ameya Gaikwad (Kulkarni). Poornima is married with a son, and has been relegated to the margins by her old-fashioned father even though she is far more capable than her brash, violent and cocaine-snorting brother Ashish (Chandekar). When Ameya is grievously injured in an assassination attempt, Poornima becomes a player, jockeying herself into a position of power and matching her brother wile for wile.
There are times when Poornima appears to be a babe in the woods; on other occasions, she is a hunter moving in for the kill. Bapat relished playing a character who goes from “always being told what to do” to angrily acknowledging that she has been sidelined because “she has a vagina between her legs”. The role draws on Bapat’s ability to inhabit different emotional states, assume the body language of a woman in the heavily male world of politics, and underplay even in over-the-top moments. “She is very poised and also very ambitious,” Bapat said about Poornima. “She talks less, but she knows what she is doing.”
Bapat was recommended to Kukunoor by casting director Shruti Mahajan. He was looking for a Marathi actor since the series is set in Mumbai and revolves around a Maharashtrian family. The choice was between Bapat and Amruta Khanvilkar, but Kukunoor made up his mind after a second round of auditions.
“Priya is honest, and she is a fearless actress,” Kukunoor said. “I didn’t know she was so bubbly in real life – I had been shooting with her for 20-odd days, and it is only then that she told me that she was the complete opposite of Poornima.”
City of Dreams has won Bapat fans beyond Marathi cinema, where she is among the needs-no-introduction performers. “The web is driven by performances and stories rather than stardom,” Bapat observed. “Your work has great reach, and you never know who is watching. A director from Bengal told me he was a fan of my work.”
Bapat doesn’t want to limit herself to Marathi films even though this means discounting the fame and acclaim that she has earned over the years. “You may have done a lot of work, but you have to prove yourself each time,” she observed without a trace of rancour. “Of course, this is the case with Hindi films – in Marathi, the films come to me.”
Bapat’s credits in Marathi cinema included Me Shivajiraje Bhosale Boltoy (2008), Kaksparsh (2013), Time Please (2014), Happy Journey (2014), Vazandar (2016) and Aamhi Doghi (2018). She appeared in two Marathi movies as a child, including the biopic Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar (2000). Her first role as a grown-up was in Rajkumar Hirani’s Hindi-language Munnabhai MBBS (2003). The hit comedy revolves around a gangster who bluffs his way into medical college, and Bapat was among the interns who fill up the background. Hirani, who also edits his films, often cuts to supporting actors in dramatic scenes for effect, and Bapat was among the faces who provided the reaction shots.
Bapat also appeared in a small role in Hirani’s Lage Raho Munnabhai (2006), but she hasn’t been in a Hindi film since. There were many “We will let you know” moments – offers that never amounted to anything. Plus, Bapat was unsure about whether she wanted to pursue acting full-time.
“I have given auditions everywhere, but the fit didn’t happen,” she said. “Also, I wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted to be an actress. There was no reason to go out and struggle and look for work.”
Unlike many of her predecessors and peers in the Marathi entertainment universe, Bapat had no prior show business connections, apart from a cousin who was a model. She was born and raised in Dadar in Mumbai. Her childhood hobbies including singing, and while studying at the Balmohan Vidyamandir school, she appeared in stage productions. “My parents always said I was born a nautanki” – a performer, she recalled.
Bapat was in junior college when she auditioned for Munnabhai MBBS. Alongside earning an economics degree and a communications studies diploma from Sophia Polytechnic, she continued to appear in Marathi films and later, Marathi and Hindi television shows. Her personal turning point was Mi Shivajiraje Bhosale Boltoy. “That was when I decided that this would be my career path – ironically in the film, I play an aspiring actress,” Bapat said. “Me Shivajiraje was the film I took seriously and Kaksparsh was the one where people took me seriously.”
Bapat’s years in television weren’t as creatively satisfying as her film roles, but she picked up some vital lessons along the way. “The way you act in television and films is totally different, but TV taught me to keep continuity in mind and get a handle on costumes and accessories,” she said.
Marathi cinema is another kettle of fish. The industry is both small enough to allow Bapat to go by for years without a publicist, but also large enough to encourage healthy competition. Marathi cinema has no shortage of talent from theatre and television, and its overall emphasis on naturalistic acting and the relative lack of a star system means that actors tend to get noticed for their efforts.
Bapat has won acclaim for Mahesh Manjrekar’s Kaksparsh, a period melodrama in which she portrays a young widow, and Sachin Kundalkar’s Happy Journey, in which she plays a ghost who helps her brother achieve closure.
Kundalkar cast Bapat in Happy Journey on a producer’s recommendation. He cast her again alongside Sai Tamhankar in Vazandar (2016), a comedy about two overweight friends who realise their self-worth after a series of misadventures. “Priya has this fantastic personality, and the camera loves her,” Kundalkar said. “She is also a quick learner, and adapts readily to new challenges. For Vazandar, she was ready to put on the kilos.”
Bapat’s keenness on overcoming hurdles predates her weight gain for Vazandar. She studied in a Marathi-medium school, and picked up English only in college. She barely read books as a child, and started off in the same way as countless other Indians – through a Chetan Bhagat novel. “I give credit to Chetan Bhagat for hooking me to English,” she said.
Her exposure to cinema too took place late, during her communications course at Sophia Polytechnic. As Bapat watched a carefully curated selection of international arthouse classics, she found herself examining the various elements of filmmaking – the cinematography, the craft, but most of all the performances.
Bapat’s respect for acting, and her need to ensure that every one of her roles counts, has resulted in a relatively lean filmography. “I would rather have the patience to wait for the right script,” she said. “Every film I do should be noticed – the number of films doesn’t matter.”
She is also willing to go to the back of the queue and “start from scratch” if she gets good offers outside of Marathi cinema. “I want to extend my boundaries, but I also know that there are millions of people who don’t know me,” she said. “I cannot carry that baggage. I should never forget that I am an actor, and only a good script will make me better. I feel no shame in telling people who I am and what work I have done. That doesn’t take away my dignity or the credit.”
Bapat’s choosiness is as much a part of her as her chirpiness, Sachin Kundalkar observed. “She is very particular about her script – she won’t just take up anything,” Kundalkar said. “After reading the script, she will come up with the oddest of questions. She is also very talkative, and you can get exhausted after a while. But she is equally hungry for knowledge, and she feels bad if she hasn’t read a particular book or watched a film. There is a young girl within her who wants everything.”
At this point, all Priya Bapat wants is another role that will “consume me to the maximum”, as did Poornima Gaikwad. Among her upcoming projects is a web series, about which she isn’t at liberty to say very much. She has also been getting offers following City of Dreams.
“I don’t want to limit myself to Marathi, or say that I will only work in Hindi – I would love to work do a Malayalam film, for instance,” Bapat said. “I love Dulquer Salmaan!” The exclamation mark smoothly follows the mention of the Malayalam movie star. The eyes gets wider and shinier, the room feels a bit brighter. The air-conditioned ambience is momentarily tinged with warmth.