Everyone has the same playground; it's such an exciting time to be in the entertainment industry: Mithila Palkar
'We are no longer telling stories of heroes and heroines but stories of people that you have heard of or seen; people you know. Content has become inspirational and not aspirational.'
When she uploaded her version of Anna Kendrick’s 'Cup Song' (from the film Pitch Perfect) on Facebook and Youtube in 2016, little did Mithila Palkar know what a game-changer that small homegrown Marathi song ‘Chal Turu Turu’, was going to become. Or how the cute two thumbs up sign off would become her insignia of sorts.
Five years later, she has won awards for the Marathi movie Muramba (2017), as best actress for the web series Little Things and the Times Power Woman 2020 award for OTT Dynamo Actor. She’s starred opposite top stars including Abhay Deol (Chopsticks), Dulquer Salmaan (Karwaan) and Kajol (Tribhanga: Tedhi Medhi Crazy). But if true fans spot her, they are more likely to call out to ‘Kavya’, referring to her by the name of her character in Little Things.
She is one of a crop of young content creators that have used the democratised space of the internet and social media to bypass traditional barriers to entry into Bollywood and are scaling up the ladder of success.
A bio shared by her team describes the 28 year old as “the pop-cultural bearer of Gen Z’s aches and aspirations." As we chat over a video call, I begin by asking Palkar to explain what these aches and aspirations are.
“That’s too heavy, and too much pressure,” she says, her infectious laugh and tumbling curls filling up the screen. “I don’t even know what this means. So often I feel I am representing the wrong generation because I learnt this millennial lingo with the help of my followers five years after it came into existence. This is me, this is who I am, and this is how you are going to see me for a long time.”
In the beginning
Born and raised in Mumbai, Palkar already knew at a young age that she was destined for the stage. “No one was going to take a 12-year-old, who she says she wants to be an actor and not a doctor or an engineer, seriously,” she recalls.
But that dream stayed alive, even after graduating in advertising and running the Thespo youth theatre festival. It was at this time that festival organiser Quasar Thakore Padamsee gave her the kind of advice that propelled her every time she had self-doubt. “He’s my mentor and when I was running Thespo, as a complete newbie, his words to me were ‘Believe. Just believe. Keep your head straight and keep going. Quasar and Toral Shah (of Q Theatre Productions) are the two people I go back to whenever I am stuck or have a doubt. That festival also gave me the realisation that I cannot be behind the scenes. I had to be on stage,” says Palkar.
The other voice in her head is her maternal grandfather’s. Having spent her formative years with her grandparents, his approval was essential.
“I convinced him that this is what I want to do. I had never done professional acting so I needed to see if it worked out for me. But the pre-teen Mithila knew she would figure out a way to do this.” Auditions, some parts in television commercials and then a part in the Filter Copy show News Darshan followed, the latter also being the beginning of her partnership with Dhruv Sehgal, her co-star in Little Things.
“When the 'Cup Song' went viral, when I got featured on the TV news, and press photographers came to take my picture, that’s when my grandfather began to comprehend that my career might be a real thing. At that time he didn’t even know what ‘viral’ meant but now he has a smartphone and a tablet and he goes on Youtube and looks up my work. It’s safest to say that he is my biggest fan.”
Rejection, auditions, observing co-stars at work and being on set have been Palkar’s film school. Ask her if she faced much rejection and Palkar replies, “Lots. Lots. People see you from the time they see you on screen so they think it was easy but I was auditioning full-time for acting jobs. I still audition. Very few things come to me for me.”
Along with experience and opportunities, it’s all about the hustle. “Oh, it’s very important. There’s no discounting hard work, it’s important to keep working towards your goal, and that is the hustle. Today is in your control; there is no assurance of what will happen tomorrow. To ensure there is a successful tomorrow, there has to be a hustle today,” she says.
Here’s a tip: If you happen to encounter Palkar around her neighbourhood or in a coffee shop, don’t call her m’am, don’t say you are her biggest fan. “I am still dealing with the ‘I am a big fan' approach because if you actually meet me at Shivaji Park, I would prefer it if you used ‘hey buddy, I would like to be friends’. The 'fan' approach immediately puts a wall between you and me.”
Palkar’s relatable content connects her to her audience (she has 2.7 million followers on Instagram and 145K subscribers on YouTube). “I guess I am their voice of reason as a public person who is just like them. The internet reminds me of theatre, where after a performance you can go backstage and meet the artists, director and everyone associated with the play. Similarly, with the internet, you can comment immediately on something you have watched and DM someone.”
Inspiration not aspiration
Increasingly, stars of digital media, often referred to as influencers, are transitioning to mainstream entertainment – either web series of feature films. Palkar believes this is because the narratives have changed. “We are no longer telling stories of heroes and heroines but stories of people that you have heard of or seen; people you know. Content has become inspirational and not aspirational. Earlier, you would watch something and say ‘I wish that was me’. Now you will watch a show and it's about the girl next door which makes the viewer think ‘even I can do this’. Everybody has the same playground and it’s such an exciting time to be a part of the entertainment industry,” says Palkar whose ultimate acting inspiration is Meryl Streep.
‘Annoying Things Boyfriends Do’ and ‘Confusing Things Girlfriends Say’, short sketches on YouTube featuring Palkar and Sehgal, were the precursors to Little Things. Palkar is accustomed to some annoying questions, most commonly about her hair. Fans, it seems, get alarmed when she straightens out her curls. “I will never give up on my curls but if I have to do something different with my hair for a role, I will. It's not like my curls won't return,” she says, laughing. The other annoying questions: ‘Are you single?’ and ‘When are you getting married?’ “I think this happens with age,” she says.
She’s been shooting but won’t say what for. Will there be another chapter to Kavya and Dhruv’s story? If she knows, she’s not telling. All we know is that season 3 ended on a “cliffhanger”.
She’s grateful to the show which organically grew to the huge hit it is now. “The love and reach are unfathomable. Last year, when I was shooting in Kerala, a French girl came up to me and said she had seen Little Things in French. I have experienced fame, success, everything with this show. I relate most closely to Kavya because I have grown up with her, as the character and as an actor.”
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