Geetanjali Kulkarni discusses Gullak, invisibility of mothers, and why this season was cathartic for her
'My character was loud and grumbly, because if she wasn’t ‘nobody would hear her’,' says Geetanjali Kulkarni.
In the final moments of Gullak’s second episode titled ‘Cheeni Kam, Paani Zyaada,’ the mother of the Mishra household, for a change, grabs a locus of identity that is internal. Teary-eyed, she tells the three men of the house, just what it takes to support the banality of their everyday lives. “Mard bas din mein khana banaenge,” she stutters, pointing to the performative aspect of men taking over household chores for the sake of social applause. That in the vacuum of night, in the absence of a witnessing world, they recede to playing their entitled selves. TVF’s Gullak is an otherwise gentle excavation of the nostalgia the middle class holds for both its privileges and its limits. But in this particular episode, it tackles its first unacknowledged evil, the invisibilisation of our mothers. Something it could only have done through someone who has brought a quiet dignity to cinema’s invisible women – Geetanjali Kulkarni.
Kulkarni hasn’t exactly burst onto the scene. For one she has been acting for more than two decades now and second, she doesn’t do roles that register themselves through animation or volume alone. Art isn’t only the loudness of the colour, it’s also the seamless blend of what we perceive to real to be fictitious. “Growing up I loved watching Marathi theatre. Going to these places where people got together, ate battata vadas, and watched people perform these really interesting stories. I grew up in Powai, so cinema wasn’t as accessible to us,” Kulkarni says over the phone. One of her earliest influences, Kulkarni says, was Doordarshan, the humane writing and acting of shows like Nukkad and Buniyad. Part of the reason why she went to the National School of Drama, she says, was that she was also a very bad student in school.
Acting came to Kulkarni naturally. From acing dramas at school and then college, Kulkarni realised soon enough that she wanted to be an actor. But it was also a time in our cinema, when everyone only dreamed of being either the ‘hero’ or the ‘heroine’. “I never tried to force myself into dance, or put makeup and do shoots. I never even thought I’d go running to cinema itself. I wanted to just do acting, do what made me happy, however, small. It hasn’t changed till date,” she says. Before she arrived in our conscience through Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court (2014), Kulkarni already had a couple of decades’ worth of theatre, including commercial plays behind her. Her portrayal of a straight-speaking lawyer in the film stood out for its authenticity.
We often make the mistake of observing art through the bifocal lens of sight and sound. To seek movement in the immovable or utterance in the unspeakable is perhaps the flaw of the viewer. In Rohena Gera’s Sir for example, Kulkarni masterfully plays Laxmi, disappearing into the handholding role of a woman who, while going through similar traumas of class and poverty cannot afford Ratna’s (Tillotama Shome) personality. In another small role in Photograph, Kulkarni embodied the house-help Raampyari with the innocence of a first letter between two strangers. In Mukti Bhawan, she played the understated housewife with ease. All small, but remarkable roles that feel like they were born in the world we see them in.
Theatre may teach you acting, committing to the moment, unlike any other art, but it can’t teach you everything. “Theatre is more liberating in the way you can make use of space, and also be free from it. Cinema is a very technical medium. I still struggle with the technicality of the medium. I cannot visualise a scene that I’m doing. I cannot imagine what it would like on screen. Adil Hossain, my co-star on Mukti Bhawan, had this incredible ability to be able to visualise everything. I’m still learning,” she says. It can be argued that Kulkarni’s role sidesteps the exotic, to the extent that hers has become an image of the downtrodden, the unheard.
Gullak is by some distance Kulkarni’s loudest role. It is also one where she can come off as bitter, and nagging, a trait that is difficult to follow up with a confessional meltdown and still have the viewers care for you. “It was one of my first questions to the writer [Nikhil Vijay] in the first season. He told me that this character was grumbly and loud because if she wasn’t ‘nobody would hear her’. It immediately clicked, the profoundness of his response. When are women ever heard, even in their own homes,” she says. The scene, perhaps the best of the second season, Kulkarni says, obviously felt cathartic to an extent. It came together, the actor explains, because the whole team understood its importance and significance. It is also a scene, that could have missed the mark, but evidently doesn’t.
As any good actor, Kulkarni loves the process. Acquiring Gullak’s north-Indian accent, she says, has been one of the toughest tasks she has undertaken so far. “I recorded lines and sent them to my writers. It was tiring because I couldn’t catch grasp that vernacular in the beginning,” she says. In Court, a film she was initially even rejected from, the number of retakes at times went up to 40 and 50. Something, the actor recalls was gruelling and rewarding in equal measure. “Pack up kabhi hone wala hai, we never asked,” she says, with a typically graceful chuckle. “I choose films by people. I’d like to think I can adjudge a good script. But if I see the honesty in a person’s vision, and their commitment to it, I do it. It doesn’t have to pay well, as a lot of films I do don’t, but it makes me happy,” she adds. At 47-years-old, Kulkarni has arrived. But if you look around you, she has been around, in the women we refused to see and humanise, until she showed them to us.
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