Interview: Atul Kulkarni

Posted on April 2, 2006


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Atul Kulkarni was in Chennai recently, shooting for Kedi. Even if you weren’t told it’s a Tamil film, you’d have known the minute you saw the actor – in a silk dhoti and a silk shirt, with the barest slash of a red tilak, and with gold gleaming from every available patch of bare skin. He’s the movie’s heavy, right? He wouldn’t tell, but between shots, he was far more forthcoming about his craft and his career.

APR 2, 2006 – Your performances go up an extra notch when you’re playing Hindu fundamentalists. Shriram Abhyankar in Hey Ram. Lakshman Pande in Rang De Basanti. Is there a message in here somewhere?

No, no, no. (Laughs). The only commonality is that both are Hindu fanatics. Otherwise, they exist in different eras, their basis of becoming fundamentalists is different, and so their philosophies are different. Lakshman Pande, in fact, has something that’s not usually there in fanatics – the ability to think and change.

You mean, as opposed to Shriram Abhyankar, who, even while paralysed on his deathbed, is still thinking of killing Gandhi?

Yes, the gun is on his chest and he gives it to Kamal-ji’s character. That’s why, when I was doing Rang De Basanti, I never felt I was doing something similar to Shriram Abhyankar.

As an actor, you’re always cast in intense roles. Is that an industry cliché, that the role that gets you noticed – in your case, Shriram Abhyankar – is the role that sets the template for everything you’re offered afterwards?

It’s a combination of many things. In Manasarovar, I had a very different role. Unfortunately, all my popular movies have had me in serious roles. I have been here for just five-six years, and that’s not enough time for directors to believe in you as a versatile actor. When it comes to casting, directors are the most insecure people.

You mean, even more than actors?

Definitely, because the casting is very crucial. You can’t change it halfway through, considering the money and the time involved. So directors try and play safe. Hence the typecasting. But I feel I have done different kinds of roles. They may all be intense, but, for example, the politician I played in Satta was quite different.

Yes, it had romantic overtones. In a sense, you were the “hero.”

Yes, and that was not the case with the political victim I played in Khakee. I try and choose different kinds of roles, but I can choose from only what is offered to me. Like I said, I’ve just been here for a few years. Maybe, after a while, a director may trust me with a comedy, because I started my career in the theatre with comedies.

What kind of theatre was that? Speaking of which, do you find that theatre and film are separate aspects of your career, or has each impacted the other?

It was Marathi theatre, to begin with, and later Hindi theatre at NSD (National School of Drama). About the other question, what I love the most about theatre is the repetition. In Marathi commercial theatre, for instance, you do at least 300-500 shows, and each performance helps you master your craft. You learn more about the craft from theatre.

So what we see you do on screen is what you’ve honed on stage?

Well, all actors are in the business of cheating people. The audience should feel that something you are faking is real. In that respect, whether on stage or on screen, the basics are the same. But the technique is totally different. Films are much more technical, so you require special training. But both theatre and film, for me, have helped each other. When you do a close-up in a film, for instance, there are minute things you do with your face or eyes that help in the theatre as well.

But would these micro-gestures be noticed beyond the first five rows?

Everything doesn’t have to be noticed. It’s also for your own satisfaction in creating a character. If you are satisfied and are doing something well, that gets across to the audience. They may not notice the small twitch of a facial muscle, but that’s helping you project what you want. So at least in my case, theatre and film have helped each other.

We spoke of straddling theatre and film. What are your views on straddling mainstream and non-mainstream cinema?

Today, the line has really blurred between the two kinds of cinema. How would you categorise Rang De Basanti? Because of Aamir, it’s this huge commercial movie. But if you take out Aamir, the film would still be what it is. As an actor, it makes no difference what kind of film it is, because it’s ultimately the director’s vision. Of course, the luxuries on the set and the money that you get change according to the production, but creativity-wise, it’s all the same.

What about films in languages you’re not familiar with? How do you approach acting in those?

My first major film was a Tamil-Hindi bilingual, Hey Ram. Even before that, I’d done a Kannada movie. The language is a problem, but I’ve developed a technique of memorising the dialogue (which I write down in Devnagari), the way we memorise Sanskrit shlokas as children. I also note down the meaning of each word, because that helps me work out my pauses during dialogue delivery. If there’s no time to do this, I get prompted with cue words from behind the camera.

This sounds rather painful. Why would you want to put yourself through this at all? Is it the money?

My mother tongue is Marathi, but there are very few films being made in Marathi. What I enjoy in the south is the film culture. It’s like the theatre culture in Maharashtra or Bengal. The people here think in a cinematic language. Technicians and filmmakers from here have influenced cinema all over India. Of course, the money is also good, and the opportunities are good.

Does this opinion of southern cinema come from being part of something as ambitious as Hey Ram?

I consider Hey Ram my film school. I had just come out of NSD, and I was doing Marathi theatre. And Kamal-ji, being an actor, knew how to teach an actor. He never ever showed me how to do a scene or give a shot. He never acted it out. But he did teach me how to respond to the camera and things like that. He taught me film technique.

You won your first National Award for Hey Ram. But the second one for Chandni Bar seems to have done more for your career.

Strange things happen in the film industry. Hey Ram wasn’t a hit; what it got me was Chandni Bar, plus a Telugu film. But Chandni Bar was a huge hit. What a producer or a director also looks for is your appeal with the masses. If you are a talented actor and you also have a mass base, then your chances of being cast are greater. And that happened with Chandni Bar. But that doesn’t mean Hey Ram didn’t get me noticed. When I was shooting for Khakee, the film that Amitabh Bachchan complimented me on was Hey Ram.

There’s been a lot of talk about this kada you found for Rang De Basanti, and how you constantly wore it to be in character. Do you always use props?

Every role dictates the preparation that is needed. For me the most important thing is to keep my character in mind, even when you’re not actually shooting. We have to give the character our time, the way we give time to our family, friends and other everyday commitments. And then you suddenly find something you can use to play the role, because it’s already there.

So you found the character of Lakshman Pande because the kada helped you keep him in mind?

In a way, yes. But it’s not that I go after a prop for every character I play. In this Marathi film, Devrai, I played a schizophrenic, and a very different kind of preparation was needed. I read a lot. I spent a lot of time with patients and doctors and caretakers, because I needed to figure out how to think illogically – whereas usually I try to figure out the logic in a character. That’s just from the actor’s side. There’s also the inputs from the director, the co-actors, and a lot of other things.

This looks like a lot of hard work. But according to Woody Allen, actors over-intellectualise the process of creating a character, and hence lose their spontaneity and natural talent. He says they feel guilty about doing something that comes so easily to them, so they try to make it more complex to justify being paid for it.

See, I have always believed that acting is a technique. Even if you talk of spontaneity, it depends on a basic technique, which starts with the preparation for the character. While preparing for Devrai, for instance, I first read a lot and met a lot of people. After gathering this basic information, I needed to decide how to use this information. Schizophrenia is a disease where the symptoms are different from patient to patient, so for my character, I decided to use the combined characteristics of several patients.

Would those be outward manifestations, like tics, or are you talking about internal responses too?

Mostly outward. For example, after certain medications, there are side effects, like the involuntary muscle movements you mentioned. This could be in any part of the body, but as an actor, I know that if I can move a muscle on my face, it would be more effective. So I checked to see which facial muscle would be easy to move, and it turned out to be the one at the corner of my lip. If I kept moving that muscle for 20-25 minutes, the motion started looking involuntary.

So you’re saying that you can’t always be spontaneous. What about actors who claim they just walk on to a set and give a shot?

I will not call it spontaneity. Whether it’s a gesture or a speech pattern, you decide on these things by a process of trial and error. With all this preparation, you go in front of the camera, and ultimately what you do there might be something you’ve not thought about – but that doesn’t come out of thin air. Even improvisation is based on your preparation, your technique. You’re not the same person every day, so how else will you ensure that your character – which you’ll play over several months – will stay the same?

But what about stock, commercial cinema characters? The villain, for instance. Surely, those don’t need so much work.

Certainly. In this film I’m doing now, Kedi, I play a brother who loves his sister very much and would go to any extent to get her what she wants. In some ways, it’s like what I did in Run. In such films, your challenge is mainly in placing your trust in the character. In Dum, I played an inspector who was so illogical, you’d never find anyone like that in real life. But that’s the challenge, to make him convincing.

Is that why you’ve said you enjoyed Naseeruddin Shah’s performance in Tridev, because he took an illogical character and played it as if it were a logical one?

Not only Naseeruddin Shah, I respect Amitabh Bachchan, Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi for the same reason. Look at Amit-ji! He must have died several deaths when asked to speak to mirrors and cockroaches, but he still did these scenes so convincingly. That, I think, is more difficult than a role like in Devrai, where you have so much material to base your performance on.

Do you do anything to stop being “Atul Kulkarni” in your performances? Because after ten films or so, we know exactly how you laugh and cry and so on.

It’s futile to try and change yourself in every film, because you cannot change what you are. What is most important is to convince the audience about what you are doing. I’d rather concentrate on that instead of giving something “different” all the time. If you keep doing that – with makeup and things like that even when there is no need – you become a caricature, not a character. You’re thinking more about yourself than about your character.

So you believe in the Sanjeev Kumar school of acting.

Definitely. A lot of actors have essentially been themselves – physically at least – in film after film. Amitabh Bachchan, Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri, who has such a typical face – you can’t go beyond that. I feel it’s wrong to do that too. The main thing is the conviction with which you play your part.

After all that serious talk about craft, let’s end with a masala question. Who are five actors you admire?

It’s always been about the role – rather than the actor – for me. I like Naseer-bhai in Mandi. I like Om-ji in Sparsh. He has just a couple of scenes, but he’s amazing. I like Amit-ji in Aks, for the simple reason that it is not his school of acting. Then, Smita Patil in Bhumika. And Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate. Of course, he’s been doing the same thing over and over for a while, but what he did in that movie suited the character. That’s why it’s one of my favourite performances.

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