Geetanjali Kulkarni's recent performances in plays like S*x, M*rality and Cens*rship and Haath Ka Aaya... Shunya, have been powerful dramatic parts that she has laced with humor and a sense of occasion that have made her characters truly memorable. Here, in an interview with Vikram Phukan she gets under the skin of her roles, and tells us a little bit about her journey as an actress.
There is that very certain undercurrent of humor that inform all your performances… is this an extension of how you are as a person, is this how you experience the world around you?
I believe humor is an integral part of the human condition quite unlike any other emotion. Behind every pathos there is this diverting track going on in our mind. For example, I had once gone to the funeral of a distant relative whose husband had died. She was recounting the incident in Marathi, but at the same time, she was translating it into Hindi for the non-Marathi speakers. She was very serious about it, of course. I was also quite tense but I did find it very funny at the time, the fact that she had this alertness to translate her words back and forth. We’ve developed that sense with which we look at the world. Then I’ve also done a lot of comedy plays in Marathi when I was starting out my professional career. I think the humor helps you build the character and it makes it more human, and textured. I’m not a very funny person per se but I try to entertain people always. Even a normal family conversation—I try to make it lighter.
Has this been a trait since childhood?
Yes, when I was in kindergarten, every summer we would go to the circus. When we returned to school, I used to be the clown, and the whole class was my audience.
Did this give you a kind of power that a lot of other children didn’t have, the power to entertain? Did you feel isolated because of it?
I have been performing since childhood. We had a long central table at home and I would stand on it and dance, or perform ads that had been aired on the radio. I wanted people to watch me. I didn’t feel isolated at all, because I feel I had the quality to take everybody along for the ride.
So it was a logical progression towards being an actress…
I’ve always wanted to be an actor. Fortunately, Marathi culture has a lot of scope for performance. We have festivals like the Ganesh Utsav, where there is a tradition for performing theatre, not just dance and songs. Every Ganesh festival would have plays. That was very encouraging for me. I could develop those skills. Though it was a very typical kind of skit at these festivals, I was very serious about it, more than the other children. About rehearsals, about being on time, about understanding. I remember, once I even hit my friend, because she couldn’t follow what I was trying to explain. It wasn’t maths, it was play-acting, but it still upset me. I was in the 8th standard then.
There is a lot of humor even in regular banter between friends, but did your natural witty self or your ability to create humor, intimidate people in any way?
I don’t think so, because some people are very bold in their humor, but I’m not that sort of person. Somewhere, because I belonged to a typical middle-class Marathi family, there were a lot of dos and don’ts. So I do control what I say. I’m generally not provocative, but it depends upon which group I’m with. I mean, there have been a couple of occasions where I may have created awkward situations. Both my parents have a very good sense of humor. My mother reads a lot, and writes as well. She had written an article about the water scarcity in our colony in summer—she had written almost 200 words about how the tap seems to be gurgling but there is no water. Everybody was laughing so hard since they could identify with the situation.
So were your parents supportive of your decision to move into acting?
No, not at all (laughs). My father wasn’t on my side at all. My mother was more supportive since I was pursuing acting on my own—she didn’t want to interfere. My father thought, and he still thinks, that women should not be in this profession, it’s not safe. He used to come for my Marathi plays earlier, and he enjoyed them.
Your recent roles have been very strong dramatic parts. Was it easy to make a transition from your early work in comedy, to become a well-regarded dramatic actress?
I like doing dramatic pieces. I feel tense about the roles I take up, but I enjoy them. I’m a rather dramatic person in real life. I exaggerate things, like pain for instance. If there is a fight, I magnify things. When the situation is over, I ask myself why I reacted as much as I did. So maybe, when I approach a character as well, I tend to magnify her emotions, and therefore I can empathize with the character a lot more because I can understand what she must be going through. I like to discover that.
Let’s talk about your role in S*x, M*rality And Cens*rship. It must have been an intense and harrowing experience. There is that scene with the ant, which is very painful because of the repression, but it is also a kind of comic relief for the audience. That show-stopping scene allows us to discover a more private side to Lakshmi’s character; before that she was a bit of a doormat… you delineated this Tendulkar character in a certain way, have you seen it performed earlier?
I read Sakharam Binder a few times before we did this play but I had never seen Lakshmi from such an angle. The credit goes to Sunil Shanbag, he made me look at her character not just as an unfortunate victim, but also by trying to understand her sexual urges, the change in her, the fanaticism in her, and the transformation she brings about in Sakharam himself. She cleanses his soul, so to say, and when she gets that power, you see a completely different side to her. Sunil tried to feed me with these ideas. When I read the script again, I realized that all these layers exist. I really enjoyed the rehearsals, bahut mazaa aa raha tha, because there was this challenge of keeping up with Sunil, to be on the same track and understanding it in exactly the same way without necessarily being told anything explicitly. We were discovering those moments in the script together. It was the first time that I was performing a play by Vijay Tendulkar and it was amazing to reveal this text, because he writes everything so logically, and if you can understand the underlying thread, it’s like a feast for an actor. He clearly gives you all the hints and you can weave these elements into your performance. We’ve completed nearly 50 shows of S*x, M*rality And Cens*rship, and usually during rehearsals, actors just blurt out the lines to remember them or to get the sequence. However, when we do the Sakharam Binder scenes, even in rehearsal, we get involved completely, it sucks us in. It is very intense, and you cannot remain aloof, you have to get into the world of the characters. The text has that kind of power, that’s the power of Vijay Tendulkar.
For the audience, the intensity of the proceedings on stage can be draining, but in a good way, of course. How much of a physical toll does such a performance take on the actor? Are you a spent force at the end of the performance? Is it like a tennis match, or are you such a practiced hand that…
It is both ways in a way, I won’t deny that. For a long time, I felt acting was a craft and you should master it. I still believe that’s true, but I think an actor has to give something, some emotion, something that dies after the play is done. A bunch of emotions which you give away for a character. You have to do that to give more than just a well-crafted performance to the audience. I won’t say it tires me, I feel good after the show but I always feel, and this has started very recently—earlier I used to worry about delivering a good performance, and whether the audience would like it—but since the past year and a half, I’m getting more involved in my character. I try to imagine what Lakshmi is going through, will I be able to find the truth regarding this character… these are the kind of questions that have been coming to me. Whether I am able to merge my truth with Lakshmi’s truth.
You still have to go through this process in every performance…
Yes, I can't sleepwalk through this character even if I have done it so many times. Every time, I’m at the wings waiting to go in, meri iccha yeh hoti hai ki aaj main Lakshmi se milun stage par. Recently I heard Mahesh Elkunchwar on stage, when he was receiving his Janasthan Puraskar, it was an amazing speech. He was talking about his truth of the situation that he should achieve in his writing. I felt that I have to reach that point that he talks about in that speech. His struggle for truth is exactly what is bothering me as well as an actor. Recently I did Gajab Kahani, with Aasakta Kalamanch. It’s a Marathi play, based on The Elephant's Journey by José Saramago, and I play an elephant. I knew I would be able to get the physical aspect of playing such a character, the body language, the dialogues—it is a very verbose play—but I should be able to understand the elephant’s truth. I don’t know whether I achieved it but I tried my best within the framework of the script I was provided. I know it won’t happen every time…
How do you bounce off other actors, for example Rajashree Sawant Wad, who’s played Champa in S*x…, a more archetypal and heroic character, a sympathetic character. The connection between the two women is one of the more powerful aspects of the script, more so than the way Sakharam himself relates to either women.
I find Rajashree’s approach very interesting. That’s not my approach when I deal with a character. It’s a different style of working. Initially she was very particular about the body language, the postures, and what’s external in the character.
Champa is a kind of outward personality, so the layers are there on the surface as well…
That’s what I find interesting. The way she approached was from external to internal so to see her internalizing the whole journey of Champa given where she started out, and the way she slowly started to discover her character, was quite exciting. Whereas, maybe because of my character itself, maybe because of my craft as an actor, my approach was different. She is a very serious actor and I think the role really affects her a lot. Maybe it’s because I’ve been performing a lot longer—she had taken a break for a while—it affects her a lot more. When I see her in the green room after a performance, she’s a totally different person. So, as I observe these things, it also give me a lot of energy as an actor.
You won the META award for your performance…
That kind of appreciation is what encourages actors like us to continue working in an experimental framework. This is not commercial theatre. S*x… became rather successful but for plays like Dreams of Taleem, we sometimes only have 80 odd people in the audience. I mean there is very little else that’s there by way of appreciation anyway. There is the joy of performing, of course. Standing ovations are great, but this is appreciation from very eminent people. So it does matter.
(Read Part 2)