In a tete-a-tete over chai and upma, Geetanjali Kulkarni tells us about her experience of working on the National Award winning film, Court, what she seeks through acting and why she does such selective work.


Geetanjali Kulkarni

Congrats to you and the team for the National Award. Your film has travelled the globe, received much adulation and finally India has also recognized its brilliance. Tell us how you came on board.

I was acting in a play directed by Sunil Shanbhag called Sex Morality and Censorship. My friend Sachit Puranik, who was casting for the film then, was also part of the same play. He mentioned that he had a great role, which was almost tailor-made for me. He secretly gave me the script and asked me to read it. I read it in one sitting and decided that I would definitely want to be part of this. Later, I auditioned for the role. Usually, I am not comfortable with auditions because I don’t understand the need to prove myself to be better than anyone else. I was not happy with the audition and offered to come back for another round. Before I knew it I had given several auditions after which I met Chaitanya (Tamhane), the director. He gave me the script again not knowing that I had already read it. Three months passed and there was no news from them.

Finally, I wrote to them saying that though I was clueless about their decision, I was extremely keen to be a part of the film. Even if there was no role for me, I insisted that they involved me in workshops until they actually took a call. If and whenever they caste someone else, I would happily back out. I think that mail really helped me bag this role. Those six months were a real test of my patience but worth the wait. Also, the fact that I do not have a familiar face or an existing screen image worked for me. Barring a few others, and me the cast mainly has non-actors and ameteurs.

What are the challenges of working in a small film like Court?

You don’t get paid that much. The kind of commitment required is much more. You need to give more than your skill set. I am a trained actor but I didn’t have the life experience required to do justice to this kind of a script. The character says more than what is written. I had to leave my ego as an actor, which, I learnt from all the non-actors in the film. Had I approached this with the attitude of ‘main actor hoon aur mujhe apni skills dikhaani hain’ I would have been a big failure. I cannot behave in the same way for every project. For instance, when I did a cameo in Ragini MMS 2, I had to be demanding and carry my ego to the sets. It was a commercial film; I was not a star there and had to ask for everything.

During Court, I was so well taken care of because they knew the importance of my character. At the same time, everyone who was working on the film, even the mob, was given the same treatment. If the others were staying in a non-air conditioned room, so was I. I witnessed these values unlike our industry where the bigger the star, the better the treatment. Personally, I am very comfortable in this atmosphere. I feel I am a team player, which is why I attract these kinds of projects, be it theater or films. This was like going back to film school for me. I have done many cameos before but was never involved in the craft so much.

Was the film intended only for festivals?

This was an independent film. It got selected for festivals much later. But there was always this question mark whether the film would get completed or not, even if it did, would it see the light of day?

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Did you imagine it would get this kind of a response while making it?

No one had a clue about the future. However, one thing I was sure of was that the best of people were on board. I realized that the technicians on this project, be it Anita Kushwa, the sound recordist, our DOP, Mrunal Desai or even our gaffers were exceptionally skilled talent. They were involved right from the rehearsals. The film was shot in sync sound. Our Line Producer, Kishore Sawant had organized such impeccable security, you wouldn’t even see it in a commercial Marathi film. Also the cast of this film was carefully picked. They were dealing with crowds of hundreds of people. Whether it was a scene in the court or of an audience watching a play, they were hand picked and brought in such a way that it all looked real. In fact, in Kalyan, our assistant actually arranged for actual people who watch plays to play the audience. Though they were paid, they were real. I always knew that we were making something amazing.

You seem to be extremely aware and in touch with the technicalities of the film.

That’s because, like I said, I could tell they were not run-of-the-mill. Mrunal supported the film when we had no backing from any institutions. Anita Kushwa worked on the post for almost six months. I still remember we shot a scene in a local train and it was sync sound. You won’t believe but I didn’t have to dub a single line for that scene. We had managed to get the train for just about a day, which, was also a huge cost. We didn’t have much time but the recording was unbelievable. This is not just an issue-based film. Cinematic language and technology have both been used to the optimum. The recognition we have got on an international platform is not only because of the issue or the script but because of the way it takes cinematic language to another level. That’s why the film has won the ‘Lion of the Future’.

Despite all the odds, what was that one thing that kept you and the team going?

(Without any hesitation) The people. Vivek Gomber, our producer, was so passionate and had put in his all into this film. And Chaitanya, of course! In fact, the film has been distributed by Vivek himself without any studio backing. This was a conscious decision because this film has a message. How the film needs to be brought to the audiences, which audiences and when, was also a very important part of the message. This is a film for everyone.

How do you approach any role? Are you a method actor? What kind of preparation did you do for Court?

It depends on the project. I was doing the play, Gajab Kahani in which I played an elephant; I realized that I needed to learn Yoga and Kalari to bring out the power and balance of an elephant. Similarly for this film I realized that I had to listen to the director. This was a real film and I had to follow his vision. From my end, I did my bit of meeting lawyers, attending court sessions, reading legal documents etc. Realistic cinema needs to you take more responsibility. I had never been in an actual court setting before. I had to find out details of how lawyers are, how they cross-examine a witness, how they interact with an investigation officer. Many more questions like, what material do they get? What’s their space? Do they have a desk? Do they carry documents? Do they carry a pen, do they actually write or do they just listen or do they just talk? I needed to have a connection with that space which I knew nothing about. It’s not just emotional, it’s more natural and reflexive.

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What are the major things that influence your acting?

I don’t see acting in isolation. I feel it is very important to know which story you are a part of. We have amazing actors around. In fact, I have liked the work of many non-actors or even stars that don’t particularly ‘act’ well or have no real skill set. For me, I seek truth in the performance, rather than craft. Take Naseer ji for instance, he has an evolved skill set and yet tries to seek truth through his craft. What I seek from any person in life is truth. When an actor is out to prove that ‘he is an actor’, it angers me. It’s more graceful and credible when you accept what you can’t do and let it be known to the audience.

While genuineness is important, another aspect is ‘what an actor wants to say through his work’. I don’t believe in ‘art for art’s sake’. For me art is a product of society. Which is why I feel, whatever work I do, has some effect somewhere. I feel a sense of responsibility towards the craft. Whatever I am today, is a product of the sacrifice of some people. It is my responsibility to be aware of what I am being part of. I may have worked only for money or other professional reasons before and I will continue to do so. However, I should know the value and credentials of the work I am doing. I should also have the ability and conviction to refuse a role purely because it says something that I would not want to tell people through my work. This is a very personal view. I don’t expect that all actors or actresses should think the same way but I cannot be a part of anything for the sake of it. That is why my body of work is so limited, yet consciously selected.

Tell us about your relationship with acting. When and where did it begin?

I have been acting since I was a child. It began during the Ganpati Festivals where we did skits and plays. I have grown up in that kind of an atmosphere and realized that I was always happier when I was on stage. It gives me a sense of power. In reality, I am not the kind of person who can command, neither do I have a particularly powerful personality. But acting gives me that ‘this-space-is-mine’ kind of feeling. Another thing I realized is that since I am an extrovert otherwise, I get a chance to get in touch with myself when I am acting. It gives me a sense of awareness of what every molecule in my body is going through. It is like meditation for me.

For instance, acting in Court has changed me as a person. I got more aware of certain issues. I started wondering, ‘what space are we living in if we are not thinking of and reacting to these things?’ So if any film or play gives me this awareness, I enjoy it much more as a person. I cannot function in an on-off manner. I don’t know what it means when people ask, ‘Have you gotten out of your character?’ How can I get out of my character? When I play a character, she and I are one. I believe that I am giving a part of myself to the character and the character is also giving me something. When the role is over, probably that part of me is also over with the character but I tend to carry on so many other things the character has given me. I am an emotional person, roles affect me a lot and I also leave an impression on my roles.

What is your relationship with Chaitanya like?

Chaitanya is almost 18 years younger than me. But that said, he is an extremely matured boy. I am amazed at how he is so clear about the story he wants to tell at this age. I have never agreed with people who say that the new generation is lost or doesn’t understand things. In fact, I appreciate the fact that they are so good at their jobs and remarkably sorted. People say they are not consistent. Well if there is something I take ten days to understand and they get it in one day, how will there be consistency? This generation has so much inflow of information and they are able to absorb all of it. Coming back to Chaitanya, I am sure he won’t do only films. He may write a novel someday. He may even quit films someday. I don’t feel his ambition is to make it big in Bollywood as a director. There are many young kids like him and it makes me happy to see how they think. They want to act, travel, write blogs, sing and do different things in life. I think that’s the way to be. People like Chaitanya who represent this generation are extremely dynamic. I am looking forward to seeing his other work, and not just films.


With Vivek Gomber (Extreme Left) & Chaitanya Tamhane

What was his brief for you when you began shooting for Court?

His brief was simple – ‘Don’t act. And don’t show me that you are not acting.’ Earlier, directors came with the attitude that actors would never get it unless they showed them how something was to be done. There were too many instructions; they were almost control freaks because they never trusted. But with Chaitanya, he trusted his actors completely. Again I think this a great quality about this generation.

What do you think is your career’s best work so far?

I was most creatively satisfied when I did the play Sex Morality Censorship. I had a very small role in that. But I realized my worth as a person and as an actor. The play has an extremely special place in my heart since it made me realize what I wanted to say as an actor.

Over time and accolades, how has people’s perception about Court changed? Any specific instances of the same people who probably didn’t support you then, having changed?

To be honest, it is the other way round. We were the ones in need. We had nothing to depend on except our film. When something as big as the National Award happened, we were all pleasantly surprised, rather shocked. In fact, this made my belief in the system stronger. We never imagined we would be considered. More so since our film has a rebellious undertone to it and is definitely not saying what the current Government supports or would want to here. Our film shows a man going against the State and this kind of appreciation at a National level is reassuring.

What according to you is the biggest challenge Marathi Cinema faces in India?

We are not star struck. We are trying to put some good cinema together and tell different stories. I think the biggest challenge is to stay the way we are. We will last around longer if we do so. It would be great to keep the shiny quotient low and concentrate on what we want to communicate on a deeper level. There are many films that have done this and we need to continue.

Another huge challenge is how we want to tap our audiences. We need to explore different ways of reaching them. Like for Court, we did a shahiri jalsa and not the regular television integrations and PR stunts. Its important to know when, where and how to find and communicate to your audience. Recently, I had an argument with a friend who is an actress too. She has been sending me whatsapps about her new film for the past six months. Honestly, how am I her target audience? If I had to message you about Court ever since I started working on it, how would it help? I need to talk to my audience and not people who are in the industry and who already know that my movie is releasing this week.

– Ashwini Kulkarni