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August 18, 2000


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'You need brains to act'

Atul Kulkarni

An intelligent actor. On the one hand, the phrase is an oxymoron when applied to some members of the profession. On the other, it might describe some quite accurately. Atul Kulkarni, for one.

Atul is this year's National Award winner for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Shriram Abhiyankar, a man who believes that Mahatma Gandhi was responsible for the partition of India, in Kamal Haasan's Hey! Ram. No mean feat, this. More so, since it was his first commercial foray into Bollywood.

An alumnus of the prestigious National School of Drama, Atul Kulkarni hails from Sholapur in Maharashtra. A veteran theatre persona, he first shot to fame with his role of Gandhi in the critically and commercially acclaimed Gandhi Viruddh Gandhi.

Atul Kulkarni's cup might runneth over, but things are only getting better for him. Aparajita Saha uncovers the various pies this passionate actor has his fingers in.

How did Hey! Ram happen?

Kamal (Haasan) had heard about me in Gandhi Viruddh Gandhi. Also, Anil Pemgirikar, who did the make-up for Hey! Ram, had previously worked with Amol Palekar and he mentioned me to Kamal. I was asked to go to Madras -- I was selected immediately and was asked to start shooting. The movie didn't happen under what one would term as normal circumstances as I was replacing Mohan Gokhale, who had passed away.

Tell us your experience with Kamal Haasan.

Kamal has treated me extremely well, both as a person and an actor. I learnt a totally different way of acting from him. He narrated the script, frame by frame, to me -- even the scenes that I had no role in. He started me off with the basics and gradually eased me into the more complex shots. My last shot was the toughest but, thanks to him, it didn't seem difficult at all. Kamal Haasan and Atul Kulkarni

After Hey! Ram was completed, I wrote a letter to Kamal. I said that when I went to Madras, all I wanted to do was be an actor. But I came away wanting to be a film-maker. I learnt passion from Kamal -- a passion for detail and for films. Movies are truly in Kamal Haasan's blood in every sense of the term.

When did your passion for acting develop?

I was initiated into acting with college plays, enacted by our amateur theatre group, Natya Aradhna, in Sholapur. Our Marathi play, Chapha (1988-89), for which I won the award for best actor, stood first in the finals of the statewide competition, beating over 40 other plays.

Subsequently, I directed and acted in Apan Sarech Ghodegaokar (1991), which went on to win the awards for the best actor and director, and stood first in Maharashtra. Our group went onto perform plays all over Maharashtra. It was then that I realised that Sholapur wasn't enough. I wanted to take it further.

Is this when the National School of Drama happened?

That's right. I quit my job in New India Insurance and was confronted by various options. I could either go to Pune to do a course in acting from Poona University or shift base to Bombay or Delhi and study at NSD. I opted for the latter because it is the best place to get a formal education in acting.

What did NSD do for you?

'Acting cannot be taught but it can be learnt' is what Naseeruddin Shah once said at NSD. I corroborate that. NSD gave me the exposure I lacked. I was there from 1992-1995. In those three years, I literally slept, breathed and ate theatre. I emerged from there with a whole new temperament.

When I first entered NSD, I had no idea there could be so many ways of enacting a single scene or emotion. I was accustomed to the ways of my theatre group in Sholapur and didn't explore different styles and methods. NSD taught me to consistently and constantly evaluate and practise.

For someone like me coming from a small place like Sholapur, NSD was full of revelations. We learnt a great deal from stalwarts like Prasanna, Ratan Thiyyam, Naseeruddin Shah and Barry John, who taught us. NSD also has the best library for material on theatre. Three years at NSD was worth 10 years of experience.

What was life after NSD like?

I acted in Gandhi Virudh Gandhi, just after graduating from NSD, in December 1995. I played Gandhi. It received critical acclaim and was very popular. We did Gujarati and Hindi versions, too, and the shows ran to packed houses for three years.

I also acted in a few episodes of serials like Swaraj, Ashwamedha and Saturday Suspense on television. Atul Kulkarni and Amol Palekar

Movies like the Hindi Kairee and the Marathi Karve directed by Amol Palekar marked my foray into movies. I also acted in a Kannada movie, Bhoomi Geeta, where I played a negative role. It was a movie based on an environmental theme and won awards at various festivals.

What, in your opinion, are the elements necessary for acting?

Acting is a combination of factors. First, you need brains. Playing a character is like compressing an entire life into a few lines -- that isn't an easy task. To be successful, one has to put in a lot of thought -- every action and speech should give people an insightful glimpse of the character you are portraying.

Second, you need discipline. One should also be systematic while going about a role. A certain level of detachment from the character is also necessary as then one can be objective about one's performance. It is important to constantly evaluate and analyse -- it prevents your performance from going overboard.

How did you prepare for the complex role of Mahatma Gandhi in the critically and commercially acclaimed Gandhi Viruddh Gandhi?

It was a role of epic proportions. This was a man whose life had been written about everywhere. While working on my character, I first read up all the events and happenings in his life in chronological order. Then I moved on to his biography and read what others had written about him to get a peripheral view of the man. I studied his philosophy of life, his opinions and decisions...

I actually learnt the charkha because it was one of his main philosophies that dealt not only with the principle of self-sufficiency but also with the coordination between the mind and the body. I wonder at this man who, amidst heavy public debate between other leaders, could continue on the charkha and listen to the chaos around him, without missing a weave or a word!

You are very passionate about theatre. What is it that makes you feel so strongly about it? Atul Kulkarni

Theatre is unlike any other medium. It's all about repeated performances and new beginnings. Each show is a new day. In Marathi, we call a play a prayog, which means an experiment.

Theatre is a complete experience. It's an incredible challenge to sustain one's intensity and energy for a continuous period of two-three hours. Though the basics of acting don't change between mediums, the technicalities do. In cinema, you can move the audience from location to location and keep them entertained. But in theatre, you have to hold their attention solely on the basis of performances and pace.

What do you feel about films?

The vast possibilities and limitless canvas that film-making offers is most fascinating. The entire process of conceiving an idea, mentally visualising it from start to finish, is a challenge. It's chaos that ultimately leads to neat linearity. What I find most intriguing is that the actor need not even be there when the movie is finally being put together! The potential of a film lies in the fact that its reach is tremendous -- a movie can play in so many parts of the world at the same time! This is unconceivable in theatre.

What kind of an actor would you classify yourself as? Atul Kulkarni

Acting is very subjective. There are as many methods of acting as there are actors. You can't separate acting from yourself or from the political, social and economic circumstances that surround you. They all exert an influence and show up in some form or the other. I would say Atul Kulkarni acts like Atul Kulkarni!

What kind of roles and movies do you want to do? Who are the people you want to work with?

I'm open to all mediums as long as there is a sincere and serious approach to the project. Sometime in life, I want to do a play based on the life of Tughlaq. I'm also fascinated by the works of Shakespeare. He talks about life on such a grand scale! He's covered almost every aspect of life and philosophises in a unique manner.

As for favourite roles, I think Naseeruddin Shah's character in Mandi, called Tugrus, is very well done. There aren't any people I want to work with in particular. I prefer having favourite works of people rather than a set of favourite people.

What do you look for in a project?

There are various factors that influence my decision. I have different reasons for accepting different roles. In some assignments, you consider the role and the unit. That was why I did Hey! Ram. Sometimes, the time factor is a consideration. At other times, the monetary aspect comes in.

What are your expectations from yourself?

This profession has two peculiarities, among many others. One, you work is on an assignment basis. Second, performances and their evaluation are very subjective and relative. At the time, I might feel that was the best I could do. But later, I might think of better ways to do it, while talking about the same piece of work.

What I do expect from myself is a result that is qualitative and satisfactory. If I feel like I've done a role right, then I think I'm content with my efforts.

Tell us about the movie you are doing opposite Tabu with director Madhur Bhandarkar.

The movie Chandani Bar is about a bar-girl and a gangster, two professions that go hand in hand. They get married and have a family. The film deals with how their children bear the brunt of the consequences that arise due to the profession of their parents, especially the father's. I play the gangster to Tabu's bar-girl.

Which are your other projects?

I'm doing a Telugu film with director Rama Naidu, Shankar and Venkatesh. There is a Marathi play, Jhale Mokale Abhal, with Reema Lagoo as my co-star, which has already completed 100 shows.

I'm really looking forward to the release of a Marathi movie Dahavi Ph, directed by Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukhantar, which is almost complete. It's about the children belonging to section F, which has all the dull students of class X of a school.

They are mischievous and their teacher (whom I play) takes them under his wing to reform them and helps them repair the damage they had caused.

Were you expecting the National Award for best supporting actor for Hey! Ram?

Honestly, I didn't really think about it until it actually happened. I didn't realise how big a deal it was until the calls started pouring in! It does feel great to be appreciated, especially since this was my first commercial Hindi movie.

You feel different kinds of happiness at different stages of your career. I think commercial success mattered more when I was just starting out. So my success with Gandhi Viruddh Gandhi gave me a real high. Winning the National Award is an honour since it granted me critical appreciation.

Ultimately, what do you aspire to achieve? Atul Kulkarni

I want to work in worthwhile films and plays. Ultimately, I want to turn to direction. I would also love to work with amateur Marathi theatre groups -- I owe my professional existence to them.

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