Neena Kulkarni is a good actress has been well acknowledged
in the world of Marathi stage, cinema and television. Unfortunately
Hindi productions haven't been as kind and she has been generally
typecast in the good mother role. However, even in these stereotyped
situations, she has managed to impart her own distinctive
stamp to the characters she portrays. Kulkarni has carved
a place for herself among Marathi language audiences with
the central character of Tara Rani in Smita Talwalkar's historical
which recreates the Peshwa era, in a tele-series currently
being aired on Zee Alpha. What has given her greater exposure
though, has been as Gulnar
in Sony Entertainment Television's Heena as actress Simone
Singh's compassionate mother-in-law. Gulnar
made Kulkarni a household favourite.
graduate in Arts from Mumbai's Elphistone College, with French
as her major, Neena's tryst with theatre began when she was
just nine years old. She was a regular in the skits organised
at the Makrand Society colony in Mumbai's western suburb of
Mahim, where she grew up and resides even today. She continued
with theatre and carved out a place for herself as a serious
and committed actress. Later, she moved to television and
started afresh by playing mother roles like "any newcomer",
quips Kulkarni, who says she was aware that she would get
categorised as a character artiste when she took the plunge
into television. "Given my age and the fact that I was entering
a new medium, I couldn't have been choosy," she concurs. Kulkarni,
who has done a variety of "mother roles", says she has managed
to bring a range of performances within the set character
and has no qualms being labelled a character artiste. "The
character of Gulnar
(in Sony's Heena)
has created a sort of stardom for character artists if I may
say so and has at least made me view character artistes differently,"
correspondent Harsha Khot met Neena Kulkarni at her residence
and found that she enjoys playing character roles as much
as central roles. Excerpts from the conversation:
an interesting track record as a theatre actress, what prompted
you to join television?
1997, we faced financial constraints in the family. My husband
was not keeping well and my children were growing up. Being
a mother, I did not want to be away from home for long. It's
during that time Ashok Saraf approached me with Chutke
Bajake. Since the serial was going to be shot within the
city and required comparatively less travel time, I considered
the proposal and got into television serials. Not that I was
new to television, earlier I had worked for Doordarshan as
an announcer so that helped me. It wasn't an entirely different
Kulkarni with Bikram Saluja in Panchi
am a director's actor and would expect the director
to know what is what'
things do you consider while giving commitments to a role
The scripts generally come to you in a verbal story form.
Ideally scripts of television serials spring from a seed based
on an idea, a central story theme which can be developed over
a period of time. And in the case of television serial scripts,
you don't have a bound script, unlike those written for theatrical
plays. After hearing the story, I basically mull over the
kind of role that I will be playing, and generally I am considered
to be in the mother category. Nowadays I also make it a point
to consider the production house and most importantly, the
The television serial has become a "try-out" medium and I
did come across it, especially in the beginning. Because of
this I felt absolutely frustrated and it gave me a lot of
heartaches. Many channels were coming up and joining the bandwagon
so to speak, which gave openings for a lot of inexperienced
wannabe directors and somehow I got stuck with them.
I am a director's actor and would expect the director to know
what is what. But at the time I had just stepped into television
serials and was quite nervous, especially since the directors
weren't of much help. I had to face a few directors who had
the attitude: "I know as much as you do or maybe even less,
let us just try this out together." That used to get on my
nerves. I was very vulnerable and felt that if the director
doesn't know what I am capable of and I don't know what they
want me to do then things may not proceed in a proper manner.
However, I stuck with it.
made you stick around?
constraints and hope. I was hopeful that things would get
better. Television is a technical medium, not an experimental
one. Since I have a theatre background, I would try to put
in my best, but would many a time get frustrated looking at
the way a lot of other people took things so lightly. But
that is where I realised the difference between the theatre
and television medium and that there were many other things
to learn. I learnt not to jump into any project, and that
in television you need not get extremely serious while enacting
the character. Now I tend to take up only projects which come
to me through reference and this has sorted out the earlier
idea is to show more of character with a lesser touch
of your own personality'
Receiving the best actress
award from evergreen hero Dev Anand for her role in Dhayaniman.
did things change for you?
Towards the end of last year I just sat at home for three
months debating whether to give up television serials altogether
and stick only to movies. I was pondering over why I enjoyed
acting in films more than television even though the 'acting',
which is common to both, is what I liked the most. I became
more selective about directors. I recollect playing the role
of an old lady in Vikas Desai's Jootha Sach with Sachin
Khedekar. It didn't do too well, but it introduced me to a
good production house, Cinevision. Manish Goshwami of Cinevision
may haggle over money and dates but once the project is finalised
he sticks to it.
are your favorite directors?
Javed Sayeed who made Heena, he is an editor actually.
Then the director of Aatish, where I play an old women.
Sanjay Upadhaya changed my whole outlook towards serials.
He is a good director and knows how to get the best out of
his performers. For instance their (Upadhaya's team) approach
to dileanating a character is somewhat similar to what is
done in films. Through discussions with the director, the
details come out gradually with lot of inputs from both sides.
Upadhaya makes us work like dogs getting 10 to 15 scenes done,
but at the same time he is particular about time. If the shoot
is scheduled at 9 am then it happens then. He and his team
treat the project like films in a way.
I had a problem with the way Javed Sayeed functioned when
I first began working in Heena. He just wouldn't handle
actors carefully but later with every schedule and episode
of the serial he improved as a director while I improved as
a tele-serial actress. He has shown that a very capable editor
can become a very capable director and Heena proves
it. It is one of the top ranking serials and it's mainly due
to the way it has been written and edited. Today I am very
comfortable with him because I can understand him.
do you feel an actor should not give away too much?
Maybe this is an old way
of thinking, but acting also means characterisation. Naseer
(Naseeruddin Shah) and Paresh (Rawal) do that, likewise I
too characterize the role. Acting by itself is nothing, it's
about building up the background of the character also. They
blend with the role so well, showing a little part of themselves
but yet not revealing too much by focusing on the profile
of character. The idea is to show more of character with a
lesser touch of your own personality.
If I didn't follow this then I would soon get bored. Besides,
the day I get bored I'll leave this field. By way of characterization
there are still a few variations of a particular character
still remaining to be explored. And since I am playing a variety
of characters that makes work interesting. I don't think all
mother roles are the same. The characters I play are very
human and yet quite different from the typical doting Hindi
movie mother. They say 'beta' all the time. I am in the character
actress bracket but I am surprised that within this there
is so much potential for variety.
What do you dislike about television?
Everyone is working so fast to give or complete the episode
that at times the actor becomes quite bale. As long as you
say the lines properly it is okay. At times due to various
constraints the shots are okayed even if they might not be
perfect. There are quite a few people who are not serious
actors and who are in this field because they happen to be
good looking. Who spend their time on the sets yap-yap yapping
away. Then there are people who are on a signing spree doing
many serials at one time, while some are here for 'time-pass',
which can get quite annoying.
the role of Kasturba, opposite Naseerudhin Shah in
the celebrated play Mahatma vs Gandhi
How could the problem be solved?|
A lot of actors sign a lot of serials at one time.
I don't blame them too much. The problem lies in the fact
that a channel starts a serial with four to five options
in mind. And at times the circumstances are such that
to get a known face they give them so much money that
they are willing to compromise on other people.
Is that the reason why we often see people being replaced
The systems in place lead to a lot of insecurity. Then there
are actors willing to work for lesser pay which makes even
good actors go on signing sprees. The thinking being that
you never know when the tide may turn against you. I feel
that production houses should assure the actor about the contract
and have some consistency in their dealings. And if there
are sudden changes at an actor's expense then she should be
compensated. I wonder if this will ever happen though.
I still think people shouldn't do too many serials as they
are a killer as far as an actor is concerned. Ideally, I would
like to take only a serial at a time but that doesn't usually
happen. At one point I did a whole lot of pilots and they
finally went on the floors over a period of a few years.
Then it becomes terrible. There was a time when nearly seven
serials of mine were in various stages of production at the
same time and it was a killer. It was absolutely maddening
even though they weren't meaty roles.
did you manage to work simultaneously in seven serials?
It was because of my quick
thinking. When you are in theatre you do tend to become a
quick thinker. Soon I realised that you shouldn't take serials
as seriously and intensely as theatre. Earlier, I was trying
to put in the same intensity as in theatre and it was affecting
me. I was getting frustrated because everyone around me seemed
as if they couldn't care less. I spoilt my health, my sanity.
I started hating acting and going to the sets. Serials are
a quick business.
did you take control of the situation?
Between September and December, I sat at home and thought
through the whole thing. Why do I like films more than serials
when the roles in serial are also good? I was also doing film,
because they give some time to the actor to understand what
the role is about and not take actors for granted.
Channel interference was getting very irritating. For instance
pulling the serial off the air abruptly, but on the other
hand maybe it is for the better. It is irritating certainly,
but now there is some purpose to all this, asking for certain
as 'Gulnar' in Sony's Heena with lead star Simone
I came to serials my expectations were nil, because
I was aware that my age fitted into the mother's slot'
do you work on your roles? Is acting in television easy?
Serial is more of spontaneity than anything else. Probably
that is the reason most newcomers are doing well in serials
without any background or any training. It is not about how
well trained an actor you are. So I decided to use both together.
I have picked up the skills over the years, self-taught by
my peers, taught by my gurus. I don't read too much in the
scene and the scripts are generally written one day in advance.
But no, acting is not easy. Very few people survive serials
and move onto the big screen, which is the true test. That
is why you see 20 new faces but hardly one or two of them
making it to the big screen.
do you work on the character you play? How do you make them
appear different from each other?
In Heena I
was aware that the "Gulnar" was one of many who would behave
like any ordinary human, so to add realism the character wore
a louder coloured sari, deeper make-up with traditional surma
and an Urdu accent. How I did it I don't exactly know but
I am not ashamed to ask questions. I would ask director Rajiv
Verma to correct my pronunciation of Urdu vowels. Likewise
in Varis where I play a rich widow I wear a stark white
sari to give that kind of look, while in Aatish, I wear plain
sarees which old women generally wear. And I would never apply
unnecessary make-up or nail polish unless the role really
Of the roles you have played, which are your favourite
role in Heena has become close over the years.
Three years as Heena's mother-in-law. While Tararani
is what gives me a kick which is why I really do
not mind travelling all the way to Bhor for shoots.
'Kasturba' and the 'Mahatma'.
was it adapting from playing central roles in theatre and
a few serials to later getting categorised into roles of character
When I came to serials my expectations were nil, because I
was aware that my age fitted into the mother's slot. I have
played numerous middle-aged characters in theatre. In theatre
the central characters are now the side characters in serials
and movies. Nevertheless I enjoy the electronic medium. I
have mostly played downtrodden characters, which require some
acting potential. Besides I can't do theatre any more because
of health reasons and the kind of travelling it requires.
Otherwise the roles would have to be meaty enough to make
me want to take it. So far I have had a very satisfying theatre
life, besides I strongly feel commercialism and theatre don't
go hand in hand.
Which other roles are close to you?
The one in Peshwai. The story is very good and so is
the team. Economically it is not lucrative, obviously there
has to be something very exciting for me to overlook that
factor. I play the central character Tara Rani who was a very
fascinating women and towards the end the role has certain
shades of grey. Smita Talvalkar's Peshwai is capturing the
Peshwa era on the screen. I have never done a "real"
character. The story is about 'Tararani' wife of Chhatrapati
Shivaji's younger brother Rajaram. After Shivaji died his
Shahu was supposed to take over the reign's but he is held
captive by Mughal king Aurangzeb.
After Rajaram dies and in the absence of Raja Shahu, Tararani
takes care of the Peshwa kingdom for 18 years till he returns.
The story starts from the point where Shahu is released after
Aurangzeb dies and returns to claim the throne. It is then
that Tara Rani, who has ruled the kingdom for 18 years, starts
questioning herself about giving up the reins of power. She
is very upset about giving it away. His only claim to the
throne is as a birthright. That is when the grey shades seep
Of course Shahu eventually takes the throne. Tara Rani was
eventually imprisoned and lived till 86. Even while in prison
she does not lose her spirit and despises Shahu and writes
letters about what an opportunist he is. Peshwai spans 100
years of which she lives 86. The role is really challenging.
How did you go about sketching character of Tara Rani?
The character is shown in the range of middle age to old and
all along with it I changed my voice accordingly. As a woman
in her thirties when she takes up the throne her voice is
slightly shriller and as she ages it becomes more and more
base. At the moment in the serial she is 50 years old and
it will continue till she is 86. So there is a range that
I am playing which is a great challenge.
Theatre has helped me. Because of theatre I keep a graph to
my character. Today normally even the assistant comes and
briefs you about the situation and connects it to the scenes
shot before and after. Once your graph is clear then there
Are there others on air that that you rate as good?
I think Neena Gupta has
done marvellous work in Saans. How I wish I could do
the same! She is the producer and director at the same time.
serial is Saaya. I like the way Sanjay Upadhaya has
handled it. It made me want to work with him. Alpaviram
is another good serial. The lead Pallavi (Joshi) has tremendous
potential as an actress and somebody should use it. My daughter
aptly put it: 'Pallavi has done the best acting while in in
would really love to do what Neena has done. I am aware that
I have the potential and the capability of writing and producing
how soon would you be exploring it?
I am very family oriented, my kids are my first priority.
Besides I fear that it will kill the actor in me because the
focus would shift from acting to writing. If you are concentrating
on one creative activity and take up a second simultaneously,
then there is a drift of creativity from one to the other.
I experienced that while writing for Loksatta, a Marathi
newspaper. My focus shifted from acting to writing.
How do you revitalise yourself?
What you need is tenacity, I often look back at the work I
have done. Educating Rita by Santandev Dubey. I cannot
afford to expect this from a television serial.
do you work on the acting?
Many a times by getting into the role, that is my way.
It is a little bit of method. When I know a character, what
is her background and look closely into the social background,
lower middle class or upper middle class. If it is lower middle
class out with the nail polish, jewellery. There are little
things that others may not think of that automatically come
in. I am particular about this and it is very satisfying.
Each role is different so I don't get bored.
say getting into the character is a myth, could you explain?
No I don't think it is a myth. Getting into a character
is more of concentrating till a certain point while playing
the character. In Ankahee there is a bedai (when
the girl leaves for her in-laws place after marriage) scene
where there is an argument between me and my daughter and
I don't use glycerine. It is because of my theatre background
and it comes naturally to me now. I have learnt all this.
It's memory of emotion, Stanislovsky method, sur (sound).
And it still fascinates me.