'Acting is about good characterisation' : Neena Kulkarni

That 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 venture Peshwai, 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.

A 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," says Kulkarni.'s 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:

With an interesting track record as a theatre actress, what prompted you to join television?

In 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 medium.

Neena Kulkarni with Bikram Saluja in Panchi

'I am a director's actor and would expect the director to know what is what'

What things do you consider while giving commitments to a role or project?

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 director.

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.

What made you stick around?

Financial 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 problem.

'The 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.

When 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.

Who 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.

Why 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.

Performing 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 in serials?

Probably. 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.

How 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.

How 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 actors.

Kulkarni as 'Gulnar' in Sony's Heena with lead star Simone Singh.

'When I came to serials my expectations were nil, because I was aware that my age fitted into the mother's slot'

How 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.

How 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 requires.


Of the roles you have played, which are your favourite ones? Why?

My 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'.

How was it adapting from playing central roles in theatre and a few serials to later getting categorised into roles of character artiste?

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 in.

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 is spontaneity.

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.

Another 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 a coma.'

I would really love to do what Neena has done. I am aware that I have the potential and the capability of writing and producing a serial.

So 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.


How 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.

Some 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.

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