She was only 16 when she made her debut on television as the Peshwa Queen Ramabai in Swami. At that time, this self-confessed bookworm was content to pursue her MA in Linguistics and continue with a PhD. But then came Shrikant, a serial based on Saratchandra Chatterjee's novel, and several meaty roles like those in The Great Maratha, Meera, Draupadi, Hasratein, Meera, Teacher, Draupadi, Sparsh or Sonpari, which she just couldn't refuse. Before she realised it, Mrinal Kulkarni had taken up acting full time. Today, her author-backed role in Avantika on Alpha Marathi has made her a household name. She talks to Indiantelevision.com's Janhavi Samant about when and how the acting bug bit her and how it is treating her now:
So how did the PhD aspirant turn to acting?
Actually, it was at an inter-collegiate festival in 1990 that Gajanan Jahagirdar, who was making Swami, spotted me. I wasn't looking for roles or anything. Since Swami was a prestigious project, I agreed immediately. Even then, I continued with my studies, took my graduation exams. Then I was offered Shrikant. I did it in order to work with talented actors like Farooque Sheikh. Yet, I was so sure that I wanted to finish my PhD. I wasn't comfortable doing the kind of roles that were being offered to me. So I enrolled myself for research at the SNDT University. Meanwhile, I got married. I had a son. The offers kept coming.
Then in 1996, Sanjay Khan offered me a choice of roles in The Great Maratha. I refused it outright, but he insisted that I should at least hear him out. He offered me a choice between playing the role of Mahadji Scindia's wife and Ahilyabai Holkar. By the end of the meeting, Ahilyabai Holkar's role had caught my fancy. It was then that I thought that I'd take up acting as a profession.
How did it go from there?
My career has risen evenly so far. After The Great Maratha, Hasratein happened. My role was appreciated in Teacher, Draupadi, Meera, Jhoota Sach and Sparsh too. I was never interested in the quantity of work, I wanted quality. At any given time, I had four serials on air, which is a good record. So far, I have had the opportunity of working with the best directors of the lot: Ajai Sinha, Ravi Rai, Sanjay Khan, Vikas Desai and the like. I have also done Marathi films like Jodidar, Gharabaher and so on.
I have been clear from the start that I wanted to do only meaningful and dignified roles. Which means frivolous roles, running around trees, vulgar dances were out. I am not saying that people shouldn't do those kind of roles, it's just that I am not comfortable doing roles which I'd be ashamed to show my parents and son. Given those kind of role restraints, I have been quite successful doing what I have been.
"My 10-year-old son loves the fact that he has a star-mom and adjusts very well to my busy schedule"
How did your family react to your decision?
Very well. My family, both mine and my husband's, is quite broad-minded. I was always told to pursue whatever I thought was best for me. So nobody objected to my becoming an actor. But it was also ingrained in me from the beginning to refuse any undignified or shameful work.
In fact, my husband, who was involved in theatre at the time and my father-in-law, who was the director of All India Radio, whole-heartedly supported me in my decision. My 10-year-old son loves the fact that he has a star-mom and adjusts very well to my busy schedule.
Tell us about the serials you are acting in right now…
There's Son Pari and Jeet on Star Plus, Zindagi Teri Meri Kahani and Arzoo Hai Tu on Sahara Manoranjan and Avantika on Alpha Marathi. Son Pari is hugely popular with children. Yet so many people warned me against doing that role. But I still did it because I always wanted to do a fairy-tale role. While choosing work, I have been quite adventurous. I have worked in all serials: historicals, mythologicals, socials, soap operas.
Which have been your favourite roles so far? Why?
Actually, I like all my roles. There were exciting shades to all the characters I have played. For instance, in Jeet, I play this almost-perfect professor on the surface. But there is an ugly past she's trying to hide. In Gharabaher, I played the role of a meek girl who is not able to express herself. I spoke only twice in the film. It was challenging because I had to convey all the emotions without speech.
Meera was also a learning experience, her devotion to Krishna was overwhelming. So was playing Draupadi. I was actually surprised when I was offered the role. I mean I can understand someone offering me the role of Sita. But I thought the assertive personality of Draupadi wasn't me at all. Once I started shooting for it I realised that Draupadi was actually a character who underwent a journey of self-discovery to emerge into what she was.
Avantika is also close to my heart. She is an intelligent girl who walks out on her husband when she finds that he's been cheating on her. It's a real life solution to a real-life problem. In our country, our daughters are taught that marriage is the ultimate goal in a woman's life. But we never teach them what to do if the marriage doesn't work out. We don't teach them to be independent, to live on their own. Avantika questions such attitudes. That's why so many women personally identify with her.
There's also another reason I love doing Avantika. The show's shot in Pune, where my son lives with my parents. Whenever I get two days off, I rush to Pune to spend time with him. Because of Avantika, I manage to see him at least once a week.
You seem to empathise with women's issues…
Yes. I am a woman. I understand what all of us have to go through. I have also been involved in editing Maitrin (female-friend), a thought-provoking magazine for the modern woman. Avantika has also made me accessible to many women and their problems across Maharashtra. Soon I'll be editing a youth supplement for a popular Marathi newspaper.
I genuinely feel that an actor also owes something to society. S/he has to give back to society by doing progressive roles and also supporting the right causes. I am also involved in orphanage activities. I regularly visit an eye hospital, near Nashik, and a spastics children's school to do voluntary work.
Acting, editing and social work. What's next on the cards?
I really don't know. But I'm keeping my options open. The work the television industry is churning is not at all encouraging. These days, TV software makers just want to finish shooting episodes while actors are only interested in how many days of the month they are shooting. TV programmes are so senseless and regressive. Consumerism has entered the industry and quality of programming has dropped like never before. Audiences too watch TV for all the wrong reasons. So many good artistes who have done such good work in the past are now frustrated.
I am still working on television because I can demand meaningful roles. I'll quit this industry the minute I lose the power to choose my work. After that, maybe I'll continue with my editing or start my own production house or just retire to do social work. Who knows?