Cocking a snook at traditionalists, the actress charts her own path. She talks to us about trying new things, how Kabali is different and why experience is her biggest teacher.
Radhika Apte doesn’t quite know how to respond to my statement of her being the ‘thinking man’s pin-up girl’. “I don’t like tags in general. I don’t know what that means. If you have a brain and you are an actor, that’s not good? Is that what it means? It’s some kind of a rarity, maybe,” she laughs. Somehow the reply is not unexpected. I would have been far more surprised had she accepted it with alacrity or said something like, “Aww, it’s flattering. I am blessed.” In some ways, the response also seals what the actor is on screen: unpredictable and unconventional.
Kabali and the superstar
Interestingly, despite a stream of avant-garde films coming up, it’s Rajnikant’s Kabali that has put the spotlight back on her. Was the superstar the only reason she agreed to do the film? “Yes, and also director Renjith. I really liked his Attakathi and Madras. He is very young and has great ideas about the subject he makes,” says the actress. As for “the Superstar”, she finds him “totally amazing and completely lives up to his reputation of being a great human being.”
Apte’s done her bit in South cinema and says “any language, if you don’t speak it, is difficult. But luckily for me, they gave me my lines well in advance and I had an assistant”. She recently came under the scanner for her open criticism of the Telugu film industry, for its male-dominated and patriarchal bent. That explains why she insists that Kabali is the first South Indian film where she was treated on par with the hero. Her role also validates another one of our beliefs about her—she won’t do item numbers, even if her life depends upon it.
Phobia and more
The 30-year-old recently won the Best Actress award in the International Narrative Feature Film category at the Tribeca Film Festival for her international short film, Madly. Interestingly, this was the very film, directed by Anurag Kashyap, from where her recent controversial nude video clip had gone viral. Again, as expected (and unlike contemporaries who would’ve probably denied it or cried themselves hoarse over “being morphed”), Apte chose to call it a “breach of trust” and sounded more angry than upset.
Currently, she is going berserk on Twitter, promoting her upcoming psychological thriller, Phobia, in which she plays a girl who suffers from agrophobia (fear of open spaces). “I play Mahek, who is a painter. She is very outgoing, liberal and lively, but an accident turns her life around. It’s about her struggles,” she explains. The various interactions she had with neurosurgeons, psychiatrists and patients suffering from this phobia helped her “understand the character” better. Though she denies having any phobias of her own when I ask her, she has already tweeted about having a “weird fear of getting into a swimming pool located at the top of a building.” She also denies having said anything about how the lack of a buzz around the film is troubling her. “It was very clearly planned that promotions will begin from today. We all sat together and made the promotions,” she states.
2015, the best year
Last year was her year. She did a sex comedy, a dark, gritty thriller, a Bengali short film, a tele series on Rabindranath Tagore’s stories and a Telugu and Malayalam film each. Sriram Raghavan’s gritty Badlapur is a role many A-list Bollywood actors would have run a mile from. Her scenes with the main lead can shock you. Even for the sake of duty, the things she does make us question her sanity and morality. But she pulls it off brilliantly, showing us how you can love and hate a man in the same instance.
That very month, she once again made traditionalists tut-tut by playing a sexually-liberated woman, who knows exactly what she wants from her life and men, in Hunterr. Not to forget her Bengali short film, Ahalya, directed by Sujoy Gosh, which was a huge hit on YouTube (58,04,712 hits and counting). If you just go by statistics, in her decade-long career—after a forgettable début in the Bollywood fantasy drama, Vaah! Life Ho to Aisi, in 2005—Apte has done 27 feature films: 12 in Hindi, five in Marathi, three in Bengali, five in Telugu, one in Malayalam and three in Tamil. She also has six short films to her name. And, to her credit, there isn’t a single conventional one in that list. Nobody can accuse her of being repetitive. Is it the worst thing an actor can do, to be repetitive? “I think it depends on the actor really, what they want to achieve. There is no harm in doing similar kind of roles. But I am trying to explore various characters in depth,” she says.
From the look of it, there are quite a few deep characters lined up, like Leena Yadav’s Parched, which was premiered at the Special Presentation category at last year’s Toronto International film festival. It shines a light on India’s apparently still-thriving misogyny through the fictional tale of four women in a small town of Gujarat. Apte plays Lajjo, a free spirit who suffers beatings at the hands of her husband for being both the household’s breadwinner and for failing to give him a child.
Then there is Bombariya in which she plays a PR executive. Her look for the film has already gone viral. Apparently her short hair is something she and the director sat together and decided. Apte sports different three looks in the movie. “Physically transforming yourself for a role makes it easier. Once you slip into the costumes, hair and make-up, something connects you with that character,” she admits.
Shirish Kunder’s Kriti is also a short film she is looking forward to. “It’s not just about the short film. If I find a script interesting, I will do it. We were working on a project that got pushed. Then he came up with this film and I was hooked,” she shares.
Nothing in her life has ever been planned and that applies to her career as well. “Everything somehow fell in place,” she says. Apte doesn’t think an actor’s job is to build an image; on the contrary, it is to display different parts and dimensions of his/her craft. When I ask her whether she has a method to her madness, she tells me, “There is no one process. It differs from character to character.” She has been part of active theatre even before she ventured into films, doing a tidy mix of Bengali and Marathi. “Of course it helps you as an actor. It teaches you different things, makes you more disciplined. Any art form will help another art form,” she shrugs.
Apte recently came out with Unblushed, a video that many rate better than Deepika Padukone’s My Choice. Speaking about it, she’d said, “Society has created ‘definitions’ of beauty which we get influenced by. When Culture Machine’s Blush team approached me with the concept, I remembered attempts to mould myself into this glamorous image imposed on me as a teenager.”
Despite the bravado she has shown in picking the cream of unconventional roles, the actress who shuttles between London—where she is currently shooting Pratyusha Gupta’s Oysters—and India, admits that at various stages in her life, uncertainties have crept in. “Several times I didn’t know what the consequences of a particular project would be. It’s all about liking a particular film at a particular point of time,” she admits.
However, she says that in spite of the deep roles she plays, she can detach herself very quickly from them. So has acting become easier over the years? No, comes the almost shocked reply. She can never be objective about her work. Apte thinks great performance comes from one’s myriad life experiences and “sometimes lack of experience also works wonderfully, depending on the part.” She begins each film with a fresh slate. “On the first day of shoot, I will be trying to grasp and understand my character. Once I get into the groove, it’s easier to sail through.”
Films and social media
Then I bring up the inevitable social media versus actors debate. “I think social media has really changed people’s perception of actors. I don’t think it matters that much. As for easy accessibility, it’s a different age and time, with different needs and different ways of communication. Let’s see it that way,” says Apte. She is quite circumspect when it comes to her co-stars, too, stating that everyone she has acted with has made “a difference, for better or worse”. Ask the actress, who is married to British musician Benedict Taylor, about the first film that made a lasting impression on her and she goes blank. “I don’t know. I don’t remember the first film I saw at all. As a child, I have watched too many films actually. Right from Hollywood, Hindi to Bengali and world cinema. I keep watching films all the time,” she concludes.
Apte says she reads a lot of books—all sorts, in fact. But she refuses to divulge any names or authors. And though she doesn’t read much poetry, she appreciates people who have the talent to write them. She also loves to travel and dance. In fact, the trained Kathak dancer met her husband when she took a break in 2011, to study contemporary dance at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, London.
The recent film she wished she was part of: “No, my brain doesn’t think like that. Since I am not part of it, it doesn’t matter.”
The most irksome tag given to female actors: “That we are dumb.”
"There is no harm in doing similar kind of roles. But I am trying to explore various characters in depth”