For veteran actor Neena Kulkarni, widening her canvas as an artist, producer, and director has meant dabbling in multiple mediums like theatre, cinema, and television through the course of a career that has spanned over four decades. Eventually, she marked her foray into the digital space as well with the 2018 series Breathe, and most recently, starred in Photo-Prem, that released on 7 May.
The film follows the story of Maee (Kulkarni), who is extremely camera conscious, and rather ironically finds herself troubled over the photo that would be put up to mourn her when she passes away. Questions about identity and memory arise in this realistic narrative as a poignant reflection of what it means to leave behind a legacy upon one's death.
However, before Kulkarni appeared in this invariable but notable trope of mother or middle-aged wife in cinema, she had already enjoyed a remarkable 25-year-old stint as a theatre artist. Snippets of stored memories worth 40 years resurface in Kulkarni's mind during this interview as she recalls the start of her career in the 1970s, beginning with her work on experimental plays under Satyadev Dubey.
Performing alongside other veteran actors like Ratna Pathak Shah, she remembers standing in as proxy for another character, interjecting each other at a time when being 'lead' or 'heroine' seldom mattered. A similar learning followed in professional theatre under Vijaya Mehta as well, where the idea was to always get into the shoes of the character, "and that was the age of very strong character actors."
This firm grounding in theatre has pushed away all qualms in Kulkarni about playing roles that are deemed 'supportive.' Instead, her focus has entirely been on characterisation. She elaborates that Mehta or 'Bai' had casted her as Champu in the well-known play Mahasagar (1979), where her character was that of a mother of three children and the wife of the insurance agent (Nana Patekar) around whom the story unfolded. The daunting task before Kulkarni, a 22-year-old girl at the time, was to transform herself into the character of a '40-something woman,' and Mahasagar quickly became her most influential tutorial in characterisation.
"I had to grow, and I had to make a lot of changes in my internal and external self," she says, "It was all self-taught, Bai was only guiding me."
Kulkarni continued to appear in advertisements and modelled regularly but what occurred with Marathi plays like Mahasagar, Hambidabai Chi Kothi or Dhyani Mani was a "de-glamourisation" that made her almost unrecognisable when she stepped off the stage. Those learnings have lasted a lifetime for Kulkarni because in Photo-Prem, she says she has imbued into the role this very simplicity characteristic of a slice-of-life film "after a really long time."
"I am very glad I did theatre when I did," she remarks, "and the teachers I had when in theatre. Because they really kept me grounded."
Those were years when work in television was limited to advertisements or as TV announcers so the actor made sporadic appearances on the small screen with serials like Ados Pados, which featured filmmaker Sai Paranjpye. And when at long last, she decided to venture into cinema, Kulkarni had no illusions about the kinds of roles she would be offered or those she wanted to play. Initially, she says, as her theatre career flourished, the move to films seemed like a huge jump. Besides, "I wouldn't be allowed¦" because "good children didn't get into films!"
She "waited for the 'mother' slot to open up for her," and made her Bollywood debut as the mother of Sanjay Dutt in the 1999 film Daag: The Fire. She confesses, "I knew there wouldn't be too much of exploitation.
I was not very comfortable with the titillating part of it (Hindi films). So 'mother' was a safe category to get into in those days."
Up until then, acting remained a hobby for this artist, that would become a career only in 2004 following the demise of her husband, filmmaker Dilip Kulkarni. Slowly but surely, a vast playing field became available, "and suddenly, there was this entire world of short films which was open to me," says the actor who has worked in multiple shorts like Cuddly, Maa, and Devi.
According to her, the advent of a new medium in the form of OTT platforms is good news as well, especially for a film like Photo-Prem, "which doesn't really need a big screen to be projected on." Content has transcended language, she opines, "there are English subtitles, and even non-Maharashtrian people will be watching it."
After working on numerous projects in television including daily soaps like Yeh Hai Mohabbatein, international productions such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and popular Marathi films " which is a vast repository " like Sawat Majhi Ladki, Saat Chya Aat Gharat, and more recently, Mogra Phulaalaa and Kulkarni Chaukatla Deshpande, the actor claims that the medium becomes a decisive factor in signing on for new roles.
The parameters for theatre include the script, the director, and the entire team with whom she can get along through the long durations of live shows. But for Hindi cinema, her focus has always been on working with the most interesting directors.
"When I got into Hindi, I got into the mother slot, then, of course, I went for the character slot."
On this note, this interviewer mentions the character she portrayed in Hungama: a small but utterly funny role as Akshaye Khanna's mother and Shoma Anand's 'chamchi.' Kulkarni launches into an interesting tale of how she signed for the part, and explains that her secretary was reluctant to let her do it and cautioned, "Aap mat lena usko kyun ki uss mein bohot hi side role hai," (Don't take it up, it's a side role.) But when Kulkarni found out that it was a film by Priyadarshan, she jumped at the chance.
"See, even your generation remembers," she laughs as she concurs with this interviewer about the immense hilarity that the silliness of this character brings to the overall comic narrative. "It was a role that had to work," she asserts.
The strength of the character, be it mother or wife, has always interested Kulkarni, but while selecting Marathi projects to work on, the actor's focus has significantly been on content. "A lot of youngsters come to you with just an idea, and they expect you to formulate the idea," she rues. But with Photo-Prem, makers Gayatri Patil and Aditya Rathi approached her with a clear vision of how they wanted the film to unfold. "Of course, they had constraints. It was their first movie ¦ a lot of corner-cutting was there." Yet, there was a plan. Modifications were made to the script along the way, which ended up giving Kulkarni an insight into Maee.
"She is not an extrovert that she'll go out and talk to people. She doesn't really dress up, she doesn't even look in the mirror. I found it fascinating, this woman."
What also struck the actor was the shoot during which she was simply 'Neena' and not 'Aji' (grandmother) or 'Maushi' (mother's sister), which was utterly "refreshing," she says with a knowing smile.
During her career, Kulkarni has left few avenues unexplored. She turned producer with the 2006 film Shevri, director for the 2011 reproduction of Mahasagar, and even a writer and editor from 1994 to 1996 for the women's supplement of the leading Marathi daily, Loksatta. And just as she spots the risks she wants to take, she also understands her limitations, recognising when she ought to stop. After two years of writing, "Whatever I wanted to say, it was over," she admits. Today, she no longer feels the need to go back to writing to comment because, she says, "I comment on Facebook, and I write on Instagram and Twitter so it's taken care of, my commenting."
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, Kulkarni has continued her work, mustering up the enthusiasm to shoot new episodes for the TV serial Swarajya Janani Jijamata, in which she plays the titular role of Shivaji's mother. Signing up for this part, she explains, was not about being the lead but about being able to play this "amazing woman." Even the makers were "quite pleasantly surprised," she says, because she got on board at a time when senior citizen-actors were hesitant to appear on set. She likes to follow rules, and has also gotten her vaccination shots.
"But I felt I have lived my life, I don't really have any responsibilities as such just now. My children have grown up, my dogs are looked after. So what do I have to lose?" Now, the sexagenarian is filming in Umargaon for the serial but when asked if she ever thinks about retirement, she says smiling, "Let me tell you a secret: I don't think an actor ever really retires. When an actor says I am retiring, he's just frustrated that he has not got any work right now."
Photo Prem is streaming on Amazon Prime Video India.