As if through a microscope, Mumbai-based theatre actor Geetanjali Kulkarni is scrutinising a character in her mind’s eye. She analyses the psychology, lingers over the body language and, slowly, begins to study the legs.
“Men and women walk differently,” she says, thoughtfully, infusing the simple statement with deep seriousness. She clarifies: “That critical timing on stage, when I have to transform from a man to a woman and back again, is fun.
I am constantly in that state of mind when I can change genders in a moment,” she says, a day before her play, Piya Behrupiya,is staged in Delhi.
This acute attention to detail as Kulkarni, 40, becomes her character instead of merely enacting it, marks her out as one of the powerhouse performers of the Marathi stage.
Nationally, however, she is less known. Theatre-goers would remember her as Lakshmi — a no-nonsense person outwardly, and a fanatic with a lot of violence in her heart, in Mumbai-based director Sunil Shanbagh’s S*x, M*rality and C*nsorship, a role that won her the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards for Best Supporting Actor in 2010.
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Today and tomorrow, she will be seen in Piya Behrupiya,a musical adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night by Mumbai-based The Company Theatre.
The story has Kulkarni playing a shipwrecked young woman, Viola, who disguises herself as a boy, Cesario, to serve in the court of a Duke Orsino. In a 2011 Marathi play, Gajab Kahani, she is an Indian elephant who travelled from India to Portugal, and then to Vienna.
“I am an active, agile person, so getting the poise of an elephant was quite interesting,” she says, “To play an elephant on stage, I realised that I had to have neutral expressions.Animals communicate only through their eyes and body language.”
People around Kulkarni have been commenting that her walk has changed. “I have imbued the slowness of an elephant walk. That’s what I like about theatre; it is not different from life. My theatre determines how I think, how I walk and how I am,” she says.
Among the plays that made a major impact on her recently was Vagina Monologues, which she directed in Marathi. “The process made me a different person as gender issues gained a different perspective,” she says.
It is unlikely that Kulkarni ever lets go of a character, enfolding them within her personality forever. This is also among the reasons she felt uncomfortable with films an TV shows, though she has done cameos in a few Marathi films and a hit Marathi TV show called Asambhav. “I need time to linger over a character and infuse myself with its every texture.
I enjoy rehearsals and the 300-500 shows we do for a play, because with each show, I understand another layer of the character,” says Kulkarni.
The actor believes she has been a performer since childhood, since the time she would stand on the family dining table to regale everybody. The throbbing Marathi theatre circuit kept her engrossed, both as a part of the audience and an amateur performer.
“When the time came for me to attend the National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi, my father was upset. He said theatre could not be a career choice,” she says. At NSD, one of her professors was Vibha Joshi, who taught Aesthetics — “a concept I was totally unaware of” — and Kulkarni learnt to attune her sensibilities to world art in order to enrich her performance.
It was also at NSD that she met her husband, actor Atul Kulkarni. “He was a year my senior,” says Kulkarni.
Many of Kulkarni’s roles have been comedic though the actor confesses to being a serious, even intense, person. “But, I always had a knack for comedy, even in family situations. For instance, shortly after my father died, I began to imitate him before my mother, how he was possibly telling the cooks in heaven how to cook.
My mother began to laugh,” she says. “I don’t do comedy for comedy’s sake. I have to understand it very well, physically and intellectually,” she says.
Piya Behrupiya will be staged at Kamani today and tomorrow at 7 pm. Tickets are priced at Rs 300, 400 & 500, seating is free.