Mamta Kulkarni was opposite Salman Khan in Karan Arjun, starred with Aamir Khan in Baazi, was paired with Akshay Kumar in Waqt Humara Hai and cast as Saif Ali Khan’s leading lady in his debut, Aashiq Awara.
Yet, 24 years since she made her debut in Hindi cinema with Tirangaa (1992), she remains nearly forgotten, only to be remembered when a news report alleging her involvement in a drug cartel begins to do rounds, as happened late last week.
But then, Kulkarni isn’t new to controversy. Her brief decade-long career in Bollywood was dotted with several. At a time when modesty was the greatest, most-valued virtue of a Bollywood leading lad, Kulkarni dared to lock lips with Akshay Kumar in Sabse Bada Khiladi and (in)famously went topless for a magazine cover.
“It was brave and also scandalous,” recounts Shakti Kapoor, who played the baddie in several films she worked in. While there were also other names, such as Kimi Katkar, who seemed comfortable with their sexuality on screen, Kulkarni emerged as one of the more popular faces of the time.
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A director who once worked with her but did not wish to be named, says one of the reasons was her age. She was all of 19 when she made her debut in the Telugu film industry, with Donga Police (1991).
“She was a young, new face, with oodles of sex appeal and a candour to match it all,” he says, explaining her entry into the Hindi film industry. “Plus she was a Marathi mulgi from Bombay.”
This particular fact about her has worked both in her favour and against. While no one confirms it, Kulkarni, it is believed, comes from a middle-class family. Her father was with the RTO.
She lived with her parents and two sisters in Andheri East until she moved to Yari Road many years later. Due to her modest upbringing, Kulkarni, unlike many of her contemporaries, did not speak fluent English. But Kapoor says that kept her grounded.
“She was very sweet and quiet. We would often eat together on the sets and she had no airs although she enjoyed success at an early age.”
Though she was not known for her acting talent, her dancing skills, candid speak and confidence fetched her the roles. It also fetched her the sneers and rumours regarding her link-ups with actors and directors would often do rounds.
The one that is particularly remembered is with filmmaker Rajkumar Santoshi, who cast her for a song in Sunny Deol-starrer Ghatak and followed it up by offering her the lead role in China Gate. However, once the shoot began, Kulkarni was reportedly unceremoniously ousted from the role. While at the time, the actor alleged that Santoshi had made inappropriate advances, according to some, the director had apparently grown jealous of his leading lady’s closeness to the fight director Tinu Verma.
It was reported that a call from underworld don Chhota Rajan got her back into the film but the damage had been done and her name linked to the dark world of crime. So how did a simple Maharashtrian girl get caught up with the underworld? This is where her now-husband and drug lord Vicky Goswami steps in.
According to reports in the past, Goswami was one of the biggest drug manufacturers based in South Africa, with close links to the Mumbai underworld and Bollywood. A vulnerable Kulkarni is believed to have fell for him.
“It was early 2000s. At the time, her career was fading off and she was getting drawn to spirituality. Vicky tapped these aspects and she fell in love,” says an old-school Bollywood producer.
Although in an exclusive 2012 interview to a freelance Indian journalist, Kulkarni claims that she vanished from Mumbai to pursue the “path shown by my spiritual guru”, there are reports that claim she had moved to Dubai to get Goswami released from the prison where he was serving life sentence, and later to Nairobi.
While most believe that Kulkarni has been leading the high life, the former actress, in these years, even released an e-book on spirituality, based on the teachings of her guru whose ashram is somewhere near Haridwar.
Based on that 2012 interview, which is available online, Kulkarni claims to have never married, adopted the spiritual path and turned into an ascetic, even as she continues to love and believe in the innocence of Goswami.