Marathi actor-writer Girish Kulkarni talks about his Hindi film debut in Ugly, quitting engineering for acting and his journey from Pune’s amateur theatre circuit to becoming one of the forces behind new-wave Marathi cinema
Everyone is raving about the interrogation scene in Ugly. Anurag Kashyap said that it was improvised on a two-page script. Tell us how you went about it.
It was supposed to be more of an acting exercise to get everyone on the same page on the first day of the shoot. The scene had Rahul Bhat and Vinit Kumar Singh come to me to file a case about Rahul’s missing daughter, but I kept doubting them. Anurag asked us to keep improvising on the material till we came to the smartphone scene which explains their innocence for the time being. We went on for 17 minutes till he said “cut”. He loved it and wanted us to do it three more times while he filmed us from different angles. We knew it was something special — the energy was palpable on the set — but I wasn’t sure whether all of it would make its way into the scene. The Cannes 2012 audience saw an almost uncut version of the scene and they were very appreciative.
How was it working with Kashyap?
Getting a call from him was a bigger joy than winning the National Award for Best Actor for Deeol in 2012. For people like us who want to break away from the usual fare, he is a source of energy, a big rebel filmmaker. We improvised a lot in Ugly. Let alone not being told who the killer was, we didn’t even know what the next scene would be. It is paradoxical how only a filmmaker such as Anurag with great control over his craft can give such freedom to his cast and crew.
What kind of response are you getting for your performance in the film? How did you approach the character of the cop Jadhav?
My phone hasn’t stopped ringing and I am flooded with Twitter messages since the film’s release. But to me, the film’s success is more important. As filmmakers, we are trying out new ways of storytelling as opposed to the kind of movies our audience is conditioned to. The success of Ugly becomes important in that respect.
I was intrigued to find out who Jadhav is and what his personal pursuit is. Anurag didn’t give any back story for the character. The only thing I was told was that he was in a desperate rush for a promotion. He wanted to be in the good books of the seniors. That frustration and desperation had to come across in all his scenes, so the torture and interrogation scenes showcased that.
As a screenwriter and actor, you have a terrific partnership with filmmaker Umesh Kulkarni. Together, you have made some pathbreaking Marathi films such as Valu (2008), Vihir (2009) and Deeol (2011). How did you first get together?
I first met Umesh while working for Antarik, a theatre group in Pune. Umesh came from a better financial background and even went to the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) but I was indirectly learning the craft from him. Twenty five per cent of my film orientation came from hanging out at the FTII campus in Pune, working on Umesh’s college projects. Since I was the only earning member of the group, I even produced a couple of them and wrote a few scripts for him. We always wanted to do something together and then Valu happened. Our next film Highway releases in April.
I was not sure about direction at all because unlike writing or acting, you have to take care of many things when you are directing a film. But Umesh convinced me. I have stories that are not the kind he wants to make films on. He told me I should direct them myself. He is producing my directorial debut Jaun Bya Na Balasaheb which I start shooting for February onwards in and around Pune. It is a political satire.
How did you get into acting?
I have been into extracurricular activities such as drama, recitation and elocution since school. I have always enjoyed being in the limelight. I remember when I was in kindergarten, a cultural event for Ganapati Utsav needed a child who could perform shlokas from the 15th chapter of the Gita. Since I was the only kid in my neighbourhood who knew it, I volunteered. When people praised my performance, it felt amazing. Academically, I used to be among the top five students in my class but that, I realised, is no match for the satisfaction you get as an artist. It gave me a sense of uniqueness, an identity and made me feel very comfortable.
You used to moonlight as a theatre actor while you were working as an engineer. How difficult was it to balance both jobs?
I quit my job some 17 times — in fact, every time the bosses had an issue with my late-night theatre rehearsals. Once, when I went to office an hour late, my boss summoned me to his cabin and told me that my mind was occupied with theatre and that it was showing in my work. I remember taking my boss’s letter pad, writing my resignation letter right there. The last job I quit, I was so immersed in rehearsals that I forgot to go to office. I realised after 15 days that I hadn’t even informed them.
My next and last job was as a promo producer at a radio station. I had no idea how to do it, but it was an escape from my boring engineering job. It was a creative job that involved writing and music among other things. Working with young people was initially a culture shock. I would be nervous and embarrassed because of my weak English. I was the only person in the office to get tiffin from home, whereas the others would order food from fancy joints. But the experience of working there for four years was hugely liberating. It opened up my world, gave me confidence. I was able to shed my inhibitions and not judge people for their backgrounds or appearances.
You were already interested in performing arts, why did you pursue engineering then? Tell us a bit about how you learnt the craft.
The priority after matriculation was to pursue a vocation that offered a job at the earliest. My aunt had raised my sister and me after our mother passed away when I was two. She got us from Paranda Tal in Osmanabad district to Pune. Our weak financial situation made me take an engineering diploma although I wanted to go to the National School of Drama (NSD).
Pune’s cultural scene, in that respect, played a part in my training. You would be allowed to watch anything at the National Film Archive. I worked a lot with amateur theatre groups. I was associated with Sanskar Bharati Natya Kendra, a right wing RSS-associated cultural organisation. Interestingly, earlier, during my engineering days, I had worked with a few left-wing theatre groups as well and I have quite often argued with both as well as agreed with them. Although it made me politically aware, as you can see in the films, as an artist I see it from a distance.
How did writing happen?
While I was still working, the whole idea of “settling down” would keep me unsettled. Why did I have to do a job? Why do I need a career? It’s when I started questioning those bigger issues that I started to write.
Have you signed other projects in Mumbai?
Not yet. I don’t like the chaos in Mumbai, but at the same time, I am attracted to its energy and ability to absorb everything. I am ready to shift to the city with my family if I have more work coming.