“How can one not be political in their choices?” asks Thappad actor Geetika Vidya Ohlyan. Finding the spotlight in a time when stars make headlines for selfies with politicians, an industry outsider refusing to be apolitical could be seen as a revolutionary act. “I realise I might not always be aware about everything, but I try to educate myself and I’m conscious of falling on the right side of history. No puns intended,” she adds with a chuckle.
Speaking about the violence that took place in Northeast Delhi last month, Ohlyan, who graduated in English literature from Delhi University’s Kirori Mal College in 2012, says, “Those meant to serve us, are showing us the path of hatred. If we’re going to be led in a manner where we’re told to kill the person in front of us to protect our roti, how is that fair?”
Growing up in her maternal grandparents’ home in Haryana, Ohlyan, 28, claims to have had an “extremely pure” childhood where she was very close to mother nature. “I was privileged enough to receive the highest level of education, which allowed me to deduce right from wrong, and how the world works,” she says. Born to a father who organised theatre festivals in Haryana, Ohlyan went on to join her college’s theatre society.
Invited at Rajeev Masand’s 2019 newcomers roundtable in December, for her scorching central performance in Ivan Ayr’s debut 2019 crime-drama film Soni (on Netflix), Ohlyan mostly sat quietly, waiting for her moment, while her colleagues were busy talking about the struggles of landing their first film. She sensed the opportunity to make the conversation less inward-looking when Gully Boy actor Siddhant Chaturvedi held her right palm to the camera, that read “Unnao”, inscribed in blue ink. “I hope we’re not disappointed more,” she says. The Unnao rape case verdict was to come on the day the video was shot. “I hope we’re kinder towards each other,” she adds, with a quiver in her voice, showing her left palm that read “CAA? Jamia? 1974?”. Three months later, Ohlyan is still careful about addressing it — “I knew ki iss mudde pe baat nahi hogi, and it was bothering me. I know that it’s not something I would be asked about, but I can’t start a monologue with myself…can I?”
In a black dress, dark sunglasses and hair perfect, Ohlyan looks every bit a movie star returning from Berlin, where she took part in the Berlinale Talents programme last month with the Soni director. Having been away from the country, Ohlyan hasn’t been able to process all the praise coming her way for her role in Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad. Actor Vidya Balan and director Vishal Bhardwaj, among others, had “good things to say”.
In the recently released film, Ohlyan plays the role of Sunita, the domestic help who endures violence at home. It is the Haryana girl’s second and consecutive Haryanvi character after Soni. Given Hindi cinema’s infamy for stereotyping actors, Ohlyan came on board purely because she enjoyed Thappad’s script. “It’s not like two women from Haryana are the same, anyone who wants to typecast me can deal with their own thought process. I knew my reasons for doing the film,” she says.
While Soni is a muted firebrand of a character — a hot-headed young policewoman, Sunita is the good-natured help who shares her domestic troubles with Taapsee Pannu’s Amrita without a hint of self-pity. After seeing “parts of Soni”, Sinha decided to cast Ohlyan. “It was originally meant to be a character from UP/Bihar. Then I saw her audition, which was fantastic because she was more Haryanvi than of any other region. I loved her presence and then I requested her to audition as a Haryanvi character. That clinched it for her,” he says.
Ivan Ayr, director of Soni, says, “”It is usually when I’m into my third draft that I begin to visualise my characters quite clearly, their physicality, their gaze, their voice. When I came across Geetika’s audition, she seemed closest to the picture I had drawn in my head. Geetika has a great sense of timing. She has an inherent understanding of tone and pacing, which I believe makes life easier for a director because it saves so much time and allows one to concentrate on other elements of a scene.”
Ohlyan, who is still finding her feet in the Hindi cinema business, remains disdainful of its glitz and glamour. “I never got seduced by the idea of the big screen and the need to be in it. I experienced how playing a character allowed me to live their life and discovered how much I love acting.” Finding her break in Soni was pure serendipity, and it’s a story she likes telling. “At one point in my life I was trying to strengthen my Hindi by studying English-Hindi translations. I came across Soni’s script, which had to be translated into Hindi. On reading it, I instantly fell in love, knowing exactly what the film was trying to say,” she says. Initially supposed to cast a different set of actors, the project, however, fell through. In January 2017, Ohlyan got a call from a college friend and now an assistant director, Gautam Arora, who had a part for her. On reading the script, Ohlyan was exhilarated to find it to be the same script she had helped translate.
Ohlyan’s image because of her debut, she says, helped her sidestep a majority of the seedy offers from Bollywood. “Thanks to #MeToo, people are careful about their conduct, and given how people perceive me because of Soni and the fact that I’m from Haryana, I haven’t been subjected to ‘funny’ narrations/auditions. However, this one time a man called to tell me about a film. There were a few ‘bold’ scenes in it, which he described to me on text. I remembered not liking the words he had used, which is why I’d ignored the text. He kept persisting that I consider doing the film since my name had been coming up. I told him he was bringing disrepute to the project with his words. Directors may envision something beautiful, but by the time a scene reaches an actor, it starts to read crass. I said namaste and hung up.”
About her Thappad act, where Sunita opens the door, Ohlyan says, if the audience feels even 10 per cent of the happiness she had felt while watching child actor Ashwanth Ashokkumar opening the door to see his father (Vijay Sethupathi) return home after years, in the 2019 Tamil film Super Deluxe, she would consider herself successful.