Usha Jadhav. the Best Actress this year at the National Film Awards, almost didn’t make it in movies because of her dark skin

When renowned director Sai Paranjape watched Usha Jadhav’s performance in the Marathi film Dhag, she was stunned. “You look so tiny, do you even realise what you’ve done?” she asked the actress. “Your performance was of the calibre of a Shabana Azmi or Smita Patil.”

Jadhav was overwhelmed. Dhag was her very first lead role. But the words proved prophetic. A few months later she won the National Award for Best Actress. Her belief that she could act was finally endorsed. In Dhag, she plays the role of a mother who wants her son to rise above the family’s traditional occupation of running the village crematorium.

Twenty-nine year old Usha wanted to be an actor from her school days. “I have always loved films and one day I wanted to see myself as a famous actress,” she says. The daughter of a music teacher from Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district, she belongs to the backward Nomadic Tribe community. Her family looked down on the film industry, and her early attempts to act in school plays were dismissed. The opposition from her family meant she could not share her plans or her struggles with them.

A promising student, she joined an engineering college in Kolhapur to fulfil her family’s wishes but left after a year. In 2003, at the age of 20 she moved to Pune and found a job in a travel agency to support her family. In her three years in Pune, she managed to make some contacts and shoot a portfolio. “I could not join acting classes since I had neither the time nor the money,” says Usha. After an aborted attempt at a travel and tourism course, she headed to Mumbai in 2006. “There was no other option. Mumbai was my ultimate aim,” she says.

Being a dark-skinned struggler invited several rejections. In fact, in one episode of the television show Lakhon Mein Ek, she played the role of a young bride whose in-laws discriminate against her for her dark complexion. After six months in Mumbai, she got her first break when she auditioned for Madhur Bhandarkar’s Traffic Signal in 2007 and landed a small role. That was her watershed moment. She resigned her job and finally let her family into her plans.

Over the next four years, she managed a few roles in ads and TV serials till finally in 2010 she was introduced to the director of Dhag who was looking for a leading lady. The film not only bagged three national awards, it has become a milestone in Marathi film history. “I was nobody. But the situation has changed today. Now, I enjoy the power to say ‘no’,” she says, with a hint of pride in her voice. She now awaits the release of her first Hindi film, but even better, she has bagged a lead role in a Hollywood project.

Her family no longer opposes her decision, and Usha has chosen to stay alone in Mumbai. “My aim is to act in more and more films. Everything else is secondary to me. I have found my path,” says this fighter.