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Right place, right time

With his strong theatre background, Atul Kulkarni is steadily making progress in the tinsel world. CHITRA MAHESH meets Abhyankar of ``Hey Ram."

Atul Kulkarni... dynamite of a performer.

EVERYDAY A DREAM is being made — the factory continues to be busy churning out celluloid fragments of people's aspirations, thoughts and ideas. Whether they go down well with those who watch it or not is not something to worry about too much at this point. Because every project is a pet subject of the maker and he always hopes for the best. Optimism is what keeps it going and this one is no different. The scene is a gloomy, villains' den one of them lounging on a chair with that nonchalance that is so liked by the masses — the cool, collected look, which makes for a rather savvy bad man these days. Oh, he is a thug all right with the faded shirt and well-worn jeans. He sports a crew cut and looks bored with the rant of his henchmen. As Madhavan rushes in threatening to take up his challenge, the director yells `cut.' ``Madhavan," he says with infinite patience, ``you are too much to the right. Could we go through that again?" So the scene is redone with the lackeys running about putting things back in order and the smoke for that dingy, sinister look being pumped back into the hall of action.

The film is ``Run" and the unruffled villain is Atul Kulkarni, who wooed audiences with his performances in ``Hey Ram" and in ``Chandni Bar." He is rated as one of the most promising artistes, something he brushes aside with laughter when asked to confirm that. ``I am just coming up I can't comment on that," he says modestly and we settle down for a friendly chat.

So how has Chennai been treating you?

Chennai has always treated me very well - I've come here half a dozen times when I was doing ``Hey Ram" and that was one of the most wonderful experiences. Basically because of Kamalji. The script that he wrote, the way he directed it.

Are you playing a villain in this film?

Yeah. It is a regular love story. The film is called ``Run."

Have you consciously decided to go this route?

No, not really. Whenever I have been offered a role or a script, I just go by the performance I have to give. If there is scope to perform and do well, I take it. Now I am doing four or five films. But I am not a villain in all of them. I am doing the romantic kind of thing in an English movie called ``Mango Souffle" by Mahesh Dattani. Another is with Rakesh Mehra who directed ``Aks." That is again a totally different kind.

You were active in theatre before entering films. Weren't you?

Yes. I am a theatre actor. I belong to a small town called Sholapur in Maharashtra. I started doing theatre when I was in college. The few things that I did then got me interested in theatre. In Maharashtra we have lot of amateur groups doing theatre in every town and village, it is very vibrant, very dynamic.

We have drama competitions held by the State Government and that has been going on for a long time. These competitions have thrown up excellent talent, in fact veterans — actors and directors like Dr. Sreeram Lagoo. We too participated in those competitions and we had to go to Bombay for the finals. Many film directors come for these shows. After completing education I joined my father in our family business. Then I got a job with an insurance company. But I never gave up theatre. Actually I found amateur work not very fulfilling and decided to take it up as profession. But this needed some training. So I enrolled in the National School of Drama and was there for three years.

In 1995 I came to Bombay again and all the directors there and the groups knew me from my Marathi theatre link. I immediately got to do a play ``Gandhi Guruth Gandhi," which recorded 300 shows in three languages — Marathi, Hindi and Gujarati. And I played Mahatma Gandhi in it. That was my first commercial play and it was a huge success. My career then took off.

What about films?

The same thing happened. I did a Kannada film. The director had seen my performance on stage when I was in Delhi. Then I did a couple of films with Amol Palekhar. And then Kamalji called me for ``Hey Ram." He had heard about ``Gandhi...'' and my role. Several actors from Maharashtra were working in that film. Most of them had seen me on stage and they recommended me.

You lent a rare kind of insight into the character of Abhyankar. Did you do extensive research or just relied on your instinct?

When I did Shriram Abhyankar who opposed Gandhi's philosophy, I knew exactly what he was opposing because I had studied Gandhi for the play. While studying Gandhi, I came across quite a few things critical of his philosophy. The RSS is very strong in Maharashtra and the anti-Gandhi feelings are pretty strong there. Of course I read up quite a bit, including ``Freedom at Midnight" and other books on the freedom struggle. And discussions with Kamalji also helped.

Eventually it was so controversial. Were you prepared for that because so many people associate this illusion with reality?

The subject is such that, whenever we were not shooting, we were talking about that period — the feelings, the politics, everything. I think we are at a very crucial juncture after Independence. Now we are almost 67 years away from that point and the generation now has a very peculiar way of looking at what happened then. They were either very small or not born yet. So they are kind of distanced from those incidents — which is why they look at it so critically.

What are your personal feelings on the subject?

Violence? Hey, I am with Gandhi any time. Violence is just not the solution. But I think, eventually everybody will understand this.

So how did people react to your role?

The reaction was mixed! Those who hated Gandhiji's philosophy of course liked me. They loved the dialogue Kamalji had written, One of the best I have ever delivered.

Your next work that brought you accolades — ``Chandni Bar" — was very different too. You accepted the film although it was so woman oriented!

Well, yes. ``Chandni Bar" indeed was woman-oriented. I accept a film only after the director has totally convinced me. He should be able to portray a picture of the whole film. So that's what happened when Madhur narrated the story to me. I knew the dimensions of my role and its purpose. And I knew that it was the main male lead.

How much of histrionics were you prepared to impart to that character?

The gangsters had already made their appearance via ``Satya." The character I played gave me a lot of information. He was a gangster from the Eighties. His profession was dealt with quite differently. The script, the character, the period, again they gave me information. I never really thought of ``Satya" and Madhur was of course there and he knew what kind of character he wanted.

Do you find Potya being compared to Bhiku Matre in that sense?

No. I don't think so. And neither am I being compared to Manoj Bajpai for that matter.

That perhaps is the achievement of that role.

Yes. I think so. Whenever the director narrates, as far as the creative part is concerned, it is an actor's instinct. Or you may call it basic preparation or basic temperament. He can see that he can perform, has a meaty role to deal with. And he grabs it. Of course there are other aspects too, such as money, the director and the set-up.

Any ideal roles in mind?

No. I look for good scripts without which an actor cannot perform well.

But there must be some dream role you must have thought of?

No. Not at all. I try to give my best to each role, whatever it is, as it comes my way.

Do you enjoy watching films?

Oh yes.

What kind?

All films. I make it a point to watch all kinds of films.

With an eye on performances or just for the fun of it?

See, I cannot watch a film anymore like a member of the audience in a cinema hall. As an actor, I pay attention to everything — the filmmaking, the acting, the trolley movements, the lighting, etc. I cannot avoid that. This is not to say that I'm beyond emotions. Sensitive films do move me. .

The makeup man signals for Atul to change. The clothes are needed for next day, the actor explains. It is dusk and the unit hands come to wish him goodbye. Atul decides to call it a day too and as he gets up, I ask him, ``Will you ever make a film at some point in time?"

``I do want to make a film and direct plays. I was a theatre director. I have already directed plays. Films yes, but not so soon. I want to learn about filmmaking first. Right now I want to concentrate on acting. But after five years I see myself doing fewer films but good films and better films. Better roles with good directors and good scripts.

Any favourite director?

All these new directors, the kind of films that they are making and their approach fascinate me, be it Madhur or Farhaan. Ashutosh Gowarikar is an old friend. Young directors like Meghna are trying something new. I am very fortunate to be at the right place at the right time.

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