‘I’ve never allowed my profession to dictate my life’

For an actor traversing the bylanes of mainstream Hindi cinema, Atul Kulkarni is an anomaly. He has been part of commercial star vehicles and critically- acclaimed films, and he loves acting. But that’s about it. He doesn’t believe that acting is the only thing that commands his life.

“My profession is a very important part of my life but it is just a part of my life. There are other things which I am interested in. The first instruction to my manager is that I don't want to work 365 days a year. I don't want to because I have always believed that money or my profession is just the means, not the aim,” says Kulkarni.

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For him, reading a newspaper every day matters as much as tending to his garden at his farmhouse. “Reading the daily newspaper is important to me. I like to keep track of all the developments in world politics. I am very interested in reading the editorial page. It’s as important to me as reading scripts for my next film. [But] it is not like doing something concrete with your hand,” shares the actor.

Kulkarni’s deep investment in the world around him is reflected in his other works. He runs Quality Education Support Trust (QUEST), an NGO that works in the field of education, with 52 people working professionally with it. His education initiative has enrolled 25,000 students along with 2,000 teachers in five districts of Maharashtra. The actor is also working on an environmental project in which 24 acres of barren land in Satara will be converted to greenery. He says, “We are trying to convert the land into a jungle. It’s a restoration project [that we are working on] with the help of ecologists.”

Stepping stones

The 51-year-old Kulkarni made his film debut with Bhoomi Geetha, a Kannada language film that dealt with tribal displacement due to development drive by government. Released in 1997, the film earned critical praise and slowly Kulkarni made his inroads to Bollywood with Kamal Haasan’s Hey Ram and Madhur Bhandarkar’s Chandni Bar. Both the roles earned him rave reviews and he earned two National Awards in quick succession. It was enough to bring him into the spotlight.

This year, marks two decades of his film career that panned out in seven languages. Is he happy with his evolution? “You ask any actor and he will say he is not happy, thinking of some film or role done by some other actor. Ki yaar kamaal ho jata you know (It would have been wonderful!). I had not set out to achieve anything. I am not that kind of an ambitious professional. I think as a person I have always been, in Marathi we say uddhat. It has a negative connotation, but I am using it here not as a negative remark, but to say I have never cared for it. Whatever I get I should be happy about it. I have always believed that my life is more important than my profession and I have never ever allowed my profession to dictate my life.”

An alumnus of the prestigious National School of Drama (NSD), Kulkarni’s roots are in theatre. But he can manage time for just one play, that he’s been performing consistently for the past 12-13 years. The play is Kharaashein — a compilation of Gulzar’s stories and poems.

Does he miss theatre? “Not at all. I don't miss theatre. Acting is the main thing. It has always been in the main thing. What used to happen those days was that only accessible thing for someone who is coming from a place like Solapur was theatre if you wanted to act. Because there was no TV as such and films were completely different world. They were not as accessible as they are today. But since I have started working in films, I have enjoyed films like anything. I enjoy the huge possibilities this medium has.”

The learning curve

Illustrating his learning process, Kulkarni stresses the fact that acting is a profession that demands a certain alertness for evolving technique. “In Raees, I had scenes with Shah Rukh (Khan) and Zeeshan (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), and both are completely different. Zeeshan is from NSD and his approach to acting is very distinctive. Then there is Shah Rukh with his very own style which he has changed drastically for Raees. What is acting after all? Great people say acting is nothing but reacting, playing off each other. If you’re sensitive enough to absorb what the other actor is doing and not [just] reacting you keep on learning.”

But how does one stay alert to the possibility of change? “Actors require flexibility, a kind of openness and readiness to leave their comfort zone. That is extremely important. You have to unlearn and relearn things again. And after a point it is not as easy, because people can say I loved your acting in that film, or that dialogue delivery style in Rang De Basanti was amazing, and you can just fall into that trap. It’s not theatre that you can say I have done this show this way, I will do it differently in the next show. You can’t do that in films. You have to have that courage. That’s why [the way] Amitji (Amitabh Bachchan) keeps himself alive, absorbs things, keeps pace with time, it is phenomenal,” he says.

New blood, new ideas

Kulkarni feels that the industry has changed considerably in terms of working styles, and that the changes have brought in new blood and new ideas. “To give an example, The Ghazi Attack is director Sankalp Reddy’s first film. When he thought about the story, he built a mock submarine in his garage [and] called a few theatre actors to shoot a couple of scenes. Then he went to producers with that footage to show that he has built a submarine. He has never done films before and this is the kind of film that has no reference in past films of our country. The way he knew technicalities of the submarine, it was a very immersive experience. The demands of these new directors, their new kind of approach, the way screenplay or the dialogues are conceived; they’re not written in the same way what I came across when I started,” says the actor.

Kulkarni is currently busy with two films: a film on student politics titled Pranaam, and a horror thriller titled Vash. In Pranaam, his co-actor is Rajeev Khandelwal, and Vash is written and produced by Siddharth, the actor who appeared along with him in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti.

Has he ever thought about writing himself? “I am working on a script of a Marathi film.”

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2022 1:41:00 PM |

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