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From Kolhapur, with ambition

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After several nondescript roles, Usha Jadhav’s turn as a notorious smuggler’s spouse rightfully draws her into the spotlight.

Some on-screen appearances of actors just don’t prepare you well enough for real life encounters with them.

She might have dominated the screen with her forceful performance as Muthulakshmi, the dreaded gangster's wife, in Ram Gopal Varma’s Veerappan but the petite, sweet, ever-smiling girl who opens the door to let you in to her cosy, modest Yari Road apartment looks more like any other college girl next door. Usha Jadhav is unrecognisable as herself.

“My most favourite filmmaker Sai Paranjape also felt the same about me,” she smiles. Having seen her in the award-winning Marathi film Dhag, where she played a poor, lower caste woman who doesn't want her child to remain stuck working in the crematorium like she had, Paranjape told Jadhav that even though she looks tiny she packs in the talent of the calibre of Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi and Deepti Navel in her small frame.

You can sense the excitement and happiness in her at having found validation yet again for the hard work she had put in the role of Muthulakshmi. She recalls Ram Gopal Varma showing his mobile to her at the premiere of the film. His mother wanted to tell her how she found her utterly natural, that she saw Muthulakshmi in her. “She told me that it didn’t feel like I was acting. Ramu sir was teasing me that instead of complimenting him on the film she was asking him for my number instead and wanted to meet me personally,” she says. She reels out the names of others who have appreciated her work: filmmakers Rahul Rawail, Aruna Raje and Ashwini Dhir, Dolly Thakore...

Though she always wanted to work with Varma, Usha wasn’t sure how central the role would be to the film. To play Muthulakshmi, Varma didn’t want her to see, meet or imitate the real Veerappan’s partner. She did her own research by Googling her, how she met Veerappan, how they got married. But much of her interpretation of the character came from Varma's own narration.

Veerappan marks a huge step forward for Jadhav. Her 2012 Marathi film Dhag may have fetched her the prestigious National Award for best actress but not many were able to watch it as it didn't quite travel beyond Maharashtra. But Veerappan has left people asking, “Who is that girl who plays his wife?”

Well, she is a Kolhapur girl who always wanted to be an actress and even performed in plays in school. “But the opportunities and avenues available were very limited,” she recalls. This despite the fact that she comes from a family that does have a background in arts’(her father is a music teacher). But she had to give up studies after her 12th standard because of family issues, and she began working in a travel agency in Pune. “Just my self-sufficiency, the fact that I could take care of myself, was a big help for the family,” she recalls. Three years went by in pursuing mundane goals, like moving from trainee to permanent employee and paying off a loan. But the acting bug had lodged itself too firmly in her, and she kept coming to Mumbai in search of roles. As most strugglers do. “They used to joke about how I wanted to become Madhuri Dikshit. My logic was that there’s no harm in trying,” she says. It was a familiar routine of interviews and auditions, from Famous Studios to UTV.

A chance meeting with Madhur Bhandarakar landed her a small role in Traffic Signal (2007), her first film. And she packed her bags and moved to Mumbai within a month.

Many nondescript films and roles followed. There were a few interesting films as well, like Deepti Naval's Do Paise Ki Dhoop, Chaar Aane Ki Baarish (2009) co-starring Manisha Koirala. But she remembers it largely as a bad, tough phase. Living in Mira Road, travelling by the frightfully crowded Virar local. “I don't come from a rich family, I didn't have a background in Bollywood, no guide, no reference. On top of it I am also dusky.” Not quite a happy combination for a Bollywood actress. She was in the throes of financial crisis with not even Rs 150 in her wallet at times.

The world of ads came to her rescue. “My policy is that you must first learn to survive before trying to win a battle,” she says, and ads helped in that. There was one with Preity Zinta for Head and Shoulders. The first major recognition came through an ad for Kaun Banega Crorepati’s sixth season. No wonder then, that a photo of the Big B occupies pride of place in her home. She considers him her lucky charm, having worked with him in the recent hit Bhootnath Returns. Another picture to occupy prominence on the wall is the one in which she is receiving her National Award, and another is one with her parents when they all travelled together to Delhi for the awards function: “That was the time they realised that I was not into acting just for the heck of it but was doing it with seriousness. They could feel proud of me.”

Dhag changed her life entirely. The attitude of people back at home in Kolhapur also changed. They began respecting her than questioning her choices and decisions.

She wants to continue exercising her choices with discretion. Not any and every role any more for her. “Nobody can play God for me,” she says emphatically. She wants to be in control of her roles, career, life and destiny herself.

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2020 11:52:04 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/entertainment/From-Kolhapur-with-ambition/article14425863.ece

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