Small talk: Actor prepares

Small talk: Actor prepares
Small talkSonali Kulkarni

Sonali Kulkarni, who essays a character inspired by Geeta Dutt in an upcoming play, on the role theatre plays in her life.

The last few years have been particularly exciting for Sonali Kulkarni. The 40-year-old actress, who made her film debut in Girish Karnad-starrer, Cheluvi (1992) was part of a National award-winning Marathi film, Deool (2011), the record-breaking Singham (2011) and Gyan Correa's The Good Road (2013) which was India's entry to the Oscars. In fact, currently, her Marathi-film, Dr Prakash Baba Amte: The Real Hero is running to houseful shows in cinema halls. "So, as an actor," she says, "I am deeply satisfied." 

As she settles into a chair at a coffee shop in Khar, she reflects, "I was naive when I started off. But I feel my naivety has paid off. After my breakthrough in Hindi cinema, I never thought that now since I am a commercial star, I mustn't act in regional films or not go back to theatre. For me, the role was always more important, irrespective of the medium." 

But theatre holds a special place in her heart. And she's only too happy to get back on stage with Saif Hyder Hasan's upcoming play, Gardish Mein Taare, which opens at the 1,100-seater Jamshed Bhabha Auditorium, NCPA, on January 26. 

The play traces the paths of the two protagonists, Devdutt Bose (played by Arif Zakaria) and Bhavana, essayed by Kulkarni, inspired by the lives of the cinema genius Guru Dutt and his songstress wife, Geeta Dutt. The play, she adds, is a tribute to the creatively volatile period of Hindi cinema in the 1950s. 

"What I appreciate most about this play is that the director is not trying to classify the characters as good, bad or ugly. He's seeing them as creative beings," says Kulkarni. "It's important for the aam janta to understand what creative souls go through, because they have passions and pursuits that don't match regular, mundane lives." 

As far as her creative pursuits go, "I have never had a plan," she admits. "My calling is instinctive." 

Kulkarni, who launched her theatre production, Sokul, in 2013, with a Marathi play, White Lily Ani Night Rider, is largely drawing her attention to the stagecraft. 

She says she is perplexed by the quick, seamless transitions most of her actorcolleagues are making across different entertainment mediums. "I have been slow in comparison," she says. When she participated in a reality dance competition in 2007, she dedicated six months to learning dance. "I am not the sort to make swift jumps," she says. 

For Kulkarni, theatre is equal to revisiting ground zero. "It helps me understand my own pace and lets me find my own breath and balance." 

In fact, while shooting for Dil Chahta Hai, Kulkarni was a part of Makarand Deshpande's theatre production Basant Ka Teesra Yauvan. She had the shoot dates adjusted to accommodate the show. 

Kulkarni credits her intense involvement and dedication to the craft to late thespian, Satyadev Dubey. She was 16 when she first met Dubey, at a workshop he conducted in her hometown, Pune. She calls herself "a beautiful bag of complexes," until she met Dubey."I believed that I wasn't good, pretty, fair or rich enough. It was Dubeyji who told me that until I don't accept and like myself, people will have doubts about me. Theatre is a full-shot, not a close-up, he said," she narrates. 

She calls his workshops "unique". Balancing an iPad on her head, she says, "It was commonplace for Dubeyji to make actors place light chairs on their heads to teach them how to walk straight, hold a pencil in their mouths and speak and scream when they'd ask nonsensical questions." 

One such query she asked was what one must do if they don't like their voice. It took some courage, she says. "Dubeyji made me repeat the same question a 100 times. I broke into a sweat and trembled, but kept asking and he didn't let me complete the sentence because he kept insisting to ask in my 'own' voice. At one point, I took a deep breath, and determined to finish it, I screamed, 'agar kissiko apni awaaz acchi nahi lagti hai, toh woh kya karein?'. He then said that's my voice and made me realise that if I speak in my pitch and breath, I'd able to convey what I have to say truthfully." 

Kulkarni clings on to this influence Dubey's workshops made on her young mind. "I will not put up a fight to claim my share in my parents' estate, but I'll fight to be considered Dubeyji's prodigy," she laughs. 

Playwright Vijay Tendulkar was another maverick who made an impression. "I got to know him because my brother Sandesh dramatised some of his newspaper columns into a play. He was someone who reinforced fearlessness in me," she says, fondly. 

"He urged me to stop being a good girl. He told me to open the cage and learn to fly. He allowed people to dream," she says. 

By her own admission, "No other theatre school could reinforce the lessons these two geniuses taught me."