Radhika Apte breaks through
It is a crucial year in the actor’s already eclectic career. What makes her a promising face and talent in Indian cinema?
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Radhika Apte reaches the preview theatre in Mumbai’s Santacruz ahead of time. A handful of journalists has gathered to watch her new, short film Ahalya by director Sujoy Ghosh. “Sujoy was supposed to be here, but he stayed back in Kolkata to release the film. We decided to release it at the same time in Bombay,” says the 29-year-old actor, smiling.
Apte, in a floral dress and grey-green heels, is asked about the film opposite south Indian superstar Rajinikanth that she has been offered. “Between you and me…,” she starts, till some interrupt her and say those words won’t work in a room full of journalists. “This is my worst nightmare,” she laughs, adding, “It’s still in the negotiation stage. If I had signed it, I would have told you, na?”
Apte has been working in films since 2008—her first film Vaah! Life Ho Toh Aisi!, released in 2005, was “just for fun” while she was still in college, she says. In 2009, she acted in the Bengali film Antaheen, starring Rahul Bose and Aparna Sen, which won four National Awards. She has already had two Bollywood screen releases this year; another two will hit theatres next month. The last time a slew of her films released was in 2010, and Apte left the country to study Laban movement analysis, a methodology to study human movement, in London for a year. This time she has no plans to take off, even if she is a tad unsure of what to say about herself. On screen, however, it is a different story.
The 14-minute Bengali film with English subtitles is a thriller. A man goes missing, and inspector Indra Sen (played by mustachioed Tota Roy Chowdhury) comes to the house of artist Goutam Sadhu, played by Bengali yesteryear star Soumitra Chatterjee. There, he meets Ahalya, Sadhu’s wife (played by Apte). “Sujoy’s brief to me was, you need to look hot. Someone you open the door to has to catch his breath,” says Apte. Indeed, this is how the film begins.
But “looking hot” isn’t just a matter of hair and make-up. Apte enacted the brief using the techniques she has learnt as a dancer—she trained under Kathak exponent Rohini Bhate for eight years growing up in Pune, and studied contemporary dance, too—and in her training in the Laban method, which analyzes movement. “I wanted to depict a certain slowness.” The result is a character who seduces successfully.
“Radhika is a malleable actress. She can transform. She creates the character,” says Sujoy Ghosh. “Most actors put themselves before the character and worry about how they will be perceived in a film. But Radhika’s biggest strength is that she is not scared of doing a role.” This is evident in the roles that Apte has played, of characters whose sexuality is not simply a foil to the hero’s desire.
In Hunterrr (2015), her character is open about the fact that she has had lovers. Apte has also acted in Shabd director Leena Yadav’s forthcoming film Parched, which is about three rural women (Tannishtha Chatterjee and Surveen Chawla are her co-stars). Each of their stories explores different aspects of sexuality, and by sharing their experiences with each other, they question cultural norms. “It’s like ‘Sex in the Village’ instead of Sex In The City,” Apte laughs.
Apte isn’t sure when the film, which also has international producers, will release in India. “I don’t know how much they will entertain the film here. Three women talking about sex…,” she trails off.
In February, Apte wrote a piece for the Huffington Post website, describing the freedom she felt after shooting in the nude for another film. “In my experience, undertaking the scenes with nudity was extremely liberating. I had many complexes about my body since I learnt about it as a child, and the invasive stereotyping and sexualization of both men and women in this industry didn’t help. The obsession with slimness, flawless skin, long legs, round ass, big boobs, fair skin…it all made me feel very small. But to my surprise after doing the nude scenes all these complexes just fell apart.”
Two months after she wrote this, a video clip showing a partially nude Apte, shooting for Anurag Kashyap’s short film, Clean Shaven, meant for an international project, went viral. An angry Kashyap filed a complaint with the cyber crime cell of Mumbai police. He told The Times Of India in an interview: “It took us so much time to do it in a non-sexual way, as it is meant to be absolutely non-sexual and we took all the care we could. It was not easy to find an actor who is brave enough to participate in it (...) And then, all of a sudden after a month from nowhere, this video popped up online.”
Body shaming is not new to a film industry that abounds in misogynistic gender stereotypes. Apte, who has worked in Malayalam, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu and Marathi films, has spoken out against the “patriarchal nature” of the Telugu film industry in an interview to film journalist Rajeev Masand. The Hindi film industry is better, she admits, yet systemic inequalities persist. “Women don’t get paid enough. This agitates me every day. But this is the situation all over the world,” she says.
Apte refuses to call herself a feminist, however. “People find the word very cringeworthy. I don’t. They assume that you are a, b, c, d... when you say that you are a feminist, though that’s a wrong way of looking at it. I just believe in equality.
“The thing is, a lot of people in the industry do treat women equally. So many people I have worked with are not chauvinists at all,” she adds.
Despite Apte’s concern about what people think—“I am learning to be more careful about my words”—she remains detached when controversies break out, she says. “I will talk about the (Anurag Kashyap) video clip when the film releases, because there will be a context to it then,” she says. “I want to talk about it. Believe me.”
Apte started out in theatre, working with Pune-based Aasakta Kalamanch; she continues to do shows with them. Her current production Uney Purey Shahar Ek (an adaptation of the Girish Karnad play Benda Kaalu On Toast) will be performed in Nashik and Pune this weekend.
Two films will release next month: One is with Nawazuddin Siddiqui titled Manjhi: The Mountain Man. The other is a satire on the issue of water shortage, titled Kaun Kitney Paani Mein, with Kunal Kapoor.
“Nowadays, a lot of meaty roles are done by A-listers. If you asked me if I would like to play those parts, I’d say yes. The parts in Piku, Queen, NH10 were great. But these invariably go to A-listers, because of the logistics and the mathematics of (how the industry works). I’m trying to make it happen with what little I know. But if it doesn’t happen for me, I wouldn’t feel that I’ve failed.”
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