In a recently released online video called Find Your Beautiful, Radhika Apte looks at a picture of her six- year-old self in a dance costume. ‘I often wonder what I would say to you if I met you today?’ she asks her younger self. Through the video she addresses a cross section of women asking them to love themselves and to find the beauty within. Her voice is personal, emphatic and she almost sounds like that one friend who never fails to perk you up on a bad day. It’s a clip that encapsulates Apte’s rollercoaster of a journey as a performer. From her debut Hindi film Shor in the City (2011) to her latest release Phobia (2016), Apte’s choice of roles continues to break stereotypes and prove her skill over others. She is your girl-next- door, but her presence on screen evokes surprise wherein the audience doesn’t know what to expect of her. It’s her greatest strength as an actor. At the moment on one hand she is in Rajinikanth’s next film, Kabali and on the other she’s part of an Indo-French production called Ghoul. Apte who has grown from a dancer to a theatre artist to the first Indian to win a best actress award at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York is clearly a name to watch out for. Excerpts:
Your character Mehak in Phobia is so believable that one almost forgets you aren’t suffering for real. How did you play a character suffering from agoraphobia?
It was interesting because we were exploring a zone that I have never stepped into before. It was an uncomfortable space, and as an actor I strongly believe in throwing myself into spaces that I’m not familiar with. I knew someone with agoraphobia and I come from a family of doctors, so the disorder per se wasn’t new to me. Mehak was always on the edge, hyperventilating, ready for an outburst. And it takes quite a bit of physical and emotional stamina to play someone like that for about 12 hours every day. The part consumed me a bit, but then I feel a high-end action film would be even more consuming, especially when it comes to the physicality.
Are you able to easily detach yourself from the roles you play?
Fortunately, yes. I’m the kind of actor who switches on and off. If I end up living the life of my characters off screen or even off stage, I will pretty much lose myself, and that’s true for any actor. Of course, everyone has their own process, but I believe that at the end of the day, it’s a job and it ends when the camera stops rolling.
This is one among the few films we see every year with a woman protagonist, and your first such part as a lead actor. Has it taken a lot to get to this point?
I don’t know actually. It’s been a long journey for sure, and one with more drama than most films we see. But it’s not like I planned to pursue women- centric films, or parts that put me in the limelight. Every choice I have made is by virtue of my experiences as a person and what stage I was in at that point of time in life. Even today many think I have the luxury of choice, which isn’t entirely true. But yes, now I can think, ‘Will this part really add to my experience as an actor?’ I did not have the luxury to think like that some years ago. Even today in India there are very few parts written for women and for the strength that a woman shows. Yes, some films are egalitarian and liberal in their stories, but those are very few compared to how audaciously women are portrayed in most films. It’s changing, but it’s a very slow process.
EVERY CHOICE I HAVE MADE IS BY VIRTUE OF MY EXPERIENCES AND WHAT STAGE I WAS IN AT THAT POINT OF TIME IN LIFE
It’s definitely a shift from what you were expected to play in your films in South India. Do you feel like you cheated yourself a bit during that phase?
There are lots of reasons why you do films. Sometimes it’s the money, or your priorities are different at that point in time. Yes, the films I did and the roles I played were anti my principles as a person. The whole idea and intention behind cinema like that is purely to entice, and it’s terribly commercial in motive and that’s what I was most disturbed by. I won’t say I regret them, because that was an eye-opener for me. It gave me perspective about why these films are made, and I guess that perspective shaped me and my choices thereafter in many ways.
After Shor in the City, many saw you as the typical Indian housewife. You broke that perception with Ahalya, and continue to do so. Did you ever bracket yourself as an actor?
When something works for you, you are tempted to do it again. For people it was convenient to see me as a sober, quiet wife. But if I did that to myself, I will have nothing to bring to the fray as an actor. It’s tough, but the minute you see yourself outside the box, you discover something new about the performer within you. It’s not just about playing bold roles, it’s about playing someone who is not you, or who is new to you. That’s what’s exciting for me.
You have acted in online films that speak of women’s liberation, like the pregnant employee who chooses to start off on her own. Is that an important message to you?
Honestly, I don’t think of actors as social activists. I don’t believe cinema is always meant to give out a message or promote a cause as such. Yes, I have always been open about women’s rights or for that matter, anything I feel for, but that is an opinion I put forth as Radhika. It’s got nothing to do with me being an actor. Yes, if my films or performances provoke thought, it’s great, but it shouldn’t be a mandate, and no one should be judged for it.
I DON’T THINK OF ACTORS AS SOCIAL ACTIVISTS. I DON’T BELIEVE CINEMA IS ALWAYS MEANT TO GIVE OUT A MESSAGE
How do you treat the fame that’s coming your way?
It’s attractive, but also pretty fickle. Today I’m famous for the right reasons, yesterday I was famous for all the wrong ones. People out there see you the way they want to see you. You have no control over that. The only thing you have control over is what you put out there in terms of your work. The rest of it doesn’t matter much, as long as I’m objective about it. When someone acknowledges you purely by your work, like the Tribeca award I received for Anurag Kashyap’s film Clean Shaven, that’s more precious to me.
The stage has been a huge part of your life. Are you going back to it anytime soon?
I signed up for Mohit Takalkar’s new play The Nether, but they have had to double cast me for it because of date clashes. But I will definitely be doing it at some point. As far as dance goes, I keep taking time out for workshops. It is something very personal to me and I will continue doing it.