Originally published in Lokvani in 2016
Alfred Hitchcock once told me, when I was analyzing a lot of things about his pictures, ‘Clint, you must remember, it’s only a movie.’- Clint Eastwood
I fully comprehended what Alfred and Clint meant when I met the National Award winner, renowned Indian actor Atul Kulkarni earlier this year in India. With a backdrop of a sketch of Michael Jackson and freshly brewed coffee, we met at the iconic German Bakery in Pune. As soon as we started talking I sensed that I was in the company of someone simply successful and successfully simple. I was amazed by how seriously he took his craft and how not seriously he took his success and failures. As intense as his roles are, Atul is intensely calm and intuitively aware.
I was set to meet Atul to know more (Yeh Shaam Mastani-2), a musical tribute to the maestro Kishore Kumar by a group of talented singers from the New England area to raise funds for QUEST (Quality Education and Support Trust), a NGO headed by him. I was equipped with a list of questions which I had to abandon midway as our conversation became unpredictable and interesting and his thought provoking responses incited my curiosity. From his journey as an actor to him not believing in God and religion to Marriage and finally to Education, a cause very close to his heart. We basically talked about everything under the Sun …and the Stars.
SK : Your journey from Belagavi (Belgaum) to Delhi to Mumbai, there is no predictability in the pattern of your path.
AK: It was partly planned and partly unplanned, I had no plans of coming into the field of acting. I was doing my engineering degree at the prestigious COEP when I decided to quit that and shift to Solapur to study literature. It was during my stay at Solapur that I got an opportunity to take part in the college stage plays. That was my first exposure to the field of theater. I loved that whole process and decided to join an amateur theater group. This is a great thing in Maharashtra, there are theater groups even in the remote areas. Once you taste the blood then it is kind of tough to turn away from it. I decided to take it further and get formal education and training in drama.
SK: So that led to NSD?
AK: I had two options, one was to directly come to Mumbai and start my struggle directly there and the other option which I chose was to get professional training as an actor. At that point I felt very strongly that I needed training if I planned to take this field as a profession. Although there was no big strategy but there have been these small unpredictable decisions that I took which led me to where I am today. I came to Mumbai in 1995 after I graduated from NSD, and I am here ever since. There isn’t one turning point or a defining moment so to say.
SK: Leaving your Engineering for Literature and then Drama. That must have been unconventional during that time. How did your parents react to your decision?
AK: The strata of society that I come from – Middle class, educated Maharashtrian family, it is assumed that the kids will become doctor or engineer and then everyone will live happily ever after. It was not naturally easy for my parents to come to terms with that decision. I tried to do what every child of my generation did, follow the herd even if that meant being average at that. Eventually when I mustered courage, I talked to them and I declared my love for the languages. I guess my parents had to accept it. I think they are ok now !!(Laughs!!)
SK: I am sure they must be proud of your achievements in this field now?
AK: My father used to always feel insecure about this field. They had no experience or exposure to this field and they didn’t know anyone from this field either. So their perception was based on what they had read and heard from people. For them security simply meant -getting a job and excelling in that. I think that is how they were raised but they eventually made peace with my decision.
SK: Who are some of the actors/people that have inspired you?
AK: There are performances that have inspired me. I like Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate, Naseer saab in Mandi, Om-ji in Sparsh. Amit-ji is doing some interestingly different roles, Smita Patil was brilliant in Bhumika. There is no one single artist or person whom would I consider as my inspiration or my guru. In fact, I do not believe in -Guru Shishya parampara.
SK: Why so?
AK: The way we practice it in india. There is a certain amount of reverence and adulation that comes with it. We put gurus on a pedestal and there is absolutely no room for questioning. You become almost blind to their faults. No human being is perfect; we are in a state of constant evolution. In any association or relationship when you take away the room for asking questions you create a cult, then be it Guru-Shishya parampara or religion or marriage. I don’t think human beings should lose their sense of wonder.
At the age of 5 my father was my hero, as I grew older I realized that my father is a a normal human being with faults. When I became a teenager my hero was someone else and as my understanding or life and of myself changed my heroes changed. I also think that we can be inspired by multiple people at the same time. You can also be inspired by incidents or books too.
SK: Any book that you can recall that stayed with you?
AK: There are many books that influence you and take you to places you haven’t been before. I remember being impressed by Winston Churchill’s biography when I was in my 6th grade, then I slowly transitioned to Marathi literature and used to read a lot of P.L. Deshpande and slowly I grew out of that too. I think as you grow and evolve your taste of books changes too. They say that change is the only constant thing and that’s why I so admire mahatma Gandhi because he openly accepted that he may not be the person that he was yesterday. I think for a public figure to say that is huge thing.
SK: Relationships thrive on stability then how does this constant evolution translate into relationships?
AK: I think any relationship is never pure. What we perceive or expect a relationship to be is not in pure form ever, external influences do play their part as well. Sometimes people project their relationships in a certain way for the sake of acceptability, security and stability. This aspect is very evident in a man-woman relationship or in a marriage. Marriage is the most artificial relationship that exists on this earth between two living beings. This institute of marriage was created for economic reasons and for social transactions. Men wanted complete control over women so they created this institute of marriage.
SK: Are all relationships like this?
AK: I think so. There is a certain degree of politics even in the most glorified relationship -the one between a mother and a child. I do not believe there is any pure relationship in this world and there should not be. When I say “pure” I mean the ones which are selfless without any expectations at all. It is not normal.
SK: Even our relationship with ourselves is not that simple, sometimes we fool ourselves…Khud to bhi to chalate hain ham kabhi
AK: Absolutely. We play so much politics with ourselves. We should accept it as normal and not deny it under the pretext of sanskriti and parampara.
SK: I am trying to absorb what you just told me, your thoughts and values are very different from what I generally get to hear. Coming back to NSD. How did the transition to films happen?
AK: I was doing a play in Mumbai titled “Gandhi virudh Gandhi”. Initially we did it in Marathi and then we did it other languages like Gujrati and Hindi as well. For almost 3 years I was acting in that play in different languages. Kamal Hasan was planning to make a movie called “Hey Ram” and he was looking for someone for a specific role and I think someone had recommended our play to him. When I went to meet him I thought that he will cast me as Gandhi because I had been doing that role in the play. However, to my surprise he offered me the role of Shriram Abhyankar who actually ends up killing Gandhi in that movie. It was really genius of him to do that.
SK: Why do you think he did that?
AK: I never asked him but I think for someone to oppose a philosophy they should know that philosophy first. For a character like Shriram Abhyankar, who opposes Gandhi’s philosophy you needed someone who knows Gandhi’s values and ideas in depth. I had played Gandhi so I knew why Shriram Abhyankar was against him and what were his apprehensions and that is how my first film happened.
Madhur Bhandarkar happened to see me in Hey Ram and he cast me in Chandni Bar. Chandni bar was a huge hit and that is how I kind of stayed in films and have been working ever since. I am damn lucky actor and probably not an ideal “struggle” story.
SK: The character of Shriram Abhyankar and Gotya Pathan both of which were negative or grey yet engaging characters. You got national awards for both these roles. How was the experience of playing such engaging characters?
AK: Working in films was not on my mind when I came to Mumbai. I wanted to act in the professional Marathi Theater. Films or T.V. industry didn’t seem accessible at that time. I don’t even remember thinking about films, that was such a distant dream. Almost unattainable at the time. I think I entered the industry at a time when there was lot of metamorphosis happening in terms of content and that opened doors for many actors like me. Naseer ji and Omji had entered the industry into the parallel cinema but that movement had kind of ebbed by the end of that decade.
Around 2000, my kind of actors started getting some honorable space in films, Chandni bar is among the first few films which didn’t have the so called masala- content yet was commercially hit. It was such a dark story, not your typical entertainment potboiler. That movie attracted audience because of its content.
To answer your question, there was no planning in which movies I acted in during the initial phase. After Hey Ram I got lot of roles and I picked movies that I liked. I was very fortunate that Hey Ram was released in three languages, so I was introduced in the industry in south right away and have been working in South Indian movies for the least 16 years.
SK: How different is working for South? I have heard that the industry there is very disciplined and organized compared to the one here?
AK: I think when we say “South” we club all the four languages together. These are four different industries and have different work culture and dynamic. Not just film industry, any industry imbibes the culture of the place where it operates. If you are doing a Tamil film, you will see a reflection of Tamil culture in everything that they do. Also they have very good technicians so Tamil films are technically advanced, however Malayalam films are content wise much evolved because of the literature and writing influence in Kerala. So we cannot generalize like that. You will find organized production houses in Hindi industry and some disorganized ones in south Indian film industry as well.
SK: How does an artist deal with the low phases? Although when I checked your filmography I didn’t see any low phases but I would like to know your thoughts on this?
AK: Low phase or failure or success these are very relative terms. If you are working in a lot of films but if you are not doing the content that you want that can be a low phase for an artist. For me personally I feel that probably I forayed into this field late or may be because I kept evolving philosophically I have a developed a kind of detachment with everything, success and failure too. I have probably always been like that. I won’t say that they absolutely don’t impact me but I have always been attracted to that kind of journey. There are moments that make me sad and happy, but they are moments and not periods and somehow I get over pretty quickly.
SK: How does this detachment impact your profession?
AK: In our field, dealing with success is tougher than dealing with failure. How you deal with success also decides your decision making. Actors are like nomads; every day is a decision making day. We have to be alive and alert and cannot carry the baggage of yesterday’s hit to our performance today. This profession is unpredictable. A very bad film which I may not have enjoyed doing may become a commercial hit and a very good film may just flop. The outcome is erratic and unpredictable and success is failure are transient too.
SK: After Robin Williams passed away, I realized that when we talk to successful people we do not talk about failures or struggles. There is no manual or guideline for the younger generation on how to manage failure. What is your thought on this?
AK: I can tell you one thing for sure. For the last few years I have noticed that people equate their professional failures to them failing as a human being entirely. This trend is very dangerous and regressive. If I am very successful professionally but am extremely unhealthy then I am only a successful professional and not a successful person in entirety. We should be able to make that distinction.
SK: That I guess that is an outcome of capitalism?
AK: Blaming any “ism” for this is just another way of not owning up to our problems and responsibilities. We are responsible for that, let’s just accept that and try to fix it. There will be money, prosperity and wealth and problems, we have to learn to manage it. The onus is on the last 2-3 generations and we should not blame younger kids for anything. We have created pressure zones and expectation. If grades and degrees are the only measure of a person’s worth, then how do you expect these children to learn to deal with failure at all. This is true especially in India.
SK: If we do not have any reference point, success story then how do we challenge ourselves or tech our children not to be complacent?
AK: Why do you want to be challenged? These are all negative words that are unfortunately being glorified these days. If you read Shakespeare’s plays you will realize that words like “ambition” have been consistently used with negative connotation. Whenever any young actor asks me for any advice I always tell them to remember that your profession is not your life. Unless you learn that you will never be happy even if you are a successful artist.
SK: You mentioned earlier that you do not believe in the institute of marriage? But you have a successful marriage so how did they pan out? Don’t you think that marriage is important for the stability of the society?
AK: My understanding of marriage as an institution and how it has impacted our social fabric our beliefs developed much later, I was already married by then. Marriage is not just a union of two people it is a union of two families as well especially in our culture. Slowly we start developing a world around us which includes our family, friends and our case it also included our organization and other theatrical endeavors that we work on. So if you just do not get along with your companion at all then it is a tough call and then probably you should reconsider. However, in our case, somehow even though our likes and dislikes are different but our value system is quite similar. We had taken a very conscious decision of not having children so that was never an issue, however just because my whole “philosophy of marriage” changed It didn’t make sense to uproot each other. What I thought was best to do was to vocalize my thoughts and discuss those with my wife and I felt she needed to know that. Somehow we have always been able to align effortlessly over many issues. We both know what our beliefs are, our philosophies and we give each other the “space” that is important for human beings to grow individually. We do not own each other, we believe in companionship of equals.
We may not be able to change the legal implication of marriage but we may have to change our definitions a little bit. We should stop over glorifying that.
SK: I think it is probably impossible for one person to fulfill all your intellectual needs?
AK: It is absolutely absurd to think that one person can fulfill emotional, physical, philosophical and all other needs. It is a lie and we have been living a lie for a long time. Thought processes are changing and our generation is very much open and grounded in this thought. Did our mothers have male friends after marriage? Not really… I mean it was almost considered weird!! Now that’s not true anymore.
SK: Are you an atheist? What do you believe in?
AK: I do not follow the man made concepts of God, religion, rituals and caste. I definitely would not label it under any kind of “ism”. That is almost like creating another group and a staunch cult. This journey is extremely personal, you can read and listen and try to know what the other people experienced on this path. Any religion that teaches that God is superior than humans does not work within my understanding. I do not know what to call it, in fact I feel why do we need to call it anything at all.
SK: How did you pick education as a field of your social work?
AK: The very purpose of education and its definition is lost. The way our curriculum has been designed is very “money oriented”. If I am a parent and I want my child to be happy then what is my thinking pattern, what is the definition of -being happy. Mostly people think it is a direct consequence of having money only. The only way to having money is getting a good job and the only way to a good job is a good degree and the only way to a good degree is- on the day of examination my child should remember and write everything. If they forget everything the moment they step out of the examination hall it is ok.
In a country like India where the social structure is based on caste, money is the only equalizer. Now only wealth is not enough, we need to have displayable wealth too. Once you get stuck in this race there is no end to it. So whoever is not “there” is a failure which practically means everyone. Our education system is a reflection of this thought process. The focus has been more towards “earning “and not “learning”.
SK: How did you get involved with QUEST (Quality Education Support Trust)? Tell us a little more about it?
AK: There comes a phase in everyone’s life when they are tired of complaining about the things around them that are not working and can be changed. Probably when your basic needs are met and you feel a little bit settled then you look outwards. I was always inclined towards politics right from my childhood, I have always been of the opinion that politics is the most effective way of changing things because you can influence policy changes. However, considering my career as an actor I didn’t think that I would have enough time to give to it. My face is my product and I get paid for showing up and acting, I cannot send anyone on my behalf to run it. Yet as a voter I follow everything that is happing around. Next option was to do something in the field of education.
SK: What do you think is the purpose of education?
AK: Education should help me develop my own thinking which helps me to take my own decisions which are such that they not only profit me but they do not harm people around me. Education should empower enough to help decision making. I started looking for people who are working in the field of education and that is how I met Nilesh Nimkar, who has been working in the field of education for a long time. Nilesh used to run a study group once a month which me and my wife started to attend as well. Eventually the group decided to formally create an NGO and that is how QUEST came into being.
I do not know everything but as long as I know the essence of what we are doing then I can create a team of people who are experts in that area and for whom this is a profession. I can contribute in policy making and since my face is little known I can help in fund raising too and create more awareness.
SK: How is QUEST different from other organizations?
AK: We created QUEST with some basic principles in mind. We decided that we will not have our own school. We would be working with the system. Nilesh always believed that if we create our own schools that would be great but those would still be “islands”. Considering the population of our country where the numbers of students who are part of the system are really staggering we will have better and greater impact if we collaborate with Govt. schools, ashram Schools and even private schools. What they basically need is a support system. We are not creating anything new, our aim is to improve the quality and efficiency of the current system. Infuse modern education techniques, modern thought and even modern aids in the system. We work with teachers training as well as students training. We have been training a lot of Aanganvadi teachers.
SK: “Yeh sham mastani-2” is a musical tribute to Kishore kumar and a fund raiser for QUEST, the event as you know is on October 8th in Boston. Are there any Kishore da’s favorite songs?
AK: There are so many. Pal pal dil ke paas is my fav. Another gem is “Zindagi ka safar hai yeh kaisa safar”. I also like the one from Amar Prem…”Kuch to log kahenge”. It is just beautiful.
I wish the team in Boston all the best as we are really honored that they have will be fundraising for QUEST through this event.
As I wrap up my conversation with Atul, I noticed that that two servers at the German Bakery were very intently listening to the whole conversation. You don’t often meet people who don’t lose their sense of wonder and authenticity in the glitter of success. If you ever converse with Atul, whether you agree with him or not, one thing is for sure. He will make you think and Question!
Special thanks: Team “Yeh Shaam Mastani”, Shachee Shah-QUEST