Sonali takes centre stage

Sonali takes centre stage

Alpana Chowdhury talks to Sonali Kulkarni about her latest outing in an English play, based on Agatha Christie’s novel The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side, as well as flashback to earlier milestones

Sonali Kulkarni

Sonali Kulkarni was in college when she did the eponymous role of Girish Karnad’s film, Cheluvi, in 1992. In the following years, she proceeded to do a gamut of films in several languages — Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil, Hindi and even Italian — and worked with filmmakers as varied as Shyam Benegal, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Farhan Akhtar and many more, and also picked up several awards along the way.

But even before she appeared on the silver screen, Sonali had discovered her love for acting, doing theatre as part of her brother Sandeep’s theatre group in Pune. When she moved base to Mumbai she continued to be active on stage, while simultaneously doing delightful films like Dil Chahta Hai or more serious ones like Mission Kashmir and National Award winners like Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar.

2020 began with Sonali acting in an English play, based on Agatha Christie’s novel, The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side, under the baton of British director Melly Still. Adapted for the stage by Rachel Wagstaff, the play has been re-imagined for an Indian audience by Ayeesha Menon. In this version, Sonali plays the role of Mamta, a filmstar past her prime, making a comeback in a role tailor-written for her. Set in Goa in 1976, the murder-mystery revolves around a film shoot and a murder that takes place in the actress’ newly-acquired mansion. (Interestingly, Christie’s whodunit was adapted, earlier, as a screenplay by Rituparno Ghosh for a Bengali film, Shubho Mahurat, that starred Sharmila Tagore, Rakhee and Nandita Das.) Produced by National Centre For Performing Arts, the Melly Still-directed play has obvious pickings from the lives of Indian actresses of the 1960s. We talk to Sonali about her latest outing, as well as flashback to earlier milestones:

Sonali Kulkarni in 'The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side'
Sonali Kulkarni in 'The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side'

In ‘The Mirror Crack’d’, you play an actress, Mamta, whose heyday may have been in the 1960s. Did you have any of the actresses of that era in mind when fleshing out Mamta?

I had most of the actresses of that era in mind — Madhubala, Meena Kumari, Waheeda Rehman, Nutan, Vyjayanthimala, Sadhana... all of them were my references. They were beautiful, talented actresses, adored by their fans. But having a boyfriend, getting married or starting a family were taboo for them. My character in the play, too, has to keep her personal life hidden. There are many layers to Mamta’s character inspired by the lives of actresses from the 1960s.

What were the challenges of doing a play in English without the option of re-takes?

I am quite used to acting on stage without the privilege of re-takes as I have been doing theatre from my teen years. Where English was concerned, I was not expected to speak with a British accent as Mamta is not British. What was more important was to sound genuine and consistent like Mamta, and speak audibly even when out of breath. There is a lot of choreographed physical movement in the play that takes the story back and forth in time to unravel the mystery of a murder; so we had a movement director and a voice and dialect coach training us in these fields. Acting in The Mirror Crack’d was a great learning experience. We had two months of intensive rehearsals which were like a workshop that I was paid to attend. It was the first time that I was asked to audition for a play. Auditions are humbling as you are looked upon as a fresh actor and this keeps your ego in check.

Can we go back in time to when you were a fresh actor, facing the camera for your first film, ‘Cheluvi’, directed by Girish Karnad? How did you bag that role and what was it like working with a stalwart like him?

I was a student at Satyadev Dubey’s acting workshop in Pune when Girish uncle came there scouting for an actress to play Cheluvi. He had already held auditions in different parts of the country and had come to Pune to do some more. When he selected me, I was overwhelmed. That moment will always remain the most significant one in my whole life. For a small-town girl like me to work with someone who was so multi-faceted a personality, meant the opening up of a whole new world for me. He taught me so much about cinema, theatre, writing and life itself. Cheluvi was screened at Cannes and that is how I was selected to do an Italian film. Jabbar Patel signed me for Mukta after seeing Cheluvi, which incidentally is a Hindi film and not a Kannada one as is generally believed.

What are your future goals?

I have been truly fortunate in having achieved more than what I dreamt of. I have been acting for 25 years in both, cinema and theatre, with some of the most talented directors. I have always relied on my gut instinct when choosing projects, all of which have been very enriching.


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