Geetanjali Kulkarni was a seasoned theatre actor with hundreds of shows in experimental and commercial theatre under her belt, before most of us first saw her on a screen. As the public prosecutor Nutan in the film Court, Geetanjali redefined what acting meant, bringing a realism to her performance that we had seldom seen before.
The actor made her OTT debut with a small role in the series Selection Day on Netflix. Her big digital breakthrough moment came with Gullak on Sony Liv, where she won hearts as Shanti Mishra and made people really sit up and notice her versatility as an actor. She then went to wow us as Sarita in Taj Mahal 1989 on Disney+ Hotstar, and Sushila Shekhar, a corrupt cop with just enough conscience in the second season of Aarya.
But perhaps her most moving performance was in the short film ‘War Room’ which was part of the anthology Unpaused-Naya Safar on Amazon Prime. Geetanjali played the role of a teacher volunteering in a Covid war room, helping people get access to hospital beds. The actor was simply spectacular as a heartbroken mother, who finds herself in a position to either help or hurt a man who she holds responsible for her son’s suicide.
A graduate from the prestigious National School of Drama, Geetanjali believes that acting is not just profession, but also her passion and means of expression. She shares that growing up, she was inspired by actors like Shabana Azmi, Anita Kanwar, Deepa Sahi, Smita Pati and Sulabha Deshpande whom she saw on television as a part of India’s then blossoming parallel cinema movement. Watching these talented women who didn’t fit into the conventional glamorous heroine mould, gave her the inspiration to pursue her dreams as an actor too.
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Having always wanted to work in Marathi theatre, she was happy to get roles in Marathi plays after coming to Mumbai. The stage, she shares, is a far more inclusive platform and actors get the opportunity to play diverse parts. From playing an elephant in an adaptation of The Elephant’s Journey by the late Portuguese Nobel Laureate José de Sousa Saramago, to playing both Viola and Cessario in Piya Behrupiya, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Geetanjali has truly explored her versatility as an actor on stage. Perhaps these opportunities gave Geetanjali the confidence to consistently choose new genres and parts in film and on OTT platforms.
As effortless as her performances seem, she shares that as an actor and artist she is methodical, and process driven. Geetanjali shares that before she began work on the first season of Gullak she was especially diligent, since the accent, manner of speaking and setting were not familiar to her. “I am someone who needs to get familiar with the character and my co-actors. Luckily with Gullak TVF also insisted on rehearsals for 10 whole days before we started shooting the first season. In fact, to stay in the zone of the character and the show, I deliberately avoided speaking to anyone back home for more than a couple of minutes a day so that I could avoid speaking Marathi. It was difficult, but when the show received so much love, all the effort was worth it,” she says.
Even with the character of Sushila Shekhar in Aarya 2, she made sure to do her homework. Geetanjali shares that she was curious to understand why Sushila was the way she was. She worked with Ram Madhvani over Zoom calls, building a backstory for Sushila and understanding her point of view.
But while she loves being a part of good stories, she feels in retrospect that she was never star struck or desperate to achieve certain rigid milestones within a timeframe. She just wanted to play layered complex roles and Geetanjali says she was fortunate to keep getting good opportunities.
Whether it was theatre, cinema and now OTT platforms, bringing to life women from such diverse backgrounds has broadened her horizons and made her more empathetic as a person. She says, “Being an actor and has empowered me as a person. I come from a privileged background, and had a lot of assumptions about myself, society and even the women around me. Acting and becoming a part of such varied worlds, has helped me become more broadminded and empathetic as a person. I am definitely influenced by the characters I play, and I feel empowered by my work”.
Gullak for example, is her tribute or attempt at celebrating a homemaker whose tireless efforts are seldom recognised. Geetanjali admits that as a youngster she did have a certain attitude like so many of us do about women who choose to be homemakers or stay-at-home mothers. But meeting women who have made these choices and playing the role of Mrs. Mishra changed her perceptions.
Another such opportunity came while playing the character of Sangeeta Waghmare in the short film War Room. She shares that playing Sangeeta has made her more compassionate as a person, not just because of the grief the character is experiencing, but also because of the collective misery the country had been through after the first and second wave of the pandemic.
Geetanjali is looking forward to the release of Rangbaaz 3 on Zee 5 and will soon begin shooting for the recently announced film Minimum, which is an immigrant drama. There is Gullak Season 4 and potentially an Aarya season 3 to look forward to, but she can’t reveal too much about the latter just yet.
As we sign off, Geetanjali jokingly says, I think I did Aarya Season 2 because I was curious about what Sushila will do if there was a Season 3.” Perhaps it is this wonderful combination of curiosity and commitment that makes Geetanjali one of the most gifted actors of our time, and an artist we are yet to see the best of.