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Interview Hindi

Not scared to be part of cinema that shows mirror to society: Indu Sarkar's Kirti Kulhari

Actress says Indu Sarkar is also her chance to set some things right in Hindi cinema's portrayal of stammering, didn’t want her stammer to evoke laughs beyond the first scene.

Mayur Lookhar

Suppression often results in revolution. Kirti Kulhari, who plays the titular character in Madhur Bhandarkar's forthcoming Indu Sarkar, opposing the excesses of the Emergency era (1975-77), is currently raising her voice against the oppression that the film itself is facing. Quite expectedly, Indu Sarkar has run into political rough weather and been censored by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC).

Unlike her character in the film, Kulhari does not fumble or stammer as she defends her film. The actress has been around for some years, first showing us glimpses of her talent in Bejoy Nambiar’s Shaitan (2011). Her finest hour so far has been with Shoojit Sircar's Pink (2016), in which she moved audiences with her intensity.

Kulhari spoke to Cinestaan.com in a long telephonic conversation and shared her thoughts about the film, the many controversies surrounding it, the challenge of playing a stammering character, and more. Excerpts:

After ushering in a Pink revolution, you have taken up a film that is making a political party see red. Perhaps for some the Emergency has become a Shaitanic verse, the very mention of which leads to frayed tempers. Your thoughts. 

Well, the Emergency had a dark side which is not unknown. But there are also many who don’t know about it. It was not created by us. There is nothing fictional about the Emergency era that we have shown in the film. If you think the Emergency might project some people in bad light, then that is the shocking truth of the Emergency.

What I don’t understand is the reaction of people even before the film has been released. It is sad that we don’t let the truth come out. We are living in times where everything is used to suppress the truth.

Given the controversy, there is a risk that the film may not see the light of day. After a career-defining role in Pink, how safe or wise was it for you to take up Indu Sarkar?

I love my job. Honestly, when we choose a film we don’t think of the controversies it may create, or how many National awards it will get. [Choosing a film] is a personal decision. Personally, I’m not scared to be part of cinema that shows the mirror ... that reflects society in its true form. The solution is to not stop making such cinema. We have to grow up. We need to have the maturity to have not just freedom of expression for ourselves but to give freedom of expression to others.

No matter how hard the director tries to say the film is based on the life of your character Indu, Indira and Sanjay Gandhi will always be the talk of the film. Will Indu forever live in the shadow of Indira?

No. As soon as the film is out, everything will disappear. Indu Sarkar as the character is the one that will make the film. She is the one that will make you watch the film.

Madhur Bhandarkar told a radio station that if this film is banned, all content on the Emergency — books, documentary films — should be banned too. I could be wrong, but perhaps it is difficult to ban books and documentaries because they stick close to the truth. Whereas if Indu Sarkar is 70% fictional, it gives a handle to the agitators to say the film has created a fantasy to malign their iconic leader.

Firstly, 80% of the fictional part covers the fictional journey of Indu Sarkar. The Emergency is only in the backdrop. Besides, whatever content we have on the Emergency is based on sound research. We have spoken about it many times. 

It [the controversy] has become like a vicious cycle. What they think is right is only what they want to get eyeballs. All along people have been made to see what they want you to see. We have accepted that as the truth. Something that is nice doesn’t really catch their attention whereas something that is controversial, that’s negative, it’s amazing how people respond to all that.

Hypothetically, if Indu Sarkar did not have a Madhur Bhandarkar or Anupam Kher associated with it, would it have courted controversy as it is doing?

I don’t know what to say to that. Of course, the bigger a person gets, the more flak he is likely to face. People can have political allegiances, but often we lose sight of the fact that Madhur Bhandarkar and Anupam Kher are also human beings. They are not just filmmakers. They can have their personal preferences on anything from politics to what kind of food they want to  eat. They shouldn’t be subjected to everything from the public because they have certain choices/preferences. Today, we get the impression that there is nothing personal left for public personalities. 

Political vendetta was usually confined to politics, but there is a fear now that this is being transferred into filmmaking as well. Your thoughts.

For how long will you continue to live in fear? I am saying that for every film that is made on politics. Every film should be allowed to say the story that it wants to tell. Most of them [directors] are responsible to begin with. They will think 10 times before saying something that could hurt sentiments. 

While each political party and individual has their right to protest and one should always be mindful of not hurting sentiments, has our polity, our CBFC, lost touch with the aam janata, who perhaps don’t really care for ideologies? All they want is good content.

I don’t know what the CBFC is scared of. The people they are trying to protect from watching something is primarily the youth. The youth is far more aware of many things that you and I have no control over. They have access to every damn thing in this world. You can take away the TV,  disconnect cable, but they have the internet. Today’s audience has the sense to make sense out of the stuff that they watch. We talk of freedom of expression, why don’t you give the audience the freedom to watch and let people decide for themselves? As it is, we have the political organizations and various fringe groups to deal with. Now the CBFC has become a bigger problem.

I believe you once did an ad with Ranbir Kapoor. I wonder what the product was that, remarkably, today both of you are left stammering in your respective films [Indu Sarkar and Jagga Jasoos].

(Laughs) It was for Virgin Mobile.

On a serious note, though it was only an ad, how was the experience of working with Ranbir Kapoor? Have you had the chance to talk about each other's stammering act?

Actually, I was the girl whom Ranbir is talking to on the phone. So, I never actually met him. But I would love to meet him sometime and discuss the stammering bit. This ad was shot 5-6 years ago. Back then, none of us thought we would be playing stammerers simultaneously. I haven't seen even one shot of him stammering in the trailers. I'm not sure whether I will see his film. I'm stick to my stammering.

It’s a cliched question to ask about the challenges, but can you narrate the experience of living such a character? How did you get into the skin, or should I say tone, of the character?

Stammering was a new thing for me to do. I’m growing as an actor. I’m not sure I would have been able to do this three years back. So, this time, when it came to me, I just wanted to take up the challenge. I thought this was my chance to set some things right about Bollywood. Often [stammerers] are shown as clichéd characters just to get a few laughs from the audience. I had to get it right, not fearing what people would say, but I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I didn’t get it right.

I was watching a lot of YouTube videos. It didn’t just show me different kinds of stammer, but there were videos where people shared their views, how they are treated, how it affects them. There is nothing funny about stammering. All these little things helped me come closer to Indu as a person. Then I met a psychologist to understand what is different about people who stammer. I based my questions after seeing the videos. That helped me gain perspective. 

I then met a speech therapist. I now had a little understanding of stammering, the psychological aspect. I needed to develop a technique, a structure, to my stammering which I could follow consistently. I was not going to have a speech therapist on the sets. I had to do all my prep before I went to shoot. I had to be my own judge. I asked the therapist to rate me on a scale of one to ten, what is the level of stammering Indu Sarkar has.

Another thing in the film was that my stammering should not evoke any laughter beyond the first scene. I had two sessions with the therapist before I left. Stammering was my focus and everything else became secondary. Before I started dubbing, I called my therapist and asked her to go through the scenes I had shot for. It was another pain as I had to relive the whole thing. She had a few suggestions, but overall she was pretty happy with the performance.

On a scale of 10, how would you rate your performance?

I would give nine and a half. My real test, though, would be when people who stammer can relate to that character.

When you were first offered this role, did you ask the director why Indu needs to stammer?

It’s symbolic because the voice of India was suppressed during the Emergency. By the end of the fllm, that voice of India comes back. Indu Sarkar as a character finds her voice in a philosophical way. Her stammering hasn’t vanished, but she has found the strength to truly express herself. 

Stammering is something you had to learn, but I wonder, is there a poet in Kirti Kulhari?

Yes, I do poetry. I started writing four years back. I just started writing one day and wrote some 35 poems. Then came a phase where I didn’t write a word.

Be it Pink or the Indu Sarkar trailer, your tears can perhaps move the Himalayan glaciers. It’s very difficult to pull off emotional scenes. Do tears comes naturally to you?

In Pink they came naturally. Every such important scene was often a single take for me. That’s just the way my director, Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, and [creative producer] Shoojit Sircar worked. You build up the emotions and then just let it burst out. 

In Indu Sarkar, they are real at times, but there were also times they weren’t. You would prepare for a couple of hours and then do it in one take. It’s a different thing altogether when I’m shooting the same emotional scene, from morning 10 to 5 in the evening. So, this was the difference in the way Pink and Indu Sarkar were shot. I can’t be crying from 10 am to 6 pm, so I had to use glycerine. I don’t have enough tears in my eyes to keep doing it. The good part is that the audience will never know it. 

For the times that we live in, Pink was a vital film. It was hailed by some as a feminist film that Bollywood needed. However, was Pink really a feminist film? Doesn’t tagging it as feminism kind of take away its relevance?

I am not a feminist. I do not like the sound of feminism. For me, Pink was not a feminist film. I think when we talk of feminism, or we restrict things to such things, then it does lose its value. For me, Pink had much bigger things to say, a much bigger message to convey than just being a feminist film.

Your following increased after Pink, but then many of your male fans were left heartbroken when it was learnt that you are married. It’s been a year since you got hitched. How has the journey been?

It happened after I finished shooting for the film, and the wedding took place before the release. I don’t know if I broke some hearts. That’s okay. Not every heart can be yours. I don’t think I can handle more than one heart.

We just celebrated our anniversary on 24 June. My husband is an actor himself. So he sort of understands the intricacies of it. We are both new to this success and really glad that he is part of it. We are just now enjoying the good part.