Interview Hindi

Kirti Kulhari: Sometimes you just need to take a back seat so that others can do their jobs

The Blackmail actress rubbishes the popular notion that a protagonist always has to be at the centre of a film.

Mayur Lookhar

People usually chase after successful films and artistes, but there is just as much to discuss and learn when a film does not do well. Provided the artiste is sporting and refuses to get too deeply affected.

Abhinay Deo’s Blackmail did not set the box office on fire, but there was a lot to be appreciated in the dark comedy, which had a fine story backed by impressive performances. The film largely got positive reviews but did not quite appeal to the masses.

Blackmail review: Irrfan Khan, Arunoday Singh triumph in this game of blackmail

Kirti Kulhari, who played the female lead Reena, is, naturally, taken aback by Blackmail's average theatrical business, but she sportingly answered critical queries about the film.

In an exclusive tête-à-tête with, Kulhari shared her Blackmail journey, admitted she is clueless how Indian audiences judge a film, and backed the call for the death penalty in heinous rape cases, among other things. Excerpts:

I don't know whether you served any raita in your first film Khichdi: The Movie (2010), but the one that was served in Blackmail was made of the sweet and spicy flavours of life. Do you agree?

Well, the initial title of the film was Raita. I felt that it was very appropriate considering the chaos that is created in the film. There is a mix of white and gray, and then it goes on to the black colour. The genre of the film was always a dark comedy. The situation in the film seems very funny to an outsider, but sometimes things can go to another extreme. It’s a fun film, but I felt that my character had the least amount of fun. Every other character had a certain quirkiness to it, I had a very straight graph.

It’s the director's prerogative, but after watching the film I couldn't help but feel that Raita would have made for a better title.

We started with the Raita title when we went on the floors. There were discussions then to see if we could come up with something better. Maybe people weren’t totally convinced with it. I was just one of those who was convinced. But I wasn’t surprised that the title was changed.

The chain of blackmailing, and the corresponding humour, all of it is generated from an act of infidelity. However, it would be lopsided to think of Reena and Ranjit as unfaithful. Through the lives of Reena, Ranjit, Dev, etc, we are shown a mirror to the society we live in. Your thoughts?

Kirti Kulhari and Arunoday Singh in Blackmail

Absolutely. Firstly, not many would expect to see Kirti play an unfaithful woman. That is like me breaking the image I have created with Indu Sarkar (2017) and Pink (2016). That was one big reason why I took up this film.

It’s true that there is no character in the film that is truly white or black. There is a mix of emotions that the characters are going through. When we approach a character, we always look at a character from every side. In fact, to play the character as convincingly as possible, we have to approach the character from a positive side. I have to view Reena’s motivation to get out of her marriage and find a partner outside as… (pauses) I really have to look at what is it that is lacking in her life.

It’s just interesting to be part of a film where the characters are not so 'Bollywood'-ish. Characters that break the stereotype, which courageously talk about the negative shades of a character.

Reena has a pivotal dialogue in the film when Ranjit asks her how her husband looks. To that she replies, 'Husband jaisa' [like a husband]. That simple exchange suggests how many women get tied into a relationship by their parents, by societal pressure, but their aspirations are seldom taken into account.

The back story of Reena is that she was in love with Ranjit. For some reason, they could not get married. After that she loses interest in whatever life has to offer her in terms of work or other things. There comes a time when her parents are pushing her for marriage. Along comes a guy called Dev and she just agrees. Somewhere she just stopped caring a shit about anything, or herself. She kept all her emotions in a box and put it away after Ranjit left her.

How Arunoday Singh laughed at 'all brawn, no brain' stereotype in Blackmail

She entered into marriage with no emotions to begin with. She accepted her marriage as fate. That obviously doesn’t make for a happy marriage. I am sure there are a lot of girls and boys who get into such marriages.

Relationships are your choice, but marriages in India happen for various reasons, not all of them right. Some people fall in love eventually, some never do. Some fall in love and get out of it. You can never know the real dynamics of a relationship between a couple, no matter how close you are [to them]. It’s much more complicated than ‘I’m not happy, I need to leave’ or ‘It doesn’t make me happy but I’ll stay’. You just need to make your choice carefully at each point of time.

Have materialistic desires started to govern our relationships as well?

Well, I don’t know if they have started to do that, but in today’s day and age people are earning at a young age. People are exposed to so much on their phones, there are too many distractions around, too much that tempts us all the time. Now you have the means to achieve them. Yes, materialistic desires are driving us crazy sometimes.

The reviews were largely good, but the box office numbers weren't. How disappointing is that, especially since the film came across as a genuine entertainer, a laugh riot?

Couple of things. Firstly, we had a hangover of a film like Baaghi 2 which has a humongous mass appeal. There was Hichki, too, which did well. Then the Indian Premier League commenced from 7 April. I don’t know how things work, but I’m told that IPL does eat into your numbers.

Having said that, I think the film is doing decently well, but if we are to be practical about it, we knew this film would not have mass appeal. It is primarily a multiplex film. 

It is disappointing, but coming from Pink (2016), which was hugely successful, then going to Indu Sarkar (2017), which wasn’t as successful, and now doing Blackmail, which I think is doing decently, I decided that I will never be bothered about numbers. There is no guarantee that your film will do well even if it has good content. The quality of a film has nothing to do with the money it makes at the box office.

I have not been fully utilised by Hindi film industry, says Arunoday Singh

Given that the story was made amply clear in the trailer, did the infidelity aspect deter family audiences?

I have no idea. I do not understand the way Indians think. I do not understand what it is that they like to see on the screen, what it is that they have a problem seeing. I can sit down and analyse, but I wouldn’t want to waste my time doing that.

Our audiences, if they are judgemental about these things [like infidelity], they should grow up. I think that our youth is far more open and mature when it comes to choosing the kind of cinema they want to see. They are not stuck in the idea of an ideal society.

It’s time we became open as an audience to just watching good cinema. I’m fine if someone doesn’t like Blackmail, but if you are judging people then it is sad. I’ll keep doing what I believe in.

I haven't seen the British American film The Man Who Wasn't There (2001), but from what I have read, the only thing common to that film and this is a husband blackmailing his wife's lover. Does that in any way take away the freshness from Blackmail?

I, too, haven’t seen that film. The first time I read of it was in one of the reviews. Again, I don’t know if that takes away the freshness or anything. Maybe people who have seen the English film found it the same. But I am sure there are loads of people who haven’t seen that film. I really don’t have an answer to these questions because I really don’t know how people think.

I could be wrong, but it's not often that the two most impactful, entertaining characters in a film are not the protagonists but the antagonist (Ranjit Arora) and a supporting character (Anand Tripathi). You had the best seat in the house watching Arunoday Singh pull off this crazy role. What did you make of his performance?

Arunoday Singh in a scene from Blackmail

I remember when I was reading the script, there were a bunch of roles I would have wanted to play. Ranjit was one of them. I wish I could be Ranjit, I wish I could be Chawala (played by Gajraj Rao) or even Dolly (played by Divya Dutta). I wish I could play any of these roles.

Ranjit was a very challenging character to begin with. Ranjit had a lot of black to his character. It is difficult for 'Bollywood' [Hindi cinema] actors to say yes to such a role. I know that a lot of people rejected this role as it would tarnish their image. It’s not just an ‘all brawn no brain’ character, there is much more to it. He is stupid, mean, cunning, a cheat. The way Arunoday has brought it all together… hats off to him. It was refreshing to see him take up such a role.

What do artistes like Irrfan Khan and Kirti Kulhari take back from a film where their characters are not so impactful?

Firstly, there is no character/role big or small. What truly matters is how the character is written. 'Bollywood' likes to have names — lead actors, actresses. Although my name was as lead actress or whatever, I have never truly felt like the lead of the film because I knew the film for what it was. I knew this is a film about characters. There are so many interesting characters in the film that it eventually doesn’t matter whether you are the lead, second lead or whatever people want to call it.

Secondly, what I take back from Blackmail is that you don’t have to be the centre of attention in every film. Sometimes you may be playing a role which may not be much on paper, but it is just so important to the whole film. To be able to play that role with understatement, without trying to stand out, is the beauty of it.

That’s a big lesson I have taken from this film. Mine is the least exciting character on paper, but I was very sure that I wanted to be a part of a film like this. A film is bigger than any character/actor. Sometimes you just need to take a back seat so that others can do their jobs.

Unfortunately, Irrfan Khan fell ill. So, it was just you promoting the film. Was it a bit uncomfortable to promote a film like Blackmail, with an unfaithful character like Reena?

Photo: Shutterbugs Images

I kept thinking that once people have seen the film, I probably will still have something to discuss. I will have something to share for now people have seen, experienced the film. Before the release, I found it difficult to speak about my character, what the film is like. Honestly, I see everyone [artistes] being important.

Irrfan Khan has a neuroendocrine tumour, to get treatment abroad

'Bollywood' operates a lot on faces, face value, but I like the idea of everyone [who is part of the film] being together and talking about it. With Irrfan absent, it did affect the promotions. However, it doesn’t matter. He has much bigger things at hand to take care of. But the good thing was that as a team we were convinced that for this film we will not go crazy with the promotions. This is not a film you would promote like your regular 'Bollywood' film. I think all of us did whatever we could in different capacities and here am I discussing the film after you have seen it.

Telugu actress Sri Reddy recently raised her voice against sexual exploitation in the film industry. I don’t know if she is telling the truth, but I wonder what it takes for someone to strip in public for the media, the industry to take notice. Hindi cinema usually toes the line that sexual exploitation [the casting couch] exists in all industries. However, don’t you think that line is no longer defensible?

Well, people have to start coming out and taking names. People should directly point fingers at people who are responsible. At the same time, they have to understand their own roles in it. When it comes to the casting couch, there are very few cases of one being forced into it. A lot of times it is mutual. What is it that leads to it being mutual? That is something we need to look into.

The casting couch exists because there is somebody in power who thinks that because he has power, and somebody needs access to that power, I’m in a position to exploit them. That mindset is something which comes from a space that is not healthy. It’s nice to see that people are opening up about it.  Whoever is going through this needs to have the courage to speak up. Till you don’t stand up, don’t expect anyone else to stand up for you.

Usually, Hindi film actresses talk about an incident, but they never take names. The media gets its gossip, but if you don’t name anyone then that is not much more than gossip.

Yes, it’s gossip, it’s so vague, in the air. You have to start being specific if some real action has to be taken as we saw in the Harvey Weinstein case. People at some point must gather the courage to tell their bitter experiences.

The other evil that plagues India is rapes. We had the tragic rape of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua, Jammu & Kashmir. Five years back, we were out on the streets, protesting, demanding justice for Nirbhaya. After a couple of years, people went back to their lives. I saw a news report where it said there are 2,500 cases of child rape, and some 30,000 rape cases overall, lying in courts. Enough has been said in words, but where does the action come from? As a society have we failed our children?

I think we are all just busy talking so much, making news out of it. I mean... (pauses) that’s why people [the media] have approached me in the last couple of days asking for my comments on the Kathua and Unnao rape cases. I have stayed away from it. I wonder what will my commenting on it add to it. How will another comment, in the ocean of comments now, thanks to social media... what will it change?

Being a public personality you have this constant burden of ‘you need to stand up for this, stand up for that’. How do you know that I am not standing up for it in my own way? Just because I choose not to comment on everything doesn’t mean I don’t get affected. If I ask you the same question, you will probably have exactly the same things to say as I do. But the real question is what is the change that needs to happen.

I read [Union woman and child development minister] Maneka Gandhi's comment yesterday where she asked for death penalty for convicts in rape cases involving minors below [the age of] 12. It has to be the death sentence and I can’t agree more. That too may not stop such crimes completely, but it’s time we really made some changes rather than just talking or discussing.

Coming back to your career, your previous film Indu Sarkar (2017) earned you critical acclaim but the film itself flopped. When a film turns into a slug fest between two political parties, it never augurs well for that film, I suppose.

I don’t have the answer to that, but what I feel is that people are fed up with politics. Somehow, everything today gets connected to politics. I think it is a big put-off for the audience. So, it’s possible that when people saw Indu Sarkar not for what it was trying to say but just being reduced to a political war between two parties, I’m like, ‘I’m done’. That could have been a big reason for people to not see the film.

Finally, from Khichdi to Pink to now Blackmail, is Kirti Kulhari saying, ‘Main Happy Happy Hoon’?

(Laughs.) Yes, I’m very happy. I’m not doing a lot of work. Trust me, I can, I could be working every single day of my life, but I choose not to. I want to do the kind of work that excites me at some level. I want work, roles that speak to me. I want to expend my energy into those kind of films. I’m in a very happy space.