“Hum tehri bana rahe hai, kisiko khana hai toh batao,” is one line that is imprinted in the minds of several Gullak fans.

Today’s story is about Geetanjali Kulkarni, a Marathi theater artist, who won hearts portraying a middle-class woman from small-town Uttar Pradesh. The 50-year-old actress, who belongs to a traditional Marathi family, did not have an easy journey, but thanks to her love for the craft and NSD scholarship, Geetanjali could live her dream of being an actor. In an exclusive conversation with the indianexpress.com, Geetanjali Kulkarni aka Gullak’s Shanti Mishra shared her inspiring journey. “If I hadn’t joined NSD, acting would have just been my hobby”, said the actress.

“Since my childhood I have been attracted towards acting. Even in school, after a visit to circus, I tried imitating a joker while I was in kindergarten. So, I always had the performer’s instinct in me. Plus, in Marathi culture, we are very much into plays. However, all this while, I never thought of making it my profession, it was more like my passion. It was only after I got into the National School of Drama that I got the confidence.”

It wasn’t an easy journey for Geetanjali Kulkarni to take the decision as she belongs to a traditional family. “I was just 20-years-old and things were all the more difficult for girls back then. It was a task for me to convince my family. But, thanks to the scholarship I bagged at the National School of Drama, I could rebel and tell my parents, ‘I have a scholarship, even if you won’t support me, I can go ahead.’”

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Festive offer

Geetanjali, who had to battle it out to begin her career in acting, says her parents eventually came to watch all of her shows, with her sister being her biggest fan. “My dad has passed away but when he was alive, he used to attend my plays. It was my brother, who didn’t believe in all this and didn’t like it, but I think he has accepted it now. Initially, when I wasn’t earning enough, my parents suggested that I should work in TV serials, but I think they were sort of scared of me; I wasn’t a very obedient kid.” Geetanjali is 12 years younger to her sister who is into quantitative research, while her elder brother is a software engineer in the US.

NSD also played an important role in her personal life as she met the love of her life, husband Atul Kulkarni, who was her senior at the drama school. “National School of Drama is like an island. You just have around 20-25 people in each batch. You get to know each other really well and spend a lot of time together. He was one year senior to me. There was a group of Maharashtrian people, who used to do Marathi plays. He was a sort of person, who would gather everybody and was sort of a leader. I liked him a lot, it was me who proposed to him outside India Gate. He was like ‘I will let you know’. I think he took two-three days to tell me. I am not a very conventional girl. I didn’t even know it’s the guys who proposed first. I was like, ‘apne ko koi acha lage toh puchna chahiye na’. A few days later, he accepted my proposal.” Now the couple has been married for 24 years and has been together for 30 years.

Geetanjali never had films on her mind and always wanted to do theatre–commercial Marathi theatre.

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She just knew she wanted to master the craft and not be an immature actor. However, after her three-year course, she got a jolt in real life. “You learn so much in NSD, but it gets difficult to apply in your real life. But because I was from Maharashtra, I knew Mumbai. However, I had no clue how to look for acting jobs or go to production house. It also depends on your personality, you need to be fearless. But, I was quite hesitant to meet people and visit offices.”

Soon, Geetanjali bagged a few roles in weekly series like Swaraj and Bhains Barabar for DD. However, daily soaps exhausted her. “I didn’t feel comfortable in that medium,” she says.

This made Geetanjali return to theater and joined a group called Aavishkaar. From 2000, the actress started doing commercial Marathi plays. Eventually, Geetanjali shifted to doing Hindi experimental theatre, eventually getting into teaching and taking acting workshops across India. Alongside, she was doing several plays including Piya Behrupiya, which she did for 10 years across the globe.

Due to Geetanjali’s performances, she was approached for an important role for the film court. “When I auditioned for Court, it was a six-month long process and we had many workshops. Right from what is an FIR to what a public prosecutor does, we had to learn all of these before being finalized for the role.”

It was after Court, which won the Best Feature Film title at the 62nd National Film Awards, that Geetanjali started receiving several offers, but not the kind she deserved. “Even after Court, despite doing such an important film and role, I wasn’t getting any offers. I decided whatever comes my way, I will do that. I did get certain opportunities but those stories didn’t resonate well with me. I didn’t get any script for at least 1.5 years. Even the roles that were offered to me were minor ones like Mukti Bhavan, Photograph, and Sir. I did enjoy these roles, but as an actor I was not satisfied. These roles ended in just 5-6 days and I didn’t know how to make use of my craft in such situations.”

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However, Geetanjali’s career trajectory was changed by Gullak, a show that put her in a completely different geographical zone. “I put in a lot of effort not to present myself as a Marathi actor. I wanted to prove they have chosen the right person for Shanti Mishra.” To bring Shanti Mishra to life and with extremely low budget, Geetanjali and the entire team of Gullak used to work for 18 hours a day. “We shot the entire first season in just 14-15 days.”

Geetanjali also worked in projects like War Room and Sir as she believed in the stories more than how much it paid. However, the actress now says, “I am done with doing small roles, I now look for meaty roles in scripts.”

While Geetanjali has been choosy about her projects, there have been situations in her life where she has worked for the pay cheque. She recalled a time when she was part of this typical commercial Marathi play, which was quite popular, but did not match her sensibilities. “The story was seeing women with a particular lens, this was around 2005, but while playing the role, I just realized I am not this sort of an actor.”

It was situations like this that made Geetanjali choose a minimalist lifestyle, which didn’t need a lot of money, so that she will never be forced to take up projects for the sake of money. “I can’t compromise my craft and belief for money. I am okay to travel in a bus and not have a luxury car, but I cannot compromise on things I don’t believe like.” A lot of times Geetanjali took up such projects for people’s sake, “Kabhi kabhi log ache aur interesting hote hai, toh projects lena padta hai. (Sometimes, even when I don’t believe in the project, I sometimes take it up for the people associated with the project).”

Geetanjali, who believes she has changed a lot in the past three decades, talked about the importance of living one’s life to the fullest. “Mai apni zindagi hi nahi jiyungi toh apne roles mein kya uniqueness le aaungi? (If I won’t live my life, how will I bring uniqueness to my characters?) I just like to do one project at a time. People might call it laziness, but that’s how I work. For me, my acting is my passion more than my profession, I don’t want to lose my passion by overworking. A lot of times I work for less money, when I believe it is an important story, and this message needs to be sent to people.”

Geetanjali, who has just one project as of now, Khauf, is trying to create a series of her own soon. Khauf will release on Amazon Prime Video.