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ATUL KULKARNI and NATARANG Rule the Roost - Interview & Film Review

© Hindi Cinema Blog

Better late than never, the Hindi Cinema Blog has finally managed to watch the unmissable and highly acclaimed 'Natarang', Ravi Jadhav's filmic anthem to a man's passion for art and to standing for what one believes in, based on a novel by Dr. Anand Yadav. A story that has the capability of stirring audiences throughout the world, this is unquestionably one of the best Indian films we have come across this 2010! (see the trailer and official 'Natarang' website)

'Natarang' is set in the 1970s and is the story of Guna, a village wrestler with a love for Maharashtrian popular theatre (tamasha) who decides to create his own village troupe when he and his friends are suddenly hit by unemployment. Strong and manly, Guna dreams of writing a play in which he will portray a king but things take a different turn as he becomes confronted with the choice of playing a 'nachya' (effeminate character), without which he would have to say goodbye to any possibility of making his artistic dreams come true.

The film about his ravaging passion for popular theatre begins as a lighthearted story and progressively evolves towards the dramatic destiny of its main character as the plot thickens. 'Natarang' touches such sensitive subjects as gender roles and expectations in 1970s Maharashtra, the fear ofsurpassing oneself, art politics, family ties and society's prejudices.

Ravi Jadhav has brought together an extremely talented cast in which everyone should be mentioned, from the villagers to the politicians or to the beautiful heroine embodied by stunning Sonali Kulkarni.   

Sonali Kulkarni could make a fortune giving charm and spunk lessons
Nevertheless, the film's piece de resistance is Atul Kulkarni's performance. Whether it be as a wrestler or a man who plays an effeminate character, he has surpassed in our eyes many other actors of his generation in Indian cinema, firstly, for accepting to give it all to such a rich role, and secondly, by fulfilling it brilliantly to its absolute and full extent with a solid stroke of acting genius.

Atul, who recently granted our blog an interview for the charming and lively film 'Valu', is back to talk with us about his commitment to his role as wrestler cum pansy who transcends it all to reach inner freedom in 'Natarang'.

HCB – ‘Natarang’ focuses on lavani and tamasha (popular genres of Marathi music and theatre respectively) to tell its story. Are these cultural traditions that you have been acquainted with yourself?
AK – I have not seen tamasha the way you see it in the film because plays are no longer like this anymore and the tradition has lost its original form. The reference point in the film was old Marathi films from the 1960s and 1970s which were based on the tamasha form. Some of the most well known films made on tamasha background are V. Shantaram's and 'Natarang' is based on this type of film. Of course, there are also photographs or books of old lavanis that were also used as reference since new lavanis are not currently being written, only sometimes for films, but not for performances on stage even if old lavanis are still sung at shows, just the music, without a traditional (theatre) play.

HCB – The soundtrack is absolutely lovely. Do you have a favorite song from the film?
AK - Yes, I have a song I like very much, it is a background song: ´Khel Mandal’.

HCB – ‘Natarang’ is Ravi Jadhav’s maiden film, tell us how both of you met and how your collaboration on this film came about.

AK - Actually the producers knew him and they called me up. I had not met Ravi before that. When we met he had already done a lot of preparation as he was already working on the music, was preparing the screenplay and had downloaded several photos of myself on the Internet and had worked on them to show me how my character would look. He narrated the story in a nutshell to me and I requested to wait for some time and eventually I read the screenplay. When I read it, I had some creative ideas for him and that is how we started working together.

HCB – During the film you go from wrestler to ‘nachya’ (an effeminate male dancer) sporting a mindblowing physical transformation! How did you manage to build up so much muscle and then lose so much weight for your role? And how many days did you shoot?

AK - As soon as I heard the story I knew the basic challenge was physical. I have never had a muscular body, so I went to my personal trainer, Shailesh Parulekar, who knows my body, how I can work out, etc. He read the script and calculated until he figured out how much time I would require to build my body as I was required to weigh 85 to 86 kilograms. He also calculated the time needed to lose that weight later.

I had to finish two films at the time but after that I took 7 to 8 months out for 'Natarang' without working on any other film. During the time I was finishing work on the other films I was already training just to increase the stamina of my heart so I would be prepared for weight training later. It was two months of basic preparation and then another three months of heavy weight training. We then shot the first half of the film and then waited a gap of 50 to 60 days. In 43 of those days I lost 17 kg. This had to be done under very able guidance and checkups. I kept a journal, both for food and drink, as well as hours slept. I would say this is not advisable to do without guidance. I don’t smoke and I don’t drink so my trainer found it easier to prepare me even if  age was not on my side, as I am 44 and that could make things difficult. So full credit goes to my personal trainer.

HCB – Did you read Dr. Anand Yadav’s novel or meet the author in order to approach your character?

AK - Yes, of course. I had not read the novel before I was contacted for the film, but I immediately read it after I was told the story and it helped me a lot. Not only this, but also the films (from that time) that I saw, the biographies of tamasha artists… I still have a feeling that this helped for the background but ’Natarang’ is also about human beings, about what a person goes through to get what he wants, about the set definitions of how a man should be or how a woman should be, especially in the Indian context, where these definitions are very stark.  The film talks about gender politics, my character grows long hair for the kind of job that he does on stage and the film shows how society reacts to this.

So beyond research, you have to empathize with the character while reading the script. Additionally, for some characters one may prepare by doing a journey from the internal to the external, but in ‘Natarang’ I prepared by doing a journey from the external to the internal: in the way I was changing my body I could better understand the character.

HCB – Many women surely wish they could be as charming and convincing as Guna since your mannerisms as Guna the dancer are impeccable. Give us your recipe. Did you work with someone in particular on your walk and gestures?

AK - Yes. This work was done with choreographer Phulwa Khamkar. She worked quite hard and vigorously on me. When I started shooting, after all the heavy weight training, the heaviness of my body was an issue as I could not do the exercises required by the choreographer but after the first schedule, every afternoon she taught me all these movements. All the credit goes to her.

HCB – ‘Natarang’ not only talks about gender politics but also touches the subject of how artists may be judged by society or their families, as art is considered an occupation that does not earn enough or can even hurt a family’s honour. Did you ever have to overcome that type of difficulty or judgement in your own life when you decided to become an actor?

AK - The only thing I faced was the worry of my parents because they wondered what would happen to me. No one from the family was in the profession so they hardly knew it and they were basically concerned with the uncertainty of this profession, which is natural. However, these days all these ideas about artists (and family honour) as shown in ‘Natarang’ are not relevant anymore.

HCB – You were fairly new to cinema when you acted in ‘Hey Ram’ and surely learnt a lot from Kamal Hassan. You are now the key to understanding cinema maybe for other actors who are starting to enter cinema, we are thinking for example of Sonali Kulkarni. Do you enjoy introducing your fellow actors to your experience of cinema?

AK - I don't know if I know that much (laughs)! I love talking about cinema! I tell them what I know and I can just share my experience with other actors… this is of course very subjective. I make it a point to talk about my experience because I have had the chance to work with eminent people in cinema, this of course depending on whether some people want to listen to me (laughs).

HCB – Even briefly, ‘Natarang’ also focuses on the hardships of living in rural India at the time (unemployment, rumours that reach all corners of a village). We could not help but think of another film that has been released recently in Hindi and is doing very well, called ‘Peepli Live’. Would you say that Hindi cinema may now increasingly go back to exploring stories based on rural India?
AK - We have always dealt with the topic. All the movements of art films of the 1970s... many of them dealt with rural India. Commercial cinema, meaning Hindi commercial cinema of the late 90s and early 2000s, is sometimes necessarily urban or even takes place in Western countries. In the case of ‘Peepli Live’, there is a kind of fresh thinking about the problems of rural India. It is interesting to see the way the film has connected these rural problems to the city. It is a social political scenario in India that reflects the divide between India and Bharat.

Marathi cinema has almost always dealt with the subject of rural India because it has had a wide rural audience. In fact with the modern wave of cinema urban problems have also become more present. It is still a point of debate whether rural Maharashtra is the real Maharashtra. In 'Natarang' the rural Marathi dialect was used. This type of Marathi was incidentally common in films that were made in the 1960s and 1970s in Kolhapur, an area in southwestern Maharashtra where the per capita income is quite huge. The novel 'Natarang' had the Kolhapur dialect and tamasha was predominantly present in that area too.

HCB - The recent screening of ‘Natarang’ at the Munich Film Festival was very successful. Tell us a bit more about how it all went.

AK - The screening went extremely well!

One of the screenings we were quite nervous because Germany was going to play against England at the same time. The screening coincided with that match and we were really quite nervous about it. Surprisingly the auditiorium was full. We had had the first screening just the day before and the word-of-mouth publicity was brilliant so the next day the audience was almost full.

The parameter of how people have liked a film is generally how people react to the Q and A session after the film has ended. How many people have walked out during or after the film? How many people are really interested in knowing more about the film, in talking to the director? I was really happy that almost 96% of the audience stayed back, they asked questions, they wanted to know more. Actually, the organizers had to stop and take it outside because the people for the next screening were waiting outside! So it was quite an overwhelming response I must say. It was not that only Indians from Munich had come… no, that was not the case. Very few Indians and Maharastrians had come for the screening. Most of the audience was basically local. Really heartening.

HCB – Have you ever given thought to producing/directing films yourself? What about writing scripts, alike Guna (Atul’s character in ‘Natarang’)?

AK - (Laughs) Right now I would not deny either possibility but I cannot say when and how.

The Hindi Cinema Blog wishes to thank Atul Kulkarni for gracefully accepting this interview as he prepares for his next release: Ramesh  Rao's Yaksha’, a Kannada film in which he will be appearing alongside Nana Patekar, Yogesh and Ruby Parihar. 'Yaksha' releases on October 1st. The Hindi Cinema Blog recommends booking the date in your calendar!

Director: Ravi Jadhav
Writing credits: Ravi Jadhav (screenplay), Dr. Anand Yadav (story)
Lyrics & Dialogues: Guru Thakur
Music: Ajay-Atul
Producers: Meghana Jadhav (Athaansh), Nikhil Sane, Amit Phalke ( Zee Talkies)
Cast: Priya Arun, Vibhawari Deshpande, Kishore Kadam, Atul Kulkarni, Sonali Kulkarni

Purchase the Natarang DVD and novel online
Become a Facebook fan of Natarang
Join Atul Kulkarni on Facebook and Twitter
Read another exclusive interview with Atul Kulkarni: Valu Strikes a Universal Chord


Bunty Gandhi said...

I watched Natarang two years ago and this was first marathi film I watched.And wow what a film It was !! I got aware of the potential of marathi cinema along with tamil-telugu. After natarang I watched harishchandrachi factory and recently I watched deool.These all movies are excellent and shows the power and capabilities of regional cinema mainly in finding very indian story.

Aline HindiCinemaBlog said...

Thanks for stopping by, Bunty!

There is great filmwork being done throughout the various film industries in India. I do agree with Atul in saying that the more local (the more Indian) a plot gets, the more universal is its reach and marathi cinema definitely goes there, in my humble opinion. Looking forward to watching more and having you read us often.

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