Radhika Apte / Rule Breaker
Photography Gabby Laurent Styling Kelly-Ann Hughes Words Ravi Kelay
Radhika Apte has forged a career for herself in Indian cinema which has been characterised by risk taking and breaking new ground in what a South Asian actor can achieve. Winning accolades for both acting and for her directorial debut Radhika has been using the time away from working to write scripts and take stock of a career that has seen her come out vocally in support of the Me Too movement in an industry that has been struggling with its own issues around gender equality and exploitation of the people that are part of it. On a grey Saturday morning in London, in the midst of a second national lockdown in the United Kingdom, I sat down to a ‘new normal’ Zoom chat with Radhika. We discussed the transformative power of moving countries, navigating predatory behaviour and life in 2020.
Ravi Kelay: You grew up in Pune and your parents were in the medical profession. Your dad’s a neurosurgeon. Where did the decision to go into the arts and in particular acting happen? Where did it all start for you?
Radhika Apte: I think from childhood, I never wanted to be a doctor or anything. Since I can remember I always wanted to be an actor. My mom aspired to be an actor at the National School of Drama, but her circumstances didn’t allow her to pursue that at that time. But I always wanted to be an actor. It was always my aim from quite a young age.
RK: You studied Kathak for a very long period of time. For our readers who don’t really know what Kathak is, how would you describe it to someone who’s not initiated into that kind of art form of dance
RA: I did. I did Kathak and then I studied contemporary dance in London when I came here. I did classes in Pune and there was a teacher there from Canada. She was excellent and that’s how I started learning. And then I came to London. It’s a classical dance form. It’s a form of storytelling; there is a lot of footwork involved.
RK: It’s movement and narrative combined, isn’t it?
RA: Yes, but also lot of footwork, that has nothing to do with narrative. It’s not present in any other classical dance form in India. There are lots of amazing numeric patterns of footwork.
RK: How do you think it informed your acting?
RA: I think every art form or experience counts towards your being able to create anything.
RK: You came to London to study contemporary dance, and you said your experience in London was life changing? How so?
RA: When I was growing up in Pune it was still a small town. To give you a small example; in India, we take the English language very seriously. It was a huge thing when I studied in a Marathi native school. Because my parents believed that I should be educated in our mother tongue.
Most of the kids in the city went to English schools, nobody went to Marathi schools. Or they attended semi English schools. You studied science and mathematics in English, but we did not fit. Everything was in Marathi.
And then if you don’t speak English, or if you’re not attending an English school there’s a tendency to feel very inferior. To not be able to engage with the cities culture. To not be able to be a part of the social groups that would attend rock concerts, for example. I would go to these fancy cafes and there was a strong distinction between people who could speak English and went to the fancy English schools and those who did not.
People attending Marathi schools were from mostly lower income backgrounds. I was sort of between the two, because we were a middle-class family, but I studied in Marathi. And I was a part of both groups.
RK: How did that feel being kind of this outlier and growing up in this in between space?
RA: It was just always a struggle to want to be like the English-speaking groups. Wanting to learn English but not knowing the language. Also understanding that there’s nothing wrong but not being able to understand that, at that time. It was only when I actually came to a study in England that I realised that age didn’t matter, language didn’t matter… Not that I didn’t know that before, but it was the experience of actually living here that was really liberating.
When I was studying at Laban Conservatoire some of my colleagues were in their late 30s, early 40s who had suddenly decided they wanted to study dance. In India there’s a lot of pressure on children to become doctors, to become engineers.
RK: I understand that struggle…
RA: I came from a very liberal, progressive family but there was still a lot of pressure from my dad; because he kept telling me my profession was brainless and pointless.
I think that he’s not in the wrong necessarily, because if you look at Bollywood films when he was growing up, the female actors of Bollywood cinema mostly just dance in the streets of other foreign countries or wherever. It was literally nothing there to do. Of course, there were actors like Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil. But there was also huge nepotism. It was a very male dominated industry, where women did not have much creative power
RK: I feel like there was always a lack of agency for a lot of the roles that went to some of the most iconic female Bollywood actors. They were very constrained by societal and religious roles that we have in Indian cinema.
You’ve been an incredibly vocal supporter of the Me Too movement in Bollywood and in India, in general. And you participated in an article for the BBC about the practice of the casting couch, do you think those things will ever change? Do you think those changes are happening now?
RA: Yes and no. These things don’t change overnight. One Me Too movement is not going to change that. This is a start; it’s going change a few minds. I can make a few people aware. And that’s important.
I think it’s an ongoing process. And not just women, men get very badly abused in the industry as well. I think we should talk about abuse. Especially the abuse of women because that has been suppressed for such a long time
In Bollywood, I know a lot of people who just didn’t get affected, who are massive sharks, but their names did not come out. Nobody spoke out against them. And those people who actually stood up for the Me Too movement actually know them. They’re friends with them and they will do nothing about that.
I remember being at a party and thinking you just did a film with this asshole who you know, and I know is doing these things. What’s wrong with you?
It is complicated and nobody will speak about it. But it’s in every industry. It’s in Hollywood, and it’s in England. Everywhere.
RK: Were you concerned about any kind of potential backlash because you’ve been very vocal and incredibly articulate on this topic? Has this affected you personally?
RA: With me, it’s not happened very often. I remember coming to Bombay many years ago and I had an encounter with this casting director who I was put in touch with by a really dear friend of mine, I don’t even remember his name. I remember I was suggesting that we should have a cup of coffee and he asked me to go for drive with him at 11.30 at night, I just said no.
Apart from that the couple of times that I’ve had really bad experiences have been in the South Indian film industry. And I spoke about it very vocally with names and that particular time I was really worried about a backlash, because the actor I named was politically very, very powerful. And he had shot somebody apparently and I was just so scared. At that time, I was like, am I going to get shot? But I was just so angry that I had to speak about it.
There was another actor I worked with and at that time there wasn’t a Me Too movement. So, I employed different ways of rebelling against him. I remember we were doing a film and he and I were the lead actors and he was calling me on my phone, calling my room, and just being really sleazy. I was like, how many times can I very specifically tell you that I’m not interested? So finally, I just decided that I’m never going to look at him. I decided that I would always cheat both on and off camera.
I just used to deliver all my lines looking at his ears or to the side. I never looked at him, and if he greeted me, I wouldn’t respond. If we had to have a discussion with the director I would talk to the director and I would look away and speak if I had to talk to him.
That riled him up bad. It’s quite insulting, you know.
RK: I can imagine it must have really annoyed him.
RA: I remember we were on the last day of the shoot and it was with a huge crowd. The entire cast of actors were together because it was the climax, and we were all rehearsing. He came on set and he wanted to do a take without rehearsals and in the take he pushed me because he didn’t like my position. I just let it go. When the scene was cut, I called the director over and I said, if we are rehearsing and changing position in a take, it’s your responsibility to tell me.
He got so angry that he tried to hit me. And people actually held him back. And funnily enough, I burst out laughing because I did not expect this to happen. I couldn’t stop laughing. I mean, the DOP and I were literally laughing because what a poor miserable man. You know? So, these were the techniques I used to deploy in my career when dealing with these kinds of situations.
RK: You seem very at home at being able to navigate these kinds of situations in a disruptive way. How much of that energy do you bring to the roles you select? You starred in Love Stories and I’m so in love with the whole anthology. It was so refreshing watching narratives where women took centre stage, that were really frank, honest portrayals of sexuality and relationships. For instance, your character is a teacher who has an affair with a student and these roles aren’t necessarily the mainstream of Indian cinema. But you’ve managed to have this career where you’ve managed to participate in disruptive, independent movies.
RA: To be honest, I don’t get offered roles in mainstream cinema. In the sense occasionally I do get offered conventional roles. But I don’t really get offered a lot of those roles because I don’t have great relationships with certain people. Because I’m not in the whole business of attending parties.
RK: Because you’re not part of that clique that’s built around the Bollywood industry?
RA: Exactly. I attend some parties sometimes if I’m invited, but I’m not in there. I’m not a regular and you’ve got to be a regular. You’ve got to be a part of the circle in order to do that. And I find it’s not my cup of tea. So, I’m not a part of that. I’m always struggling to be commercially viable. Because it takes not just doing your job. It takes a lot of other things. And I find it very depressing.
RK: What in particular?
RA: Weird publicity. I’m not like that. Some actors have an entire social media team, photographers and publicists travelling with them everywhere. They take their pictures, eating, sleeping, all of that laughing, doing this and that. That’s how you get so many followers, you get brands, you get better films, you get better money. I don’t have an entourage; I work with a minimal team. I travel everywhere alone. I find it very intrusive with so many people around me. I don’t like to have my picture taken constantly. If I’m working on a film shoot then everybody should be offset because I’m trying to work. I can’t do social media pictures behind the scenes all the time. Now it’s social media, but earlier, it was other things.
RK: And what would be your dream role?
RA: It’s not a particular role. It’s just that you have to feel excited. It could be anything. I just have to feel excited, want to wake up and go on set and don’t want to leave it. So many actors go on set in the morning and want to know, what time will we be packing up? Oh, I see four hours left, six hours left… I don’t want to do that; I want to enjoy. I had a really amazing shoot beginning of the year; I worked on a series which a murder mystery, structured as a mockumentary. It’s a comedy thriller with robots and AI. It’s really great with an incredible cast, writers and director.
And then I took a break for a whole year and now finally I’m itching to work. I also I made a short film last year.
RK: It was called Sleepwalkers, which you wrote and directed? What was your experience of that that process?
RA: So much fun! I mean, it’s funny because I wanted to be in a in a film that was a horror movie, and I wasn’t cast for the project. I was quite heartbroken. I was like, why am I always getting rejected?
RK: So, you decided to write something?
RA: Initially I thought I was writing it for me. Once I wrote it I realised that I wasn’t going to be in it at all, I wanted to direct it.
RK: What’s the premise of the film?
RA: I can’t tell you really, it’s quite abstract. You need to watch it and experience it.
RK: You won the Best Midnight Short at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, right?
RK: Congratulations! That’s an amazing achievement.
RA: Thank you. I’m in discussions to see if I can make a feature. But I’m also trying to write other films and I’m in the process of trying to find producers for that. Writing has really kept me afloat this year.
RK: You also won the Best Actress award at the Tribeca Film Festival for your role in Madly. You were the first South Asian actress to ever win in that category. How did that feel?
RA: I never expected it. Because the category was best actress in an international competition, and ours was an anthology. My segment within the movie was twenty minutes. It wasn’t even a feature length performance. It’s great that I was nominated. I was there for the premiere of the film but decided to not stay on in New York. I flew back to India because I was shooting on another project. I found out in the middle of the night at 3am in India, somebody texted me saying that you won the award, and I was alone in my room!
RK: You must have been like who can I call to tell this great news to!
RA: (Laughs) I went to sleep
RK: Your year of being on sabbatical is coming to an end. What do you have planned now that your desire to get back into doing creative work has come back?
RA: I had signed a film many months ago, which is supposed to happen this year. I start working on that at the end of January. It’s called Mrs. Undercover. It’s a funny, Superwoman film. It’s with a debutante Writer/Director. The concept was really great. Then there is a series and another film I’m contemplating. But I’m also hoping that if one of my film actually gets produced, then I would focus on that.
RK: You’ve been in London throughout the two lockdowns and the spread globally of the pandemic. How have you found lockdown and how have you managed whilst you have been taking a break from working?
RA: I had great time. I’m sorry, but I have had a really good time. I haven’t had a break for 10 years.
RK: It was a case of perfect timing?
RA: Oh, my God, I finally took a break. I understood how I’d been insecure. Mostly because if other people are working, I’m insecure and if other people are not working, I’m not insecure. Which means that I definitely needed a break. A lot of work I do is because it’s out of fear of missing out. That’s not something I want to do anymore in life. And I think it was just nice to have some kind of stability where you don’t have to.
RK: The decision was taken out of your hands so to speak and it was something you had to deal with?
RA: Yes, also I’d been wanting to write something for three years. I wanted to try writing and I never had the chance. I was working around the clock. Especially the last four years; I don’t think I had any breaks.
RK: It’s that weird fear when you’re effectively freelance where you feel you have to keep going. That insecurity that this might be the last offer you get.
RA: In Mumbai you’re constantly in the same circles, you feel like, oh my God, they are doing this, they’ve been offered that and comparing yourself to that. Their numbers are higher, your numbers are low. It’s literally mindless.
RK: Do you feel liberated from that mind frame?
RA: I hope I don’t just go back to that old way of thinking. I hope I learned something from it. I actually got a big job offer in October, November. It was ridiculous money. I was like this is too good to let go. But I have said no, I have other plans. I was only doing it for the money. I had other plans; moving home; I had two scripts to submit. If I had agreed to shoot that project, I wouldn’t have been able to submit my scripts.
RK: If this has happened last year, do you think you would have gone the other way and taken the job?
RA: 100%. And this time, I prioritised writing my scripts over doing a well-paid job. I’ve made no money this year. And that’s okay. And I still want to write my scripts, which will probably never be made. One thing I’ve learned is just don’t do it. What I would gain if I was ever to make my film is far greater than making more money. In your gut you always know. Sometimes what I do is flip a coin. Not so that it will tell me what I’m going to do. But actually, when you are told what to do, you instantly know what you want to do.
RK: The coin forces your hand because then you know whether or not you agree with the coin or not?
RA: Exactly. Because it says heads do it. And you’re like, Oh, god, no. That means you don’t really want to do it. This actually happened with this project that I didn’t want to do. The coin said to do it. I remember I was really depressed, and I finally decided that I wasn’t going to do it. We were walking to a friend’s house for some drinks. I was literally dancing on the street. I was like, oh my god! Clearly, I didn’t want this job.
RK: At least you true to yourself, though?
RA: Aaargh rubbish. I don’t know… I love money. Of course, I’m just joking. I’m saying I love money but what I mean is I’m all for making money so that you can do other things. You know what I mean?
RK: For example, you do the commercial jobs to pay for those things you need to get out of your creative mind.
RA: Absolutely. That’s exactly what I mean. Because when you earn money, you can actually do things that you actually want to do.