I still remember my first interaction with Apte. In early 2015, I reached out to her for an interview before the release of Manjhi – The Mountain Man. I had scrambled for her personal number somehow, and we had a quick, affable chat, and zeroed in on a diner for our interview. But will they allow us to shoot you there, I had asked, because I needed a couple of profile shots of hers. “Oh, don’t worry, I’ll request the manager and we’ll shoot quickly quickly,” Apte had replied. When she walked in, I almost didn’t recognise her because she is tiny. Even tinier behind a gigantic pair of shades. But, I remember her taking them off, and blasting that trademark eye-to-eye smile, and I could not look anywhere else for the next hour. She was warm, buddy-like, she spoke like she had known me for ages, was immensely grounded, had no filter, and didn’t try to hide her Indianness. After we had overshot our interview time by half an hour, we quickly started setting up for her photographs. When the unhappy manager emerged, like I had expected, she stepped in before I could, told him we would take only a few minutes, and requested him to be nice, and allow us to finish the photos. “Chal, chal, jaldijaldi click!” She said, like we were a bunch of college kids, snapping without permission for a college project. We kept giggling through the shoot, cracking jokes about how the manager would throw us out that very instant, and I walked out of that interview, wondering if I’d ever find another celebrity who’d behave like that. Sneakily, I also wondered back then, if, when Radhika became a bigger star, she’d still remain exactly like that too?
In the last couple of years, Radhika Apte has become a phenomenon. From crackling international projects to kick-ass outings on Netflix India, Apte has adeptly established herself as one of this country’s best actors right now. Every outing of hers, from Parched to Phobia, Lust Stories to Andhadhun, The Wedding Guest to her three streaming shows — Stories By Rabindranath Tagore, Sacred Games, and Ghoul — has been stunning work, a deeper exploration of her talent, celebrating her uninhibited naturalness and candour, emotional prowess and bandwidth, and capacity to empathise. This year, she is gearing up for a huge release with Liberté: A Call To Spy. An espionage thriller based in pre-WW2 Britain, Apte plays the famous British spy, Noor Inayat Khan, and from the few clips and interviews available online, the film looks taut, edge-of-the-seat, and absolutely arresting. Will Apte knock it out of the park? Of course. Closer home, she is leading a talented pack with Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Netflix’s Raat Akeli Hai, a murder mystery, that looks extremely promising too. But, going back to that question that popped up in my head in 2015: Has Apte changed, now that she is a bigger, and international, celebrity? Not. One. Bit.
Through my interactions with her in the recent years, she still remains zero-filter, zero-fucks-to-give. She still talks to you like you’re a chum, rattling off a conversation at high speed, digressing, taking multiple detours. In any interaction with Apte her intelligence, always shines through. Still grounded firmly, there isn’t any high horse. “Who wouldn’t want to work with you? You will always get work” I said, during a conversation I had with her a few months back. She energetically countered: “No baba. There is nothing like that, okay? Please. I also have to look for work.” Her innate Maharashtrian affability often cracks through the English poise she has acquired, over the last decade or so. What’s brilliant is that Apte is one of the few people in the industry who has been able to treat it like it is their workplace — and not their whole life. Because of her attitude and perspective being correctly focused, she has been able to be a part of Bollywood’s talent pool, and also rise above its pettiness. In an industry that is presently riddled with in-fighting and mud-slinging, and has for the longest time been a toxic cesspool that tends to suck you right in, she has been able to keep her head in the game, and not waver. Radhika Apte is here to do her job — and she’s bloody brilliant at it.
Tell us more about your character in Raat Akeli Hai?
I play Radha, a very mysterious woman; she’s been the ‘rakhail’ of the man who she’s getting married to, and he is murdered on the wedding night. She’s had a very difficult life, so she basically feels there is nothing to lose, she is feisty, and can quite come across as arrogant and rude. There are a lot more things about her that are far more progressive than others, but she’s also mysterious, and we do not know whether she means what she says, or whether she’s tricking you.
What about the story made you take up this role?
Honey (Trehan, the director) was the reason I took it up firstly, because, you know, I hadn’t read the script. But when I read the script, this character was like one in noir cinema, like this mysterious woman who is also very attractive in a strange way, but she’s also troubled, and needs to be rescued. At the same time, she is also that person who will rescue you from your own demons. I have never played a part like this, and I also have never played the part of a woman from Radha’s background, and or that region, in India. All of this made me want to do the film.
How has your choice of characters over the years, between commercial films, web series, short films, changed? Do you have a selection process for what you do?
I do think my choices have changed. Sometimes, you’re offered certain work, and you choose, or some times, it’s something that’s never offered to you, sadly, so it’s limited. You normally don’t always get what you want. But I think earlier, I was trying to make a name, and I really needed the exposure, so I was making different choices. I also needed to make the money, I didn’t come to Mumbai with any. So, I was struggling, and I made my choices accordingly. Now — at the moment at least — there are two conditions when I choose the project. It has to be challenging me and exciting me, that’s one question that I ask myself. The second question that I ask myself involves the first question — When I have to wake up at 4 am or 5 am to shoot, will I feel like Oh God, I can’t do this and I don’t want to do the shoot or am I going to be like, I can’t wait to go to the shoot. If the answer is the latter, I will take the project. I think I’ve gotten selective with what I do, because I’m really not running behind fame or popularity. I’m really not. I think what I’ve realised is I want to be happy, and if my work doesn’t make me happy, then I don’t want to do it anymore.
You’d be one of the best people to discuss the growth of OTT platforms with. Do you think it’s not only opened up doors for newer talent, but also for the ones who are already silver screen A-listers, in that sense?
With the pandemic, now even A-listers are releasing their films on OTT platforms. So, there is no distinction. But isn’t it great that if there’s a Salman Khan film and an indie actor or actress’ film, they have equal exposure on the OTT platform rather than having some ridiculous number of screens and no screens? So, a viewer can choose content more democratically. I think that’s great.
While the advantage of releasing a film on an OTT platform would be no box office pressure, what according to you, are the challenges?
I think film culture is a culture. It’s not just a business, from the audience point of view at least. Going to the cinema, I feel, is a culture, and it’s a beautiful thing. If you just completely take that away from people, it’s a loss, so I am hoping that we can revive it in a more democratic and more equal way, and it’s not a culture we lose.
You’ve done theatre, short films, commercial Bollywood films, as well as web series. What’s the format that you feel closest to?
I have never chosen a format or chosen a project because I wanted to be on that platform. There’s no one format I feel closest to. As an audience though, I think the most romantic format is going to the theatres. And the most viable and realistic is OTT, because there are so many advantages. I think both have their advantages and disadvantages.
And does this feel like homecoming to you, after the #Radflix phase of 2018?
It feels really great to come back to Netflix, of course. I’ve been meaning to return for a long time, it didn’t happen, and I am really happy to have the old friendship renewed.
You’ve also worked across industries, from regional to Hindi, to English. As an actor, what are the different characteristics that you’ve imbibed from such a versatile environment?
I think when you work with regional cinema, it’s really difficult because you don’t speak the language. It is difficult to bond with the people there because some people find it difficult to speak English and Hindi, but you understand the culture a little better. I enjoy it the most when I’m doing films in the languages that I speak. So, I have done less films in the South, because I do not speak the language. I didn’t get around to learn it, but working outside India, I think the most professional thing I’ve observed is that people pay on time, and we should definitely embrace that. Second is people are punctual. Another aspect that’s different is that every head of department has read the script, and is very well aware about what we are going to do whereas, in India, the script is never ready sometimes. We have our strengths here as an industry, and I think we can do better.
Speaking of opportunities, do you think there’s been a significant rise in the quality and quantity of female-centric storylines, characters, and films, from the time you started out?
In a way yes, because of OTT platforms. I think there are a lot of things where women are finally getting more work, and in general, actors are getting a lot of work. But in films, I mean yes of course, there are films with female-centric stories, but weren’t there films like that years ago too? Like Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Sridevi, Madhuri Dixit, were all doing amazing films with female-centric parts, so I don’t know if statistically, we have an increase, in that regard.
How’s self-isolation in London going?
What do you feel like doing once you can come back to Mumbai? London is not self-isolating anymore. Though the break feels better, every time I read about what’s happening in India and around the world, it’s just really heartbreaking. If I’m going to come to India, then the first thing I am going to do is see my parents.
How do you see the industry recovering from the setback this year, in all aspects, be it the amount of work for everyone, theatres reopening, or the general vibe on a set?
I really don’t know. One thing I have learnt from this pandemic, is to not think about the future. I think nobody knows what is to be done, or what is going to happen. We don’t know when the vaccine is coming, and how that changes things. Or is it too early for the vaccine to come, are people anyway going to get it? We don’t know.
At this point in time, an important conversation within the industry (that also might be getting lost in translation) is the insider vs outsider debate. As someone who is purely self-made herself, what would your opinion be?
I don’t like nepotism being associated with what has happened recently. I find it very disrespectful. I think nepotism is a product of the entire society in India. We are all obsessed with certain families, we are all obsessed with their kids. We always go and watch the film when it is by some people even if they are new, but they are from a certain family, irrespective of if they’re good or bad. So, we have also developed nepotism. As an audience, if we reject it, it will not exist. It doesn’t work one way, and it’s a very complicated subject to speak of, in such a short time. But I do think that now, a lot of people are producing and directing films that are not from their families, in that sense. So, I think when we become a part of the industry, it’s important to see whether we stay true to the work, or become a part of it and start behaving like an insider.
What are your other upcoming projects?
I did a series this year, which will eventually come out. Other than that, all my projects have been on hold, so I’m waiting to see what happens next.
Who are the contemporaries you like watching, or would want to work with?
A film you recently liked? To be very honest, I haven’t watched anything recently to say what I liked, very sorry about that. But one of the shows that I have watched recently and loved, is Delhi Crime Season One. I would love to work with Ruchi Narain, but there are innumerous people that I adore. Like Anurag Kashyap, Anurag Basu, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee. It’s a really long list.
Cover story interview by Samreen Tungekar
Photographed by Prabhat Shetty
Hair and make-up by Kritika Gill
Styling by Ayesha Das Gupta