I was sitting in my seat at, if I remember correctly, PVR Juhu, having watched Mrunal Thakur’s debut film, Love Sonia. I usually never text actors personally after watching a film, but I had to text Mrunal. I sent her a long message, expecting no reply. Cut to two years later, we were sitting at Juhu’s most happening restaurant at Soho House, talking films, relationships, family, our love for the sea, while plotting how to lie to our trainers about the pizza we were eating. Today, for me, Mrunal Thakur is not just the wonderful actor we adore on screen, but also a dear friend. And I knew she’d be one early on, when once I was missing home (outside of Mumbai) and she offered to send over home cooked food. We hadn’t even met by then! So more than a professional interview, this is a personal conversation between Mrunal Thakur the actor, Mrunal the person I know and myself.
Thakur’s manager, Aashian Ahluwalia set up a telephonic interview at 1. Thakur was supposed to have landed in Delhi and sat in her car by then. It was going to be a long ride and I was going to be her companion. To my surprise, Thakur received the call sharp at 1, even though she was running late and was still at baggage claim. Which made me wonder, do actors really claim their own baggage? Well, at least Mrunal Thakur does. We spoke for a little over an hour, and through professional, sophisticated questions I got to know Mrunal even close. Even though she isn’t really a fan of labels, here’s how I would define Mrunal Thakur – a darling daughter who her parents are so proud of that every time they enter a shop and find Lakmé products in there, they buy it because it has their daughter’s face on it; a jealous sister who is insecure when her mother showers more love on her siblings. She says, “Haan thoda naam kama lia hai, magar ghar pe (I may have earned some fame, but at home) I’m my father’s daughter.” This is Mrunal at home. Outside of it, she’s a hungry entertainer. She tells me that life is her school, auditions are her classes. “Even when I’m doing ads, there’s so much to learn from them. In a minute, or less, there’s so much that you have to do, express.” But above it all, Mrunal Thakur is a compassionate and grateful human who only wants to inspire young girls and thank those who inspire her or have helped her. At the top of her list are Vidya Balan and Freida Pinto. Balan for changing the meaning of a Hindi film heroine and Pinto for teaching her (during Love Sonia) how to deal with everything related to the industry.
In a conversation interrupted by gossips and laughter, Mrunal Thakur talks to us about Toofaan, Love Sonia, the films in between and the storm within her…
How did acting begin for you?
I always wanted to inspire people, and I felt like I was very expressive in front of the camera. And somewhere down the line, in my head, when I was growing up, 3 idiots happened and I wanted to do for an entire generation what 3 idiots had done. I wanted to create that impact. The film changed my life. In the second year of my college I decided to audition and I was extremely comfortable and felt like I was meant for this and at the age of 18 I decided that I want to be an actor. And here I am, trying to associate myself with good cinema, stories which are relatable and would bring a change among younger generations.
Did you not grow up wanting to be an actor?
Not at all. In fact I was not allowed to watch television or films. I come from a background, family in which education is given priority. I think the reason why I can understand films is because I have always watched films on mute. I used to hide and watch films at night and if there was volume, mom would wake up. So, language was never a barrier for me. I would watch any film, in any language – Hindi, English, Marathi, Bengali. I was always into visuals, and somewhere down the line I just got hooked on to it. You know, how when parents keep you away from something and you’re attracted to it? With me, that thing was entertainment. They tried to keep me away from the screen, and here I am on screen. Laughs.
How did Love Sonia happen?
Love Sonia came to me at a point when I was really low. I was training for another film, and I had trained for 6-8 months, but then it didn’t happen. I quit television because I had this film and then the next day I didn’t. And then I kept going for auditions. Auditioning felt like a full time job. Then I got to know about this audition that was happening and in full rage I went for it. There were 7-8 rounds of auditions, Tabrez [Noorani] was a tough director and when I was shortlisted, I saw my name on the board as an “option” among other girls. And I didn’t want to be that. So I worked towards becoming Sonia. I also want to take a moment to thank the people I worked with on Love Sonia, especially Virginia Holmes. She designed how Sonia would look and said to me, “The moment an artist pays attention to appearance, they lose their focus. So trust me and just go with it.” She put dirt in my nails and what not, but she’s the reason why I could do with Sonia what I eventually ended up doing. And to be honest, I had faith in myself throughout the shoot of the film, and even after. When the film didn’t release for a long time, I always knew that one day I will see it release and when that day comes, I will be very proud of myself, the entire team of Love Sonia and the film we’ve made. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but it is what it is.
Is rejection an incentive to work harder?
Yes. Someone else went ahead and did the film I was dropped out of, and when I watched it in the theatre and the female lead would say her dialogues, I would automatically say them with her. I had tears in my eyes, but I saw why I wasn’t cast. I perhaps overworked and ended up not looking like the character. The other actress was perfect. She did a very fine job. I took that as a lesson, and also understood that I will not be perfect for every film that comes my way.
What’s your process?
I always look back on my performances, on my characters. Ananya, for me, becomes a combination of the characters I have played in the past. She learns from them, maybe even adopts their flaws, and grows. Supriya couldn’t stand for herself and marry the man she loved, but Ananya could. Slowly and steadily, I’m trying to learn from these characters who define life. And whether it’s on set or off, I work with people who I think are going to push me. The team that I have for myself – I know they don’t just push me, but it’s like they push me off the cliff to make sure that I deliver. I couldn’t be more thankful to them.
Because you were an established name in the TV industry, when you entered films did you ever think that you will now have to restart from your struggling days?
When I face the camera, I know it’s a process. It’s like a regular job. Once you’re done with working at some place and have to go to another, interviews is something you will have to go through. And I’ve come to realise, auditioning is a life long process, and I really enjoy it. It’s also a lot of learning. In a limited time you have to do so much. I see no harm in auditioning, I don’t have an ego that way. Main bahut besharam hoon (I am shameless), I’m very hungry when it comes to playing good parts in good films. So if I have to audition for it, wait in a queue, so be it.
Do you approach characters on different mediums (TV, films, short films) differently?
The only things constant for me are change and the camera. Acting is all the same on all platforms. Of course, how long the characters stay with me will differ. Ira was with me for a short span, Sonia and Ananya, both, were with me for over two years, so coming out of characters differs, but my approach is the same. I have to be as honest with an Ira as I am with an Ananya.
You say video was a major influence in your life, and that audio was absent, but whenever I’ve watched you perform – even in your most glamorous roles like in Ghost Stories – your dialogue delivery is very convincing and earthy. How does that come into play considering your inspiration has been video and not audio?
When I was growing up, I used to watch a lot of interviews. I used to feel that in these interviews, everyone is so proper, so perfect. But I felt uncomfortable. Because no one is perfect in real life. I knew that’s not someone who I wanted to be. I wanted my audience to connect with me, I wanted my audience to connect with the character that I’m playing and not just because I am a celebrity, and that’s what I’ve worked towards. I’m not denying the existence of proper, perfect people. But people at large are simple, and, to me, simple is attractive. When young girls see me on screen, I want them to know and feel that I’m telling their story. Of course not everyone can put themselves in each of my characters, but I mean in context. So, whatever character I’m playing – Ira in Ghost Stories, Sonia in Love Sonia or Ananya in Toofaan – I want people to tell me that they cried when Ananya cried, they felt Sonia’s victory in their bones. Real is rare and I want to be rare by being real and that’s why I talk on screen how I do. I put myself in the context of the women I’m playing and behave how they would.
When you say you want to be real, and you want people to feel what your characters feel, the one thing that comes to my head is, how do you get out of a character, especially like Sonia? How do you come out of Sonia to then become an Ira, Supriya or Ananya?
I believe jis cheez se mujhe faida nahi hona hai, uske baare mein mujhe nahi sochna hai (I don’t have to think about something I’m not benefitting from). I rather look back at each of my characters to see what I have learnt from them. I was sad when Toofaan released because I realised that now I don’t get to go on set with Rakeysh sir, I don’t get to be Ananya, perform with Farhan Akhtar, Supriya Ji, Paresh Rawal. I miss the journey. But when the film released, this one person who I know for years now reached out to me and she said, “You’ve been my Ananya even before you became an actor,” because I had once pushed her to do what she was skeptical to do. I also think that if I don’t get out of Sonia, I will never be able to invest in Ananya (or any character) how I should, which would be an injustice to her and the entire process of making Toofaan. I learn from the women I play, I take the best from them and move on. Sonia was a difficult character to come out of – it was my first film and a very sensitive topic, but I don’t romanticise the idea of staying with characters. Once the film is done with, I have a slight hangover of the character, but when I get to the next character, I become her.
“Real is rare and I want to be rare by being real.”
You and I have something in common – our love for Vidya Balan. Balan has redefined what it means to be a Hindi film heroine. Is setting an example like that an aim for you?
Yes, definitely. I really worship Vidya Balan and the choices she’s made. Even though there have been wonderful actresses before and alongside her, she told us, film after film that women can be the heroes of their stories. And that’s what I want to do. I don’t have a problem with my screen time. Even in a small role, I look for substance. I want material to play with. I cannot just be a flower pot. Look at the works Smita Patil ji, Radhika Apte have done. They haven’t lived by the rules, in boxes and they’re such fine performers. I want to break barriers, stereotypes and make my place in the industry. I have been rejected for films because I don’t look “glamorous”. I have received comments like, “Mrunal you’re not sexy” when I’ve gone for meetings. I know it’s strange, but I feel like I’m very sexy. People have really defined these terms, which is not what I want to add to, honestly. There will come a character where I will be sexy, by my rules, and it’ll be a one in a million kinda character. Was Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada not sexy? I think she was. But then there are all kinds of roles, all kinds of definitions, and sometimes, actresses don’t really have a choice. They sign films that they aren’t really happy with, but it’s a journey and it’s their choice. If that’s right for them, it should be right for the world.
Coming to Toofaan, Ananya is a very chirpy character. She’s borderline irritating. How do you make a character like that loveable?
Whenever I play a character, I never think as the character. I don’t think about her process. Rather, I think how she’s perceived by the people around her. For Ananya, I would always think how Ajju, Nana Prabhu, D’Souza Aunty and the other characters she’s surrounded by see Ananya. And then I think about how people on the set – actors and others – see Ananya. I would go up to Farhan and ask him what he thinks of Ananya and then I created her out of that. I’m a very selfish actor, I make notes out of what my co-actors, writers, directors think of the character and work on that material. And why I think Ananya is loveable is because she’s real. She’s in love, she’s a happy-go-lucky kinda person, but she’s also angry. And that’s how people are in real life. I’ve read that people are comparing Toofaan to this and that film, and my only question to my audience, through this interview, is did Ananya make you cry? Did you feel the love Ananya has for her father? Did you feel her emotions? If yes, I think my job as an entertainer is done.
Ananya sees the good in everything. Does Mrunal do too?
I am trying to. I’m not as perfect as Ananya. But what’s common between Ananya and Mrunal is that both of us embrace our flaws, and we’re both proud of them.
Farhan Akhtar had said that he can’t imagine anyone but you as Ananya. Do you let such compliments get to you?
He said this only very recently. During the shoot, we would only talk about the film, characters, other films. And there were times when after pack-up one of us would call the other and say that today was a good day or that you did a fabulous job today, but the thing is, I’m really bad at taking compliments. I get really embarrassed and say thank you when someone compliments me. But I don’t let this get to me. I’m very happy when such things happen, but the only way I take compliments is to make myself better. When someone compliments my work, I know that the bar has been raised, that I have to do better next time.
A couple of years from today, do you want to look back at your career and be like, “I created a legacy”?
Laughs. I don’t know. It’s too early to say that. But one thing I know for sure is that I want to take my time, enjoy each and every step of this journey. And I want to inspire people.