You’ve become the face of ‘Crime Patrol’ on television now, how do you manage your time nowadays?
I like to have a work-oriented, positive spirit around me. The lockdown proved to be the best phase for me, because I was able to dedicate that time in a different way to my own life, my house, family and even work. I am still not able to come to terms that I got so busy during the lockdown that I couldn’t complete editing my book. It’s still pending and I was supposed to complete it before the lockdown got over. But I have been in a very energetic phase connecting with people, discovering new talents and believing that one should not feel shy in asking for help or extending your help to someone. Professionally, I have started working since October last year and I completed three feature films and of course I shot for ‘Crime Patrol’. I have a new web series ready for release and a few films are lined up, too.
Simplicity and charm have been the most appreciated factors throughout your acting career. Did you always know that acting will prove to be your professional calling?
I belong to Pune and the city, the cultural capital of our country in a way, or atleast the state of Maharashtra. Here most children go through a variety of encouraging cultural programmes be it dance, music or sports. So I was involved in all sorts of extracurricular activities from a young age. Acting was never planned but it was my ambition. I would take part in every possible activity involving performances. Not necessarily competitions, but I loved people and I loved telling stories. My elder brother Sandeep is a writer, director and an actor and he was the artiste in the family. I was a copycat and I wanted to do everything that he did. When I saw him act, I wanted to take part in a play. Sandeep was part of Purushottam Karandak (an annual college theatre competition in Pune) so I wanted to be there, too. He had a bike so I wanted to ride a bike. Everything I wanted to do was influenced by what my dada did. I am a proud copycat. I have to express my gratitude that I was allowed to do things on my own. That’s how I realised that I like acting. I used to attend Satyajit Dubey workshop’s Monday to Saturday, every week and that is when I realised that I may have many interests but acting is my passion and I like telling stories. I am happy today that I could turn my hobby into my profession. Best part being I earn through my hobby and I can’t ask for anything more from life.
How did you bag your first film?
My first film was ‘Cheluvi’ in 1992. Girish Karnard uncle was looking for a fresh face and he happened to come to Pune after conducting auditions in Hyderabad, Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai. From the lot that was finalised in Pune, I was selected for a video test, then for a photo shoot and finally I was told that I have been selected for the role.
Do you have any special memories of working on ‘Cheluvi’?
To this day, I am surprised that I bagged the lead role. The best memory is Girish uncle asking me whether I would like you to play the main role in the film. ‘Would you like to accept my suggestion?’ he had asked politely. You know other people in the industry, when they’re casting actors, will throw statements around like, ‘Main tumhe break de raha hoon’, ‘Main tumhe launch kar raha hoon’. But Girish uncle had an absolutely down-to-earth, dignified manner of conversing. He gave me a lot. He helped me overcome my inhibitions of being a Marathi mulgi, not being able to speak proper English or feeling shy in the company of rich and/or fashionable people. He gave me the confidence of being an actor. Satyajeet Dubey ji was my life coach and Girish uncle was my film coach. But they also exchanged those roles, at times.
Having such mentors must have been helpful…
Yes, I’ve never felt like a star. Girish uncle was very keen that your work should make you a star and that you don’t bother. You keep working with intensity and conviction and everything else will follow you. You don’t have to worry about all that extra stuff.
You’ve worked in Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu and Gujarati films. How have you managed such a diverse body of work?
I don’t think that was my decision or choice, the opportunities just unfolded and I decided to roll with them. I’ll happily take credit for the diversity but it wasn’t my ambition to work in various languages. My second film was in Tamil, ‘May Maadham’ (1994) and the suggestion for taking it up came from Mani Ratnam sir. I had gone for an audition to Madras and that’s where I found out that the film’s music was by AR Rahman and PC Sreeram was the cinematographer. I had too many reasons to say yes to that film. Simultaneously, I was participating in Dubey ji’s workshop. At the same time I was getting these film opportunities. By the time I graduated from Purushottam I had already done 9-10 films. I had the option to either continue acting or to complete courses at graduation and pursue my interests and appear for competitive exams. I did try to pursue education but projects kept me away.
Since you’ve worked extensively in South cinema, which artistes from the South did you enjoy working with the most?
I am a big fan of South films and when I was learning Tamil, I watched many films. I am a huge fan of Madhugopal Krishan, Mani Ratnam and Shankar. I even got to work with Mammootty sir in ‘Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’ (2000), which was dubbed in Hindi, Marathi and English. I would like to work with him again.
How easy or difficult was it to step into the world of acting without having a godfather?
I was on my own, not knowing about the industry, not knowing anything about life either. I had just taken a plunge into acting and I was suddenly doing so much work. Back then, I had no professional guidance. My family is pretty humble and in a way nice. Even today, they have no clue about the film industry as such, or about the challenges that we face. They feel that I should work with immense concentration and dedication, that is their only expectation from me till date. I think such expectations keep you grounded, but I feel every young person, especially 17-18 year-olds should be encouraged and given a certain amount of direction. They should know about saving money, about working with big directors and about managing a business. I feel quite proud of myself at times. I actually started from scratch and I feel pretty rich to be where I am today.
These days budding actresses come with a complete package, they are fitness freaks, fashionistas and more. This wasn’t the case during your breakout years…
My perspective is, a lot of people are bound to an ego. I have no complaints about the current times but you know you have to accept the changing world and match pace with it otherwise you will always say, ‘Hamare zamane mein ye nahi tha, aap ko ussi zamane me rehna hai toh raho’ (Things worked differently in our time, if you’re adamant of staying in those times, so be it). Generations from back then might not have had the awareness that’s common today, but they had a different set of skills, they knew how to curl their hair, they knew how to look fair and those were the concepts of those times. Thanks to the efforts of those generations, we are where we are today. End of the day, a person can either demand change or bring in change themself.
How do you end up choosing your film projects? What’s the process like?
I rely upon my instincts actually, I too go through a lot of dilemmas till the time I say yes. There are very few films that I feel bad about not taking up. I generally like to pick films from the point of view of the audience. I like to listen to the story, I like to see the director’s conviction. It’s very important because people will promise you that their film will win a certain award, or their film will be a superhit and they have a strong story in place, but it doesn’t make sense to be a part of that film if you are not convinced. I like to listen to the story and a step ahead I like to see the potential in the producer. If the producer is willing to make the film without compromise. Otherwise many films that I have done earlier in my career, I have done them out of extreme passion, they’ve had a fantastic story and I have decided to be part of the journey. I have let go of the money and I have let go of the time and those films didn’t even release properly. To me it felt like I was stranded in the middle of the road, where the audience or friends were asking, ‘Arey! That film was talked about so much but where do we watch it?’
Do you have any regrets, thus far?
I am extremely thankful to all the mistakes I have made and it’s because of the lessons learnt that I am here today. So, no regrets. I feel it’s all been worth it, investing myself with time and emotions.
Have you forged any special friendships in Bollywood, have there ever been any awkward moments?
I got to work with some magnificent people like Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Farhan Akhtar, Zoya Akhtar and Amol Palekar. Actors have to be like players in a team. You can’t play a match on your own, you need the team. They helped me by being absolutely fantastic team mates. I don’t have any awkward memories. I have funny memories about turning projects down, but that’s about it. I always believe in commanding comfort. If you decide to be awkward every day there will always be a situation that will make you feel awkward.
Do friendships in the film industry translate into better work opportunities?
I just like to be in touch with the people I work with. I am very happy with the kind of roles that I get offered and I believe in bonding through work. Some friendships extend beyond work. But I respect everyone’s space and something that gives me a major high is working together with creative and passionate people. You know there was a situation once where a friend from the industry misunderstood me. You know, I said, ‘Let us work together’ and he said that, ‘He didn’t mean to bond with me for work’ (laughs). We’re not in this profession for ourselves or for others, we are here for the sake of the project and it’s nice to have that energy, that working energy with someone. I am in touch with a variety of people who are willing to work. I like to take care of and I like to keep in touch with senior actors, technicians and filmmakers. But I don’t feel comfortable dropping names.
How do you look back at the experience of working in ‘Mission Kashmir’ with Sanjay Dutt and Hrithik Roshan? It was a landmark film in your career…
I will never forget my audition with Hrithik. He was shooting for ‘Kaho Na Pyaar Hai’ and I had done a few international films. And it was my first commercial Hindi film. Hrithik was yet to become the Hrithik Roshan, the way he introduced me to himself was so humble. He said, ‘I am Hrithik Roshan, son of Rakesh Roshan and I am a struggler’ and I sportingly replied, ‘I am Sonali Kulkarni, daughter of Kulkarni and I am also a struggler’. I have preserved pictures of those auditions.
Is there any particular film from your career that you consider special above the others?
It’s too difficult to pick one, every film is special because of different reasons. ‘Mission Kashmir’ was special for my character Neelima Khan. It is rare that someone will write such a strong role for a supporting actor in a two hero script. But Neelima Khan stood out, so did Pooja from ‘Dil Chahta Hai’. I am particularly fond of my characters in ‘Taxi No. 9211’, ‘Singham’, ‘Kaccha Limbu’ and ‘Gulabjaam’. I wish every woman would think like my character Shaila from ‘Kaccha Limbu’ where she says, ‘I don’t want happiness some day, I want my share now’. She doesn’t want to snatch it away from someone. She understands everybody’s trouble but she says that she wants to see the results now, she doesn’t want to grow old to be happy, she wants to be happy today. Radha from ‘Gulabjaam’ has the desire to teach important lessons to her innocent self.
At times we feel so scared living in big cities, when we feel that we have to be particular about money. It’s not always about money all the time. It is also about creation. We are all creative people regardless of the profession we may choose. These two recent characters came to me at an important juncture of my life. I could relate with them and they helped me learn something new. The lessons I learnt from them were about bonding, trust and assimilating knowledge and growth.
There are other Sonalis in both the Hindi and Marathi film industry. Have you ever faced confusion because of your namesakes?
There have been hilarious incidents and I am happy that the confusion has kept me in people’s memories. But I don’t think anyone ever confused me with Sonali Bendre (laughs). I am very fond of her and it’ll be great to be equated with her. But, fact is, to date I still have to explain to certain people that I am the other Sonali Kulkarni. It doesn’t matter how successful you are or how famous you get. You might think you’ve made it, until someone calls you by another name and it humbles you. That’s quite a funny situation to be honest.
Often throughout your career you’ve been called a ‘dusky beauty’. Has the colour of your skin ever become a challenge for you? Does colourism affect actors?
I haven’t faced colourism in Bollywood but I have experienced it in Pune. I have only received compliments and encouraging kind words in Bollywood. More than Bollywood, I have received a huge amount of compliments when I have travelled abroad for my international films. Be it in Italy or my films representing India in a variety of other countries. But when I appeared for my first audition in Pune. I was meeting Girish Karnad for the first time and one of the girls had come with her mother. And the mother had asked me, ‘Why have you come here?’ Thankfully, I didn’t understand the sarcasm in her tone.
What happened then?
I had said, ‘You know, we are all meeting Girish Karnad sir and I am here for that meeting because someone asked me to be here.’ And she asked back, ‘But have you seen your face in the mirror? Dark girls don’t look good on camera.’ I felt so embarrassed that day and I just felt like melting into the earth. But within 15-20 minutes we got to meet Girish uncle and he made me feel equal and perfectly normal as he spoke to all of us. He was speaking to each one of us individually and when my turn came he asked me, ‘What’s your name and what are you doing?’ And I mentioned the name of the play I was acting in and he said, ‘How interesting! I have done some work on the same play, too.’ And then he asked me more things and it made me feel so nice. So the humiliation and the sarcasm didn’t linger with me for long. I just felt that, probably someone just uttered the truth. I didn’t take it that seriously.
How would you describe yourself as a mother?
I would like to call myself a super sport mom. But I am not sure what my husband and daughter think. I had never thought that I could love someone so dearly after my husband Nachiket, but yes, my daughter Kaveri definitely topped the rank. And I am in love with both of them, head over heels, along with our cat Sparkle is part of that inner circle, too.
How will you describe Nachiket as a husband, father and soulmate?
There are days when I feel extremely overwhelmed with gratitude and lucky to be alive. I feel so many times that everyone gets a partner like Nachiket. It is rare to find a gentleman like him who, you know, doesn’t talk about concepts like equality, but lives and practices them. He is not much into talking about philosophy or ideas. He lives what he believes in. So I have never heard any, sorry to use the word bullshit about equality or treating women with fairness or being a good partner. He is what he is. He is extremely supportive, supportive is a very limited word I feel, but someone who is a little more proud of me than I am. So, that makes me feel wonderful about myself and that’s why I count my blessings every day. I had to travel to many cities, partake in many films and plays, live many experiences to finally meet Nachiket. That is why I said I have no regrets, every bit that I have travelled in my life, every sentiment and every emotion that I have gained in my life was worth it for meeting him. So, I am very happy that he’s a person with a fair outlook to the world. He’s a great leader and those who work under him have always praised his abilities. He is extremely compassionate and hardcore when it comes to being truthful.
How will you sum up your acting career so far?
After being in the industry for almost 30 years I have realised that success or failure is absolutely impermanent. You are only as old as your upcoming film. So, I prefer to be on level zero and I love to enjoy my life to the fullest. At times, I feel like I am perpetually carrying a huge bouquet of flowers or goodies with me. Because as a celebrity you have the power to bring joy to absolute strangers and at absolutely any time. For example, I have taken up a new initiative, they have a concept called vaaree in Pune, where they go to Pandharpur every year but last year it didn’t happen because of the pandemic. So, an organisation had asked me to keep up an initiative for 20 days. A lot of people have taken up watering plants, running or learning a new sport. All of this for the faith that the good will, will lead to the vaaree resuming it’s annual routine again. For my initiative I have decided to make one new senior citizen smile every day. Even though I can say this pandemic has given a lot of new energy and time to me to think about the value of our life. I also feel really bad for senior citizens and kids because going out was the only recreational activity for them. The elderly people don’t have access to morning walks, yoga classes or laughter clubs any more. So I’ve decided I’m going to bring them a reason to cheer. The idea is to make them forget about their weakness and health for some time and just make them smile. It’s my way of both feeling and spreading gratitude and joy.