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Love, sex and Radhika Apte

As someone who believes the world is full of shades of grey, Apte says she didn't judge the motivations of her character

Apte’s character, Kalindi, articulates her scattered thoughts through monologues in ‘Lust Stories’.
Apte’s character, Kalindi, articulates her scattered thoughts through monologues in ‘Lust Stories’.

Which is easier, sex or violence?

“Completely different…but both very exhausting," says Radhika Apte. “You have to be really present in the moment to film a love-making scene or a violent scene…neither bothers me though." We’re speaking in the actor’s trailer, parked outside a studio in midtown Mumbai. She’s here for film promotions for Ghoul, Netflix’s first Indian horror web series, which released on 24 August. The provocation for the question is her character in the series—Nida Rahim, a newly-minted military officer specialized in advanced interrogation. Last month, we saw her as a RAW agent in Sacred Games, another Netflix show.

In the Radhika Apte-takes-over-Netflix universe of 2018, her most fascinating role remains Kalindi from Lust Stories, which released in June. This follow-up to Bombay Talkies (2013), with individual chapters by directors Anurag Kashyap, Karan Johar, Dibakar Banerjee and Zoya Akhtar, starts with an ecstatic Kalindi feeling the wind in her hair, leaning out of a car that is unable to contain her.

Kalindi is a married college professor who initiates a sexual relationship with a 21-year-old student. She tells him not to fall in love, overthink their equation or get possessive. She then proceeds to do all of that. While all the four chapters address female desire, Kalindi’s chapter presents an unfiltered view of the anxieties of a young woman unprepared for the grey zones—the attachment, jealousy, guilt and confusion that come with an illicit encounter. Its context is a timely nod to #SheToo. Not surprisingly, it is this chapter in Lust Stories that elicits much divided opinion. Several men I spoke to say they thought her character was “over the top", “obsessive and neurotic", while the women say they could identify realistic behavioural patterns even if they didn’t see themselves in her.

The film breaks the fourth wall and there is a manic energy in Kalindi’s monologues-to-camera. She is a woman on the verge, eyes and ideas darting in all directions. “How can you get everything from one person?" she asks. “I don’t want to ration desire," she announces. Things become comic when she quotes Ayn Rand. And for all her progressiveness, she launches into clichés like, “If you love something, set it free."

Apte has a shared writing credit, so one assumes the monologues were impromptu. She shrugs off credit. “It’s all Anurag. Of course, there was room for improvization but I was very driven by what was given to me."

How important is it for her to believe in the character she is playing? “I haven’t met anyone who isn’t humongously full of contradictions. People who think they are not contradicting themselves are oblivious to the truth. We made Kalindi more anxious, we amped up the drama...but she’s the real deal," she says, adding that the attempt was to show a kind of character, a kind of mood, not to make a gendered statement.

Apte has had a busy year filming an untitled Hollywood World War II spy drama in which she plays Noor Inayat Khan, a woman of Indian descent who was Britain’s first Muslim war heroine. Her forthcoming releases include Michael Winterbottom’s The Wedding Guest opposite Dev Patel, Sriram Raghavan’s Andhadhun, and Baazaar, in which she stars opposite Saif Ali Khan and Chitrangada Singh. All very different roles, but Apte seems to have found her niche as the stand-in for a woman who knows her mind and body. “I can disagree with a character like a serial killer but still play her as long as I agree with the vision of the film. If a film is making light of homophobia, I won’t play a homophobic character," she says.

With her experience on international sets over the last year, the conversation veers to the changing ideas of comfort and consent. Apte recalls an exchange with a male actor recently that made her extremely uncomfortable. “I told the director and producer. I knew they had a rule book about ethics and behaviour and how the set should run. It was immediately addressed. I didn’t know they had spoken to the actor but he changed his behaviour and he did not let on that he had been spoken to," she says. Apte believes this was a good way to handle the situation—through clear communication, not blame. “If someone shows you their penis, it’s definitely a no. You have a clear opinion that it’s wrong. But this was a grey zone and our response to things in the grey zone is crucial. No two situations are exactly the same."

As someone who believes the world is full of shades of grey, Apte says she didn’t judge the motivations of her character. “It was a very complicated and fascinating character to play," she says. What about when Kalindi encounters her student’s grandmother while she is stalking him? Apte laughs. “That was all Anurag. But it’s fine. I’ve done crazy shit in my life too."

Anindita Ghose tweets @aninditaghose

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