Is Radhika Apte India's best actress?

It is 10 pm on a sweltering Wednesday night, and Radhika Apte has just finished a packed day of shoots. You can sense the exhaustion in her voice, as she comes on the line for a conversation about how the past year has been a game-changer of sorts for her.

It saw Apte make a mark with a short powerful act in Badlapur, the lead role in critically-acclaimed thriller Phobia, and the central role in Sujoy Ghosh's short film, Ahalya, which garnered an unprecedented 5 million views on YouTube. In addition, she appeared in regional films, independent cinema and a TV series - a lot of these by upcoming and first-time directors.

However, she isn't very keen on tags such as the "queen of cool Indie" or "the face of the short film industry". "The industry tends to typecast you a lot," says Apte, and that is a trap she doesn't want to fall into. And that's why films like Hunterrr, an adult comedy, and Ahalya were so important for her. While the former, a Phantom production, offered a glimpse of an edgy, unapologetic, humourous side to her, Ahalya showcased her in a seductive, sensual avatar, a departure from the sari-clad roles offered to her after Shor In The City. "Sujoy said that when you open the door, people should feel that a goddess is standing there. Earlier, no one would cast me like that," she says.

What happened as a result was that Apte started getting inundated with offers of sex comedies, "which was really unfortunate," she laughs. She explored the other end of the spectrum with the thriller, Phobia, where she brought credibility to the trauma of an agoraphobic. However, now as she shoots for Ghoul, yet another action horror film produced by Phantom Films with Blumhouse Productions and Ivanhoe, one wonders if she is soon going to be saddled with the horror-thriller genre.

Apte disagrees. For her, Ghoul presents the opportunity to play a strong female protagonist. "I have no set rules for choosing a role. But there should be something in the project to inspire and challenge me," she says.

A lot of roles she takes up are complex and layered, like that of a single mother haunted by her past in Rupkatha Noy.

And once she takes up a project, she immerses herself in the process of bringing the character to life. In Phobia, for instance, she worked closely with director Pavan Kirpalani to understand agoraphobia.

Kirpalani, who wrote the script with Apte in mind, was amazed at how quickly she could internalise and find the truth in the character. "Our conversations were about showing various elements of someone going through mental trauma. If an actor brings something to the table, then every smart director will see merit in it," he says.

Apte's trajectory within the Indian film industry has been slightly unconventional. After extensive theatre experience with Pune-based experimental group Aasakta Kalamanch, she made her debut in the world of Hindi cinema in 2005 with the Shahid Kapoor-starrer Vaah! Life Ho Toh Aisi!. However, instead of taking up prop-like roles in Bollywood, she chose to take up meaningful ones in regional films like Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury's Antaheen and Amol Palekar's Samaantar.

And just when she was getting meaty roles, following the success of Shor in the City, Apte took off for a year-long sabbatical to study contemporary dance at Trinity Laban, London. "I had learnt Kathak under Rohini Bhate in Pune and had wanted to study contemporary dance for the longest time," she says.

It was a decision that won her admiration of many, including Mohit Takalkar, founder, Aasakta Kalamanch, with whom Apte worked for around seven years. "Any other artist might have felt insecure disappearing from the circuit and from public memory. She was getting great roles at that time, in spite of that she took off and came back completely re-energised. It's a great quality," he says.

The eagerness and hunger to be part of something new and innovative - short films, web series, independent films, and more - can be traced to her theatre days. "She was always like, 'mujhe aur karna hai' (I want to do more) and she made the most of it," says Takalkar. Soon Apte became the go-to girl for all kinds of roles in theatre, "Be it in Tu, based on Rumi's life, or Garbo, a play about a B-grade film actress out of her time, or even Matra Ratra [about 14 nights in the life of a modern-day young couple], where most of the conversation takes place on the bed, we knew that Radhika could do it all," he adds.

This restless energy veered her towards short films - online and offline - at a time when no one had the faith in the genre. Between 2013 and 2016, she featured in shorts like Anurag Kashyap's That Day After Everyday, The Calling and had a part in Clean Shaven, a 20-minute segment directed by Kashyap for the anthology Madly.

"She was one of the earliest people to understand the potential of the digital platform and showed that established actors could be part of this platform as well," says Abhayanand Singh, co-founder, Muvizz.com, the online video streaming platform, which featured Apte in the controversial short film Kriti recently. "Youth is very keen on short films, so she has a huge fan base there."

Film critics like Mayank Shekhar feel that Apte has shown that there is a huge bracket out there for someone with fine talent, especially at a time when the lines between alternative and mainstream cinema are blurring. "In some ways, this goes back to Smita Patil, who had a similar background. She went on to become the face of alternative cinema," he says.

In an earlier interview, Kashyap hailed her as the female version of Nawazuddin Siddiqui and rated them as the only two actors in the world he can do anything with.

After a great start to 2016, Apte is looking forward to the Melbourne Film Festival, where her film Parched, an Indo-US co-production will be showcased. And another film, Bombairiya, is in post-production. "Kabali with Rajini Sir will also release soon," says Apte, who didn't even think twice before signing the film as she was getting to work with Rajinikanth.


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