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Exclusive! Jersey actor Mrunal Thakur: 'I want to change the way female characters are written in movies'

In a conversation on Zoom, Thakur not just talks about Jersey directed by Gowtam Tinnanuri, but also about wanting to expand the scope of quality roles written for actresses.

  • Devki Nehra

Last Updated: 06.43 AM, Apr 24, 2022

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Exclusive! Jersey actor Mrunal Thakur: 'I want to change the way female characters are written in movies'

Mrunal Thakur

After multiple pandemic-related delays and one delay to avoid a clash with KGF: Chapter 2, Jersey is finally out in cinemas. The Hindi remake of Nani’s Telugu blockbuster is getting mostly glowing reviews, with Shahid Kapoor as a cricketer named Arjun. This 36-year-old, who seems to have no prospects left anymore, begins to work toward a comeback to the pitch, not just for himself, but also for his young son Kittu. 

He’s not alone on this rocky road — he’s got his coach Bali (Pankaj Kapur) and his wife Vidhya played by Mrunal Thakur.

Mrunal doesn’t play the doting, devoted wife here but neither is she a villain. Vidhya becomes the sole bread earner after Arjun loses his steady job. This followed by his interest in renewing his sportsman career doesn't exactly sound the best to her and for their precarious bank balance. “She's not a bad person. She's just a victim of the circumstances where she doesn't know what to do and she's just trying to do the best and give the best to her family,” the actress tells OTTplay just a day before Jersey releases.

In a conversation on Zoom, Thakur not just talks about her new movie directed by Gowtam Tinnanuri, but also about her desire to expand the scope of quality roles for actresses. She believes Jersey is one of Kapoor's best performances so far but is not as generous with herself: "It's better that I'm never satisfied because that's when feel like giving my best."

Edited excerpts from the conversation:

We last spoke when Toofaan was about to release. What's new with you and what has changed since then?

Nothing has changed. The only thing that has changed since then except that theatres are finally open. So, excited [for the audience] to watch Jersey in theatres with family and friends. And we can finally step out! But I'm still the same, you know, nothing changes when it comes to me.

The screening was yesterday (20 April), what did your peers and seniors have to say about the movie?

So, my Kumkum Bhagya team was part of the screening as well. Supriya Ma (Supriya Shukla) said 'I can't just tell you how good you are. But the fact that you've come so far in this journey...' We kept hugging each other and crying. I consider her my mother. When she said, 'My child is doing so well in life', that was very overwhelming. I can't tell you the kind of emotions that I went through that night. My entire Kumkum Bhagya team and people from the industry have asked me this one question: 'How do you always choose such difficult roles? Roles that are so difficult, yet they allow to yet you to shine through your performance.'

I'm really happy that Jersey has come out in the theatres because it's a theatre film. It's a film [which tells you] your dreams matter. It doesn't matter what age you are. I just realised that it's so important for us to thank our parents because they take so much hard work and effort, so much blood and sweat to make sure that they provide everything for their child. Sometimes I realise that we feel we do take our parents for granted, this film will always allow those emotions to strike the right chords in your heart. 

And it's a slice of life story about how unsuccessful people are still working hard to be successful. They're still working hard. That "still working hard" bit is very important. You still have to work harder to be successful one day. It's an emotional film. You will see a beautiful bond between Arjun and Vidhya, between a father and a son. 

Sometimes I felt like I could resonate with the son so much because I would keep asking my dad certain things, so it was very relatable. I saw myself in Arjun's (Kapoor) shoes, I have seen myself in Bali sir's (Pankaj Kapur) shoes, and I've seen myself in Vidhya's shoes. I see myself Kittu too. I think when people will go home [after watching Jersey] they will be just like this film, it's like us watching our own selves.

How different or similar is Vidhya to Shraddha Srinath's Sarah and how did you make the character your own?

When I reached on set on day one, I was very scared. I was like Shraddha's performed so well in the movie and the benchmark she and Nani have set is so high. How will I be able to pull it off? That's when my director came in for the rescue. He mentioned that he did not want me to perform exactly the way Shraddha did. Obviously, [he told me] I need to keep in mind what the character is all about and where she's coming from. In the original Jersey, Shraddha was playing Sarah but in this Jersey, Mrunal is playing Vidhya. So this one statement just lifted the big stone that was on my shoulder weighing [me down]. 

I think this period of COVID also allowed me to think more about why Vidhya is the way she is. She's not a bad person. She's just a victim of the circumstances where she doesn't know what to do and she's just trying to do the best and give the best to her family, be it her husband or herself or her son. Vidhya has so many layers. The one common thing between Shraddha's Sarah and Vidhya is that they both speak Telugu. 

In this Jersey we've changed Arjun's background, [the story] it's in Chandigarh, in Punjab. All these things add so much to the character. If you ask me about how similar Mrunal and Vidhya are, I would say we are not similar at all because I'm not a mother. So, I don't know, first of all, what it feels like to have a child. I don't know what it is to be in a married relationship. I don't know how it feels to have a partner who's a cricketer. You know? There were times when I was on set and I was like 'Why is that they're saying the way she is?' And then my director was like, 'Mrunal, she's not a 2020 girl, she is a 1980s or 1990s girl.' So her thought process is different. 

The only similarity between Mrunal and Vidhya is that no matter what the situation is, they will always deal with it. They'll never show their back [to a problem] and will always make sure that they're practical. And you know they say that a crisis brings out the best in you? Sometimes people panic, but Vidhya is not the one to panic, she'll make sure that she works hard and faces the problem.

What was it like working with Shahid, Pankaj Kapur and Gowtam Tinnanuri?

Gowtam sir is such a wonderful director. And I'm super, super excited for what he's doing next. In fact, I kept telling him that I'm absolutely available and for him to let me know when I can do his film. He was like I'm not doing a Hindi film Mrunal! I told him I don't mind because I speak Telugu now so you can cast me in your Telugu films. So I keep joking around with him. But he is one of the calmest directors I have met. He knows what he's making. He is so clear in his head, he knows the way he's going to edit the scene. [He's so clear about] his taste in everything, be it be the story, the background score, or the kind of emotion that he needs to bring out from the actors. It is just marvellous. I think he is gifted. What he does is he will not rehearse the lines with me. He will not explain much about the scene he'll just ask me to tap into one incident that I feel is closer to the scene. And then he will say this is exactly what we're shooting. So he takes these memories, and it reflects on screen. I felt like that was the best quality about Gowtam sir. He's calm and open to suggestions, and he will make sure that he will not settle down until he gets the best. 

Talking about Pankaj sir, he's such a natural man. He's such a legend to work with. And he's like a child. His energy is like that of a child on set. Like when you go to school, on the first day you're curious. He's like that, he's curious. He surrenders himself to the director. And his first take will be absolutely different from the second take. 

When it comes to Shahid, I've learned how to be focused. When you play a certain type of character, you need to get into the skin of the character. So I think Shahid has done this fantastically in all his previous films, including Jersey. I feel so blessed to witness the magic that is created on screen. I think this is Shahid's best performance in his career. After Haider, which will always be a close one for me. I'm so happy to be right there while he was performing.

How would you evaluate your performance? Would you also call it a career-best?

Look, if you'll ask me, I'm the wrong person. I criticise my work all the time. I just feel like I should have been better. And people are like, 'Why do you keep talking like this kid who says that my exam was not good, but then scores 99 or 98 on a test?' But I feel like as an actor you should. It's better that I'm never satisfied because that's when feel like giving my best. 

This is the biggest film of my career — budget-wise or the way it was shot. This film has given me hit songs, songs which have travelled and, we had like 100 million-plus views [on the music video] before the film release, which has never happened before. I'm happy to be a part of this [movie] where I am not just a wife, lover or a mother; I have an identity of my own. 

The way characters are written in Bollywood, it's changing for female actors. They're not just like a flowerpot on the table or need to look pretty. Acting is one [aspect] and to feel the scenes is one. I felt like I was feeling the scenes while I was performing [in Jersey]. They're very rare roles for female actors which have layers. When I read [the script of the remake], when I saw the original Jersey, I felt like there were so many shades and layers [to Vidhya]. There are three ages that I am in the film, there are three transformations. So I really enjoy that as an actor as a performer. You know, when it comes to the 80s portion, or when it comes to the 90s portion, or when it comes to the 2000 portions. I really enjoyed them. I feel like I have been waiting for this day [to play such a role] for a while now. You know you don't get opportunities [like this one]. I'm quite thankful for this. 

We just have five minutes left. So I want to know what you would say about your journey from TV to movies so far? Any learnings, any regrets? And what is that you envision for your future self?

Let's start with regrets. The only thing I regret is the fact that I miss my Kumkum Bhagya team because I cannot perform with them anymore. But the best thing that TV's done for me is prepared me to be an actor. Every day I learnt new scenes, I learnt to deal with so many makeup or shift changes, and all the behind-the-scenes that go around. 

I just want to make sure that the kinds of films that I am associating with should change the people. Because when I was growing up as a child, movies were an escape for me. And I think, today, I have become what I become because of those characters [in the movies]. They've inspired me so much that you will find a Geet in me, an Anand in me or a Rahul in me – the hopeless romantic. I'm just trying to say that this journey has been fantastic. I have been blessed to have such lovely people around me, and my team who are like family. They make sure that they'll always give me an honest opinion about my performance. And it is really difficult to choose the next film, yaar. That's the only problem. My biggest problem is what should be my next film. I get really scared about next kya hoga (what will happen next).

Are you scared of being typecast?

I am not scared of being typecast. That's why I'm taking a risk at such an initial stage of my career. I am playing a mother at the age of 28, in my 20s, where not many would do that. In Pippa, I'm playing a sister. I want to break that stereotype where a heroine can be a mother or a sister or anybody. The relationship doesn't matter, what matters is the narrative, the story, where is the [arc of] the character leading to? I want to change the way the [female] characters are written in movies. We [women] have a life of our own, we're not just a wife or a girlfriend or a daughter. As an individual, we are somebody, right? I was doing a press junket in Delhi some time ago, when a journalist asked me how it feels to play the lover or the wife of so and so actor. I said, 'Ma'am, I'm also a receptionist in the film [Jersey]. I'm earning money. I'm running the house."

You were a doctor in Toofaan.

Yeah, but I don't know why these questions are not asked to men. [I told her] They're not lovers or what? Don't they love their wives? I think so yeah. She was like, "I'm so sorry about this. And I said, "It's so amazing because you are a journalist, and you have had your own struggles to reach where you have. And she said, "Yeah, I've never thought about that."

Jersey is now in theatres.

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