The acclaimed actor told OTTplay that he loved essaying the character of Ramesh Dholakia in the new series, streaming on Amazon Prime Video
Atul Kulkarni plays one of the central characters in ‘Happy Family *Conditions Apply’; (Image credit: atulkulkarni.com)
Counted among India’s most talented actors, Atul Kulkarni’s rich artistic oeuvre spans across the country’s several regional languages, apart from Hindi. The National Award-winning actor - who is mostly remembered for portraying serious characters in films like Hey Ram, Chandni Bar, Rang De Basanti and Natarang - recently appeared in a comedy role on Amazon Prime Video’s family drama Happy Family *Conditions Apply. Directed by Jamnadas Majethia and Aatish Kapadia, the series features Ratna Pathak Shah, Raj Babbar, Ayesha Jhulka and Atul Kumar, among a host of young talents.
In an exclusive conversation with OTTplay, Atul tells us used to watch comedy shows like Modern Family and Friends to prepare for his character (Ramesh Dholakia) in the series, his take on the digital platforms and more. Excerpts:
Q. How would you describe your experience of working with the team of Happy Family…
A. Actually, I was extremely happy because very rarely am I offered comedy, and when writer-director Aatish Kapadia offered me the role of Ramesh Dholakia, I was overwhelmed. I was really happy because that showed his confidence in me as an actor. Also, it’s a wonderful script. Aatish is a phenomenal writer. We have all seen that in Sarabhai V/S Sarabhai (2004), Khichdi (2002) and Wagle Ki Duniya (2021). He crafts his characters very well. There are so many characters in Happy Family..., yet each one is so different from each other. They belong to different generations, and Aatish understands the difference between the generations and the characters. That is why the script has become extremely interesting. I’m sure that there will not be a single person in the audience who would not feel that ‘I know this kind of a character in my own family’. Of course, there is also this wonderful cast of seasoned actors - Raj ji, Ratna and Ayesha. But apart from that, we have a wonderful younger lot as well - Sanah Kapoor, Raunaq Kamdar and Meenal Sahu, among others. So, it’s three-four generations working together.
Even if you look at things experience-wise, I mean Ayesha started working when she was 15-16 years old. And then, we have Raj ji having done such phenomenal work in films. So naturally, I guess, when you have experienced actors on one side and a younger lot on the other side, which is full of confidence - something that I love about this generation. They believe in equality. Unlike our generation, they don’t touch your feet only because you were born before them. It was really wonderful to work with such a range of actors, as far as age and experience are concerned.
Q. Tell us about your character in the series…
A. Ramesh, I think, is one of the most interesting characters in the series. Even when we were shooting, everyone used to look at Ramesh. I just happened to play that, but everyone used to be like, “Yeh kaisa aadmi hai?”. Because in today’s world, you don’t find such straightforward, innocent people around you anymore. We all have been taught that if you have to tackle the world, you have to be politically correct and shrewd, and you have to be this and you have to be that. None of that has touched Ramesh. He just doesn’t know what being politically correct means; what needs to be said; what needs to be hidden, and all that. He’s a very emotional guy, and is extremely loving. He loves everything about his family. In his house, there is hardly anything that he doesn’t love. He’s a character that we would say should rather be born in the neighbour’s house. It’s nice to have such people around us, but not as your father, husband or son.
Q. Recently released film Gulmohar has done well, and now we have Happy Family… Do you think OTT is giving a new lease of life to quality family dramas?
A. I don’t see a reason to compare films with television shows, as far as family dramas are concerned. Films have time and again tried family dramas of different genres. The difference, of course, is in the OTT format. And again, I’m talking about a web show of 10 episodes like Happy Family. So, what it does is that it gives the writer and director a lot of time. For example, 10 episodes is almost the length of two-and-a-half or three films. So, you get a lot of space to tell your story, and naturally that is going to affect the style of storytelling, because when you get that kind of time in hand, you tend to go deeper into situations and characters. At least on Indian OTT platforms, I don’t recall a story like Happy Family…, which is basically a comedy, but at the same time it tackles many things, and that is why the title also says, ‘conditions apply’. It tells you how quirky this show is.
Q. You have had such an illustrious acting career across languages on different mediums. In today’s time, OTT is lauded for diversity and quality content. What is it that you think digital platforms lack?
A. I think we should not hurriedly make comments on any of the formats, because we are talking about technology, and we all know how fast technology changes. Maybe, three years down the line, we might not be even talking about OTT; we might be talking about something else altogether. So, I think it is a very dynamic situation in the world of entertainment right now. It has not been so dynamic in a long time, because we have seen the period when television and VCR came in. At that time, it was a bit disruptive in a way. But now, everything is changing, and you cannot judge culture or entertainment independently, because it all depends on what is happening economically, socially, politically and educationally. So, all the reflection comes on what is happening in culture. And, of course, technology is playing a huge part in entertainment now. People are doing a lot of experiments. We started talking about OTT only about three-four years back. That, I think, is a very short life, so to say, to talk about it.
Having said that, I feel really glad to do a show like Happy Family… The fact that OTT has given a chance to a writer to do something like this. And when you have a cross-section of audience that watches films and television, but is interested in quality stuff on OTT. So, you are catering to an audience with the Happy Family… kind of a show, which is kind of rare right now on Indian OTT. You’re getting to see comedy, plus you are offered some drama and a story about family relationships. It’s so local, that it is universal. And because this platform also is so universal, and because you release it in India and all over the world on the same day, anyone can see it for whatever time or whenever they want to. It is not like a film that will get out of theatres. So, I think OTT is offering a lot to us. We don’t have any time to think about what it doesn’t have.
Q. The screenplay that you wrote for Laal Singh Chaddha was widely spoken about. Is there any new script that you are working on?
A. Not right now. I just wish that someday I can write like Aatish, because I’m so damn impressed with the way that he has written Happy Family… I have said this to him on the set as well that I wish I could write like him. So, probably I must practise that.
Q. So, is it safe to say that you enjoy screenwriting as much as acting?
A. Yes, of course, because I enjoy filmmaking. We tend to understand the word ‘filmmaker’ in a different way. We, basically, think the director is the only filmmaker. But what it actually means is whoever is making a film - right from the light boy and spot boy to the director and actor - is a filmmaker. So, all of us are making a film. I’m interested in making films in whatever capacity. So far, it has only been acting and writing. But as I said, I would love to write a comedy like Happy Family…
Q. You are a National School of Drama graduate, with so many memorable plays to your credit. Now, amid your busy schedule, do you get the time to do theatre anymore?
A. I have not been on stage for a long, long time. I’ve not done theatre in the longest time, not at least in the past 10-15 years, I guess. We used to do a play, called Kharashein, which is a collage of Gulzar saab’s stories and poems. We used to do some shows here and there, but that also I don’t think I’ve done in the last five-six years. I don’t really miss the stage so much. I love the craft of camera, and I have been practising it since my first Hindi film, Hey Ram. So, I don’t really miss theatre.
Q. Anything that you recently enjoyed watching on OTT?
A. Because Happy Family… was coming out, as part of my research, I used to watch comedy shows like Modern Family and Friends, in particular. You know what a great phenomenon Friends has been. And when I speak about how phenomenal the sitcom has been, I am not talking about its popularity alone. People have done PhDs on Friends. There have been courses in universities abroad, focussing on how Friends has affected social health; how people who are not in a very good space go and watch the show. And I know for a fact that younger generations, like my niece, get hooked to Friends, even though the show came much before her time. She goes back to it time and again just to get the happy feeling. So, I was very curious to see what Happy Family... would do to the audiences.
The other day, I was telling Aatish and JD that I am really curious to see if people go back to see Happy Family... again and again, which episode and what are their takeaways. Now because of OTT, it’s possible for the audiences to go back and see portions of a show that they like. And nowadays, people create needs. I wanted to see what kind of needs people create out of Happy Family... Out of this curiosity, I have recently watched parts of Friends and Modern Family again.
Q. So, are you keen on doing more comedy roles in the future?
A. For me, it is the story. Any story that appeals to me, I try to do that. So, it is not really that I am looking for a particular genre of story or a character. I’m just looking for a good story to tell. That’s it.