A college professor on the brink of a meltdown, a RAW analyst tracking a rogue terrorist organisation and a dutiful army officer in a dystopian state – Radhika Apte’s last three roles have been as different as it can get. But pause to think about all of them, and they seem to be marred by the actor’s overwhelming presence. She might not be someone with eccentric mannerisms, but think about her Netflix outings and its hard to differentiate one role from the other. Her quivering face with a similar nervous energy, that thick accent (alternating between something from Pune & England), that unchanging physicality – the only thing differentiating them are the costumes and our knowledge that these are different films/shows.
It’s hardly a surprise that Apte’s frown from Sacred Games is now a meme, because that seems to have become her default expression. She seems to be on an auto-pilot mode without any radical change for her different characters. Apte’s expressions, her pained dialogue delivery and her similar body language (like someone stole her favourite toy) have rendered her characters, with a slightly repetitive flavour. When we see her in Ghoul, we don’t see Lieutenant Nida Rahim. We see Radhika Apte *playing* Lieutenant Nida Rahim. Isn’t the job of an actor to disappear into character? Similarly for Anjali Mathur, we hear Apte use the clunky RAW terminology in that thick Maharashtrian accent, and it becomes hard to believe her as a Punjabi character (as the name suggests) who is based out of Delhi. These are minor things, but they take away from the performance.
Now before a lynch mob gathers and starts circulating Whatsapp forwards with my name on it – let me clarify that I’m a huge admirer of Radhika Apte. She’s one of the most hardworking actors in the industry, who puts thought into her films that’s visible from her choices. It’s one thing playing the character of Tripti in Hunterrr and quite another playing a spy or a military personnel. Doesn’t it require some kind of transformation – physical or mental, or a different pitch for the individual performances? Of course, they can be dismissed as superficial tics, and the argument could be made that Apte is internalising her characters that might not be necessarily visible to untrained eye. But if the respective backstories, distinct personalities don’t come through for the audience – isn’t that too the responsibility of Radhika Apte?
For inspiration, Apte needn’t look further than her Manjhi co-star, Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Having been sentenced to similar kind of roles, ever since he broke out with Faisal Khan (in Gangs of Wasseypur), Siddiqui has made visible effort to differentiate his characters. It could mean external processes like changing the hairstyle, adopting a different kind of costume or prosthetic make up (in Mom, Sacred Games). It could also mean subtly changing his abrasive delivery for characters like Shiva (Monsoon Shootout) or Majmudar (Raees). Or even altering his pitch as Shaikh (The Lunchbox) or Shiv Gajra (Kick), Siddiqui seems to be mindful of the fact that Bollywood has granted him a limited space to operate in, and he’s making the most of it.
In Radhika Apte’s case, she seems to be content with trying her best for a role, as herself. It’s pointless to address the banal complaint of whether there’s too much of the actor on Netflix. But it’s worth asking if that is because of Apte’s lack of personality in her three recent roles on the platform. She doesn’t seem to be changing things up to differentiate one performance from another – which is (obviously) nitpicking in an industry where actors go through an entire career with one ‘style’. And yet, it’s only fair we ask this of Radhika Apte ,who has the potential to go on to become one of the greats. One gets the feeling that she might be one of the few who actually reads through this, even if she doesn’t agree with a single word.