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"I was repeatedly told I wasn’t heroine material"

A National Award for her performance in her debut film Dhag put Usha Jadhav firmly on the path of success. Now she’s working on her debut Hindi film Bhoothnath Returns, also featuring Amitabh Bachchan. In a tête-à-tête with Box Office India, the dusky – and gritty – actress shares her story

Very few actors win a National Award for their debut feature film. Does it feel surreal?

I was surprised, shocked and happy. The film, Dhag, was screened at the International Film Festival of India in Goa in 2012. It was screened to a packed house at the Kala Academy and there were people sitting on the stairs to watch the film. When the film received a standing ovation, I assumed the audience was applauding the director Shivaji Lotan Patil, and so I didn’t really react. When I walked out of the auditorium, Sai Paranjpaye met me and commented me on a ‘brilliant performance’. I thought she was just being cordial.

She must have sensed my hesitation because she said, ‘You may not understand what you have done but your acting was almost equivalent to that of Deepti Naval or Smita Patil.’ That’s when it struck me that it was a big deal. The National Award cemented what Saiji had told me.

Why did you lack conviction?

I have had quite a long struggle. The biggest one was convincing my parents that I wanted to work in the film industry. The other challenge was being rejected at auditions for my dark complexion. I was repeatedly told I was not ‘heroine material’. Never mind films, it was difficult to land roles on television. At the time, Colors channel was being launched and they were launching new shows by the dozen. All of us strugglers flocked to their auditions and at one of the auditions, the casting guys actually announced that they didn’t care about our acting prowess as long as we had a fair complexion. ‘Acting toh hum karwa lenge, TV ke liye, bas ladki sundar aur gori honi chahiye.’ Now you can understand how difficult it was to land even a small role.

Was acting always your goal?

I hail from Kolhapur and went to Pune in search of work. My only tryst with acting had been a kindergarten school play I had done. So I focused on getting a job which paid well. I landed one in an airline agency as ticketing manager and after three years, I decided to give acting a shot. I knew I had to move to Mumbai if I wanted a career in acting and shifted to another travel agency here. I used to commute daily from Mira Road to Mahalaxmi for work.

Back then, the UTV office was located near my place of work and I walked in one day and bumped into Gitanjali Rao, who had done small roles in Madhur Bahndarkar’s Corporate and Satta. She began chatting with me and told me she was also casting for his film Traffic Signal. Thanks to her, I met Madhur and he cast me for a small role in Traffic Signal.

I decided that if I wanted a serious career in the film industry, I couldn’t just flirt with the medium; I had to dive in deep and so I quit my job.

How did your parents react to your decision?

Oh, they were shocked and livid. But you have to understand where they were coming from. I was paid well and was taking care of my family’s financial needs. Which parent wouldn’t be apprehensive under the circumstances? Still, they stood by me.

Did your role in Traffic Signal draw attention to your talent?

The film won a National Award but it didn’t really catapult my career in a big way. The best thing about my role in the film was that I had secured a big reference point I bagged small roles in films like Striker and Thanks Maa but nothing substantial came my way. I was running out of money, so I decided to do commercials. I did over 25 commercials, including a Head & Shoulders ad with Preity Zinta. My biggest break was the ad for Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) with Mr Bachchan. That ad was directed by Nitesh (Tiwari), who was the Creative Head of the agency making the ad. That’s how I landed my first, full-fledged big Bollywood role in Bhoothnath Returns. When Nitesh was casting for the film, he called me and said I suited the role to the ‘T’. By then, I had decided I would stop doing small roles and ads.

A National Award with your first Marathi film and working with Mr Bachchan in your first Hindi film. Isn’t that like a double bonus?

(Laughs) What can I say? I guess I was being rewarded for coming through despite the tough time I had had. I couldn’t have asked for more. One of the reasons I signed the film was that it featured Mr Bachchan. It was a very impulsive decision and I knew I had to be in the film no matter what.

What was it like working with him?

I was very nervous and my heart was pounding with excitement. I had worked with him in the KBC ad, so I was hoping he would recognise me. I was overjoyed when he did! Mr Bachchan is a great person. He exudes positive energy on the sets and is super cool. Even at his age, he is a powerhouse of energy. He plays a ghost in the film and I play the mother of this kid he has befriended.

There was a scene where he had to appear in front of me for the first time and I was supposed to be scared and instinctively pull the child close to me, away from him. He suggested that I execute the scene without a second thought The action should be quick. We nailed the scene in one take.

Was your decision to do a Marathi film mainly to find a strong foothold in Hindi films?

Not really. I am still open to doing Marathi films. The good thing about me doing Dhag was that the National Award tagged me as an actress of calibre. The day I won the award, my family cried and told me they were proud of me. I want to continue to make them proud and give of my best.

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