How actors Mrunal Thakur and Radhika Madan found success on their own terms

You don’t have to be born into a film family to have film in your blood. You could be a little girl with a unibrow in Delhi handing out autographs to her bemused classmates, so that they don’t need to stand in queue later when she is a famous artiste. You could be a teenager in Mumbai who has all of Madhuri Dixit’s dance moves down pat. You could be 23-year-old Radhika Madan or 26-year-old Mrunal Thakur. No godfathers, no high-profile launches, no magazine covers, just pure old-fashioned talent that shone through in their first films.

Thakur’s film debut was the dark, disturbing Love Sonia set in the world of sex trafficking. It was a part that took her to the verge of a nervous breakdown—and to brothels in Sonagachi for her homework. It was a part that shook her conservative family, which is her biggest support system. Madan’s first outing was as the uncouth spitfire Champa in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Pataakha. For a good month, her proud parents in Delhi watched the trailer every night before they slept. The film didn’t work, but Madan got rave reviews. She has already won a popular award for being the most promising newcomer of 2018. In a year that also saw the high profile debuts of two promising star daughters, Sara Ali Khan and Janhvi Kapoor, that is a big deal.

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It is half past six on a Saturday evening. Thakur and Madan have been on their feet since 8am shooting for ELLE. They show no signs of tiredness, though. Thakur says she feels the pressure of posing. Madan is happy; one of the looks involved getting ‘fringes’ and she has always wanted them. I wonder aloud if their palpable glee at the opportunity to dress up and pose could be because their debut films last year gave them no such luxury. Madan flails her arms dramatically. “You know, I grew up watching Karan Johar films…I had that picture in my mind: my hair blowing in the wind in my entry shot.” For her actual debut though, Madan ended up putting on 12 kilos, blackening her teeth, and going four shades darker. She giggles, “People don’t recognise me as the Pataakha girl,” and adds, “But it was Vishal Bhardwaj. I would have done it even if I had a passing shot where I only had to say ‘hello’.” Thakur watches an animated Madan and smiles, “She is so filmi no?” But Thakur is ‘filmi’ too. Her first audition, she was asked to be like Geet in Jab We Met. “And I nailed it,” she says, with a touch of pride. It was easy—with doting parents as a captive audience, she had been practising being in the movies since childhood. Thakur started out in television, but the two soaps she did before the smash hit Kumkum Bhagya flopped. It was a lesson. It kept her going, and trying her hand at everything from Marathi films to commercials. There was no backup plan. “Acting was it,” she says.

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 Madan, too, stumbled into acting as a teenager from Delhi. A chance audition landed her the lead in a soap, Meri Aashiqui Tum Se Hi. The girl who always dreamt of being a Broadway dancer knew nothing about acting. It showed. After her first five months, she was told she might be replaced. “That really hurt my ego. I wanted to prove to them that I could act. I really got into it and after a month, they told me, ‘the show can’t go on without you’.” Somewhere along the line, Madan says she realised acting was like dancing. She just had to let go. Especially of her “big ego”.

I ask them if that was inevitable—the letting go of ego. After all, they were big television stars who still had to audition—for multiple rounds—before being finalised for their debut films. And they continue to have to audition for parts even today. Mrunal says, “I have done nine to 10 auditions in a day. I take my tiffin and go. I have never felt weird sitting in the queue for my turn. There are so many big television stars, they are amazing, they are capable of doing fantastic projects, but they are not willing to sit in that queue and give that screen test.” Madan admits that after Pataakha, though, people are careful around her. They use the word ‘reading’ instead of ‘audition’. She says she tells them, “Take the audition, I am okay with it. I will also get to know if I am the character”

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Star kids don’t audition—how does that not bother them? Madan has no rancour, but is disarmingly honest. “They don’t deny their access, but then say, ‘we work hard’. She laughs, “Who won’t work hard if you have that kind of access? They will never get what we have to go through.”

Thakur quips, “The advantage is that, at least for now, we are not chased by the paparazzi and don’t have to dress up all the time.”

I like that Thakur qualifies her statement with ‘for now’. Is it important, then, to become a much sought after movie star? She says dreamily, “I want to be a movie star. I want to have that X-factor—you know, when Shah Rukh just opens his arms or Sridevi dances? That is star quality. I want to know if I have that.”

Madan says candidly, “People tell me I have a commercial face, but all I know is that if we just act well, the rest will follow.”

Both women have exciting projects lined up in the year. Madan has Vasan Bala’s trippy Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota. Thakur stars opposite Hrithik Roshan in Super 30 and is in the Netflix prequel to Bahubali, where she plays Sivagami

I think Radhika Madan could be right. The rest will follow, for both of them. It is their destiny.

[Gallery id=”1784″]

Photographs : Sahil Behal

Styling : Rahul Vijay

Hair: Sonam Singh/Anima Creative Management;

Make-Up: Akgun Manisali/Inega;

Assisted By: Akshita Singh, Divya Gursahani, Dhvani Jhaveri And Pallak Shah;

Location Courtesy: The Westin Mumbai Garden City, Mumbai

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