As a teenager, Radhika Madan wanted to perform tap-dancing on Broadway and travel the world. Instead, she's kicking ass, figuratively and literally, in Vasan Bala's Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota and her most recent jaunt abroad was to the Toronto International Film Festival, where the movie became India's first to be screened at the Midnight Madness section. Not only did its cast and crew receive a standing ovation, but the film also won the Grolsch People's Choice Midnight Madness Award. Photos posted on social media show audience members queued up for the screening an hour in advance, forming a line that stretches across two blocks.
"It's been an overwhelming experience. Abhimanyu (Dassani, her co-star) had seen a couple of films at TIFF before, so at the premiere he warned me that the audience might boo us because they are honest and they won't hesitate to back-answer. When the movie was going on, I was like, 'They aren't saying anything, what is this?'. They were laughing at our jokes and everything. So he was like, 'Wait for it, wait for it.' When the movie got over, they gave us a standing ovation and I just gave him this look like: Are you serious?," says Radhika.
To prepare for her role, she studied the demeanour of martial artists, which she describes as "calm on the outside, aggressive on the inside." She trained for eight to nine months, for 4-5 hours every day. Her prep also included watching action movies, a genre Radhika says she had avoided until now. "I didn't like action at all before meeting Vasan. I'd always go for rom-coms and not action movies. He gave me a list of films I had to watch. After training, I'd come back home, make myself sit in front of the television and force myself to watch these movies. I'd tell myself, 'Like it, Radhika please like it.' After a week, I actually started enjoying them and looking forward to that time. I saw Kung Fu Master (2010), Chocolate (2008) and The Raid 2 (2014) in which I looked at the character of Hammer Girl. She's very cool."
A few days after she wrapped the film's shoot in February, she got a call informing her that she'd been selected as one of the squabbling sisters in Vishal Bhardwaj's Pataakha, the other being played by Sanya Malhotra. The only problem? She'd taken off to Goa on a break and Bhardwaj wanted to meet her the next day.
"I was stranded at the Goa airport and doing the script there. I had to perform the Rajasthani dialect there or else I wouldn't have gotten the time. People were looking at me thinking, Kya maal kar ke aayi hai Goa mein," she says.
Ahead of her two releases, Radhika spoke about moving on from Ekta Kapoor's Meri Aashiqui Tum Se Hi – the show with which she made her break in the acting world, the one thing she learnt from doing the rounds of casting directors and what a Vishal Bhardwaj set is like:
You've been a part of a big TV show. You also have your own app through which you can interact with fans. Did you at any point feel, I have a good thing going, why should I start from scratch and audition?
Not at all, I really believe that one should audition for their part. If I am a producer, why would I want to invest in someone who doesn't audition? They might have a body of work but I've not seen them as this character. I would want to invest money in him or her only when I see whether that person has the ability to perform as the character. I feel you learn so much from an audition. It gives you the confidence and tells you whether you will be able to perform that role or not.
I was doing the show for the past one-and-a-half year and I really wanted to take a break, to unlearn whatever I had learnt or what was taught to me. I wanted to unlearn everything so that my bucket was empty and I could fill it with stuff and I could explore more layers of acting. So I took a break and meanwhile I started giving auditions. Actually, auditions came my way. So I was giving film auditions and web auditions and then I cracked Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota.
You look so different in your TV show. You're draped in a sari, you're a married woman. How did you get Vasan Bala to see past that and cast you in an indie film on martial arts?
I think he saw one of my dance videos on YouTube where I was doing hip-hop. I have no idea where he found it. He didn't see any of my television work. He just saw my video and then he saw my audition and then he was like, 'I really want to take this girl'. And when he saw how I looked in the show, he was shocked. He said, 'This is not you!'
You mentioned having to unlearn things – could you elaborate?
I approached whatever was offered to me as a newcomer. For Pataakha also, I went in feeling like a newcomer. So I think that works for me, when I don't act like I know acting. I always try to enter like a clean slate so I can adapt to whatever the director or team is doing.
What did you learn from the whole process of auditioning and doing the rounds of casting directors?
I lost out on one of my dream projects because I was too concerned with how I was looking and I wasn't concerned with how I was performing. It was the worst audition – it was the only bad audition I've given in my life. And when I came back home, I was like, 'Why did I give such a bad audition?' And I realised it was because I was too into how I was looking and I just didn't think about my character. So from that day, I made a promise to myself – that I'm just going to enjoy the audition process, I'm just going to have a blast there and I won't care what happens otherwise. In the process, I will learn something even if I don't crack the part.
In an interview, Vishal Bhardwaj had said that he told you and Sanya to bow out of his film if you had apprehensions about facing the camera without make-up and with stained teeth, thinking it would cost you roles in mainstream cinema. Was that ever something you thought about?
Not at all. It is a Vishal Bhardwaj film. I would've done any part in it, he's that great. He's my dream director to work with so I didn't even think about it once. After the audition, he asked me, "Kaali ho jayegi na? Tan ho jayegi na?" And I was like, "Of course." I wasn't even thinking about that. And it really helped to get into the skin of the character. I wouldn't be Champa Kumari if I didn't do those things. I had to have the dark skin with freckles, black teeth, bleached hair. Those things helped me get into the skin of the character and it was a boon for me.
You've spoken about learning how to milk cows and virtually adopting the village life to prep for Pataakha. What was your toughest day at work?
We actually stayed at Charan Singh ji's house. He's the writer of Do Behnein, the book from which Pataakha is adapted. We were there for seven days. We used to wake up at 4 in the morning with the ladies there, we used to give the chara to the bhains, we used to pick up the gobar, make uplas of it. We used to fetch the water, bathe the buffaloes. And all of this, we did so we could become used to all of it, so it becomes second nature and should look effortless in the film. The village women didn't know how to speak Hindi. They were speaking in their own dialect and that's how our own dialect got polished.
It wasn't the toughest, but the most emotionally draining scene was the climax. I can't talk about it much, but the whole team got very emotional because it was the last day on set.