The camera zooms in over his shoulder. She sits there, in her simple white cotton saree, and off-white shawl with great poise. A sharp nose, defined eyebrows, and scrutinizing eyes. The tone of the conversation is serious. He has only five minutes of her time. What is to become of this conversation will play an important role in Indian politics and the rise of a State and party.

She, being Indira Gandhi, asks him about his beliefs for the Indian State of Maharashtra. While he, being Bal Thackeray, replies, he believes in ‘an India first and then the priorities of the state’. A question and answer that changes attitudes and perspectives, during a time of emergency in India. A scene brilliantly captured in the movie “Thackeray”. 

If you look closely, beyond the makeup, you will realize the actress who plays Indira Gandhi, is none other than our alumna Avantika Akerkar (Class of 83). Many of her friends and teachers know her as ‘Tiki’ or even ‘Eliza Doolittle” from school plays. Today, she awes critics with her doppelganger performance of the iconic political figure – Indira Gandhi.

Avantika’ s passion for acting began very young, around the age of five, where she used to stage entire plays and shows for her family and friends. Since then, she has acted in a variety of roles on screen and the stage. Including working beside world-class artists like Jane Fonda, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith, Shabana Asmi and Naseeruddin Shah. Recently, the short film ‘Rogan Josh’, in which she plays the elegant wife, won the 2019 Filmfare Award for the Best Short Film in Fiction.

We decided to get behind the scenes with Avantika, in her latest performance, and her preparations for the role as Indira Gandhi in biopic film, ‘Thackeray’.

How did you feel playing the role of Indira Gandhi in ‘Thackeray’?

At first, I thought the production house and the Director were making a comedy. When I realized that it was about Bal Thackeray and Indira Gandhi, I knew the pressure was on. Indira Gandhi was responsible for giving a second lease of life for the Shiv Sena party, during the period of Emergency in India. This was historically relevant, as during this time, many political parties were banned or blacklisted.

When you get to play an iconic character such as Indira Gandhi, there is no room for mistakes. I certainly did not want to make a caricature of her.  She had played too important a role in Indian political history and the world. 

What kind of homework did you have to do to play the role of Indira Gandhi?

I knew I had a lot of homework to do. People would be watching closely – not just learning about the private conversation between the two, but more importantly how was she going to be played.

I watched many videos of her – giving speeches, walking, using her hands, body, and I recorded a few of her speeches so I could try to sound a bit like her. I did not want to mimic her spoken style, but I wanted to ensure that I tried to sound like her in her rhythms and intonation. I guess my homework helped me accomplish the re-enactment, as I did not receive any negative publicity.

The makeup artists did an excellent job making you look like Indira Gandhi – how did you feel the minute you looked into the mirror?

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I was caught off guard! It took me a couple of minutes to realize that it was me, made up to look like her. The most amazing thing for me was that they did not need to use any prosthetics or heavy makeup. The artists spent most of their time on getting the hair and eyebrows perfected, and that was about it!

To share a small secret: when I first arrived in Bombay from the States, and started acting, I remember a young director sharing with me that if he ever made a biopic on Indira Gandhi, he would ask to test me, as I reminded him of her.

You’ve played so many roles in the past – which one of them stands out as your favorite and why?

I am going to break tradition and share that playing in The Vagina Monologues with Jane Fonda and Marissa Tomei (theatre) is probably my all-time favorite. Vagina Monologues has now become a cult theatrical experience, running on stage for more than 15 years.

Tied in second place are Indira Gandhi in Thackeray as I was stretched; and recently last year, I played a scarred housewife somewhere in the hinterland of India, who only shows half her face throughout the film. This role was particularly challenging because of the number of dialogues I had to learn in ‘shudh’ Hindi.  This is not my mother tongue and a language I am not too comfortable speaking. I worked with a voice coach who recorded the dialogues for me, and I listened to them for many hours for about 10 days. 

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Avantika advises those interested in pursuing a career in the theatrical or film world to keep trying out different things and never to miss an opportunity. Her performances never cease to amaze us. From playing Eliza Doolittle on our stage in Alumni Hall, to performances such as these, Avantika has created such a varied portfolio of work in film, television and stage.  In each performance, she has applied the same dedication and commitment to ensure the integrity of her characters. We wish her well and look forward to see her in her next challenging role.