Usha, where did you imbibe your interest in acting – was it during your childhood or later?

My father is a music teacher, so our home has always had an artistic core to it. I grew up in Kolhapur, where my father directed classical musical plays in my school, in which my elder sister, Ranjana, and I acted. This influenced me a lot. When I was in the seventh standard, I won Best Actor for a school play. And that was the moment I decided I wanted to become an actor!

How did you get into films? When was your talent first spotted?

I come from a Kolhapur-based, lower-middle-class family, so getting into films was not easy. I worked at a travel agency in Pune for almost two years, with a starting salary of three thousand rupees. I knew if I wanted to act, I had to come to Mumbai. But, I couldn’t say this up front to my family. So, I took a job at a Mumbai travelling agency and arrived in a city where I didn't have any connections, friends or family. I spent my weekends struggling to find roles. And, finally, I got a very small part, in Madhur Bhandarkar's 'Traffic Signal' (2007), that of a woman selling jasmine flowers at a street signal.

What makes a good actor? Is it an inborn talent? Do you think going to film school helps?

To be an actor, one has to be a good observer and listener, which helps when you act. Film characters always come from real people. Going to film school isn't necessary. In any case, it doesn't guarantee an acting career. I think my artistic inclination comes from my father. I also love watching world cinema, as it helps me learn and improve.

Many say that it is the director who extracts the best performance out of an actor. But a strong actor can also influence the director to see a role differently. What are your thoughts?

I think it's both. An actor needs to understand the director's vision, and also, what the director wants from the character. And if the actor is good, he or she will grasp that vision. But how they embody and emote that vision is up to them.

In your diverse filmography, which roles moved and inspired you as an actor?

Shivaji Lotan Patil’s ‘Dhag’(Marathi, 2014), in which I play the mother of a young boy, Krishna, who rebels against the practice of relegating demeaning jobs to low-caste communities; Aruna Raje’s ‘Firebrand’ (Marathi, 2018), on a young woman, a feminist divorce lawyer, who fearlessly takes up cases in court of women who are victims of rape, domestic abuse and mental illness, while she herself contends similar issues in her own real-life domestic trauma; and Anant Mahadevan’s ‘Mai Ghat’, a biopic on a mother’s decade-long struggle over a son tortured and killed by the police. My roles in all these films are stark, powerful and moving.

[Usha Jadhav in ‘Mai Ghat: Crime No 103/2005’]

What about acting in theatre?

So far, I have never acted on stage. Cinema has been my main preoccupation. Every medium is unique and I value my place in cinema.

It is heartening to see you play challenging and non-stereotypical roles apart from that of the traditional Indian woman. Do you feel directors’ sensibilities and instincts have become more liberal?

I am trying hard to break stereotypes. I agree that the sensibilities and instincts of directors have now opened and widened. Directors no longer see urban women as light-skinned and sophisticated, and the villager as dark and naïve. But it certainly used to be that way: black and white. Black equals poor, white denotes the wealthy. Even now, there are hardly any romantic films where the lead roles are enacted by dusky actors.

Is the film fraternity in India still dominated by men, as it seems to be all over the world?

It is sad but true – men dominating the cinema arena seems to be the case in India and abroad. But things are changing. Women across the globe are fighting for and claiming equality.

Do you think it has now become easier for a woman to be an actor?

Yes, I think most of the earlier reservations about a woman acting is a matter of the past. But, in a patriarchal society, in any field, being a woman is difficult. The pay scales for men and women are still not as equal as they should be.

From the perspective a female actor, has there been a change in the film community?

In the last few years, there has been a great change in the film industry. There are so many women-centric films being made now - not only by female directors but also as technicians. This is very welcome. So is the fact that the divide between stars, actors and new faces is shrinking.

Although the regional versus Bollywood divide is narrowing, does an actor still covet the big Bollywood role? What are you working on next?

Yes, the divide is shrinking. But, how many regional actors get lead roles in commercial Bollywood cinema? My next project is a Spanish language film ‘Mirada de Vidrio’ by director Alejandro Cortés, which I am really excited about. Acting in a new language is a challenge I am looking forward to. I did another Spanish film ‘Be happy!’ (‘Ventura Ponso’), in which I play an Indian girl working in Spain. I sang three songs in the film (although I am not a trained singer but music runs in our family). The film is ready but not released.

What is the importance of having a good script? Will you even turn to direction or scriptwriting yourself?

The script is the soul of the film. A lot of filmmakers work towards having a strong, water-tight script and well-defined characters which is welcome, but, unfortunately, not all of them. Currently, I want to focus on acting, so I am not thinking about writing or direction.

What does your recent well-deserved recent award at IFFI of Best Actor mean to you?

The award is a big boost for me, about which I am really happy. So are my family and friends, the film’s team, producer Mohini Gupta and director, Anant Mahadevan. We are all are very happy! Among the 200 films from 76 countries, jury members like John Bailey, director Lynne Ramsay (‘You were never really here’), French director Robin Campillo, Beijing’s Zhang Yang, and Ramesh Sippy, they all loved my performance. They said I was chosen unanimously and without any debate. I am really happy!

How does a new actor, who is not known, make a mark?

Initially, you just need to try and get meetings with casting directors. There are a lot of open auditions. And, maybe, if you are at a film school or studying at some other institution, you might get some opportunities from there. I want to tell aspiring actors to be patient and have faith in themselves.