Move over Kim Kardashian — in our neck of the woods, 26-year-old Mithila Palkar is breaking the Internet and, as she tells me herself, it’s not because she is well-endowed. Unlike ‘klan’ Kardashian, or indeed many of the lovely local lasses we Google search the most, this millennial star hasn’t made it big by flaunting her figure. She is more craft than curves; a fact that will also ensure the longevity of her career. Before we dwell on the future, however, here we are in the moment with Mithila.
Her staggering 1.5 million followers on Instagram — and several million more on Facebook — make an emphatic point in favour of her popularity. In the era of the influencer, these are enviable numbers, yet Mithila doesn’t identify with the ‘influencer’ tag. She has already reinvented the conventional Bollywood break and battled the odds to get there, but Mithila doesn’t see herself as a ‘disruptor’ either. “I’m just me,” she says, no strings or labels attached.
With a beaming, beautiful smile that cannot be camouflaged even by Mithila’s munificent mop of curls, it is impossible not to be charmed by this pint-sized powerhouse. Seated in a sunny nook at Mumbai's Versova Social, we chat animatedly and she giggles often. She retells outrageously funny stories, but then asks to have them struck from the record. She is all about "keeping it real," but it is clear she cares considerably about public perception. Mithila is an artiste — an acclaimed one at that — but she is still learning how to be a star (which makes her infinitely more endearing).
In killer Christian Louboutins for this shoot with THE MAN, Mithila cuts a fine figure, while confessing — from her 120-millimeter red-soled perch — that she doesn’t own a pair. Luxury indulgences aren’t quite her thing. Between accompanying her 90-year-old grandfather on bank errands and shopping for groceries in Dadar, Mithila Palkar is the quintessential girl next door — and it is this relatability that makes her an online sensation.
It has been only a few short years (read ‘three’) since Mithila shot to “fame” (a word she dislikes), with Hi Chaal Turu Turu — her Marathi version of the trending cup song performed by Anna Kendrick in Pitch Perfect. Four-and-a-half million views and counting, Mithila’s ‘gharguti’ experiment on YouTube set the tone for her entry into the entertainment industry. FilterCopy had already put her on the radar with a web series titled News Darshan, but when she landed the part of Meera Sehgal on Girl in the City, Mithila knew there was no looking back. “I’d been involved with theatre for a while. I was also the festival director for Thespo,” she explains, heaping praise on mentors Quasar Thakore Padamsee and Toral Shah for helping her stay the course towards a career as an actor.
“I come from a typical middle-class Maharashtrian family, where nobody was ever going to say go ahead and become an actor. The emphasis was always on doing something that resulted in a regular monthly pay cheque.” With her grandparents vehemently opposed to a showbiz career and huge shoes to fill because her elder sister was already a scientist — no less — Mithila had her work cut out for her. “I didn’t have a Plan A, so there was no question of having a Plan B,” she laughs, adding, “I was just unbelievably fortunate to have met the right kind of people at the right time.”
I was just unbelievably fortunate to have met the right kind of people at the right time.
Trained in Kathak and Hindustani classical music, performing was always her calling, but Mithila never imagined making it as a mainline star. “When I started off, I never planned anything. I had no idea of where life was going to take me. I was just happy to ride the wave.” Truth be told, it wasn’t an easy ride. With her grandfather being “hell-bent” on Mithila “not getting into the industry at all,” staying committed to her dream was a challenge. “I wish somebody had told me to just be fearless, have faith in myself and trust the journey,” she reminisces. “I’ve always believed that you can’t sit back and relax and expect life to just happen to you. If you have a goal, you need to figure out a way to get to it. If one experiment fails, you try something else… so I just kept going,” she says.
Today, her persistence against all odds has finally paved the path for potential mega-stardom. “I never stopped to think I’d be considered a ‘brand’ some day and, even now, I only acknowledge it because other people tell me it is so. People look at me differently, but I am just the same. My biggest achievement is that I’ve converted my grandfather into my biggest fan,” Mithila laughs.
From YouTube videos and web series after hit web series, to a feature film (2018’s Karwaan) with the inimitable Irrfan Khan, hers is the kind of reverse trajectory that one has only associated thus far with millennial icon Justin Bieber. Forget a godfather in the industry, or even a break via one of Indian cinema’s power-broking casting directors, Mithila Palkar’s most successful audition was a viral video — sans make-up, sans stylist and, not to mention, sans funding. Yet, here she is, making it to magazine covers and top lists everywhere, surrounded by an ecosystem of managers, publicists and stylists.
Working on a film she cannot talk about (“producer’s orders”) and laughing all the way to the bank while she’s at it, Mithila remains mostly unfazed by it all. When pushed to confess to the perks of stardom she’s currently enjoying, the petite Ms Palkar is at a loss. “My favourite food is Indian Chinese, so it’s not like I am waiting to get into a restaurant where you simply cannot land a reservation,” she laughs.
Apart from travel (which she considers a treasured indulgence), Mithila doesn’t splurge on branded togs or designer handbags. This, despite being offered more money for a single post on social media than most mere mortals make in a month. “I don’t handle money or discussions about it,” says Mithila, sidestepping questions about the actual numbers involved. “I keep myself away from financial matters. I’d rather focus on the creative. I have managers who make sure that I am not exploited. My fee matters because there has to be respect for my craft and there’s no discounting that.”
It is abundantly clear that Mithila Palkar is scripting her own success story and it is unlike anyone else’s. “I never started out as an actor hoping to make it big in Bollywood. The Internet was the medium that opened doors for me. Do I want to concentrate only on films henceforth? I could never say that. Who knows what platform will offer me the next big opportunity? My path is dictated by a simple vision: To keep exploring my limits as an artiste. There is no end goal.”
Mithila’s nonconformity is not a strategy. This millennial favourite doesn’t pause to ponder the colossal reach of her posts on social media, nor does she feel weighed down by her fame. “I sing all the time and when I am not singing, I’m humming. All my co-actors will complain. I am not ashamed of telling people that I’m crazy. This is who I am. This is me. I don’t know any other way. I don’t track my ‘likes’ or online following. I am not so calculative. Keeping it real comes naturally because it is real. There’s no extra effort involved. Haters can hate, but I am unapologetically who I am.”
Name a celebrity who inspires you…
Priyanka Chopra. She’s an actor, a singer and a real star! She’s such an inspiration.
Who is your celebrity crush?
I don’t track my ‘likes’ or online following. I am not so calculative. Keeping it real comes naturally because it is real. There’s no extra effort involved. Haters can hate, but I am unapologetically who I am.
Ranbir Kapoor. And I was totally in love with Noah Centineo when I saw To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, but that romance has ended (laughs).
What is the first thing you notice in a man?
I tend not to objectify people. I guess I’d notice a man’s personality.
When was the last time you went out on a date?
It’s been ages.
If you had to choose another career…
I’ve never had a Plan B, but I could opt for a career as a singer. Maybe I will look at that too, someday.
Directors you’d like to work with…
That’s a long list! If only Gulzar saab still made films — I would die to work with him. Currently, I’d say Imtiaz Ali, Karan Johar, Zoya Akhtar and Meghna Gulzar top my list.
What was your favourite subject in school?
I loved History (laughs) and hated Maths!
Do you have a 3am friend?
My sister. It helps that she lives in another time zone, so it won’t be 3 am for her (laughs).
What keeps you grounded?
That’s simple. My grandparents keep me grounded.
When was the last time you sang in the shower?
I sing in the shower daily. It could be a Marathi song or something in English, but I’ll be singing for sure.
I keep myself away from financial matters. I’d rather focus on the creative
Who tops your list of actors you’d like to work with?
I’ve already had the honour of working with Irrfan Khan. Abhay (Deol) was really fun to work with. On my wish-list, at the very top, is Alia Bhatt. I think she’s amazing; one of the best actors we have in the country today.
Who are you following on social media?
I follow most Indian stand-up comedians; notably Vir Das and Prajakta Koli. Her channel, Mostly Sane, is amazing.
What’s the craziest fan encounter you’ve ever had online?
I’ve received a marriage proposal on Facebook!
Maintaining a balance between public and private…
“I have a private page on every platform. Twitter is the only place where I have only one profile. I don’t share too much about my school friends or my family on my public page. I always knew there would have to be a public and a private life. Everything can’t be on a public platform.”
‘Sharing’ in cyber space…
“When I’m interacting with people online, I am still me. I am happy to be accessible, though I am occasionally taken aback when fans approach me in person. I’ve been called shy, but I’m actually very social. I might be viewed as reserved because I take a while to warm up to people.”
Getting techie with her grandfather…
“Because so much of what I do is only available online, my grandfather has learnt how to access YouTube. He’s also on Facebook. You can imagine how challenging that must be for him, but he says: ‘If I can’t watch your work, how else do I know that it is real?’ When Little Things hit Netflix, he was really happy he could watch it on TV. Not for any reason other than the delight of being able to see me on a larger screen than the phone or laptop!”
Navigating censorship online…
“Some of the work I’ve done so far has involved using profanity and, if that’s what the character calls for, I’m okay with it. Something that I don’t see myself doing just yet is nudity.”
Coping with criticism…
“I don’t usually block people unless they’re using profanity, shaming me or saying something’s wrong with my body!”
PICTURES: Prabhat Shetty
FASHION EDITOR: Mia
HAIR AND MAKE-UP: Rashmi Shastri