For a girl born in a tiny town in West Khandesh, Mrunal Thakur is remarkably comfortable with Formula 1 cars and first-class travel. Life in the fast lane suits the Sita Ramam stunner. “It was destined for me,” she says, even though her race to the top has been nothing short of tumultuous.
“My father had a journalist friend who used to report the news on television and I always looked up to him. I would roam around our house pretending that the TV remote was a mic, and I would interview members of my family. If my sister had just been shouted at by our mum, I would go up to her with the remote and ask, ‘Now, tell me, how are you feeling?’ Reporting-reporting was my favourite game,” Mrunal laughs. But while she may always have wanted to face the camera, her family was dead set against it.
“I was preparing for my medical entrance exam after Grade 12,” she recalls, “when I screen-tested for a family friend’s docudrama. The project never took off, but that experience planted a seed. The acting idea stayed with me. I convinced my dad to let me do a BMM (Bachelor of Mass Media) course instead, and so I came to Mumbai. Thank God that he agreed and I am not extracting teeth today!”
Commuting from Thane to Churchgate to attend classes at KC College, Mrunal always felt like an outsider amongst her peers. “My father had the kind of job that kept us moving around constantly, so I changed almost a dozen schools as a child. I was a quiet kid and I got bullied a lot. I didn’t have too many friends and, when I started college, there was an obvious groupism amongst the rich townies. After a few months, I moved in with a relative and then I moved into a hostel.”
Singularly focused on a career in the entertainment industry throughout, Mrunal knew she had to create her own opportunities. “I tried to run away from the idea — mostly because I knew I may not have the support of my family — but I wanted to act. I would ask for advice so I could learn how to go about things, and I was told that I might get an opportunity to act after 4 or 5 years, if I started auditioning immediately.”
As luck would have it, Mrunal landed an audition for a Marathi TV show and had an offer in hand within a week. “They asked me if I would be okay with getting paid `5,000 per day. I couldn’t stop jumping! That was more than my monthly pocket money,” she laughs. “I would have taken the offer, but the same casting director who had sent me for that audition asked me to go to the Star Plus office and try out for another show. I had to play Geet from Jab We Met for the audition and I was like, ‘Bravo! Geet is like my best friend. I have seen her so many times on screen.’ Within 2 or 3 weeks, I was told I had been shortlisted for the show, but again the casting director asked me to wait. Not long after, I was asked to sign up as an exclusive artist with a general entertainment channel (GEC), for which they needed my PAN card. When they realised that I hadn’t turned 18, they said my parents would have to sign the contract too. I was stumped! I hadn’t told anyone at home that I was even auditioning and I was sure my father would never come to Mumbai to sign the papers.”
Where this quiet, bullied 17-year-old found her confidence, it is hard to say, but Mrunal tactfully strung the studio executives along until she had turned 18. “I knew they were really keen on signing me, so I wasn’t afraid that I may lose the offer. When I finally told my family, Dad took the next flight and came to Bombay. I found him fuming outside my girls’ hostel. He was like, ‘You’re not doing this!’ and it took all my great skills of persuasion to get him to agree. He said, ‘You have to stay away from this entertainment industry. We don’t want to be in the negative news. We don’t even want to be in the positive news!’ so I told him I would get married by 23 and I would not do roles which would be disappointing. I made all sorts of promises and we finally agreed that I would try it once and then quit if it didn’t work out.”
For months, Mrunal juggled shoots in Naigaon with college in Churchgate, but the situation was unsustainable. “I was 18 and barely able to manage my life. My hours were crazy and I had to move out of my hostel because of that. I shifted to a PG accommodation with 5 other girls and when my mum saw the place, she literally cried! I didn’t have time to eat properly, so I would binge on set food and I had put on so much weight, that my producers thought I had developed a thyroid problem.” Despite desperately wanting to complete college, Mrunal’s poor attendance cost her dearly. “They refused to issue my hall ticket, so I couldn’t sit for my final exams,” she recalls. “I had to motivate myself into believing that it would all be okay, but it was so, so difficult. After the pilot episode, we had to wait another year for the show to air and the wait was agonising.”
Propelled into the limelight when the show opened with massive viewership on Diwali in 2012, Mrunal’s rocky journey as an actor had yet to settle into a smooth ride. In a few short months, the show went off air. The stress was so extreme that Mrunal took ill on account of it. “I thought my father had given me permission to try this only once and I had blown my chance. I hadn’t finished college and my acting career was over already!” Thankfully, inspired by her acting chops and impressed at her success, there was no resistance from her family when Mrunal was offered the part of Gauri Bhonsle in Mujhse Kuchh Kehti...Yeh Khamoshiyaan. “That was really when the journey started… with Khamoshiyaan,” she says with a luminous smile.
From TV to Marathi films and then blazing onto the international film festival circuit with Tabrez Noorani’s Love Sonia (2018) — alongside Demi Moore, Manoj Bajpayee, Richa Chadda, Rajkummar Rao and Freida Pinto — Mrunal had hit the big time. “I got my debut award for Love Sonia at the London Indian Film Festival. For a middle-class girl from a middle-class family to travel across the globe was like a huge deal. Just a visa stamp on my passport was a dream. And here I was, flying from Los Angeles to Asia to Europe! I truly believe that Love Sonia opened the doors to a lot of other projects in my life, be it Batla House or even Sita Ramam.”
Grounded by her small-town roots, today the world is her oyster. Not only have hitherto closed doors opened in recent years, now even Hollywood appears to be knocking. “I screen-tested for The Matrix Resurrections. I didn’t land the part, but now I am manifesting a friendly dinner date with Keanu Reeves,” Mrunal laughs.
Doing a little shimmy in a slinky red dress on the waterfront at Yas Bay in Abu Dhabi, this beaming beauty is destined for far more than just a meal with a Hollywood heartthrob. Armed with abundant acting skills, an unmistakable radiance and a tremendous work ethic, Mrunal is racing to the finish line, destroying glass ceilings of all sorts on her way to the top.
A star is born
From her debut, to working with Demi Moore, Mrunal shares highlights from her story
DRESSED FOR SUCCESS: When I first started acting, I would get asked all these cute questions by my friends and family… like, ‘Your wardrobe must be flooded now; you wear new clothes in every episode,’ and I would explain that I had to wear the clothes and then leave them behind on the set once the shoot was over (laughs).
THE FAME GAME: Salma Hayek’s Frida was one of the first Hollywood films I ever saw. When the poster of Love Sonia came out, Tabrez (Noorani) sent the poster to Demi Moore and Demi sent the poster to Salma saying, “This girl looks like you.” I just went crazy! To be a subject of discussion between Demi Moore and Salma Hayek — what an achievement! Even now, there are days when I can’t believe the opportunities that come my way and the things that happen to me.
LIFELONG LEARNER: I watch the films that I haven’t been cast for and I study what they wanted that was missing in me, so I can be better in future. I end up discovering a lot about myself this way and I am happy to learn these things. I don’t want to choose roles that are comfortable for me. After a point of time, things become very monotonous if you become too comfortable in your space.
Wearing the pants: "I have noticed patriarchy on sets. Often, male stars are treated better. It hurts, but I have seen this since childhood. When random aunties would ask my mum, ‘You have only two daughters? No son?’ it used to boil my blood! I would wonder: ‘Why am I not a boy?’ I realised early in life that my work should speak and that I have to earn my place. When we go to restaurants, waiters expect the men to pay. I am like, ‘Excuse me! I can pay!’ For so long, a daughter running a house was unacceptable. My dad would say, ‘This is your money. Take it back,’ and I would ask, ‘If I was your son, would you still say that to me?"
Counting her blessings: "I'd like to say a big thank you to my audience and to the invisible crew that makes it all happen — the light dadas and all the others, who don’t get the kind of credit the actors walk away with. I want my audience to know that their love motivates me. I’d also like to say that being on a magazine cover is a big deal for me — it has taken me so many years to get here"
COVER STORY NOTES:
An undeniable radiance defines Mrunal Thakur and this isn’t some superficial appearance thing I’m alluding to. Of course, her smile lights up a room, but there’s more — something at her core that is honest, endearing and impossible to ignore. As we traipse around Yas Island together over two days, she reveals herself more than one would in an interview conducted on Zoom, or hurriedly after a local photoshoot. Everywhere we go, people crowd around her for pictures. She obliges everyone, but she has a particular fondness for babies: carrying them, cooing over them, and even joking about how ready she is to have some — three, to be precise — of her own.
She conducts herself remarkably with her crew, which is particularly telling. It just so happens that her sister Lochan attends to her make-up requirements, but her hairstylist Deepali and manager Aashian receive affection in spades too. When we speed down the racetrack at Yas Marina Circuit in thrilling drift taxis, Mrunal ensures that her spot boy, Vinay ji, also gets to experience the rush that comes from being ferried in the passenger seat by a veteran racing instructor.
Mrunal was all of 18 when she made her small screen debut. Born in Dhule, Maharashtra, she comes from humble roots that appear to serve her well — she seems secure and grounded in a way that only a loving family unit can make you. As we explore her journey to fame, it is clear that the Sita Ramam star has not had it easy. She may have landed her first role effortlessly, but convincing her conservative family to allow their daughter to pursue a career in the entertainment industry was a tall order. When her debut TV show got pulled off air after screening only for a few months, Mrunal assumed her expedition as an actor had ended. “I thought my father had given me permission to try this only once and I had blown my chance. I hadn’t finished college and my acting career was over already!” Mrunal recalls. But, inspired by her acting chops and impressed at her success, there was no resistance from her family when Mrunal was offered another GEC serial. From Mujhse Kuchh Kehti...Yeh Khamoshiyaan to Kumkum Bhagya, Mrunal graduated to Tabrez Noorani’s Love Sonia — an award-winning film she credits with changing the course of her career.
With Sita Ramam being hailed as a blockbuster down south, Mrunal has just hit another milestone. She has yet to land a Hollywood role, but she has already auditioned for two gigantic films (The Matrix Resurrections included) and it seems like just a matter of time before an audition opens the doors to an international opportunity too. Whatever else can be said of Mrunal Thakur, it is obvious that she will not let any of life’s speed bumps prevent her from racing to the top.