We are standing barefoot on Palolem beach in South Goa, surrounded by unspoiled sand and the sounds of waves flirting with the shore. Shooting during off season has its advantages, for there is not a soul in sight excepting the Bazaar India crew... and two inquisitve street dogs who want to know if we are carrying any biscuits. Radhika Apte is sitting on the shoreline, the camera capturing her every move, and just then a a sizable wave slaps her in the back, sending the actor tumbling into an explosion of foamy water...and then into peals of laughter as she scrambles to safety.
What strikes me in that moment, and throughout the covershoot that continues for many hours after the sun has set fire to the ocean, is just how comfortable Radhika seems in her skin. She gets in and out of outfits with speed and ease, behind a makeshift changing area that is essentially just a bedsheet held up by two team members. And when she is laying in the sand, water and waves threatening to imperil her carefully applied makeup, she seems to care less about her mascara or thighs or stomach, and more about the moment being captured in its essence. There is an ease of being, a free-spiritness that seems to stem from not taking herself—and life—too seriously.
Weeks later, when I interview her over a Zoom call, I notice some of the same unconstrained energy...as if the walls have fallen away, as has any acute desire to conform or people-please.
The first thing we discuss is Radhika’s relationship with her body, and she confirms that it is a happy, comfortable bond. “Of course, it wasn’t always like that,” she clarifies. “You know, while growing up, we are bombarded with so many images and ideas, different perceptions of beauty, and all that can really affect a young mind. And sometimes, we end up hating ourselves and wanting to change things. But I think loving my body came from understanding and examining these insecurities, and not letting them take control of me. I think you just have to accept your body and also accept that each one of us is different.” The actor admits that as a young girl, she was “heavily swept away” by Bollywood, but struggled to find a definition of beauty that was not “skinny and very fair”. “It was only when I started watching world cinema and began travelling that my perception of beauty shifted, because in many other countries, talent is more important than looks” she explains.
Still, there were moments of self-doubt, and Radhika admits to feeling insecure when she first joined Bollywood. “At one point, I was just uncomfortable...I wanted to be conventional, and fit the measurements, height, and whatever else was expected of me,” she says. “But now, I refuse to be a part of any of that. Now, I really, truly like every bit of my body, and I don’t care about these ‘rules’ at all. Because the rules are fake! They don’t exist, they’re all in our heads. I love my body, and I won’t change a thing about it. I’ve never tried to change anything in the past either... The most important thing is that I am happy!”
Radhika pauses for breath, then further articulates her point through an adorable analogy involving puppies. “I mean, like, if you had a small dog with one ear longer than the other, you wouldn’t go cut off or change the ear right? In fact, you’ll probably find it incredibly adorable! But we’ve made ourselves so miserable by holding our bodies to such horrible regulations...”
Radhika says she “feels bad” for the current generation, which is exposed to far more pressure to conform, thanks to social media. I ask what micro and macro changes she thinks might help improve the situation, and Radhika shakes her head. “I might sound like a pessimist, but I don’t think things are ever going to change,” she says solemnly. “But I do think people can work on changing themselves, and just learning to love and accept their bodies. Acceptance is not a sign of failure, you know, it’s actually a sign of winning, so I think that will make them happier.” And then, she submits a cautionary prediction of a dystopian future...“The way things are changing, I wouldn’t be surprised if people started designing their children’s looks before the birth, like using technology to craft the DNA so that the child has a specific nose or breasts... And then everybody might start looking the same. I don’t know... all I’m saying is that I don’t see us ever being less obsessed with looks.”
In sharp contrast to a worrying world abounding with genetically engineered babies, is Radhika’s current state of mind. The actor says she is “very happy” and feels “younger”. Part of this joy is owed to two years of Covid-induced isolation in the UK, with her husband, British violist Benedict Taylor. For many years, Radhika shuttled between Mumbai and UK, but it was in 2020 that she took a conscious sabbatical and didn’t sign any new work. “That time away from Bollywood changed many things for me. I changed...and my priorities changed,” she reveals, adding that in the past, even the idea of taking a break would have freaked her out. “I just refuse to be a part of this Bollywood rat race anymore. There is constant anxiety, a constant need to work. You keep telling yourself that you love it, because everybody around you loves it, but the break made me realise that I wasn’t really enjoying a lot of it... You do a lot of things because you have to keep up, because you’re watching what other people are doing, and you just can’t live life like that. You know, if I was asked to repeat the last decade, I don’t think I’d want to repeat it... I want to learn new things, I want to do things that challenge me, mentally, intellectually, and physically.”
There is another reason why the Pad Man and Lust Stories actor is in a good place—she has recently taken up writing, a creative endeavour that brings her both great calm and great frustration. “I’ve been practising, and I write for six to eight hours every day. And I’m not saying I’m a good writer...I write like crap. But I’m trying to write for a project that I would like to make, and it’s very nice because I’m learning something, while being engaged in a creative activity. And you don’t feel that stress of, ‘Oh my God, I have to do this and I have to do that’. I really want to do something that brings me joy, that makes me want to wake up and feel excited.”
Radhika tells me that she has a “massive anxiety problem”, which she has been working on. “You see, anxiety is when you start worrying about what will happen in the future...that’s anxiety inducing,” she explains. “But you’re a lot less anxious when you stop worrying about your future. I battle with anxiety... I have worked on it with cognitive behaviour therapy; I sit with it, and don’t make a big fuss about it. You have to list the things that make you anxious, and realise what you can do and control about the matter. That certainly helps.” The actor has also cut back on the time she spends on social media. “I never read any Bollywood news anyway,” she says, matter of-factly. “Instead, I am using my time to study and learn and meet new people from other fields...and all of this has really helped me.”
I bring up one of my favourite topics of discussion, about whether women can truly have it all. Radhika responds with a whiff of exasperation. “I mean, what does it even mean to have it all?” she questions. “It doesn’t mean anything. Like, we were just talking about beauty... the fact is that the definition of beauty keeps changing, right? The problem is that the moment you succumb to the pressure to look a certain way, it’s a never-ending quest, and you’ll never think your life is good enough because you’ll keep wanting more. You just have to to choose exactly what you want in your life, and you have to accept what you have and who you are.” She pauses for a moment before clarifying softly, “See, I’m not against people going after what what they want...and wanting to look a certain way... it just saddens me... because I was affected by this need as well. And I have spent many years cursing myself and hating myself for it, and I just feel very bad when kids these days believe that they need to change things about themselves. It’s not coming from a bad place...it’s coming from experience, you know?”
It’s almost time to hang up, but before we say goodbye, I want to know about the things that bring Radhika true joy. Her response is immediate... “Food!” she says brightly. “It’s the one thing guaranteed to bring me joy. If I can eat what I like, I’m literally dancing and my mood will switch in an instant. I could be sitting miserably on the couch, but if you just open a box of cake, or give me some delicious pasta, I will forget about being sad. Oh, and travel... going to the sea or the mountains really cheers me up. And also animals! If I’m with animals, I’m really, truly happy.”
Photographs by Manasi Sawant
Styling by Who Wore What When