She's been on OTT since before it became a legitimate medium of entertainment, and trailblazing actor Mithila Palkar wouldn’t have it any other way. In a sun-soaked shoot, Aza traces the actor's journey from the Cup Song to cinema, discovering the multitude of "little things" that make her oh-so-lovable!
Mithila Palkar made her digital debut with humorous skits and sketches in 2014, at a time when there were barely 0.5 million paid OTT subscribers in India. When most who dreamed of acting could not dare to imagine the internet as their launching pad simply because of lack of precedence, Mithila, who truly believes that content is king regardless of platform, chose to defy convention and chart a new path for others to follow. Since 2015, the number of OTT services in the country has grown 4X, according to a Boston Consulting Group and Confederation of Indian Industry report titled Blockbuster Script for a New Decade. At the end of 2021, OTT was the fastest growing entertainment sector in the Indian subcontinent - worth $1.8 - $2.2 billion, with 70 - 80 million paid subscribers. Of course, the pandemic only intensified that growth trajectory, aided by cheaper and more prevalent access to data. The cute girl with wild curls - that's how I remembered Mithila for the longest time - swiftly endeared herself to the masses with FilterCopy's funny weekly bulletin, News Darshan, and short comedic videos like Little Things Couples Do, Confusing Things Girlfriends Say, and Stuff Women are Tired of Hearing. What followed was her rendition of Anna Kendrick's Cup Song in 2016, in which Mithila performed the popular Marathi number Hi Chal Turu Turu. The video unexpectedly broke the internet, and as of May 2022 has a whopping 7 million views on YouTube.
Today, the actress - who has also worked in theatre, Hindi, Marathi and Telugu cinema and short films, with numerous endorsements to boot - is the winner of two Filmfare awards and one Critics' Choice Television Award. Forbes recognized Mithila in the Forbes 30 under 30 list in 2018, and she was a part of Entrepreneur India's 35 Under 35 list in 2020. In an industry where people often demand respect as the daughter, sister or wife of some noted name, Mithila earned hers as the doting granddaughter of two adorable, classically Maharashtrian Dadar residents with a strict set of values and no connections to the film industry whatsoever. She is completely self-made, and perhaps that’s why, for someone so successful at such a young age, she remains extremely grounded.
When Mithila walks into the studio for the Aza cover shoot in a floral tie-strap crop top, black trousers, nude kitten heels and round sunglasses, I almost mistake her for an old friend from my neighbourhood, because she inspires that same level of warmth. "Personally, I would always want to be the girl next door who's approachable and relatable. The kind that people think is one of them," she confides in me later, "but as an actor, I would definitely like to explore a lot more than just being the girl next door. I'm already on that path and hopefully some announcements are in the pipeline this year!"
Finding a stage After quickly perusing the racks full of luxe designer silhouettes, Mithila cheerfully settles into the changing room for makeup. When I wonder aloud if it was her first role in a play (Dear Teacher) for an interschool competition that made her realize she wanted to become an actor, Mithila chuckles saying, "I'm impressed Team Aza knows the name of the first play I was a part of! It was probably not that play per se, but the feeling of going on stage that got me excited about acting. I still remember that time when, as part of the play's auditions, I had to read out some lines in front of the entire class. The teacher was happy with my performance. And just that feeling of being a presenter, a performer in front of a big audience was so liberating!" While getting her signature curls straightened for the shoot, the Mass Media graduate from Bandra's MMK College who served on the organizing committee of Quasar Theatre Productions' festival called Thespo continues, "I wanted to start my acting career with Marathi theatre - the sole reason being I'm a Maharashtrian who speaks Marathi in her daily life. But life had other plans and I ended up making my acting debut with a Hindi feature film, Katti Batti." The Nikkhil Advani film, in which Mithila depicted the role of Imran Khan's sister, went on to bag her several brand advertisements.
A few moments later, I'm assisting the shoot crew in achieving the desired golden warmth of the summer rays, when Mithila walks onto the set resembling Indian royalty in a lilac floral lehenga by Seema Gujral. And, despite her sunny disposition, there's a certain calm about her presence that immediately puts people around her at ease. Perhaps it's this sense of peace that allows the actress to tackle various genres - be it suspense, comedy or romance - with equal dexterity. Between sips of Diet Coke, Mithila shares, "If you know one thing about me, it's that I love to experiment - the Cup Song being one of those. I do not like to limit myself to a particular genre, a character or even a platform. Content is king for me and the primary basis on which I choose my projects. If I like reading something I think my audience will enjoy, it's an easy yes for me."
The darling of OTT But then, as someone who not just witnessed but majorly contributed to the OTT revolution in India, does she look back with pride and a sense of achievement? "Like I said, I love experimenting. I did not go into it expecting too much. What came to me with FilterCopy's News Darshan was a new opportunity and I was ready to take on any break that came my way. I'm always hungry for good content and my goal in life is to be a better actor than what I was yesterday. I definitely have a sense of pride to have been a part of the rise of the digital platform as a legit medium of entertainment. I'm grateful that I found this platform - it has made me who I am today. The digital medium is my home and will always be my first home as an actor." I assure her we are glad for it.
Significantly, Mithila has been utilizing the digital media to raise awareness about and dispel stigma around topics like menstrual health. Countless adolescents look up to the actress for speaking up on self-acceptance, skin/acne issues, embracing naturally curly hair, and other relatable concerns seldom addressed by celebrities.
Journey on celluloid After swiftly wrapping up two looks for the day, Mithila chirpily approaches each crew member on set, seeking introductions. While she's quick to admit, "I'll try my best to remember all your names", it's the effort that she so generously puts in that endears her to all. It's no surprise she gets along with everyone she works with. In a short span of time, Mithila has worked alongside actors like the late Irrfan Khan (Karwaan), Kajol and Tanvi Azmi (Tribhanga), and Abhay Deol (Chopsticks). Quite adorably, there's a tinge of amazement in her tone too as Mithila shares, "Every experience with each one of the people that you've just mentioned has been amazing. Irrfan sir was a legend, he'll continue to be a legend. I'm so grateful I got to work with him in my acting career. Then, while shooting Tribhanga, Tanvi ma'am and Kajol exuded such positivity on the sets; it was a delight to be working in such an environment. I mean everyone knows Kajol's laughter is so infectious it just engulfs you! (Chuckles fondly) Even Renuka (Shahane, Tribhanga director) tai brought in the same energy, so it was lovely." Mithila pauses for a second before continuing with an indulgent smile, "Abhay Deol - who isn't a fan, right? He's just as real and raw as it gets. Now that I know him as a person, I'm very proud to say he's a friend of mine. His capacity to be real is just so endearing and inspiring, at the same time. I think I've been extremely lucky to have worked with all these people."
Mithila's love for cinema is evident in how she talks about acting and actors with a reverent note in her voice. I think about the Telugu film Ori Devuda, directed by Ashwath Marimuthu, which stars Mithila in the lead role opposite actor Vishwak Sen, and I wonder aloud what led her to take it on despite not knowing the language. She’s adjusting the dupatta of a striking red Ariyana Couture lehenga set as she explains, "In terms of the language, what helped me with Ori Devuda was to have watched the original Tamil version of this film, Oh My Kadavule. It helped me understand the context of the story, the scenes and the emotions. But my co-actors, the director and the whole crew were very kind, loving, and helpful. They knew I was fretting over the language and were incredibly patient with me. They were kind enough to sit with me and do the lines as many times as necessary. Like I was telling you earlier, I love experimenting, and acting in a different language was a unique experience for me. If you check out my Instagram, I often sing in different languages, but acting is completely different because you have to emote every sentence, every word that you are uttering. I loved taking up this challenge! Now I want to experiment with other regional languages too, because having done a Telugu film, I feel like I have tasted blood," Mithila winks as she walks onto the sets for the shoot.
The Little Things in life As soon as she's done with the fourth look of the day, I embark on the subject of Little Things - the insanely popular romcom TV series which premiered on YouTube in 2016 but was acquired by Netflix following a successful first season. The slice-of-life series also put Mithila and writer-actor Dhruv Sehgal on the cover of a paperback as Penguin Random House published it as a book. Mithila has the happiest smile of the day on her face as she shares, "Oh my god! Little Things will be special to me for too many reasons. I don't think there will be any other show like Little Things for any of us who had been associated with that project from Day 1. We were all so new as actors, as writers, producers, DOP, editors - we were experimenting with this project and never expected it to become what it did. We are ever so grateful that the people loved us so much that we could make four seasons of this show! It will remain close to us because nothing else we do now will be as raw - you know, it was almost like discovering ourselves as artists, as people. We all grew up with this show over the last 6 years. It's been incredible. Like not just the book, the book was obviously fantastic for us, but even before that, when it became a Netflix show. Little Things was the third Netflix India original and we had no idea how to feel about it! We actually did not have the time to sit and process it. Now that we've ended the show, it feels like the right time to reflect on all these things. I don't think I have enough words to describe how I feel. This show will always be special to me. The people associated with this show will always be special to me and I will hold onto them all as tightly I can, forever and ever." Well, the youth of the country will also definitely hold on to Kavya and Dhruv's love story for all eternity.
Of wives and mentors And while on the topic on friendship, besides Dhruv, Mithila shares the best kind of bond with several of her contemporaries, including Prajakta Koli. Mithila is still smiling as she says, "Prajakta and Dhruv are my closest friends in this industry. Prajakta and I met at a random photo shoot all those years ago - maybe in 2016? But we interacted like we had known each other forever. We just hit it off. I don't even remember when we became such good friends and started calling each other 'wives'! Dhruv, I think I have grown up with him. He gave me such a beautiful show and I wish to continue working with him. He will always be that friend whom I can call anytime and he will be there to give me the 'gyaan' that I need. Abhay Deol is a dear friend. It's not that I talk to him often, but I know whenever I need him, whenever I need to vent or just say a hello, he will be there at the receiving end of anything. He is a great friend. Shikha Talsania (actor) is also a close friend." After a minute of musing and between bites of sushi, Mithila adds, "Not limiting to this industry, but generally adult friendships are very limited. I believe once you grow up to a certain age, you cannot really make friends as fast as you would when you were younger. I'm a very social person, so when my friends read this answer, they would be like, 'What are you talking about?' because I make friends very quickly. Akarsh Khurana (director, writer and actor) is a dear friend and a mentor. So yes, the list will go on but at the same time it will be very limited."
Music and rhythm While Mithila often regales her Insta-fam by belting out her favourite numbers on the ukulele, few people are likely to be aware that Mithila is trained in Kathak. As she preps in the last outfit for the day, I ask her about her passion for the performing arts. Is it true you also wanted to learn the sitar, I inquire, to which Mithila breaks out in peals of laughter. "You have really done a lot of research on me! I am touched. I don't remember the last time when I mentioned that I want to learn the sitar because I've not been able to do it yet. So, thank you for reminding me. While I'm not trained in Hindustani classical music - I literally pursued it for maybe 3 months - I did learn Kathak for 3 years, so yes, that happened. I think the love for the performing arts was always there in me. Even as a kid, I always wanted to take the centre-stage. When my extended family used to come over at home, I always used to be the ‘host’ and the 'dost', which is something my grandmother would tell in a more entertaining way than me! (giggles) But yeah, here I am!"
Mithila has just finished shooting Aza's rapid-fire Instagram interview – (and she sang the Cup Song for us! Don't miss watching it on our page @azafashions) - when I curiously ask her if she had expected her rendition of Hi Chal Turu Turu to go viral. Exuding the kind of warmth I would expect from my grade school bestie - rare for someone I have just met - Mithila shares, "I absolutely did not have any expectations from that video - we shot it for fun. It was one random summer afternoon when I had called over a friend to my house to record a video of me singing. But due to some construction noise nearby, we had to move to her home to record it. You can still hear some kind of ambient noise in the video; you can hear the chime of a cycle bell! I did not expect it to take off the way it did but I'm just so grateful that it did, and people across the globe loved it as much as they did. And, of course, thank you for encouraging me to sing it at the shoot, I really enjoyed it!"" she signs off with a heartfelt hug.