COVER STORY: ‘The Internet Made Me Who I Am,’ says Mithila Palkar
India’s digital revolution birthed the actor-performer. Here’s how she became and remains the country’s most relatable new-age superstar.
A pink plastic cup is upended on a Jacobean-stained petite wooden table. A woman seizes the unassuming instrument and drums up a grin ablaze with a creative innocence. Aamchi (our) Mithila is your girl next door; she’s a face on the precipice of ubiquity. As she launches into an intricately choreographed sequence of hand gestures and sing-song, humming Jaywant Kulkarni’s Noughties Marathi hit “Hi Chaal Turu Turu,” she becomes what people around the globe invariably tune into – the news.
“Arey, ti doordarshanvar aahe? (She’s on television?)”, a man mumbles in disbelief as he receives a call that tells him his granddaughter is on the ABP channel. Up until that moment in March 2016, Palkar’s ajoba (grandfather) had been apprehensive of her leaving the house – if she was actively auditioning for roles, why couldn’t he see her work on the film or television screen? It was at this juncture that the beloved ajoba remembered what he said to his granddaughter when she mustered up the courage to tell him that she wanted to be an actor. (She had checked all of his boxes by then – 1) Graduate 2) Get a job 3) Gross a monthly paycheck.) “Tula acting karayche aahe? Baghu ya (You want to act now? We’ll see.)” And the world did.
As Mithila Palkar’s Marathi cover of the Cup Song went viral on YouTube, her sounding board, her grandparents, came around to view her as a performer, but most distinguishedly as a star on the Internet. What they didn’t realize was that the Cup Song wasn’t Palkar’s first act on the web.
The medium is the message
In adagio and lento, the actor had been steadily appearing in YouTube shows and sketches since 2015 when she made her online debut with FilterCopy’s News Darshan, a humorous weekly bulletin that recapped current events. This would mark the beginning of Palkar’s long-running creative collaboration (which most notably birthed the acclaimed comedy-drama Little Things) with the digital media house Pocket Aces as well as her indelible covenant with the Internet. Popular 2016 FilterCopy skits such as Confusing Things Girlfriends Say and Annoying Things Boyfriends Do further cemented her as a talent to keep an eye on before she uploaded the Cup Song cover on her own YouTube channel.
What stumped Palkar’s aji (grandmother) and ajoba wasn’t that Mithila had proved her mettle by being featured on news channels nationally, but that their naat’s (granddaughter) virality on the WWW had spurned the media coverage. Their Mithila was not just an actor, but a bonafide, new-age star born on the Internet.
“The Internet was completely new. It was a concept that was still developing… I’m telling you, my grandfather did not believe that I was setting out to work,” says Mithila Palkar as we meet for the Rolling Stone India cover shoot in Mumbai’s bustling suburb of Andheri. The minute I step on set, I’m transported to the lanes of Shivaji Park, Dadar – a historic city neighborhood that both Palkar and this writer were born and raised in. The actor has the reins to the Bluetooth speaker and she uses the opportunity to play a diverse array of Marathi tunes. As “Malyachya Malya Madhi Kon Ga Ubhi” drifts over the sound system, she delves into the “symbiotic relationship” that the web and her would come to share.
“All those years ago, when I dreamed of being an actor, my options were television, theater or films, right? Today, the Internet is a legit medium. It has made me who I am,” says Palkar whose own web debut coincided with India’s brewing Internet revolution in the 2010s – a providential period that saw digital channels like The Viral Fever, FilterCopy, Nazar Battu Productions and more populate the cyberspace with long and short-form content. Back then, Palkar was hungry to perform; she was looking for opportunities to act. “I had no reservations in terms of the platform,” she says, “If I liked the content, then even if it was a five-minute stint, I would be more than happy to do it, because I didn’t come from an acting school and auditions were my only way of learning how to act.”
A Mass Media graduate from Bandra’s M.M.K. College with a background in Science, Palkar joined QTP’s theater festival Thespo in 2013 where she worked backstage as part of the organizing committee. As the actors took to the stage, it dawned on the ingénue that she too yearned to perform. This realization transported Palkar back to her school days when she played her very first role in a play for an interschool competition. The production was called Dear Teacher and her presentation won Palkar the award for best actress. “I had that stand-in-front-of-the-mirror-and-perform kind of childhood,” says Palkar who has cherished memories of participating in varied competitions, whether it be at school or the Ganpati mandals (celebrations) in her second home, Vasai. “Every step was reaffirming. These experiences eventually helped me realize my ambition, they led me to realize my dream,” she says.
Little things matter
Few people know that before Mithila Palkar introduced herself to the web, she starred in a Marathi short film, Majha Honeymoon (2014). Herein, she delivered a heartfelt monologue as Rujuta, a woman from the western suburb of Mira Road who yearns to visit Mumbai; it’s a delightful short about aspiration and dreams, about the naiveté of new beginnings. It reinstated Palkar’s faith in her own goal to make it as an actor despite having no connections within the industry, no previous professional exposure and no godfather.
A few ad films followed as well as a supporting role in the Bollywood film Katti Batti and by 2015, Palkar began to make her mark on the Internet. Her stints with FilterCopy were followed by the 2016 web show Girl In The City about a woman’s (Meera Sehgal) journey of surviving and thriving in Mumbai. “The Internet put me on the map,” says Palkar who in the very same year also began to essay the role now synonymous with herself, that of Kavya Kulkarni in Little Things. “I am where I am thanks to the Internet,” she adds, “It’s given me the name that I’ve today, the recognition that I’ve today, the love that I’ve today, and I’m extremely grateful for it.”
Little Things, that followed the lives of an urban couple, particularly resonated with the masses because of its charm and relatability. It quickly became one of India’s most beloved shows. “Kavya… I think I’ll take that girl to my grave. She gave me this life. She’s very close to me. I’ve grown up with her, she has grown up with me, and she will always be a part of me,” reflects Palkar on her memorable character. Speaking of what it was like to be working on Little Things when Palkar herself was still green and exploring her craft, the actor shares, “All of us were so new to the space of the Internet, we were so new to the concept of web shows as producers, as writers, as directors, as actors, as editors… we were all new to this entire universe. We didn’t realize that it would become big and we’re so thankful to the people who have loved it and continue to do so.” She adds, “We were all experimenting with the show. We have grown as people and artists over the last six years.”
The Internet enabled Palkar to explore the silver screen where she garnered critical acclaim for her 2017 Marathi film Muramba (winning the Filmfare Marathi Best Female Debut Award) that explored a fraying modern relationship being saved by a couple’s parents. This was followed by the 2018 feel-good road drama Karwaan that saw Palkar in a new light as she essayed the role of a rebellious teenager alongside actors Irrfan Khan and Dulquer Salmaan. 2019 and 2020 again found the actor treading new ground with portrayals of the timid Nirma in Chopsticks and the traditional Masha in Tribhanga. By the end of the decade, the actor had cemented her prowess across genres and roles, signaling to the world that here is a performer who could master every medium.
Cracking the hybrid code
Occupying a hybrid space in entertainment where Palkar struck gold on all stages, the actor speaks of how she was able to hack the formula. “I still am the same way today in the sense that I’m always looking forward to an opportunity to act because without that, I will not know if I can do something different or do something beyond what I’ve done so far. I’m a very restless person. I can’t settle for one thing. I love my work so much that I will try to keep it as exciting as possible – I don’t ever want to get bored. So everything for me essentially has been just experimenting. And I have always been hungry for new experiences,” says Palkar.
The actor, who is most notably known for her relatable roles, does seem to be pigeonholed by the industry as the girl next door. As she looks to explore new personas and stories, Palkar maintains that there’s no lie in the label. She lets out a sparkling guffaw and says, “I’m the girl next door. I’m trying to get out of the typecast, but I realize that that’s me at the core. I am this hyperexcitable child, the energizer bunny on sets. That is me – I am the girl next door. I’m the girl you can count on, the girl you can confide in.” “Now, I’m trying to look for roles that are very far away from me, things that I will never even think of myself as,” she adds, “You will see me next in a Telugu rom-com film (Ori Devuda). I’m very excited to see how it has translated on screen.”
“There is a very strong sense of community. All the shopkeepers down the road will remember your mavshis (aunts), your grandparents…”— Mithila Palkar
Looking back on what molded her as an actor, Palkar speaks fondly of her neighborhood Dadar. “It has not just shaped me as an artist, but as a human being too,” the performer says as she dives into a nostalgia-tinged anecdote about the people that call the locale home. “There is a very strong sense of community. All the shopkeepers down the road will remember your mavshis (aunts), your grandparents and so on. Their next crop will also be familiar with each other. There is a generational sense of belonging, culture and community – I love that. It brings me home, it keeps me grounded, it keeps me humble, and that’s something I value a lot,” she says. As we bond over our shared experience of eating sandwiches in the Raja Rani lane near Shivaji Park, we can’t help but reminisce about how passersby check in with the vendor and enquire as to how they’re doing, how they’ve been? “This is all across Dadar and I don’t think this exists in too many places. I’m a people person and Dadar just reaffirms that for me. I like going back home to those lanes and those places because it’s got a lot to do with how I’ve grown up and I can’t imagine not being there and not living in Dadar, in Mahim, in that area. Only people who’ve grown up there will understand it,” she echoes.
No time for Internet hate
“I am the girl next door. I want to be that approachable person.”— Mithila Palkar
As a frontrunner of India’s digital wave, Palkar isn’t imperceptive to the pros and cons of the Internet. Staying positive, she takes it all in her stride. The actor says, “We all know that there is so much hate on the Internet, but the Internet also has a huge sense of community. So if there is a hate comment on your post, there will be a community of people who will be badgering that person… you don’t even have to say a word.” Palkar adds, “My Internet family is very, very special to me because they are the ones who made me and I’m here because they are.” The actor wants fans to know that even though she gets super embarrassed when approached, they should still engage with her if they see her. “I am the girl next door. I want to be that approachable person. I feel very bad when people say I saw you, but I didn’t know if I should come and talk to you. You should always come and talk to me! Even if it makes me shy because knowing that you came and spoke to me just makes me happy,” she says.
“I would want my artistic legacy to be limitless. I want to do everything.”— Mithila Palkar
As she approaches completing almost a decade in the industry, particularly after having found a launchpad during India’s Internet revolution, the actor is thinking big. “I would want my artistic legacy to be limitless. I want to do everything,” she says. The actor wants to walk every mile, explore every existence. “I don’t just want to be limited to India, I would also love to work in the west. I want people to know that the sky’s the limit,” Palkar says.
Wardrobe and Benetton Signature Timewear: United Colors of Benetton
Jewelry: Mia by Tanishq
Creative Director: Tanvi Shah
Fashion Editor: Neelangana Vasudeva
Brand Director: Tulsi Bavishi
Photographer: Rohit Gupta
Make-up: Sahithya Shetty
Hair: Deepali Deokar
Cover Interview by: Jessica Xalxo