Radhika Mehrotra, a graduate of The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute (LSTFI), plays Dr. Ritu Gagra in the hit Netflix series Kaala Paani. According to Netflix, Kaala Paani is “a survival drama featuring an ensemble of characters who are all trying to escape the wrath of nature, as the vast sea confines them for thousands of kilometers.” Created in partnership with Posham Pa Pictures and Sameer Saxena, Kaala Paani was filmed primarily on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Released this past October, a second season was announced less than one month later due to the series’ immediate success.
LSTFI: “A Magical Experience”
Since she was a child, Radhika knew she wanted to become an actor. Although neither of her parents have any background in acting, she attributes her exposure to film at a young age to her father, who was “a big movie fan.” After joining the Collegiate Drama Society at Delhi University, Radhika realized her love for acting. She began reading as many plays as possible and participating in acting workshops. Following university, her mother suggested that she attend an acting school if she was serious about pursuing the craft, which led her to apply to The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in New York City.
For Radhika, moving to NYC and beginning her studies at LSTFI were major life changes. She remembers feeling “really lost” the first semester since she was suddenly exposed to “a different world.” Although it took “a little bit of time,” eventually “everything started clicking.” By delving into scene work in class, she “actually understood the importance of the basic relaxation exercise” that she had been taught the first six months. From that moment on, she “started enjoying everything the teachers were teaching and everything that was happening in class.” Radhika especially appreciated LSTFI’s commedia dell’arte course, which she took every semester: “It really helped me break a lot of my inhibitions and truly explore my physicality in a way I had never before.”
Through the Two-Year Conservatory program, Radhika “met a lot of likeminded students and teachers, people who were working professionally and trying to make a career.” Radhika calls LSTFI “a magical experience,” and credits some “wonderful teachers” for making her time there so memorable, especially Robert Ellermann and George Loros.
After graduating from LSTFI, Radhika returned to India and began auditioning, immediately booking several commercials before landing a new Netflix series: Kaala Paani.
Trying to Read the Audition Room
In August 2022, Radhika was contacted by a casting agency with an audition for a new project from Netflix titled Kaala Paani. A big fan of the show’s creators, Radhika was extremely excited to receive the call. At the time, of course, she “didn’t know if it was going to work out or not.” Laughing while remembering the auditions, Radhika claims she “had literally no idea if it was a good or bad audition” since the directors were stone-faced. She explains, “As an actor, you’re constantly trying to read what’s going on in their minds, but they were just watching with blank expressions.”
After a month had past, Radhika assumed she didn’t get the role. She tried to move on and focus on future projects – until she received a text telling her to “block her dates” for Kaala Paani. Radhika felt like she had “won the lottery” and knew “something big had happened” in her life. She kept her emotions under control but “deep down, something was exploding inside.”
Putting The Method to Work
When preparing to shoot Kaala Paani, Radhika claims her “job was made easy” thanks to the terrific writing of the show. She credits the writers – Biswapati Sarkar, Nimisha Misra, Sandeep Saket, and Amit Golani – who “had not missed a beat.” She says, “Every single detail that an actor could think of or want was there in the script… Everything was so fleshed-out and well written.” Radhika attests that “every single person in the show had an arc, a reason, and proper character development.” When faced with difficult questions about her character, she turned to the script and searched for answers. If she still had “any doubts,” she “could always bounce them off the directors,” Sameer Saxena and Amit Golani.
Radhika describes her character development process as extremely “subconscious,” stemming from her time at LSTFI. She was taught to try everything in the classroom and consciously work on the character at home but that, at a certain point, the conscious homework must be forgotten and the actor must live through the scene, letting the subconscious work flow through. Radhika recalls a breakdown scene in Kaala Paani, which was an important moment for her character. She shared that, in that moment, she was “not thinking about the exercise” or the pre-shoot “homework” but was present and living the truth of the moment.
Filming in the Jungle
On the show, Radhika plays Dr. Ritu Gagra, a researcher sent to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to cure a mysterious disease. Although she could prepare for the role by studying the script or brushing up on her medical jargon, there was no way to prepare for shooting on the Islands. While Radhika was struck by the beauty and serenity around her, filming on the Islands presented its own challenges, namely a lack of internet, intense heat, and rugged terrain. “Sometimes you don’t have access to food if you’re shooting three hours on some height and the food is in the base camp,” Radhika shares.
In addition to navigating the struggles of island living, the show was shot in the jungle. Radhika recalls the cast and crew feeling like they were “encroaching” on the wild animals and natural habitats around them. However, she says, “I think we all became one with the nature and became a part of that life.” As a self-proclaimed “beach-baby” and nature-lover, Radhika found shooting in the jungle to be “a really fun experience” that united everyone working on the project: “After a point…we had all become one family and really had a lot of camaraderie.”
Relishing Strong Female Roles
For Radhika, one of the most important aspects of Kaala Paani is the presence of strong female characters who are authentic and relatable. She says, “It’s very difficult to come across strong female characters… There’s a lot of stereotyping… For men, there are a lot of characters with layers, but for females, they keep fleshing out the same character again and again.” However, in Kaala Paani, there are numerous female characters “with beautiful journeys and arcs.”
According to Radhika, her character “has her own insecurities, problems, and demons to deal with,” but she is “on the forefront,” resiliently pursuing her work. “That is something that is very, very powerful and strong,” she shares. Radhika appreciates that “none of these women are crying about the problems in their life” or “harping about how difficult things are for us.” Instead, they are “living in a man’s world, doing their jobs.” Radhika thinks this project is “exciting news” for all female actors: “It’s the kind of work I would be looking for, and I’m sure that all my contemporaries are also looking for similar kinds of roles to perform.”
What’s Next for Radhika and Kaala Paani
Kaala Paani has received an overwhelmingly positive response, securing a second season less than a month after its premiere. Within a week of its initial release, the series appeared on Netflix’s Global Top 10 Non-English TV list and was trending in 11 countries.
Although Radhika expected positive reviews, she never imagined the overwhelming love and support from Kaala Paani fans. She says, “We knew that we had made a good show,” but the overflowing Instagram messages and moments of recognition on the street surprised her. Radhika loves the fans’ investment in the show and believes Kaala Paani is “personal to them right now,” crediting the relatability of the characters, especially the women. She shares, “Everybody’s [relating] with some woman in the show, and that’s amazing.”
When asked about her plans beyond Kaala Paani, Radhika shrugged and responded, “I am not one to plan my future at all… That would really stress me out.” She adds, “What’s important for me is to keep faith in my convictions and keep doing what I’m doing. I’m pretty sure everything will work out as long as I put in the work.”
Finding Community through The Method
Imparting some closing advice, Radhika encourages emerging actors to find “clarity and know what you want to achieve in life.” She also urges them to “stay committed.” “No matter what comes your way,” she says, “keep trying. Keep going, because you will find a way.” Finally, she laughs and offers, “More realistically, go to an acting school!”
For Radhika, LSTFI provided more than just a solid acting foundation – it provided an invaluable community. “Once you go to a place like [LSTFI], you end up meeting a lot of likeminded people and you develop a community for yourself, which is very, very important,” she shares. Radhika advises actors to build “a community that you support and that supports you,” and believes her own community grew naturally following her time at The Institute.
After the success of Kaala Paani, Radhika feels more grateful than ever for her friends and fellow actors. Without them, she says, “I wouldn’t have been able to do all the things that I’m doing. Whether it’s going for auditions or figuring out stylists for PR activities or meeting other directors or going for readings, all of that happens because you have a community.”