Sonalee Kulkarni in Dubai Marina
Sonalee Kulkarni in Dubai Marina Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan

Love in the times of coronavirus can be tricky, but Maharashtrian actress Sonalee Kulkarni — who had a spontaneous wedding at a Bur Dubai temple on May 18 — celebrated her bond in the midst of a raging pandemic.

Kulkarni and her UAE-based partner Kunal Benodekar had planned for a decadent destination wedding this June at a castle perched on a cliff in the United Kingdom with a robust wedding list and a fancy caterer, but their best laid plans had to be scrapped when countries began sealing air spaces to stem the spread of the virus. So what did they do? Opt for a low-key wedding with even fewer guests than their fingers.

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Sonalee Kulkarni on her wedding day with her husband Kunal Benodekar

So, a day before her no-frills marriage registration in the UAE, the ‘Apsara Aali’ star nipped down to Meena Bazaar and plucked a blue silk sari from the popular store Kalyan Silks and picked up a simple black-beaded mangalsutra [chain] from PNG jewellers. Her blouse — not the most perfect match — was ready-made since going to a tailor to customise it would have taken time, a luxury that she couldn’t afford.

“I remember buying jasmine flowers just outside the temple and pinning it just before we solemnised our marriage. It was such a simple ceremony with sindoor [vermillion] and varmala [floral garland],” said Kulkarni in an exclusive interview with Gulf News tabloid!.

“Perhaps because of Bollywood, we have become very fussy about having this big fat Indian wedding in our lives,” she added.

Pandemic wedding

Bollywood romantic musicals have famously peddled this idea that having an all-frills spectacular wedding is a young woman’s ultimate childhood dream or fantasy. Designer trousseau over degrees seem to be the collective credo. But Kulkarni isn’t buying it.

“But why don’t we cultivate a generation who’s going to take care of the marriage and not just the wedding? I wanted to let it out in public that marriages can be done this way too. In small towns, they spent all their life savings and incomings just to make a stupid wedding look grand, which is just insane. Having a grand wedding shouldn’t be anyone’s sole priority in today’s times,” said Kulkarni.

This actress, who is one of Marathi cinema’s leading actresses with credits including ‘Hirkani’ and ‘Poshter Girl’, has her priorities straight.

Sonalee Kulkarni and her husband in Dubai
Sonalee Kulkarni and her husband in Dubai Image Credit: Instagram/SonaleeKulkarni

Their big day was devoid of pomp, but was high on mutual affection and adoration. Her husband — a second generation immigrant in the UK and who is now working in top management at a financial firm in Dubai — wasn’t even aware that Kulkarni was an award-winning actress. Benodekar was blissfully unaware of her star-status in Maharashtra, but sparks flew right away when they met. [When she told him that she was fondly called ‘Apsara Aali’ (Angel) for her dancing skills, he asked: ‘Apsara Aali as in Mohammad Ali, the boxer’?].

“That’s how little he knew about Marathi cinema! We have been together for three years. I got engaged in Dubai last year just before the pandemic struck. At that time, we thought both our families can come together in the UK in June this year and have this ceremony with family, parents, and proper rituals … I don’t’ feel like a traditional bride yet, but I am truly happy,” said Kulkarni.

On the day of our interview, the 33-year-old actress was in a blue cotton maxi dress and her dainty mangalsutra [a beaded chain that signifies the marital status of Hindu women] was tucked inside the halter-neck. While she wasn’t disappointed about taking the plunge with a no-frills wedding, she claims she was just like any pre-pandemic bride who was hoping to have a lavish celebration.

Sonalee Kulkarni
Sonalee Kulkarni Image Credit: Instagram/SonaleeKulkarni

“We had even booked the castle, our venue one and a half years ago and all our family and friends were planning to travel to the UK for this dreamy summer destination wedding. His parents in the UK had even gone for menu tasting … But then the second wave hit the UK and travel bans followed. Some say why don’t move it to September 2022, but we felt it was too long a wait,” said Kulkarni.

The actress had flown to Dubai for a brief getaway with her then-boyfriend to do up his apartment in Dubai Marina, but she decided to stay back.

“The only people who were together was us, while our family and friends were not in the same country. So registering and solemnising our marriage in Dubai made a lot of sense … I had a choice to be upset or mourn over it, but I chose to focus on being together.”

Exclusive interview with Marathi actress Sonalee Kulkarni on her impromptu Dubai wedding

Apparently, their parents had to provide an NOC (No objection certificate) for them to get married in Dubai.

“When I got the appointment for our marriage registration on a Friday, Kunal’s reaction was: ‘weren’t we supposed to go for breakfast at 10.30am and dinner?’ … I just freaked out because he was on loud speaker and my friends were all on the call. We all wondered if he got the gravity of this call … We were getting married,” said Kulkarni with a laugh.

For those wondering, her husband cancelled breakfast and dinner plans on his wedding day.

“He can be so funny! And I remember telling him that we will be celebrating our anniversary on this day for the rest of our lives. Even if we do rituals with our families together, this day will be the most important day of our lives.”

Her Dubai-based friends Rahul and Deepali Tulpule along with her foster parents, Sachin Joshi and his wife were her biggest support systems during her hasty wedding in Dubai. She chose a blue silk sari, because Kulkarni wanted to wear the traditional yellow, green or red colour saris for her forthcoming ritualistic ceremony with family and friends, once the pandemic is under control.

The couple met each other when she was filming in London. While he wasn’t familiar with her acting career, her in-laws patronised her films. In Kulkarni’s eyes, his ignorance was blissful.

“People can get really fascinated or star-struck when they meet someone from the acting industry. They think it’s a fantasy … Honestly, I never wanted to marry someone who belonged to the world of acting. I didn’t want to share my life with someone who did not know a world beyond films,” said Kulkarni. Her husband is a high-profile financial wizard, who is far away from her world of musicals and gritty dramas.

Sonalee Kulkarni with her husband Kunal
Sonalee Kulkarni with her husband Kunal Image Credit: Instagram/SonaleeKulkarni

“I knew I was never going to marry someone who always wanted to look young all the time or was worried about how many fans he has on social media … He’s totally removed from our world and is an actually extreme contrast to me.”

The adage: ‘opposites attract’ sits well with this newly married pair. With a pandemic raging across the globe, it’s time to adjust to new realities, believes Kulkarni.

“We don’t how long this pandemic will last … So why don’t we take smart decisions? Don’t think of fancy weddings as your most important event in your life. If you truly love each other, just get married without all that … I have been married on-screen many times or played a bride, but this was unlike any such experience. Getting married for real felt amazing,” said Kulkarni.

Sonalee Kulkarni in 'Poster Girl' on Netflix
Sonalee Kulkarni in 'Poshter Girl' on Netflix

The self-made star also intends to continue working on strengthening her career and her production. In June, she will return to India to film her Hindi-language web series with Amazon Prime Video and also begin work on her own production, a Marathi period epic.

“Cinema is so valuable to me. It’s been 13 years in this field and everyone has been really kind and loving towards me. Just before the pandemic struck, I had my career’s most successful film … So nothing will change on the work front … Kunal and I know how to balance our lives just right.”

Did you know?

Sonalee Kulkarni
Sonalee Kulkarni Image Credit: Instagram/SonaleeKulkarni

Sonalee Kulkarni, who has an Indian Army background, is a self-made star. She is fondly known as the ‘Apsara Aali’, a tag she earned due to her excellent dancing skills. But being pigeon-holed is her biggest fear. “There comes a phase in your career when you are stuck in a certain image. People saw me as this glamorous dancer … I wanted everybody to see me beyond my looks. I worked real hard for that … I want everyone to talk about my performance rather than my looks. I want to create my own opportunities, otherwise you are stuck in a certain image all your life,” said Kulkarni.