Sushama Deshpande is a theatre director, writer and actor, who has been active in the field for more than 30 years. Her work in cinema is limited when compared with theatre, however, Deshpande gives an outstanding performance in Devashish Makhija’s “Ajji“. 

On the occasion of the film screening at Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, we speak with her about the impressive journey she had in her life, theatre, the movie, women, Savitribai Phule and other topics.

Ajji” screened at Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles

You have a degree in journalism and a Masters in a sociology. How did you end up working in the theatre and cinema?

I loved theatre since my childhood. My father used to do theatre and I used to spend lot of time in rehearsals, which my father useδ to conduct. I used to participate in school gatherings a lot. I used to do dance direction in school. With all this,  I was eager to be a journalist. Why? I don’t know. Writing something was and is my passion. When I told my father I wanted to take a journalism course, he suggested to do a master’s degree and then decide about journalism. I was interested in subject psychology. I did my graduation in psychology. Took admission for psychology. For post graduation courses, I left my place in Baramati and came to Pune for education. Started living in a hostel. Must have done lot of ‘Masti’. Did not concentrate in college the way I should. Professor got upset with me and did not grant the terms. I could not give the examination. My mother got upset because of this and she told me, “You  have to complete post graduation in a year”. So I decided to change the subject and gave 2 years worth of exams in one year as external student of university. So I got the degree in sociology. Then got the admission for journalism. I started watching a lot of theatre as I shifted to Pune and participated in college theatre competition. Got prizes.

In my college days, I participated in a well-known theatre competition ‘Purushottam Karandak’. In this competition, till today, they choose an actor who is the best in everything. I got that honour. In Pune, you get a lot of publicity in the newspaper if you receive this honour. So Bhaskar Chandavarkar (well-known musical director) asked me to act in his film “Atyachar.” Then I did film “Begar” with Sai Paranjape. Started doing journalism, mostly investigative feature writing. Was writing a colum named ‘ Purush’ based on patriarchal framework. Was doing experimental (parallel) theatre in those days. So,  although I was aware I like theatre deeply, I used to enjoy journalism also. Because of some of the incidents, I felt strongly that written words have a  limitation in reaching rural Maharashtra; so I should try to use other tools of communication to reach there.

In between, I got married. Was pregnant. Decided to be at home to take care of the baby. (I love doing things intensely so…) Was having lot of free time, so I decided to read seriously about women participation in the Independent movement. Women who worked with Gandhi. But through the discussions with friends, I decided to read about Savitribai Phule. Decided to take guidance from Prof Ram Bapat in this. So I used to read the books (which he gave me) and used to discuss with Sir Bapat about the book and its subject. One day in the morning, I read the news about a rape that happened in Pune, Kotharud area. I was shocked that day. I was supposed to meet Sir that day. After our discussion I asked, ” Sir, if Savitri would have been alive today what would her actions be on such a rape case in the city?” I asked the question and the form of theatre struck me. I said,” Sir, Savitri would talk to today’s audience about their history and would raise questions about what the people are doing today! , through the theatre.” Sir was a very good listener and he started asking me small small questions about the form and the subject . It was my dialogue with myself, and in that meeting I got the clarity about theatre form. It got changed little bit in the last 30 years. I have been doing this play for the last 30 years.

When I wrote the script, I never thought somebody else would do this. I was firm that I will do this and will take this play to rural areas. I even thought of doing a play without music and lights so I could take it anywhere. I started saying “I am trying to do Theatre Journalism.” On January 3rd, 1989, I did my first performance and due to the amount of response, I got busy in the performances and could not do active newspaper journalism anymore. So, doing theatre became my main interest after this along with some small roles in the films of my friends.The performances of Savitri Jyotiba Phule created life with Savitri and Jyotiba. During the last 30 years, I am performing Savitri and Jyotiba in Marathi and Hindi.

Can you tell us about your work in the theatre and the influence Savitribai Phule had on you? Your work seems to focus mainly on women’s rights. What is your opinion about the state of women in contemporary India?

As I started working on Savitri and Jyotiba Phule, I could say “I am living in their company”. As if I knew them. As a journalist and as a person, I was attached to social rights’ movement but with Savitri’s performance I got connected to the left movement deeply. Savitri showed me women in rural India (I do same performance in Hindi ) and even abroad also. Being a woman, a girl,  my experience of life was through a woman’s visage, but Savitri gave me clarity, courage and deep understanding of the world around me. Basically, I am a strong person but Savitri, Jyotiba made me stronger and fearless. Naturally, I did plays about strong women.

I started working with rural women of Maharashtra because I feel I owe them lot.

I do a one-person performance about the life of Tamasha (editor’s note: traditional form of Marathi theatre, often with singing and dancing, widely performed by local or travelling theatre groups within the state of Maharashtra, India) women, folk artists of Maharashtra. They are very strong women, how they lead their life is the subject of the play. They are not allowed to marry when they decide to be in Tamasha but their work is filtered through songs, Lavani (editor’s note: a combination of traditional song and dance, which is particularly performed to the beats of Dholki, a percussion instrument). So they have relationships etc. I spent a lot of time with those women and wrote the script. Again I directed the play and I am the performer also. The title of the play is ‘ Tichya Aaeechi goshta arthat mazya athavanincha phad. ( Her Mother’s Story Means My Memories of my Life) Conflict between folk dancer and her journalist daughter.

Then I did 2 plays with sex workers of Sangali. Those women were interested in presenting their lives. They invited me for direction. It was challenging and interesting work. Working with that community was an experience. Titles were, ’My mother, The Gharwali, Her Malak and his wife’ and ‘ Ham aur tum’

Then I did a play based on women poets of Maharashtra from the 13th to the 18th century. Those women were quite ahead in their thinking. I was moved deeply while reading their poetry, so I thought of taking this poetry and their thoughts to contemporary audience. It is a musical play. I am the writer and the director of the play.

Another play ‘Prakaran pahile’ was based on an extra marital relationship. The woman is a known writer of Maharashtra and her lover died in her house and his son comes to her place to light a lamp at the place his father died but is interested the woman and a dialogue between the two ensues.The woman writer and the wife of the man, both are very strong characters here.

I did a play based on the autobiography of Dalit writer Urmila Wawar. We present that book on stage. Presenting this play was a completely different experience. I thought, this is a story of a girl of rural India. Three artists are in the play and every one is Urmila and any other character in the play.

In between, I did a play with the LGBTQ community. This was tough work.

One play I did on Dr. Sudhir Patwardhan’s paintings. I could see theatre in his paintings, so I thought of doing the play. He is a painter of human beings so I was interested in doing this play.

I love to work for cause and so those plays I could do…

Today, the atmosphere all over world is not good for women. In India, the situation is the worst, I can say. Fascist atmosphere in the country is being created and spreads fear. Insecurity is increasing for girls and women. The need for Savitri’s performance is more necessary than before.

Why did you decide to participate in Devasish’s movie? In general, what is it that you look for in the parts you select?

I did not know Devashish before. He asked Abhishek to call me for the role of ‘Ajji’. Abhishek told me the outline of the story and Devashish came. He started talking about my theatre, asking questions about my work. He knew a lot about me through the Internet. We had a very good dialogue in that first meeting. He narrated the story, which was very interesting. At the end of the meeting he asked me,”Will you cut mutton?” I asked,” Does the role demands it?” He said.” Yes.” and I said,” Then I will cut.” He said, ‘ You are Ajji in my film.” I asked him “Will you have a workshop before the shoot? Because I need that as a theatre person.”

Dev said, ” I don’t go to the shoot before the workshop. I have to go through workshop.” After this, there was no reason I would say no to a strong and leading role! But I was not sure that this film will happen due to the way he offered me the lead role, without any audition. For me doing such a role with a young director was interesting. 

In theatre, I wrote my plays and directed and acted. I never thought of ‘How to choose the role!’

How was your cooperation regarding the film? How did you interpret your part and how did he guided you for it?

For a long time, I was telling young directors from theatre that I wanted to just act with another director. But it never happened. So I was very happy to do only acting in the film. No other responsibilities. So I was ready to do what Devashish says. So cooperation was 100%. I can’t work without complete devotion to the work.

To understand women is not a difficult task for me. I could see Ajji’s layers of emotions. In the workshop Dev explained me Ajji’s inner monologues when she is not talking on the screen,  which helped me lot. After reading the script for the first time, I emailed Dev, “I would like to understand the history of Ajji so we will meet and talk about this.” Dev sent me 4 pages of history of Ajji and said, we can talk and add in her history. I could see the way Dev works deeply at that moment. He is a very deep person who has clarity about what he wants. Working with him was a very enjoyable process. We have a connection which is difficult to explain. Dev says , “we are spiritually connected.”

The film includes a number of difficult scenes, like the ones where you have to do the work of a butcher, and of course the last one. How difficult was it for you to play in those scenes?

As an actor you learn new things. Actors love to do challenging roles. To do the butcher scenes, Dev and Pooja (associate director) planned the workshop properly. The direction department started showing me films, shoots of cutting  meet and chicken. After 4/5 days someone asked me,” Should we go to a butcher shop?” so we went there. The butcher cut the chicken and asked me to cut it in pieces. First touch of chicken was warm and for a second I found it difficult but I told myself, “You have to do this”,  and I started cutting it. After that, I could keep myself cool. I could see ‘ halal of bakara’ and could cut the body. Last scene and any scene, I will not say it was difficult to do. They were more challenging. As an actor, I should be able to take challenges.

The film deals with corruption and the ties of politicians and “the capital” with the police, and the fact that everyone expects from the elderly, and particularly women, to be docile, helpless and obedient, and actually just to sit and wait to die. What is your opinion about these subjects?

Yes, Devashish includes political comments in the film. Corruption in India is very high. Politicians are not only financially corrupt but they are completely mentally corrupt. We live in a patriarchal framework. What men say is important always. Due to globalization, you can see how the market works in every place. Women did not have value before, but now society looks at women with market value. Women not only sit at home, society expects a lot of work from them, for men and family. In 18th century, Jyotiba Phule started education for women. From the 13th to the 18th century, women poets expressed their views ahead of feminist women. We have started walking back. Rural women are on a different level than women from urban areas. Rapes are increasing, in every field men are at an upper position. They are asking for women’s bodies to use. Woman body, girl body is only for use and then throw away? Most of the parents do not want a girl-child. Pathetic situation. Very upsetting. I wanted to do a play on the subject of rape. 

On another level, it presents the concept of the vigilante, which it seems to justify. What do you think about this concept, and revenge in general

A  small group of people are more vigilante. The parents of girl child have become vigilante. The reason is the situation in the country. BJP is trying to turn society backwards, towards old times. Congress people are also racists. Socialists deal with the situation more emotionally. Murders of left-thinking people are taking place. Democracy is the verge of death Very upsetting times, we need to search for new forms of communication to sensitize society.

Personally, I do not believe in revenge. But when I think of Ajji, she is expected to do what she dose in the film.

Can you tell us a bit about your cooperation with Sudhir Pandey and Sharvani Suryavanshi in the film?

Sudhir Pandeyji is a senior person in the industry. Even then, he attended workshop. Vikas Kumar asked us to do some improvisations, which helped a lot for breaking the ice. He came for butcher workshops also. Very down to earth person. Very comfortable to work with.

Sharvani is an intelligent and talented girl. Personally, I am fond of children. Direction department organized our meeting in Pune. It was special. I could spend time with her. She taught me computer games. She is very talkative so communicating with her was not difficult at all. (I know I am not a bad communicator.)

How did you experience the shooting of the film, and were there any memorable episodes, good or bad?

The experience of shooting the film was fantastic! I was the senior on set most of the time so everyone was taking care of me.

There were some memorable episodes, for example, we were shooting “Ajji” walking in different lanes. The whole night I was walking. At the end of the first time I told Dev that I will give the shots without rehearsals. Next day, Dev and Vikram ( first AD) came in to see me. They were upset I think because they made me walk and walk.

One day, we were shooting walking only, but in different places. Close to the station, under bridge etc. We were doing this that day with a small group of technicians. Arranging was impossible and I was having change of sarees. Under the Mrunal Gore bridge, I asked the driver to go away and opened two doors of the car. I changed the saree there and we did our work. Dev was very upset that day. I was cool. I have practice of wearing saree anywhere because of my Savitri’s performances in rural area. I used to change the saree on stage while making audience comfortable, while talking to them.

Offering mutton to dogs was tough for me. We haven’t rehearsed it before. I am not fond of dogs so it was not easy for me.

I was worried for Jishnu Bhattacharya on set. The way he was working… I cannot express my feelings for his commitment, in English.

We had a great time, I remember laughing with Sadiya Siddiki, Trimala and Smita…

What are your plans for the future?

Mostly will be doing short films with Uttara Krishnadas.

I receive a lot off calls for roles. But in Bollywood world, I think I do not fit in. When they ask the role, they keep telling ’Mother of Salman Khan, grandmother of Ranbir Kapoor.’ They do not tell what the character is about, hero and heroine are more important in this world. If I get a good role, I will do it , as I am doing with the short film with Uttara. Working with young directors is more interesting. In “Ajji” I look older than what I look otherwise. Young boys in casting keep asking for the same type of roles and when they see I look young they back out. Taking auditions is fine but I can’t cope up with that style.

So I will wait for directors like Devashish Makhija who want to do something different. Otherwise I am happy with my theatre. Will ask Devashish again for a good role.

In theatre, I wanted to do a play on the subject of rape. I have a form in my mind. I have written another play about divorces. I will search for another director to do it. 

I have written another play on divorces and will search for another director to do it.

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