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Vast difference between rescuing and helping: Iravati Harshe on depression, Kaasav

Shriram Iyengar

The actress, whose Janaki Kulkarni anchors the National Best Film award-winner Kaasav, speaks about the changing nature of Marathi cinema, depression, and dubbing for Madhuri Dixit in French.

Her performance as the woman helping out a depressed young man while battling her own demons anchored Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukthankar's National award-winning film Kaasav (Turtle). The film has now won a nomination for Best Film at the New York Indian Film Festival 2017. Harshe has also won a nomination in the Best Actress category.

In an exclusive interview with Cinestaan.com, the actress spoke about the rise of Marathi cinema (or cinema in Marathi, as she calls it), the battle against depression, and working with the brilliant duo of Sunil Sukthankar and Sumitra maushi (Marathi for mother's sister). Excerpts:

First of all, congratulations on the National award for the film. Kaasav is right at the head of a resurgence for Marathi films. How do you, as an actor and member of the industry, view it?

You know, people are talking about a resurgence, but I feel Marathi cinema has always been rich. We recently had an open forum, and this question was asked there as well. I feel this whole segregation of Marathi cinema away from the Hindi industry does not appeal to me as a student of cinema. I feel that it is a film in Marathi language or a film in Hindi language. It is not Marathi cinema or Hindi cinema. We are making cinema, which is Indian, in languages.

Having said that, I am very happy to see good stories that are coming forward. People do have a lot of stories to tell. However, the market dominates most of the creative aspects of filmmaking, and it stopped being a creative endeavour. Now it has started to seep a little bit into 'Marathi' cinema.

But yes, I am very happy with the way people are moving forward and maybe there is a chance of people telling more authentic stories, honest stories, not catering to a certain audience or market research. We need an inclusive perspective of cinema itself.

With Alok Rajwade in Kaasav

The film deals with depression. But there is a risk when tackling these issues in films. Cinema is not always capable of unlocking such subjects sensitively. What convinced you of this project?

Have you seen Astu (2014)? Astu dealt with Alzheimer's, and that topic is as wide as the ocean. Yet, it was handled very deftly and correctly. What had to be said, was said. So, I personally like the way Sumitra maushi [director Sumitra Bhave] writes. Sumitra maushi and Sunil's [co-director Sunil Sukthankar] style of filmmaking appeals to my senses and my sensibility as well.

Having done Astu with them, I was very curious what the next script was going to be. Luckily, it was to do with depression, which I have experienced. I think all of us experience it at some point in our lives. Sometimes in awareness, sometimes being unaware of it. The curse of modern life is that we are going through it at some point or the other. 

I thought this was a very necessary script, and the way she has tackled it is by keeping a perfect balance, not making it preachy, serving a medicine in doses or maligning something. There was a very beautiful balance that she had found in the story which appealed to me tremendously. 

As an artiste, there is always the risk of overplaying the role. But Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukthankar have a brilliant record of dealing with these issues in their films. Astu, as you mentioned, dealt with Alzheimer's, Devrai (2004) with schizophrenia. What were the pointers you received while doing Kaasav?

Having done Astu, I knew how they worked. One of the biggest bonuses of working with them is that they never hold you back. They never direct you as such. it was a lot more freedom to come up with what I wanted. I believe, as an actor, you have to lend yourself to the script. Not the other way round, fashioning it to who I am. A lot of actors go through something saying, 'I would not have played it that way.' That cannot be done.

Now, if you see a lot of scripts are tailormade for people and actors. This is a strong point, so let's write this, or he does action well. With Sumitra ma'am, you know that even if you are blindfolded, it is a good script. Even if she wrote it with her left hand. And this is not hero worship, it is just the way her sensibilities have been for years.

She has honed it to perfection. So for me, it was sitting with the script, doing a couple of meetings, talking about what is coming up for me, how do I see Janaki Kulkarni. Then, of course, if there was something that was astray, they would point out that technically it is this. With her, there is a lot of discussion, a lot of transparency, authenticity that you get.

Sumitra ma'am and Sunil sir are a rare two-director combination. How is it working with them? What is their chemistry like?

I call them the epitome of intelligent cooperation. So, truly, if there has to be a partnership in terms of creativity, their partnership is ideal. By intelligent cooperation, I don't just mean the play of intelligence, but rather that they both know where their strengths are, and they allow the other person to take over where that strength is needed.

It is also letting yourself go, and holding yourself back at the right time. I have seen them do this over and over again. It is perfectly, beautifully oiled machinery at work.

While awareness of depression is increasing, the discussion has a long way to go. With Dr Mohan Agashe on board as producer, were there any pointers on how to proceed with the film? Were there any suggestions from him, since he is a qualified psychiatrist as well?

A couple of pointers were placed initially by Dr Agashe, since the three of them [Bhave, Sukthankar, and Agashe] were thinking of the topic they wanted to tackle next. Dr Agashe, from the point of being a psychiatrist, also does this programme called Cinema For Health. He uses this programme to talk about relevant afflictions through films, and how one can be helped through this powerful medium.

If you see Kaasav, all the pointers you need for treatment are in place. There is a psychiatrist who is on the periphery. Interestingly, Janaki [Harshe's character] is not someone who is a 'been there done that' kind of woman. She is herself a recovering patient, coming out of depression. She is not yet into the ocean, like the turtle. She is on the border. Because of that she is able to extend this space for this boy.

There was an important point brought up during a screening at the Nair hospital [BYL Nair Charitable Hospital near Mumbai Central railway terminus] in Mumbai, about what appealed to them in the film. My answer was that more often than not the reaction to a patient of depression is to rescue that person. We want to fix it immediately. That is rescuing that person, instead of allowing that process to unfurl. There is a vast difference between rescuing and helping. Helping is about holding space. It sometimes means just being there.

That is what appealed to me. Being there is what is so present in the film. More times than not, you just need to be there. The person needs to be heard, be on his own, taken care of in a protected space.

Dr Mohan Agashe in Kaasav

Marathi cinema has always had a touch of class, sensitive stories that flourish. With its evolution into a commercial industry, is there a threat that this connection with stories might lose out to the commercial interest?

Yes, it is coming of age, and you don't want the bride to be taken by the wrong guy. I think the commercial presence, and numbers like Rs100 crore or Rs 150 crore, were not in play earlier. One has to be watchful. I am not saying commerce should be ignored. But at the same time, let's not harp on that. Let's give people a chance to tell stories, because the audience is ready.

I remember during Natasamrat (2016), I was shooting with someone from the South. He said, "Arre, I saw Natasamrat last night. What a film!" I am thrilled that the non-Marathi speaking public is making the effort to go and see a Natasamrat. I feel that when you make a film in its authentic way, it breaks the language barrier.

Cinema has its own language. If you see Astu, even if you ignore the subtitles that are running, you will understand it. The language of cinema is so powerful if it is used correctly. I feel of late people ignore that cinematic language and go for effects, or go for a fight sequence shot in 'Avatar' technology, you know? 

Sensitivity is an integral part of storytelling because otherwise why are you telling a story? You spoke about Tendulkar's era, but beyond that there was V Shantaram's Kunkoo (1937), Sadhi Mansa (1965), Sant Tukaram (1936). Those films were equally sensitive. There has never been a dearth of good filmmakers in our industry. It is just that over time one falls into a habit, and what you are serving the people is what they are going to lap up, making you feel that this is what they want. Actually, it is the other way round.

Still, there is the issue of films not staying in theatres long enough to make an impact. How do you see this gap being filled?

Well, there is a very wide gap. When we were releasing Astu, it is a beautiful film from all angles. Technically, it is a property which should have given the producer the money he put in and more. It has reached so many people across the world. At such a time, you wish someone would have backed the film up. Having said that, now that the film is on Amazon Prime it is fulfilling its purpose of reaching out to the maximum number of people.

But then the whole dream of a typical theatrical release that you always envisaged for your film did not happen. It was not a great release, because we didn't even know where it was going to play until the last day and a half before the release. Salman Khan's Sultan (2016) was releasing that Friday, and it had 2,000 screens across India. A Sultan knows how many screens it has, and where it will be released, but we didn't know. Despite the fact that Astu was completed almost three years earlier. This disparity can only change if people start coming forward and supporting good cinema.

There has been a call for reserving some theatres specifically for regional and small films. Do you think a move like that would help?

Yes, I do. I feel that somewhere the state has to step in. In between, there was a time when I could see Tamil films in PVR and other theatres, because they would play regional films on specific days. Otherwise, how would you access it? I cannot go to Chennai everytime to watch a Tamil film, and I don't want to, out of ethical issues, see it on a gadget. So, you would want to go and experience a theatrical release. There is a certain sacredness about it. Yes, Amazon Prime has made things available, and helped them in reaching out to people. The stories are reaching [audiences].

One interesting thing we came across in your career graph was that you dubbed for the French version of Dil To Pagal Hai. How did that come about?

Well, I was studying French at the Alliance Francaise while working in the industry. Someone just told me, 'You speak French well?' I told them yes I did, and they replied that they were looking for some people to dub for 'some Hindi film'. I agreed because as an experience I loved to go, and there were hardly any people to help me practise my French. This was a great way to keep in touch.

Incidentally, I met this gentleman, Emmanuel. He was doing his PhD in Indian cinema, specifically Bollywood (I hate that term!). He told me he was taking part in this project as part of his doctorate and wanted to supervise the recording. Yashji [producer-director Yash Chopra] at that time was travelling to Mauritius for a film festival, and later to Paris. So, that's how it came about. Emmanuel actually recorded for the part of Shah Rukh Khan, and he got it down pat.

I have been waiting to see the French version actually. In the course of the Foundation [Film Heritage Foundation] work, I met Camille, who is a conservationist. She told me that she had seen some prints, and will hunt for it. So, I told her I'd really love to see it.