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Interview Hindi

Sushma Deshpande: Being an artiste, you like to learn certain things at this age

The veteran, who will be seen in Devashish Makhija’s acclaimed Ajji on 24 November, speaks about her longstanding theatre career, her preparation for the film, and why she enjoyed not being a leader on this project.

Photo: Shutterbugs Images

Sonal Pandya

Sushma Deshpande has an unforgettable role in Devashish Makhija’s Ajji, or Grandma. Playing a senior citizen with arthritis, Ajji’s world is turned upside down when her young granddaughter Manda (Sharvani Suryavanshi) is found brutally raped and abandoned in the slums where they live. The determined grandmother becomes an avenger for Manda.

The film, which is earning good reviews internationally at festivals, is due to be released on 24 November. Sushma Deshpande, who is currently in London, spoke to Cinestaan.com in a telephone interview. The veteran theatre writer and director who still performs her 1989 Marathi play, Vhay, Mee Savitri Bai (Yes… I am Savitri Bai) discussed how she agreed to join Ajji and how workshops helped to shape the characters in the film. Excerpts: 

Sushma Deshpande in Ajji

You have worked in Marathi films before, but this is your first lead role. What made you say yes? Was it because of director Devashish Makhija and the script?

Devashish’s script was very good. He has great clarity, particularly of what exactly he wants from the film. [It was] fantastic to work with such a person who has written and directed the film [with] such clarity. I had done some Marathi films before but not the way I have done with Ajji. It was with some of my friends, and with Jabbar Patel and Amol Palekar. I guess, in a way, this was a first role [for me]. But in Marathi films, we are known to each other. I have done small roles [in them].

Before you became an artiste, you were a journalist. How did your interest in acting arise?

Basically I have been doing theatre for the past 40 years. In the beginning, I never took acting as my profession. Then I started my performances on Savitribai Phule in 1989 and [began] working professionally. I gave up journalism because of Savitri’s performances, because I could not give time particularly to it. I was too deeply [involved] in performing Savitri. And at that time, my commitment was to perform Savitri in rural India and because of too much demand for [the shows], I was unable to do journalism. Till today, I’m doing Savitri’s performances. 

It’s still going strong.

Now I’m doing more [performances] in Hindi than Marathi because some of the Marathi girls have started doing the same performance. I did a lot of performances in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and places like that. I have written, directed and enacted that play in Marathi and Hindi. I always say without theatre I can’t live. I need theatre. Acting was not new for me, but yes, acting in films and acting in theatre are technically different.

Before the shooting, I told Devashish, I am in theatre for a long, long time so it may happen that I will project more and the camera catches that. You do overacting(chuckles). Particularly in theatre, projection is important. Here for the camera, you have to be yourself. So that different level of acting you need to understand. That difference was there. Being an actress or artiste, you like to learn certain things at this age. 

Both Smita Tambe and Vikas Kumar, who are also part of the cast of Ajji, spoke about the extensive workshops all of you undertook before filming started. How did that help you once the cameras started rolling? 

[The] workshop was very, very useful. When I read the script and when Dev told me that you are doing Ajji, I asked only one question, will you please do a workshop before the film? The reason is, in between I was doing one Hindi film, I said yes to somebody, and four characters were talking different Hindi. My style was different, somebody was talking Lucknavi, etc, so they stopping shooting.

So with that experience I told him that I am a theatre person and I need a little practice before [shooting]. If a workshop is there, I will know exactly what you want. He laughed and told me that “without workshops, I don’t work” (laughs). That was our same tuning.

In the workshops, we have done all the scenes. All the artistes, including our DoP [director of photography] Jishnu [Bhattacharjee], everybody was there for the workshop. So the understanding of roles, particularly scene-wise, the graph of the roles, all that work we did in the workshops.

I remember the last day of the workshop, me and Dev, we sat together for, I think, three hours at least. I told him many times she [Ajji] speaks only through eyes. So Dev’s style is, you should have your monologue. What monologue is there? Every monologue I have written in my script what he wants, what he wants exactly. So very detailed work we did, minute things we worked upon in the workshop, and as I told you, after our thing, Jishnu and Dev used to discuss about the shot.

When we started shooting, we were comfortable, not only with the role, but we were comfortable with one another also. I was knowing that Smita [Tambe] is my daughter-in-law, but what is my exact relationship with her? How is my dialogue with Leela, particularly with Sadiya Siddiqui? So that helped a lot.

In the film, there are some difficult scenes for you to undertake — from butchering the meat to confronting your granddaughter’s rapist. How did you approach these scenes? Did you have any apprehensions? 

No, particularly in the workshop, Dev designed each and every thing. I would say Dev’s team worked very well, the direction department. Pooja Chauhan, who was the associate director, Rishi [Raj] and Mrugank [Indurkar], were very good. What they did particularly was put one sewing machine at my house so I could [practise]. I used to go above the butcher’s shop for a few days to work on the look. In the office particularly, Dev started showing me some of the butcher shots and cutting of meat shots that they had already shot. They made me mentally prepared that you are going to do this. 

Dev told the first day itself, in fact, he asked me, will you cut meat? Then we decided that I will go. That time I decided that if that is the demand of the film, I will do that. It’s not an issue. I look at those things very positively whenever I get the chance to do such things and I don’t get intimidated so it was interesting.

Then they took me to the butcher’s shop and the first day they cut the chicken in front of me and then asked to me to cut it. In the beginning, they did the halal of the murga [chicken] and gave it to me. At the end, they showed me how to cut a bakra [goat]. It was a slow process and they planned for that, how should I go. When the first day they started showing me the butcher’s shooting, that day itself I told them, “Oh, you’re preparing me!” (laughs). That I was understanding, but it helped me a lot to see those things.

Do you feel the character of Ajji is anything like you? 

Ajji is not like me.

Not at all?

No, I don’t think she is like me. If she decides something, she also searches her path, how to go. Like that, I think I don’t search, I know my path (laughs).

The only things that are quite close to me is that Ajji is from what you can say an economically backward family and the way she has a communication even with a sex worker. That womanhood understanding, I think I have that. I have done plays with sex workers. I used to do a single-person performance about Tamasha artistes. I have done my research particularly for that also. Being a woman, I can understand that. That common theme is there. 

In your career as a theatre artiste, when you have been acting and directing, you have been part of projects that have had something to say, a larger message about society. What do you hope the audience will learn with this film? 

With Ajji, men should understand the way rape is increasing in India. I think whatever Ajji has done, it’s very obvious. I don’t think Sushma will do the same, but Ajji will do that. I feel people should understand that don’t underestimate a woman. Society is underestimating women a lot. I think men should learn, fast, and they should understand. I am not saying that what Ajji has done in the film every woman is going to do, but if women find something to do, they [the men] should not take a different stand. For their betterment, men should start the learning process. 

After this, are you continuing with theatre, or are there any other films lined up? 

If good roles come, I will do films because I liked this experience very much. Basically, the way we work in theatre as a team, there was a team [here as well]. Devashish is the main cause with which I loved the complete process particularly of film. But I would love to do good roles. Somebody will ask me to do only gaajar ka halwa, I say no (laughs). I’m not interested in gaajar ka halwa. Why to waste my time? I’m not interested in that type of films. I’m interested to do interesting types of characters. These types of things, I will 100% do.

I write and direct plays. So you are the leader all the time. What I love in this film is that somebody is leader of the film and project, you have to do whatever he or she asks.