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Interview Hindi Marathi

Never been satisfied with films adapted from plays, says Shanta Gokhale

The writer and journalist speaks about her journey in writing, theatre and cinema.

Anita Paikat

Writer-journalist Shanta Gokhale is not very well known among ordinary cinegoers. She has been a screen/story/dialogue writer on four films — Ti Ani Itar (2017), Rita (2009), Haathi Ka Anda (2002) and Katha Doan Ganpatraonchi (1996). Her filmography is short, but it includes meritorious and critically acclaimed works.

Gokhale's contribution to literature, however, is unparalleled. Besides authoring four books — Avinash, Rita Welinkar (in English and Marathi), Tya Varshi, and Crow Fall — she has worked as an ardent translator, making some seminal texts of Marathi literature available to English readers, and vice-versa.

Some of her translated texts are Begum Barve (English translation of Satish Alekar's Marathi play), Em Ani Hoomrao (Marathi translation of Jerry Pinto's novel Em And The Big Hoom), Guru Dutt: A Tragedy in Three Acts (English translation of Arun Khopkar's Marathi book Guru Dutt: Teen Anki Shokantika) and I, Durga Khote (English translation of Durga Khote's autobiography in Marathi).

Gokhale was also arts editor with the newspaper The Times of India, in the days when the paper took its role of opinion-maker seriously, and sub-editor with the Femina magazine prior to that. She has been a culture columnist with newspapers The Independent and The Sunday Times of India and tabloids Mid-Day and Mumbai Mirror.

Gokhale has been connected with theatre since the 1960s, has seen it grow and diversify, and has had her fair share of exposure to cinema as well. It was only befitting, therefore, to ask her about her tryst with theatre and cinema, independently and together. Excerpts:

You have written novels, plays and columns for newspapers. You are also considered one of India's best translators. How did you discover your love for writing?

A love for writing came to me gradually. I wrote good essays at school. I realized then that I would take special care over the words I chose and the way I formed my sentences. Years later, by pure accident, a letter I had written home describing an event I had been part of got published in The Times of India. Till then I had written stories and poems for my own pleasure in a private notebook. Now I realized that some of the things I wrote were good enough to be published.

I gained confidence after that and began writing a lot of articles for newspapers and magazines. I also wrote short stories for them when I was asked to. If I wrote stories for my own pleasure, I tended to put them away rather than see if they could be published. But then there was a brief while when stories tumbled out of my head, not in English, but in Marathi. I sent these off to leading literary magazines and they were accepted.

I still didn't feel confident enough to start a novel. But when I was around 44, certain circumstances around me gave me the idea for my first novel, Rita Welinkar, which I wrote in Marathi. Seventeen years later I wrote my second novel, Tya Varshi, again in Marathi.

Throughout this time I was translating consistently, mainly plays. I was a theatre critic with many friends in theatre. My playwright friends wanted to reach out beyond the Marathi theatre audience. They would ask me to translate their plays and I would do it as a friend. But there was an incentive attached, too. A theatre magazine, Enact, was always on the lookout for translated plays. Later there was Seagull Books of Calcutta who launched a modern drama series of translated plays.

All in all, I can say I have never spent a day without writing something, either journalistic or creative, since I was 18. And I am 78 now! 

How did your journey in theatre begin?

I graduated in English literature. That means I studied Shakespeare, Shaw, Osborne and a whole lot of other playwrights as part of my college work. I went to school in London where I saw some of the best plays of the time. I went to university in Bristol where interesting theatre happened at the Bristol Old Vic.

When I returned to Bombay, I met Satyadev Dubey. We became great friends. He was doing some wonderful work in theatre then, directing plays by fresh new writers, Girish Karnad being one of them. I would often attend Dubey's rehearsals, which gave me an idea of the processes of theatre making. That's how theatre became a vital part of my life.

Writing about theatre also meant that I was keeping in touch with new writers and directors. It is only lately that my theatre viewing has tailed off. I have seen so much theatre that a play has to be really special for me to drag myself out of the house to see it.

Plays and films are both performance based: similar in experience, different in medium. Yet, few plays have made it to the big screen, while numerous novels have been adapted into films. What do you think are the reasons?

Plays don't give you sufficient leeway to open out and interpret. Novels do, because of the larger canvas out of which you can select material to make a coherent film. I have never been satisfied with films adapted from plays. Somehow, they don't stop sounding like plays.

Your recent stint with film was screenwriting for Ti Ani Itar (2017). It was adapted from Manjula Padmanabhan’s play, Lights Out. Can you share your experience? How much of a loss and gain did the screenplay have by the time it was done?

Lights Out is actually a single-line play. When it was written and staged, one of its chief points of attraction was that it represented a real-life incident. It was written in the mid-1980s. Circumstances have changed a great deal since. So I felt there was a need to change it a lot. Manjula [Padmanabhan] had given [filmmaker] Govind [Nihalani] a carte blanche so he told me to go ahead and do what my imagination suggested.

First off, all the characters needed to be made more substantial. Then a credible set of circumstances had to be created to make the action contemporary and believable. My own stories and plays are multi-layered. So I wanted to add a few layers to the screenplay.

Two of the layers I added which I thought were very important got erased in the making of the film. The circumstances I created had to do with trafficking. I had suggested strongly that the police were involved in allowing it to happen. I don't think Govind wanted that to be suggested.

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I had also added some sounds that would create a sense of the outside. There was, for instance, the click of a carrom board striker. The sentry was supposed to play carrom through the day. There was also the laughter of the housing society laughter club which I wanted as an ironic counterfoil to the dreadful drama that was unfolding. That, too, was dropped.

A gratuitous scene was added about the meaning of a ghazal which did nothing for the film. Yet, the film held the audience. But despite my work on it, it did end up sounding like a play.

At a point in time, plays faced censorship like films do now. While the censor board for plays has been dismantled, the demand for doing away with the CBFC [Central Board of Film Certification] is growing. Your comment?

No, the censor board for plays has not been dismantled in Maharashtra, which is one of only two states where it existed in the first place. Amol Palekar has gone to court asking for it to be dismantled, but the hearings are taking their own time. So we still have to submit scripts to the censor board.

What can one say about film certification that hasn't been said by the committee headed by Shyam Benegal, appointed specifically to go into the problems of censorship? The board should obviously keep to the mandate that its name proposes — certification and not censoring. It's not an easy thing to give up in a society where censors exist on every street corner telling us what to eat and wear and think.

Censorship is part of the Indian culture business. I don't see it ending soon.

You have translated Durga Khote's autobiography (I, Durga Khote) and Guru Dutt: A Tragedy in Three Acts. Why did you choose these books and what was your experience?

I translated Guru Dutt because it was written by my then husband Arun Khopkar. But it is a book that I loved translating. I translated Durga Khote at the request of her son Bakul Khote, who had liked my translation of one of the chapters I had done for a magazine.

Both books gave me a lot of pleasure as a translator. The first seems to have dropped into an empty well. But the second has caused ripples and I still hear from people who have read it and write or call to say they have enjoyed it.

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