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Pu La Deshpande, pioneer of stand-up comedy in India: Anniversary special

Famous litterateur and actor Purushottam Laxman Deshpande, who died on 12 June 2000, performed a regular stand-up act on television at a time when the term itself wasn't known in India.

Suyog Zore

Purushottam Laxman Deshpande, fondly known in Maharashtra as Pu La Deshpande or, simply, Pu La, was one of the more famous and influential personalities in 20th century Marathi literature. Writer, humorist, film and stage actor, scriptwriter, author, composer, musician, singer, orator and stand-up comedian, Deshpande was a man of many talents. Naturally, there is hardly anyone in Maharashtra who hasn't heard of Pu La.

Deshpande's books like Batatyachi Chaal, Vyakti Ani Valli, Asa Mi Asami and Ti Fulrani and his travelogues like Apurvai and Jave Tyanchya Desha have a huge readership even today. Some of his books have been translated into other Indian languages. Deshpande also wrote screenplays for many films and composed songs. Some of his literary works have also been adapted into films and plays.

As happens with any multi-faceted personality, some aspects tend to get overshadowed by others. In Deshpande's case, today's generation may not know much about his stand-up performances. Along with his excellent writing, Deshpande was an equally good stand-up comedian.

In the 1960s, Pu La began working for the public broadcaster Doordarshan, which was still in its infancy. It was during this period that he got a chance to showcase his talent as a humorist and stand-up comedian. Doordarshan offered him a programme called Nivadak Pu La, meaning Selected Pu La. The format was simple. Deshpande would narrate some of his favourite stories from his books in his unique style.

Stand-up comedy was a fairly new form of entertainment in the 1960s when Doordarshan began airing Nivadak Pu La. In fact, it had just begun to gain popularity in the West, particularly in the USA, with comics such as Mort Sahl and George Carlin, who, instead of doing simple slapstick physical comedy routines, ventured into more taboo subjects like race, politics and sexuality.

Deshpande's stand-up routine was similar in that, through his selected stories, he would address issues from political debates of the day to people's false sense of pride about trivial things. Therefore, it would be no exaggeration to call PL Deshpande a pioneer of stand-up comedy in India.

Nowadays, with the advent of the internet, we have seen a lot of people take up stand-up comedy as a full-time profession, with varying degrees of success. The internet has given them the freedom to express their views freely without fear of censorship, notwithstanding the occasional controversy or lawsuit. But Deshpande's comedy was clean and clever, making full use of his command of the Marathi language and its idioms and phrases and his own histrionic ability. Never did he have to resort to foul language to generate laughter.

A prominent feature of Deshpande's stand-up routines was his immaculate observation and deep understanding of human nature, as in the video clip below, where he analyses the working of the postal department. The reasoning he offers for the dingy, stuffy post office buildings is something you can relate with even if you have never visited one, because almost all government administrative buildings have a similar structural design.

Seeing his command of the language, you would be forgiven for thinking Deshpande was a scholarly student in his childhood, but that's not the case, as you will see in another rare footage from Doordarshan, where he reminisces about his school days.

Pu La's detailed narration about the hardships he had to go through in his school days will leave you in splits. The way he describes one particular teacher, Damle Master, is certain to remind you of at least one of the teachers from your own school days. Of course, you will also realize that the education system has not changed all that much in the past hundred years.

Deshpande's satirical take on astrologers and the concept of the signs of the zodiac is something everyone can identify with. Most of us have at least one person in our friend circle who is obsessed with these signs and tries to justify his/her obsession with pseudo-scientific explanations. But Pu La goes a step further and invents his own zodiac signs to describe the various characteristics of humans.

Vyakti Ani Valli is one of Deshpande's best loved books. As the title suggests, it is a collection of character sketches. Drawing from real-life characters and experiences, these sketches are as varied as people can be and quite interesting.

Written over a period of more than 20 years from 1944 through 1968, the book is a collection of 20 different characters, like the washerman Namu Parit, who feels no hesitation in using his customer's newly purchased clothes.

Another interesting character from Vyakti Ani Valli is Antu Barva. In the clip below from Deshpande's Kathakathan programme, you will enjoy as the raconteur brilliantly enacts this 60-plus Ratnagiri native who is barely surviving but is content with life.

Then there is the unforgettable schoolboy Sakharam Gatne, who speaks classical Marathi and is addicted to literature. While reading is a good habit, Pu La's description of this fan boy, a voracious reader of every single work of Marathi literature he could lay his hands on, is certain to leave you in splits.

Wherever Deshpande travelled, he would pick up the unique habits of the people of those regions. In one sketch, Deshpande explains the specific habits of people from Mumbai, Pune, and Nagpur. It's hilariously accurate.

Mhais (Buffalo) is another popular book that Deshpande wrote in 1957. For those who are unaware, it's a travelogue of sorts describing a bus journey from Ratnagiri to Mumbai. The bus is filled with absurd characters, but the way Deshpande describes each character in minute detail in his unique style, you feel as if you are on that same bus with the whole lot.

There are many more clips of Deshpande's performances available on YouTube, and we hope the selection presented here would have whetted your appetite for the great litterateur's performances and for his works.