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…continue in 2021
A playwright like Tendulkar should not be misunderstood or targeted
Few contemporary faces of Indian films and theatre have been as familiar with Marathi playwright Vijay Tendulkar, as both person and dramatist, as Sonali Kulkarni. Not only was the Dil Chahta Hai actor a friend of Tendulkar’s, who faces a fresh posthumous storm after his play in Madhya Pradesh was cancelled following objections raised by Bajrang Dal, she acted in two of his plays, one of them the iconic ‘Sakharam Binder.’ She speaks to Vaibhav Purandare about one of India’s great modern playwrights who wrote ‘Ghashiram Kotwal’ in Marathi and the Hindi screenplays for landmark movies like Ardh Satya, Nishant and Manthan
The Bajrang Dal objected to Vijay Tendulkar’s play ‘Jaat hi pucho sadhu ki’ at the IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) fest, calling it ‘anti-Hindu’ as it had the word ‘sadhu’ in its title, though the play isn’t about faith but about casteism and India’s education system.
There are times when I want to give the benefit to doubt to the objectors. There’s clearly a misconception about the title, and I hope things will be clarified soon.
But why is Tendulkar still at the centre of controversy after all these years? In the 1970s and 80s, the Shiv Sena tormented him over his plays such as ‘Ghashiram’ and ‘Binder’ and even tried to scuttle the ‘Ghashiram’ team’s US tour, and now this, more than a decade after his passing.
People have targeted Tendulkar because we need someone to target. To prove ourselves right, we feel the need to say someone’s wrong. But he wasn’t wrong in his writings, he was simply courageous. If he saw a wrong, he didn’t fear being a witness. He was the kind of person who, if he saw a woman being harassed, would say straight away she was harassed. So many of his plays are about women. I did two of them – ‘Binder’ and ‘Kovali Unhe’ — and was slated to do a third, the famous ‘Shantata, Court chalu aahe (Silence, the court is in session)’ when he died in 2008 and the plan was called off.
When did you first become familiar with his body of work?
When studying at Pune’s Fergusson College. Tendulkar came to speak to us one day, and something he said got stuck in my head. He said writers create pauses and put punctuation marks, but actors and directors often don’t pay attention to these. They should. There’s a reason they’re there. I did theatre guru Satyadev Dubey’s workshops thereafter, and he’d always talk about Tendulkar. Much later, Govind Nihalani reminded me of Tendulkar’s words.
You got to know the playwright as a person, too. What were your impressions of him?
I got to know him well after I did the lead role of a speech-impaired girl in ‘Kovali Unhe,’ directed by my brother Sandesh Kulkarni. The play gives voice to a literally speechless girl. After the death of Tendulkar’s daughter (actor and writer) Priya, I became a friend of his and, among other things (on a light note), introduced him to my favourite veg burger. He was open-minded, a genuine listener and observer, and he let people be, with all their ego issues, sorrows, griefs, success, fame, everything. He’d comment on things but there never was a hard expression. That’s why I’ve preserved an old and outdated mobile phone of mine just because it has messages from him and Satyadev Dubey. He compelled people to be true to themselves. I told him about the ups and downs in my life and he’d be deeply empathetic — a quality all his plays have. I was apprehensive about playing the character of the god-fearing, scared, helpless, dependent and, at times, apparently silly ‘Lakshmi’ in ‘Binder’ when I started reading the play, but when I got to the third act, I was shaken by what she does… But Tendulkar was like that, he could read and understand human beings.
With censorship on the rise in India, what’s the way out for artistes like you, writers and others in the creative arts?
Just as it is true that Shakespeare has been mined across the world for stories and themes, it is true that India is one of the richest places when it comes to original playwrights, be it Tendulkar, Badal Sircar, Mahesh Elkunchwar, Girish Karnad or Satish Alekar. That’s a powerhouse of talent that we can go to not only for plays but for films and screenplays. Tendulkar enriched Indian culture and cast a powerful torchlight on society, and I know of people who have travelled to India, or travelled long distances at any rate, just to see ‘Ghashiram Kotwal’. He brought a sense of pride to our country and pride to the Indian flag, so people like him and the other stalwarts I’ve mentioned shouldn’t be misunderstood. Reading and performing Tendulkar’s plays would be the best thing; it would be a major victory.