Gup-shup with GoPuby Aparajita Krishna March 2 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 18 mins, 19 secs
Noted academic, playwright, writer Govind P Deshpande (2nd August 1938 – 16th October 2013) was better known as GPD or as GoPu in the Marathi circles, writes Aparajita Krishna.
He was a well-known commentator on literary and political affairs - an academic from Maharashtra. He was the recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for Theatre - Playwriting (Marathi). Here is an excerpt from my talk conducted on the 26th June 2007. The talks are knitted in a thread. GPD’s talk while focusing on his work in theatre, television and films reflects on the socio-political times of that time and informs of a related past and future as also of his opinion on the medium he addresses.
The excerpt from the conversation that we had in the past, resonates topically, creatively and analytically in 2021.
Which was the first play you wrote?
Udhwastha Dharamshala was the first play I wrote. I wrote it in 1973. I had earlier written a few short stories - nothing more than that as I was teaching. Eventually I retired as a professor of Chinese studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) – I was always at the JNU. I went there as a PhD student and continued teaching there.
I claim and very confidently you might say, that there are two major theatre halls in India, the opening of which I am connected with. The first play ever at Prithvi Theatre (Mumbai) was Udhwastha Dharamshala and when the Shriram Centre in Delhi came up, again the first play that was performed was directed by Sai Paranjpe - it was Tamasha, in which I was an actor. I played the lead role of a simpleton king in that tamasha. It was the inaugural play of Shriram Centre - mera association dono theatres se hai.
You write your original text in Marathi?
Always. There was a time between 1970s till about 20 or 25 years, when there was no problem in getting a play translated because even before you knew what was happening, some translator had shown interest and was busy working on it. So Udhwastha Dharamshala was translated even before I knew that it was being done - Vasant Dev translated it. His death has been a great loss. There has never been a better translator for Marathi plays than Dev. Shanta Gokhale translated Udhwastha in English. Seagull books brought out the book. Published it also. But the play never happened.
Udhawastha Dharamshala, a seminal play, has been such a contemporary one post 1970s - for every time thereafter.
Yes post the 1970s.
Do you see it as a film?
I wrote the complete screenplay.
Was it on Om’s Puri’s initiative?
Who was to direct it?
That was yet to be sorted out. It fizzled out. The entire text was done. But of course it was the first draft.
Do you see it relevant for today?
The entire thing was worked out as that.
Today, the Indian Left is part of the political establishment.
That is all the more reason as to why the film should be made - precisely all the more reason. The question becomes that of the intersection between the power center and the individual. Of course the other thing about the play is, that because of its structure it did not permit us to work on the protagonist’s relationships with the two women - whereas a film can accommodate it.
The scenes with the two women are so relevant to the play’s political construction, not just as past romance.
Yes. In the last scene of Udhwastha there is a reference to the son’s beloved. So I have actually created three women in the script - even the third girl. Om (Puri) said ‘No no we won’t bring that girl in.’ He joked and told me, ‘Look, don’t fall so much in love with women’.
Two is enough?
Two is enough. Then I too laughed and told him that as long as he will permit me bigamy, I am okay.
Did you see Amitabh Bachchan in the protagonist, Kulkarni’s role?
Why? Because of his image or that’s your assessment of him as an actor?
That is my assessment of him as an actor. This may not be a very satisfactory reply to your question but I think it always matters what kind of equipment the actor has. That equipment is, for example – well, let’s take a small thing to account as gestures. I get a feeling that there is hardly an actor in Indian cinema today whose range of gestures is as broad or wide as Amitabh’s.
Om has an economy of it.
Yes. Om has an economy of it. And Shreedhar Kulkarni needs intense economy - internalization.
Very beautifully put.
The only other actor I might have thought for the part is Naseer. I hope you understand that I am not running down anyone here.
That perhaps also explains why Om and Naseer’s craft may not have translated too well into the vocabulary of mainstream Hindi cinema acting - woh exuberance Amitabh mein hai?
Haan, Amitabh mein hai…
Tell us about the staging of your plays.
Satyadev Dubey directed Raaste and Shriram Lagoo directed Chanakya Vishnugupta in Bombay. Raaste was done first by Dubey with the NSD repertory and he also did Andharyatra for the NSD repertory. But Raaste was re-done here (Bombay) in Marathi with a local group by Dubey; with the assistance of Vijay Kenkre.
How did you assess Ebrahim Alkazi as a director?
Alkazi is a very difficult person for anyone to analyze. His reputation as a disciplinarian is well known. As a director his major contribution was that until his time in Delhi, nobody was aware that theatre was a serious business. He made Delhi conscious of that. The other thing is that it was always understood as a serious business in Maharashtra and Bengal but professional training happened to only the fortunate. So, then what is the meaning of theatre being a profession? But if not for Alkazi, Delhi would not have known this.
Some of the problems NSD faces are precisely that professionalism has now become practice. The third thing Alkazi did was to establish regional language theatres of India with Hindi language and bring them together as Indian theatre. It is his NSD, which started, in one sense, searching for plays from all over India. And as a consequence what happened is, and it has a philosophical meaning in my opinion, that different people facing similar situations in various parts of the country started getting together.
And it became a common problem?
And it became a common problem.
And this progression would not have happened otherwise. I dare say that it has also contributed in-turn to regional theatre.
Inter-mixing yes. I think Satish Alekar, Mahesh Elkunchwar and myself; we are part and parcel of that movement. After all it was at the time Alkazi had just taken over.
I write my play in 1973 - Udhwastha, the first production. It is mounted in 1974. Shreeram Lagoo directed it here in Bombay. So in one sense it is a part of that which began with Tuglaq. A play like Tuglaq became a play of Nehruvian vision. All said and done Alkazi is the person who envisioned the idea and it is difficult to define his perception. But it is important. And like all movements one can safely say that the Alkazi movement made its point as well. Perhaps now there is a need to go to a different pattern and re-address it yet again.
It’s like what parallel cinema was within cinema. That it makes a point historically and socio-politically determinedly – asserts the presence of a movement and then it gets forgotten. Fair enough. It is really like the waves of the sea. You have one range of waves coming, dying out and then another takes over. One has to see it in that light. As a consequence, most of these people in theatre introduced certain professionalism. Among other things, a part of the prestige that my sister Jyoti Subhash enjoys in Marathi theatre is professionalism - consistency of performances.
Talking of the parallel Hindi cinema movement of the 1970s…
To a certain extent parallel cinema helped. But I also do further hypothesis and conclude that this came at a time in the 1970s when you had a far more sizeable articulate middle class in this country. That middle class was simply not happy with the kind of aspirations and the kind of reality that was getting portrayed in commercial cinema. It wanted to look for certain things where there would be actual problems being talked about, no matter how unreal or real that feeling was - like a re-assertion of the Nehruvian perspective, a certain humanism, which commercial cinema was not giving. So there was a market already.
And there was a market for this product to find its place?
Find its place - and till such time that demand was there, it survived. Now this middle class, who has become the upper middle class, the novae-riche, has no further interest in Nehruvian vision. Therefore it is giving up. It is becoming extremely urban, NRI cinema of a kind and the rest of it. Now those are the aspirations. So historically they (1970s parallel new wave films) chose the correct moment - those directors chose the right time to step in and intervene and audiences also chose the same moment to come in.
Generally dramatic actors do not necessarily lend themselves to robust comedy.
True. In fact if one were to look at Hindi cinema today there are few very genuine comedies. It reminds me of that British actor’s line that Rex Harrison quoted. ‘Any fool can do tragedy. Comedy is a serious business’.
Your work on television has been there. You wrote some episodes for Bharat Ek Khoj (1988), directed by Shyam Benegal, based on Nehru’s Discovery of India - the Shivaji-Aurangzeb episodes for example.
I have written that - you know I had collected so much of material. The idea was that there is a certain understanding of Shivaji. Then I thought that there was never a meeting that took place between Aurangzeb and Shivaji historically. Shivaji did go to his court but there was no one-to-one contact. So I thought it would be a good idea to make it a one-on-one meeting. After all it’s an artistic recreating of a certain historical moment. So as a historical moment it is legitimate to speak of the confrontation. So what kind of a confrontation could it be, was the question. I collected the whole material and prepared a play, which was never staged.
So I was talking to Benegal – I told him, “Look it would be a good idea to show the sheer cunning of the man and his awareness of a possible opposition and resistance - and there are so many ways of handling it. So let us write a dialogue between the two”. At that time Indian express or Times of India (TOI) published the text in English of that particular scene. I told them that they have to say along with it that it is completely imaginary - it worked well. From everything that has travelled to my ears, many people found it to be a memorable scene.
I wrote in Marathi and English – it was a combination of sorts. My commitment was that whenever I do a bilingual or unilingual text I will come to Mumbai, sit with Benegal, finish the redrafting and then it will be his property and he can use it as he likes.
I wrote episodes for Bharat Ek Khoj - two episodes for Chanakya, 3 for Shivaji, Episode 1 for the 1907 session of the Congress where Lokmanya Tilak and others clashed with each other (the softer and the harder leadership of the Congress) and on Jyotibabu Phule.
I also wrote the episode on Chanakya Vishnugupta and Dubey played Chanakya. Then Dubey insisted that I adapt it to a play. He produced it for the NSD students. That gave me the idea of doing the same thing with Shivaji but it has remained undone.
You think Bharat ek Khoj was an important documentation?
You see it is the same logic I was using for parallel cinema would hold true for this answer. A certain view of liberal nationalism, which informed our understanding of the phenomena - for instance, in the case of someone like Shyam (Benegal).
Very. Very Nehruvian. Many people think of Benegal as a leftist but he is not a leftist. He is Nehruvian. Once I understood that, of course I didn’t say this to him, I said to myself, “Look this is the point of view to follow. Let me see what I can do within this point of view. I do not entirely share the perspective, yet I know what the perspective is – and I have a degree of sympathy for it as well. Both Benegal and I have a degree of sympathy for it. So it was easy to work with him on this sort of a thing”.
How do u assess Tamas as a serial?
My impression of Tamas - well it is my impression generally of all Bhisham Sahni’s work that he is never as political as his themes warrant. He stops one step short. He is humanist but he is not as political as his themes warrant him to be.
His political mind and heart are at the right place.
Yes of course. But his is a slightly left wing Nehruvian perspective.
Were you happy with Tamas as a TV recreation?
It’s a very strong narrative, so hammers it. Inherent dramaturgy was used to the best of advantage.
Tamas and other pertinent television works came at a time to which, now in retrospect, one is grateful. TV is a lost heritage now - after that, in recent years there has been such a systematic destruction of the medium. The system has abdicated all responsibility.
There is that famous joke about television - why is television called a medium? The answer was that it is neither rare nor well done. It’s medium. That’s the situation in which Indian television finds itself. Everything is incredibly bad.
You have been associated with the film Dev (2004), directed by Govind Nihalani. It starred Amitabh Bachchan, Kareena Kapoor, Fardeen Khan and others.
I have written the dialogue for it. There were four dialogue writers. I was one of them. And I have also written additional dialogue for the film Droh Kaal (1994). I have written dialogues for two of Govind Nihalani films - Droh Kaal and Dev.
How do you assess Dev as a film?
You see the point about the film was, and this is my opinion, that it was for no fault of the director’s that it wasn’t accepted. It had a theme, which did not require an actor like Amitabh Bachchan. There are disadvantages of having Amitabh Bachchan.
Persona destroys characters?
Persona. And then there are limits to what you can do to him and with him.
But why should it be? Is that because of the culture of Hindi film making?
It has to do with the culture of commercial films – where the 100% certainty that any audience has is, that the hero is right and he will succeed ultimately. This keeps commercial cinema going strangely! The audience is comfortable that even if it is a suspension of disbelief it is temporary. They know the end will be peaceful.
There is no exploration, revelation.
There is no exploration - koi revelation nahi. There are no tensions, which Amitabh or anybody of that category can find unbearable, or insoluble. As a consequence you cannot really create a conflict or a contradiction. For no fault of Amitabh Bachchan, no fault of Govind Nihalani - it is simply the given in such a situation.
Amitabh Bachchan apne appearance se pehle hi haavi ho jaate hain audience ki soch par.
Between Om and Naseer what do you see as Naseer’s advantages and what as Om’s?
Tough question. You see, strangely, although both of them belong to the same stream, they are basically very different actors - extremely different. But both have the potential of crossing over to the other side if they attempt it. The performance Naseer gave in Satyadev Dubey’s ‘Don Juan In Hell’ or Shaw’s play that he and Ratna did - ‘Village Wooing’ and of course ‘Dear Liar’ bhi kiya tha. You know, those performances somehow stay in your memory far longer than any of their film performances.
Talk about actors and celebrities getting into politics and activism…
Each field will have its own kind of pro-activism, so first you exercise it and do all that you can then turn around and say okay! Occasionally you give donations. Beyond that it does not go. Therefore it is no use falling for it. I would say to them that look, if you think you are so and so, then it must reflect in your work. And that much of pro-activism in my opinion is good enough.
To give you an illustration, which is very silly at one level and perhaps not quite appropriate, but nevertheless I will give it. It is like asking Aamir Khan if it is alright for him to do a Coca-Cola advertisement - whether Coca-Cola really has a drug in it, or not? He tells you that he has done due diligence and is convinced that there is nothing wrong with it. I will completely reconcile to the fact that there are two Aamir Khans and one does something with Coca-Cola - let him. The other Aamir is trying to judiciously choose his roles and is perhaps the best of the Khans in my opinion - kuch toh hai. There is a vision there. There is certain intent.
And, that he has used his tools far more actively than most actors have?
But you as a playwright have been far more pro-active in social participation. Then how do you make the distinction? Is it because actors are not meant to go beyond their brief?
No, I am not saying that. I am only saying that if at all I am to judge then I need not do so by what position they take in a Lok Sabha election. I wouldn’t care less if they were issuing appeals to vote for so and so who might be socially very advanced and progressive. I wouldn’t rate it high. If for example even in last 10 years they have not done one significant movie, it is not worth anything. In fact their films would have done more damage to society than their issuing appeals. So if one does not have that kind of relative weightage given, then this question can lead us astray and we might end up making wrong assessments - very simplistic assessments - half of the time that is what happens. When the Coca Cola issue had come up I had said, ‘I am not interested in this subject. Why should I think about what Mr. Aamir Khan does every second of the day?’
There is also a point that subjectively somebody would feel there ought to be some limitations to my judging other people. After all I must leave some space, which is theirs, the artist’s.
Would you apply that to a politician?
No I wouldn’t do that either because it is his field - we have every right to criticize an actor for his bad performance.
For a politician, social activist, the image has to be the person.
Yes. There will always be overlaps but there will also be certain areas, theirs and mine, which should remain distinctly different.
Nowadays there is a lot of pro-activism in creative fields. Ek nayi tarah ki hawa bandh rahi hai?
I am not too sure where it will go. I don’t find this activism particularly productive. There is no evidence so far that it will be productive. None really.
What are your engagements now? You teach Chinese? Are there any special projects?
I used to teach at the JNU. Now I am retired. I have done a Marathi play called ‘Music System’ which Vijay Kenkre has directed. Chetan Datar is translating it in Hindi. I have told Chetan that since he is taking the trouble of translating, he might as well do the Hindi production. Marathi mein toh hua hai - I am hoping that it happens in Hindi too.
Ek special project se jurra hoon - ‘Center for the studies of developing societies.’ There was a lot of writing in the 19th century in Marathi on issues of society, religion, caste, etc. Most of them did not write in English, nor was their work translated in English. As a consequence they have remained unknown outside Maharashtra but their impact within Maharashtra was so great that today’s politics cannot be understood without reference to them. So the idea was that I write a monograph and roughly put the title as ‘World of ideas in modern Marathi’. That’s what I am currently doing and then I hope ‘Music System’ will do well – six ya seven shows ho gaye hain.