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Cover to cover: Life and times of a storyteller

P Anima | Updated on December 09, 2020

Deft strokes: Sai Paranjpye writes with a lightness of touch, a latent humour, which makes her fun to read; and she is candid about failures   -  S SUBRAMANIUM

Writer, translator, producer and director Sai Paranjpye wears her many hats with ease and pride. In her latest role as a memoirist, the 82-year-old Mumbai resident sparkles with the wit and candour that has seen her through a life unordinary. A BLink interview

*The memoir documents a woman’s journey through institutions just about coming into their own in a young, independent nation

*Paranjpye found her mother’s “concept of discipline exacting beyond reason”, but acknowledges in the same breath her boundless affection

* Her films spoke of love, strife and struggles in the pre-digital era, of delicate truths and simple pleasures

* Her patchwork quilt exudes a certain warmth for Paranjpye doesn’t write in rancour

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The humiliations on the playfield hurt. Sai Paranjpye, nine or so, and what they called “roly-poly”, was definitely not the swiftest among playmates. The children played sakhli shivi shivi where they held hands and ran, chasing the ones who had not been pulled into the chain. Sai was such a slow runner that the chain would deftly bypass her — even if she was right in front of it.

“If they ‘caught’ me, they would have to drag me around and give up all hopes of catching the rest. So they just ignored me, and I used to be humiliated,” Paranjpye, now 82, recalls.

Smarting at the slight, the little girl made amends the way she knew best — with words. She would make up fantastical games with warring gangs, dragons and hidden treasures, thrillers with spies, traitors and dollops of drama, and the children were hooked. “I used my imagination to make up for what I lacked in physical swiftness,” the director, producer, playwright, writer, translator — and, most recently, memoirist — tells BLink over the telephone.

A new turn: Sai Paranjpye translated Naseeruddin Shah’s autobiography And Then One Day into Marathi, and the work fetched her a Sahitya Akademi award in 2019   -  SMARAN SHINDE

 

The association with stories and storytelling had begun early, spurred as it was by a fecund imagination, and wholesome encouragement at home. In a career that spread over half a century, Paranjpye engaged with many mediums — radio, theatre, television, documentary and feature films — but writing remained the one constant. She wrote the screenplays for all her feature films, including Sparsh (1980), which fetched her a National Award, Chashme Buddoor (1981), Katha (1983) and Disha (1990).

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Paranjpye’s memoir A Patchwork Quilt, published last month, opens with the chapter My Mother, Shakuntala: One in a Million. Written with candour and wit, it is an account of a formidable woman, and the careful nurture that shaped Paranjpye. After separating from her Russian artist husband, her mother returned to India from Europe with her two-year-old daughter and raised Sai in a tightly-knit family unit that included her mathematician father RP Paranjpye. While ‘Appa’ was the pride of Pune, his daughter Shakuntala was “another story altogether”. The orthodox Pune of the 1940s couldn’t figure her out: “They were wary of her and as rumours of her sharp tongue circulated, they wisely kept their distance”.

A Patchwork Quilt: A Collage of my Creative Life/ Sai Paranajpye/ HarperCollins / Non-fiction / ₹599

 

 

Shakuntala kept the rest of Pune at arm’s length, but held nothing back when it came to her daughter. Paranjpye found her mother’s “concept of discipline exacting beyond reason”, but acknowledges in the same breath her boundless affection — the woman who gave with “both her hands and heart to boot”. With a degree from the University of Cambridge, a stint at the International Labour Organization in Geneva, expertise in languages including French, Shakuntala could have had any job she wanted. Instead, she focussed her energies on ensuring the “all-roundedness” of her only child.

It was her keen eye that spotted Paranjype’s relish for storytelling and then gave it a fillip in a way few could. One night, as she ran out of bedtime tales, she asked Paranjpye to relate one instead. The daughter obliged with an account of princesses and wizards — a story she had made up. Thereafter, night after night, the daughter regaled the mother with stories she had spun.

“And that was my undoing. I had to write down these stories, and from that day onwards it became mandatory for me to pen three pages of my flights of fancy each day,” Paranjpye writes.

As the stories piled up, the determined mother got them published. At eight, with Mulancha Mewa (Treats for Children), Paranjpye was a published author, thanks to the fortitude of the older woman. “So many talented children must be going unsung and unread because they are not as fortunate as I was,” she writes. That keen sense of awareness — along with an acknowledgement of her blessings — is evident through the memoir.

Paranjpye never let that momentum slip, moving on later to writing children’s plays for All India Radio, Pune. One of her early plays Pattenagrit (The Land of Cards) was born on the bus journey from the radio station to home. The plot involving two warring factions took shape as she sat firmly at the window seat; Paranjpye could do little else than scribble it all in tiny letters on the ticket stub. She missed her stop, but the plot was sealed.

“The best place to get me started is when I’m mobile. I find my brain functions at its optimum when I’m either in the car, bus or on the plane,” she says.

In honour: Sai Paranjpye receiving the Padma Bhushan from President APJ Abdul Kalam in 2006   -  RAJEEV BHATT

 

Her children’s plays had acquired a following and about 10 books of those were eventually published. Five or six of them, she adds, won awards — national or state recognitions. “That was a humongous impetus to write, and it continued as I joined the National School of Drama [in Delhi], and later Doordarshan. With teleplays, I turned to writing for adults. The medium is not that important, once you know you can write,” she adds.

Write she did, and extensively for the visual medium. The form, though, took a turn when her memoir was published weekly in the Marathi newspaper Loksatta and compiled into the book Saya: Maza Kalapravas in 2016. In between, she translated long-time friend Naseeruddin Shah’s autobiography And Then One Day into Marathi. Shah, apparently, persuaded her to take up the translation assignment with a smart move. “He cleverly shared with me two chapters from the book; on my films Sparsh and Katha, where he had written good things about me as a director. He had made his point. ‘Barkis is willin’,’ I texted, and in a jiffy, he responded, ‘Peggotty’s delighted’,” Paranjpye says. The translated work fetched her a Sahitya Akademi award in 2019.

However, bringing her own memoir into English, which she calls a collage of her creative life, was not a task of mere translation. She tweaked the text, pulled out stuff and infused new elements into it as she prepped it for wider readership. Much of the lockdown period was spent giving finishing touches to the draft.

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For a life spent doing a multitude of things, A Patchwork Quilt appears an apt name for her memoir. Sewn up into parts — each chapter, a new episode of her life — it doesn’t lose steam for the protagonist is always on the move. Her mother disapproved of her “endless flitting from medium” and “messing around with bits and pieces, trying to create a ragtag wonder”. Yet, it’s the dabbling that makes Paranjpye’s memoir the quintessential patchwork quilt — never staid or predictable. The narrative flits back and forth for, she says, she has a blind spot when it comes to dates, years or figures. The handicap bothered her a great deal when she was younger. In school, for instance, history grew to be a nightmare.

“I remember reading out my paper on French Revolution in class. After I was through, the teacher said, ‘But, Sai, you haven’t mentioned a single date anywhere’. I have given up on my struggle with numbers,” Paranjpye says.

The memoir engages deeply with Paranjpye’s childhood, but not so much with her later life. There are cheery accounts of meeting her father and spending time with his side of the family. But there is little on raising two children (daughter Winnie and son Gautam) alongside her career, or separation from her husband Arun Joglekar, her long-time ally in theatre, and with whom she collaborated creatively until his sudden demise. Did she then want to confine her memoir to her career?

“Once you get into the personal angle, you open a Pandora’s box,” she replies. “You don’t know where to stop. I steered clear of that... Sometimes you can read between the lines, sometimes you can’t.”

Her patchwork quilt exudes a certain warmth for Paranjpye doesn’t write in rancour, even when recounting a few heady blows, particularly those meted out by Basu Bhattacharya, the producer of Sparsh who hindered the production and didn’t pay Paranjpye or most of the cast. She writes with a lightness of touch, a latent humour, which makes her fun to read; and she is candid about failures. Her tele-programme for Doordarshan, based on a short play on the travails of a lazy young man, in her own words “was truly dreadful” and fell “short in every department and bombed disgracefully”; so too was her production in Pune of Hamlet — “A beautiful, ornate shell was mounted on the stage. A hollow edifice”.

She is again fiercely critical of herself for failing to stage a memorable Hindi version of Vijay Tendulkar’s play Gidhade despite having put together an enviable cast. Watching Aneesha Naik’s top-notch production of the same play years later, Paranjpye writes, it “felt as if someone had given me a resounding slap across the face all over again”.

A Patchwork Quilt documents a woman’s journey through institutions just about coming into their own in a young, independent nation. At NSD, hers was the first batch to be trained under Ebrahim Alkazi, and Paranjpye was among the few women who would go on to pursue direction. It didn’t trouble her much when Alkazi advised her that actors should be trim. “You will never get good roles if you don’t watch your weight,” he had remarked. Good roles, Paranjpye notes, were of little interest to her, her heart was set on writing and direction. “I kept nodding my head and agreed with him. I didn’t lose any weight though”.

She was among the first batch of producers to be hired by Doordarshan in Delhi, and witnessed a revolution unfold. Films, though, were a different beast, and finding producers for each of her movies was a learning curve, and some encounters, she adds, left a bitter aftertaste. Paranjpye grew up in a household where discussions of money were considered vulgar.

“People were admired for what they’d achieved and not how rich they were. It didn’t prepare me for life or the harsh realities of the field I’d chosen,” she says. She was not cut out to carry out monetary negotiations and producers often took her for a ride. “I don’t blame them. They found a fool at the other end of the negotiating table. They are not in film-making for altruistic interests. I'm happy that most of my films got done,” Paranjpye adds.

But where Paranjype holds her own is on her sets; even Nana Patekar’s tantrums are not entertained beyond a point. As a miffed Patekar storms off her set during the shoot of Disha, Paranjpye remains outwardly calm while the rest of the crew gets into a tizzy. The account of who blinks first makes for an interesting read. She often worked with a few stock actors — Shah, Farooque Sheikh, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Deepti Naval and Raghubir Yadav, among them. They agreed and disagreed with each other, but remained friends. “None of them, even when they became stars, became starry. They always remained actors,” she observes.

Paranjpye’s films often dealt with subjects far removed from the commercial spectrum. While Disha was on the mill workers of Mumbai, Papeeha (1993), a lesser known venture, was inspired by the Chipko movement. Set in the forests of Maharashtra, it told the story of conservation even as a gentle romance unfolded alongside.

“When you have children and realise one of them did not get the attention it deserved, you feel tender and protective about it. Papeeha is that child to me,” says Paranjpye.

Produced by her with grants from the ministry of environment, forest and climate change, it has missed even the fine-comb of online film lovers. But Paranjpye is glad that as producer she still has a few VHS copies of the film, which cannot be said about some of her other efforts. “The films I made for Doordarshan on singer Pankaj Mullick and on poster painters are just lost, no copies anywhere,” Paranjpye rues.

Her films spoke of love, strife and struggles in the pre-digital era, of delicate truths and simple pleasures. The irretrievable loss isn’t just about film prints, but the patina of a time gone by. Years of writing — all in longhand and at least five drafts of each project — have made her mute ally, the 80-odd-year-old right hand, rise in mutiny.

“All of those years of writing have taken a toll on my right hand. It has now joined the enemy camp,” Paranjpye says. Working with her right hand is now a painful process. Yet with characteristic cheer she adds, “I have no complaints. I’m happy with my life — with all its pluses and minuses”.

Published on December 09, 2020

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