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‘I want people not to judge my characters’

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on February 13, 2021

Takes three to tango: Renuka Shahane and Kajol on the sets of Tribhanga   -  SIDDHARTH MUKHERJEE

Director Renuka Shahane’s film ‘Tribhanga’ zooms in on the relationship between mothers and daughters

* The film is a story of women from three generations in one family, narrated in flashbacks over one week at the deathbed of the oldest of the three — a celebrated writer

* Some feelings and emotions are drawn from my personal life; some things that you write about are very much a part of you — yet you don’t have to experience them. I see all three characters as a part of me

* When women are unconventional, you don’t know how to react to them. The moment you can’t react to or understand something, you would rather judge it negatively

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Renuka Shahane first made her presence felt on the screen with her cheery smile as the co-anchor of Surabhi, a hugely popular cultural show on Doordarshan back in the ’90s. She went on to act in a spate of Marathi and Hindi films, and then returned after a sabbatical as the director of a Marathi film based on a book written by her mother, Shanta Gokhale. Shahane’s debut directorial venture in Hindi Tribhanga, which was released on Netflix last month, has been creating a buzz. The film tells the story of women from three generations in one family, narrated in flashbacks over one week at the deathbed of the oldest of the three — a celebrated writer. The story focuses on the different paths that the three (Tanvi Azmi, Kajol and Mithila Palkar) have chosen. “I see all three characters as a part of me,” Shahane tells BLink on the phone from Mumbai. Excerpts from the interview:

What made you write Tribhanga? Was the film autobiographical in any way?

I would say that this film is coming out from my very core. However, I share a great relationship with my mother and grandmother unlike Anu (Kajol) and Nayan (Azmi) in the film. Many of the instances that occur in the film did not happen with my mother and me. These are all drawn from instances which I might have seen or observed. The sexual abuse isn’t autobiographical. Some feelings and emotions are drawn from my personal life; some things that you write about are very much a part of you — yet you don’t have to experience them. I see all three characters as a part of me.

From the scripting stage, it took a long time for the film to be produced...

I felt it was ready by 2017, though I had begun writing it in 2013. I took another year to find a producer. There were one or two producers who were interested, but they backed out.

In 2018, I met Siddharth Malhotra socially, at the premiere of my Marathi film Bucket List. He said he had started a film production company called Alchemy Films, and that he was on the look out for good scripts. I told him about Tribhanga. The next day I narrated the script to him and he fell in love with it. The moment he heard the script, he said Anu, who is an Odissi dancer in the film, had to be played by Kajol. I had not thought of making it with a commercial superstar, but he asked me to take it to her. Kajol loved the role as well as the script. Netflix stepped in after Ajay Devgn stepped in as producer. We had this super gang of producers and that’s how the film was shot in 2019 and released in 2021.

How was the response?

The response has been overwhelming. We were sure people were going to have a positive response to the film as most of the people that I had narrated the script to really loved the characters and the graph of the story. We hoped that it would touch people’s hearts. We have been overwhelmed with the kind of response that we are getting — people discussing it on social media, narrating their life’s experience, reaching out to me to say that they find a new approach to womanhood, family life, motherhood in Tribhanga. Whenever you create something, the final approval for me has to come from the audience. Otherwise, your film and your art are not complete. We have received a very fine response.

The film comments on rigid societal structures which each woman in the film negotiates in her own way. Anu, the mother, is disturbed to find out, at one point in the film, that her daughter Masha has undergone a sex determination test at the behest of her in-laws. In some way, has the younger generation regressed?

On the surface, the younger generation has had better education, and are very independent, especially in urban areas. And yet, when it comes to the institution of marriage, and when you get married to a family that is very conservative, then there are certain rules that you have to follow. This familial structure continues till now. In the traditional joint family system, while there are advantages such as a nice stable family, there are also many kinds of traditions or conventions that are downright evil, that are pushed onto the women of the family. The family is usually headed by a patriarch, and the rest of the family has to agree to whatever decisions are being made. In that sense, the rest of the family doesn’t have the freedom of choice. So you will get a family, but along with that you get your decisions made for you. The intrusiveness of the joint family system is always there; even when you’re away, you’re not really away from it. It is a way of forcing your lifestyle on everyone in your family. And expect that they should toe the line.

There is no perfect family. Anu chooses to not have a male member in her house, due to early trauma from sexual abuse. She never imposes herself on her daughter Masha, because of what happened to her. Similarly, when Nayan chooses a partner for herself and a father figure for her child, she doesn’t do so with the intention of ruining her children’s lives. Parents sometimes take decisions with the best of intentions, and they may or may not work out.

The grandmother and mother live independent lives, but they have their own pitfalls.

It is difficult for anyone leading an unconventional life or someone who has made such choices in their lives. Women are more often than not judged negatively if they deviate from what is considered by society as the best possible course in life. The marital institution is loaded in favour of men, their rules apply. When women are unconventional, you don’t know how to react to them. The moment you can’t react to or understand something, you would rather judge it negatively, so you feel that you’re protecting yourself and your family from such ‘influences’.

There has been some criticism about Anu’s character who often abuses on screen. Did you receive a backlash?

Backlash is a very harsh word. There were people who said that they couldn’t see the film with the family because of the gaalis. But I think it is on a platform that is meant to be screened privately by people and not to be seen by children. It’s meant for young adults and adults. It’s shocking to some because they don’t expect women to abuse. However, I know many women who abuse regularly, and I don’t judge them. I want people not to judge my characters, for their lifestyle choices. It’s the way the character is and I have just tried to be honest to it. I feel people should go beyond the abuses, and try to understand why she is the way she is.

Are you going to stick to direction?

My first film was the adaptation of my mother’s novel, Rita. That was an adapted screenplay, this is my first original screenplay. I don’t think it’s a career switch so much as a natural progression for me, to continue to direct and write and act. I had taken a sabbatical from acting when I got married and had children. That was the point I had started adapting my mother’s novel. I also directed that film. I had planned to continue to direct regularly from there on. However, it took me a long time to get to this point in Tribhanga, I definitely feel that I am going to make films on topics that I feel very strongly about. I have started several scripts post this film, and I’m going to pitch them once I feel they are in the right direction. For everything to fall into place, sometimes it takes no time, but sometimes it takes years for a film to come together.

Tribhanga was a trilingual film (English, Hindi and Marathi). Will you continue to make films in all three languages?

I speak all three languages, and I decide what language it will be in based on my characters. In a Marathi family, a Marathi character will speak Marathi. If there are people from a certain cultural milieu, from urban areas, they might speak only English or Hindi. So, I decide the language not according to the industry or the market, but according to the script. Unless it is translated to another language.

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Published on February 13, 2021
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