In A Patchwork Quilt, renowned filmmaker Sai Paranjpye reflects on her creative practice, flaws, and failures

Each chapter of A Patchwork Quilt is filled with lively anecdotes, a delightful sense of humour, and an ability to laugh at oneself.

Chintan Girish Modi December 08, 2020 10:42:09 IST
In A Patchwork Quilt, renowned filmmaker Sai Paranjpye reflects on her creative practice, flaws, and failures

“I am sure I speak for all my sisters when I say that we prefer to be known as directors, not just as women directors. To the eternal question that I am plagued with — what is the main disadvantage of being a woman director — my answer is: being endlessly harangued with this very question,” writes filmmaker Sai Paranjpye (82) in her newly released autobiography titled A Patchwork Quilt: A Collage of My Creative Life, published by HarperCollins India.

We get to know that Paranjpye is neither embarrassed about her gender nor ecstatic about it; she merely wants people to focus on her work. Apart from directing films such as Sparsh (1980), Chashme Buddoor (1981), Katha (1983), Disha (1990), and Saaz (1997), she has worked with All India Radio, Doordarshan, Film and Television Institute of India, and Children’s Film Society of India. Overall, this book does a fine job of weaving a “patchwork quilt” dedicated to her creative practice.

The author’s mother — a writer and social worker — was not too pleased with this “endless flitting from one medium to another.” The daughter was expected to “concentrate on one thing, instead of messing around with bits and pieces.” Not one to be discouraged by parental meddling, she “continued to meander through the magical labyrinth of radio, theatre, television and film, like a carefree gypsy.” What came of these adventures is well-documented in the book.

Running into 452 pages, this autobiography demands patience of its readers. It emphasises Paranjpye’s creative process, not the lives of the rich and famous that she hobnobbed with. Those who pick it up expecting gossip and scandal would be disappointed. There is a lot of interesting behind-the-scenes material here but none of it is sensational. Each chapter is filled with lively anecdotes, a delightful sense of humour, and an ability to laugh at oneself.

As a child, Paranjpye “got silver medals by the sackful” for dancing to a selection of popular film songs in programmes all over Maharashtra. She recalls how, while performing ‘Door hato ai duniyawallon, Hindustan hamara hai’ from Gyan Mukherjee’s film Kismet (1943), she brandished a wooden sword. Her mother, a perfectionist, enrolled her in Maharashtra Mandal, a gym, to learn swordsmanship from a professional for two months.

While the author grew up immersed in the arts, she also had to bear the cruelty of people who were overly inquisitive about her father. Her mother, an Indian, had separated from her father, a Russian. Paranjpye was raised in her maternal grandfather’s house. She writes, “Strangers would stop me on the street and ask, ‘Hey, aren’t you, Sai? Where is your father? What’s his name? Why did your mother leave him?’ and so on.” That was painful to read.

She reconnected with her artist father and his family later in life. They are warmly mentioned in the book. There is a particularly funny episode with Count Dimitri Gregov, her father’s friend, who hosted them for lunch. Paranjpye writes, “He had all manner of knick-knacks collected from India, dotted across the length and breadth of his palatial house: mirrorwork cushions, Batik drapes, marble statues, bronze lamps and, of course, a well-crafted replica of the Taj Mahal.”

After lunch, this man showed her a magnificent painting of Lord Ganesha, which he had treasured for over 20 years. There were two lines of text below the image, and he assumed they were from a verse in the Vedas. Paranjpye was asked whether she would read them out for him. She was happy to help but caught in a quandary. Those words did not belong to any scripture. The inscription read: “Bhuskute Brothers. Triveni Bazar. Kalbadevi, Mumbai.”

As the count waited earnestly for the recitation, Paranjpye did not want to leave him heartbroken. Her mother had made her memorise several shlokas in her childhood. She writes, “I made a split-second decision and rattled off the first two lines of a Ganesh hymn I knew by heart.” He was deeply moved, and his eyes were filled with tears. Paranjpye’s father, however, sensed that she was up to something. “Quite a long-winded verse for two lines,” he said.

The author also presents an entertaining account of the year she spent in France on a scholarship sponsored by the Centre National des Oeuvres Universitaires. She was lucky enough to get a “magic pass” that gave her “an open invitation to see any play performed on any Paris stage for one whole year.” Since she was not fluent in French, she was promptly told that her language skills needed to be impeccable if she wanted to study theatre and television.

Learning a foreign language can be a massive ordeal but Paranjpye found a way to smile through it. Making her way through trial and error, she tried to guess the meanings of words. Once, while walking with an Indian girl, she saw a sign that said: ‘Defense d’afficher’. The girl asked what it meant, and Paranjpye did not want to admit her ignorance. She translated it as: ‘An office of the defence ministry’. What it actually meant was: ‘Forbidden to stick anything!’

Her training at the National School of Drama in Delhi was far more structured than her experience in Paris. When Ebrahim Alkazi took over from Nemichandra Jain as the director of the institution, “a languorous institution was jolted out of a deep slumber, shaken up and plunged headlong into action.” When Alkazi directed Mohan Rakesh’s play Ashadh Ka Ek Din, Paranjpye was selected to play the role of Priyangumanjiri, wife of Kalidasa.

She writes, “I was very fat then, and Alkazi would scold me about my chubbiness. ‘An actor must look trim,’ he would tell me. ‘You will never get good roles if you don’t watch your weight!’ I was least interested in good roles. Writing and directing were my passions. But I did not tell him that. I kept nodding my head and agreed with him. I did not lose any weight, though.”

What makes this book a joy to read is the fact that Paranjpye highlights people’s idiosyncrasies without any malice even if she has had disagreements or unpleasant experiences with them. She also reflects on her own flaws and failures, instead of using this book as a platform to pat her own back. She is aware that an autobiography cannot aspire to objectivity because it acquires its tone and texture from an individual’s point of view.

She writes, “This genre of self-revelation has always brought out the sceptic in me. An honest life story should leave nothing out. Every detail of a life well lived should be shared with the reader. All the ups and downs, bouquets and brickbats, achievements and failures, honours and slights, conquests and heartbreaks, friendships and feuds must be faithfully chronicled.”

Chintan Girish Modi is a Mumbai-based writer who tweets @chintan_connect

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