Rajshri Deshpande discusses playing strong female characters in Sacred Games, S Durga, Nandita Das' Manto biopic
When Sacred Games actor Rajshri Deshpande was being trolled for her love-making scenes, the single most thought that occupied her mind was building toilets in the village she had adopted
When Sacred Games actor Rajshri Deshpande (who created a stir as Subhadra in Netflix India’s first original series), was being trolled for the love-making scenes, the single most thought that occupied Deshpande’s mind was building schools and toilets in the village she had adopted. The scene which she refers to as, “the tender moment between a husband and wife, had made its way to porn sites. Worse still, the actress was sent screenshots of the scenes followed by messages saying she was a porn star.
However, Deshpande remains unfazed. In fact, she says she’s too busy to get hassled about such petty things. “Those scenes were part of the narrative structure. It’s not titillating at all and I never react to such things. I don’t have the time. Instead, I have been thinking about building schools in the village I have adopted. They don’t have toilets in the school which is bad for girls,” says Deshpande, who plays Ganesh Gaitonde's (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) wife in the original.
Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane-directed Sacred Games was an enriching experience for Deshpande who has also starred in Angry Indian Goddesses (2015) and Sexy Durga (2017), later retitled S Durga for its India release after running into trouble with Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). “Fortunately, I have become famous for good reasons as well. If the intention of people involved in the web series, those who have adapted the book — Varun Grover (writer), Anurag Kashyap, and the research team behind them — is good then you don't have to worry about trolls. Each and every frame is designed by the writer. And when I know that the narrators are this good, then I am no one to question the scenes. Anurag sir had even told me that I could tell him if I was uncomfortable. But I don’t have any such inhibitions. I was only portraying love,” says Deshpande, further adding, “I have also read Vikram Chandra’s book and it is so amazingly written that I finished it in 10 days and in that time I was told I had got the part,” said Deshpande.
Trolling is not something the actress is new to. She was trolled even during S Durga. “I know that I will be in situations like this going forward because I choose to do bold, story-driven roles. I want creative freedom in whatever I do, but, of course with responsibility,” she says. Born and raised in Aurangabad, Deshpande pursued theatre at a very young age but when she shifted to Pune for her further education and livelihood, acting took a backseat. “I had to support myself because I don’t come from an affluent family. My mother told me very clearly that she won’t be able to support me while I am in Pune, so I got into client servicing in an advertising agency and was able to take care of my hostel fees. For almost five to six years I stopped theatre as I was studying law and I had no time in hand. Then I moved to Mumbai and did lot of theatre for four years,” she says.
Soon after, Deshpande bagged a small role in Aamir Khan’s Talaash followed by a daily television show, Kuch Toh Log Kahenge. But Deshpande, who has an adventurous streak, chucked television and went backpacking to places in Srinagar, North East and the Himalayan range. “Daily show is like a full-time job whereas I wanted to grow creatively. I wanted to travel and not bind myself for one full year,” she says. And it was during one of those adventurous moments that she bagged S Durga. “Three years back I just took off to Kerala to learn Kathakali and Kalaripayattu (a form of martial arts). There I happened to see some of director Sanal’s (Kumar Sasidharan, director) work. I contacted him and expressed interest in working with him. After few months, he called me and narrated me the S Durga script,” she says.
Set over one night, the film follows a young couple (played by Deshpande and Kannan Nayar) on the run in Trivandrum. Deshpande plays a woman, who while eloping with her boyfriend gets harassed by a bunch of violent men. The film’s a comment on patriarchal society and the women’s safety in India. “It was a very difficult shoot. We had to show the harrowing journey. We shot for 22 nights inside a car, I didn’t sleep. The camera was ever present and there wasn’t a division of shots – it was mine now, and some other character’s later. So one had to be present, be alert and in the role throughout. It was exhausting. We were working for 14 hours a day. And when the shoot was over I took some time to calm down,” she says. However, the film faced a lot of challenge during its release in India. Deshpande says the film released in just two theatres in Mumbai and the whole team ended up losing a lot of money. “Imagine this happening to a film which traveled to 50 film festivals and won prestigious awards,” she says.
But what’s laudable about Deshpande is her positive and never-say-die attitude. She seems to be a go-getter at seizing her dreams. Her varied experiences and ups and downs in life have prepared her well to face any challenge that life has to offer. And it is not just yoga or Vipassana that keeps her calm. She says, it's community services that also helps her forget her sorrows. She even uses these experiences in developing her acting skills. “I have been balancing between films and social work. I run an NGO and when I meet my farmers, school kids…I forget all my sorrows. I also work for fisher-women and the transgender community. When I am into social work, for instance when I was in Nepal post the earthquake, there were so many women, children…observing them helps and I put my experiences into a ‘bank’. I use it when required for a character I am portraying,” says the actress.
Deshpande will be next seen as Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai in Nandita Das’s Manto. Chughtai was one of Manto’s friends in Mumbai. “When I moved to Mumbai, my literature suddenly opened up. I was hungry for reading and I started reading everything. I read many of Ismat Chughtai’s writings,” says Deshpande. Further, she will play Savitribai Phule, a social reformer in a Marathi film called Satya Shodhak. “I identify with all the characters I play, be it Ismat, or Durga, or Subhadra. An actor has to observe and learn every day. An actor is never on a holiday,” she says.
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