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Sai Paranjpye tells it like it is

Lounge speaks to the director of ‘Katha’ and ‘Chashme Buddoor’, who has recapped her life and singular career in an autobiography

Sai Paranjpye directed some of the most beloved Hindi films of the 1980s. Photo courtesy: Sai Paranjpye

One of the more straightforward pleasures of reading A Patchwork Quilt, the 82-year-old director Sai Paranjpye’s memoir which releases later this week, is discovering what she was like as a child. It’s a remarkable childhood by any standards; the half-Russian Paranjpye was raised by her Marathi mother in Pune. Between the wealth of both English and Marathi literature and the never-ending music, dance and recitation lessons, Sai was writing stories of her own by the age of eight. A little over a decade later, during her first job at All India Radio, Paranjpye’s first creation was a radio play for children called Pakshyanche Kavisammelan (Bards Of A Feather in the 2008 English translation). It involved a group of boastful birds, each unrolling their braggadocio in verse, until the humble crow wins the competition.

“I never talk down to children. There can never be condescension when you are talking to children,” says Paranjpye. “I think in India, we are ever so fond of preaching things. Aesop’s Fables and all these stories-with-a-moral… they make it too overt. It’s almost like banging the kid with a hammer on the head: you have to be good! When I was a child, I would be irritated by such stories.”

Paranjpye’s best works have a childlike simplicity to them, and I say this mindful of her unique place in Indian cinema. This is, after all, the writer-director behind some of the most audacious and original Indian films of the 1980s. Sparsh (1980), Chashme Baddoor (1981), Katha (1983) and Disha (1990), moreover, were all brilliant in very different ways. When she’s being funny, Paranjpye exerts an effortless mastery over the whole humour spectrum, from genteel to snarky. When she’s telling a serious story, her erudition is always worn lightly and her emotional intelligence shines through.

She also has a soft spot for underdogs—and other dogs, cats, squirrels, and so on. The animals that inhabit her writings for children become animalistic metaphors (“they somehow creep into my stories”) in works intended for grown-ups. In Chashme Buddoor, a character’s embellished version of events is scored with a koel’s song while the actual sequence sees a crow caw-cawing the harsher reality of the situation.

Katha, famously, uses the hare and the tortoise allegory as a framing device; as Paranjpye writes in A Patchwork Quilt, this was based on a Marathi play by S.G. Sathe. The two men competing for young Sandhya’s (Paranjpye favourite Deepti Naval) affections, Rajaram (Naseeruddin Shah) and Vasudev (Farooque Sheikh), are framed as the tortoise and the hare, respectively; Rajaram is humble, frugal, idealistic and hard-working while Vasudev is a compulsive liar and cheat who’s forever looking to jump the queue, to gain an unfair edge.

“I’m speaking to you right now, sitting under a jamun tree,” Paranjpye says. “And my cat is keeping me company. One of my most successful plays was about two tomcats. They belong to a girl named Sonia and these two tomcats are like a Greek chorus, commenting on everything happening around them.”

A Patchwork Quilt closes with a string of fast-paced standalone chapters, each covering one film apiece. For her fans, these making-of stories about classics like Chashme Buddoor and Katha will prove to be very entertaining indeed, with their anecdotes about actors like Deepti Naval and Farooque Sheikh, their methods, preferences and eccentricities. For example, they had to cut the scene every time the abstentious Sheikh raised a cigarette to his lips in Chashme Buddoor. Recalling how Sheikh and Naseeruddin Shah wanted each other’s roles in Katha initially, Paranjpye says, “Farooque said that he had such a squeaky clean image and how could he ruin it by playing this roguish, rascally Vasudev while Naseeruddin said, ‘I have such a dashing personality, why do you want me to play this poor little Rajaram?’ Finally I told them, guys, are you actors or what? Call it convincing or cajoling or bullying or whatever but it worked out well eventually.”

However, what I found even more fascinating was the book’s midsection, which covers Paranjpye’s account of working at Doordarshan through the 1970s. We see how many of her works germinated as telefilms; this was true for both Chashme Baddoor and Katha, for example. After all, Paranjpye’s body of work throughout the 1970s and 1980s covers a wide range of media —radio, TV, theatre children’s literature and, of course, the so-called “middle cinema” (eschewing both the commercial trappings of mainstream Bollywood and the overly self-conscious craft of Indian arthouse films) she is so often credited with pioneering.

But as Sangita Gopal notes in her 2019 essay "Media Meddlers: Feminism, Television And Gendered Work In India" (published in the academic journal Feminist Media Histories), it was television and by extension the nascent Doordarshan that held the maximum potential for Paranjpye’s mandate as a “media meddler” (her own term). As a nascent industry, Indian TV in the 1970s was not as male-dominated as radio or Bollywood. In the early years, women made up the majority of viewers, too. Because of this and several other factors (the rise of feminism as a TV selling point, for instance), creators like Paranjpye were able to challenge and even “correct” dominant, gendered cultural conventions—cue the Bollywood parody sequences in Chashme Buddoor.

The circle of life makes its presence felt in A Patchwork Quilt in the sections where Paranjpye talks about raising her own daughter, Ashwini “Winnie” Joglekar. Unlike her own mother, however, who micromanaged every aspect of her daughter’s life (“right down to the saris I wore”), Paranjpye believed in a bit more freedom. “My mother moulded me,” she says. “She has influenced everything I am today, every aspect of my creative life. But her approach and the amount of control she exerted put me in a completely opposite direction. I didn’t do too much with my children. I gave them a free rein, perhaps even a little too much.”

True to form, this equation between mother and daughter makes its way into her work. In Katha, Winnie plays Jojo, a disco-loving teenager—and Paranjpye cameos as her late mother, a garlanded picture with a comically forbidding expression. This gesture, for me, sums up Paranjpye’s creative persona: a formidable intellect, yes, but one that’s happy to share space with an inimitable, polyphonic sense of humour.

A Patchwork Quilt, by Sai Paranjpye, HarperCollins, 599.

Aditya Mani Jha is an independent writer living in New Delhi.

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