Palekar’s latest challenge
- As the actor-director prepares for a new play after 25 years, he hopes to continue his fight for freedom of expression
- Donning the mantle of both director and actor, Palekar is a treat to watch in this social thriller adapted from the Danish film ‘Den Skyldige’
It was 25 years ago that Amol Palekar last performed on stage at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA). This year, on 24 November—his 75th birthday—the actor and film-maker could be seen standing in the wings of the very same auditorium, waiting for his name be called, this time to announce his return to the stage with Kusur (The Mistake).
The thunderous applause that followed the announcement left even the veteran actor startled for a moment. “I was taken back into time," he recalls, “I was just one film old—Rajnigandha (1974)—when I was invited to present an award at a function. After I heard the applause that followed my name, I thought, ‘Oh my God! What’s happening and why is it happening?’ At that time I was gripped with fear that I would trip, fall flat on my face or make a fool of myself," he says. After the show, when the jam-packed auditorium sang “Happy birthday", Palekar was overwhelmed. “All thanks to my wife," he smiles, looking at Sandhya Gokhale, who’s also the writer and co-director of Kusur.
It’s with this production that Palekar, who has directed for the stage since the 1960s, once again came face-to-face with a live audience. Donning the mantle of both director and actor, he’s a treat to watch in this social thriller adapted from the Danish film Den Skyldige. He plays a retired assistant commissioner of police who gets emotionally involved when he answers a distress call while volunteering at the Mumbai emergency control room. There is no indication of the 25-year-long hiatus from the stage in his performance.
Why has it taken Palekar —whose last film, Samaantar, released in 2009—this long to return to acting? He admits that it has something to do with his temperament: Once he realizes that he is able to do something well, the interest just evaporates. “I want to try something different, where there is no surety that I will be able to pull it off or not, or if it will be appreciated and accepted by people," says the star of films like Gharonda and Bhumika. It is no wonder, then, that at the age of 70, Palekar—a postgraduate from Sir JJ School of Art, Mumbai—returned to his first love, painting. He continues to pursue this passion and hints at exhibiting more in the near future.
He seems to be equally determined about pursuing acting. Palekar recalls the early days of his career, when he would work in experimental Marathi plays by the legendary theatre personality Satyadev Dubey. According to Palekar, theatre in that period was characterized by two significant trends—on the one hand there were National School of Drama productions designed in the Ebrahim Alkazi tradition, with larger-than-life orchestration, opulent sets, lights and costumes; on the other, there were visually unimaginative Marathi plays. “Maybe as a reaction to these trends, I started working on plays sans extensive props. Instead, I used the body and light as my primary tools. I played with darkness, which had an expression of its own. I experimented with shadows to evoke a strong imagery to complement the dialogue," he says. He deployed such techniques in plays like Chup! Court Chalu Hai, Hayavadana and Adhe Adhure. Palekar preferred a monochromatic palette, opting for greys and blacks. He brought his plays out of the proscenium into open spaces. There were attempts to deconstruct the spoken text and present a more abstract visual context. “It was exciting to work with such contrasts," he adds.
Be it films or plays, he has always backed good writing. In fact, he believes a writer’s word is the gospel truth. For many years now, both Palekar and Gokhale have been fighting against censorship of the written word. Earlier this year, the artist’s speech at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai was cut short when he commented on the “loss of independence" and criticized the Union ministry of culture for reportedly scrapping the advisory committees at the gallery’s Mumbai and Bengaluru centres. An NDTV report on the event noted: “At this point, a gallery member on stage interrupted, saying that Amol Palekar should talk about the event. ‘I am going to talk about the same. Are you applying censorship to that?’ Mr Palekar responded." Palekar says that he is not against censorship, as long as it doesn’t curb the constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression.
He successfully challenged the ban on two of his plays, Avadhya and Vasanakand, in 2016. His petition challenged the rules which make “pre-censorship" of a play script by the Maharashtra State Performance Scrutiny Board mandatory. Theatres stalwarts like the late Girish Karnad and Alyque Padamsee filed affidavits in support. He even wrote a scathing piece, titled “Imprisoning Minds", which was originally published in Marathi in Loksatta and was then translated into English. Palekar cited examples from the past, such as Vijay Tendulkar’s Gidhade (The Vultures), which was banned by the scrutiny board, “contending that its realistic portrayal of perverted socio-familial complications was unsuitable for a public performance. An extended battle led by the producer, Satyadev Dubey, and the director, Shriram Lagoo, resulted in the play being certified for release after a few token cuts," wrote Palekar.
“Maharashtra and Gujarat are the only two states where you are supposed to get the script approved before you can perform. You don’t ask a political leader standing at Ramlila Maidan to get his script approved or to delete a word. Then why do that with theatre? And why only in these two states?"
Palekar points to this instance last month where the Mumbai police stopped a play on the Batla House encounter from being staged. He says he will continue fighting as long as he has the strength. “I haven’t stopped before, why should I stop at this stage?"
Kusur will be staged on 22 and 27 December in Pune, and 25 December in Thane.
Deepali Singh is a Mumbai-based writer.
FIRST PUBLISHED14.12.2019 | 12:20 PM IST