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To preserve a theatre tradition


He's better known as a film star but theatre holds a very special place in his life. Amol Palekar talks about the Vijay Tendulkar festival he organised recently.


Balancing stage and films: Amol Palekar is still very involved with theatre.

WHILE his career as a filmmaker is looking up with "Paheli" being nominated as official Oscar entry, Amol Palekar is also doing his bit for theatre. This time he organised a week long theatre festival commemorating 50 years of noted Marathi playwright Vijay Tendulkar's first play. Theatre personalities like Rajender Nath, Girish Karnad, Alyque Padamsee were in Pune in early October for play readings, discussions, screenings, an absolutely memorable experience made enjoyable by Nana Patekar's crisp compering and two live interviews with Tendulkar.

Balancing act

Balancing the popularity and larger-than-life nature of films and the intimacy and intensity of experimental theatre is not easy. Amol Palekar rubbishes the perception that he is found more in films and less on the theatre scene. "This is a myth that I have done more films than theatre. In fact when I was at the peak of my film career, I was also at the peak of my creative career in theatre. I was a popular film star, so the theatre world either put me on pedestal or shunned me... I was fighting a complex personal struggle," he said. "The popularity from films is so huge that even the roles of the common man or boy next door became larger than life. Just last year, I did `Julus' for the Badal Sircar festival last year, with 25 absolute newcomers. This may not be known but people will know that I did `Anahat' and was going to make `Paheli'. But I am okay with that."

But Amol Palekar's involvement with theatre is evident from the festival. A week long festival with readings from scripts like "Samna", performances from translations like "Vultures" by Alyque Padamsee, screenings of films and plays like "Silence", "The Court Is In Session", discussions about Tendulkar's body of work, experiences of people like Nilu Phule, Lalan Sarang, Dinesh Thakur on Tendulkar's struggle about "Sakharam Binder".

Despite the odds, the festival had almost everything a theatre lover could dream of. Palekar gives all the credit to his wife, Sandhya Gokhale, for the impressive organisation. But what inspired him to organise a festival while he was busy with promotions for "Paheli"? "First and foremost, I think theatre by its very nature cannot be preserved, and I feel terrible about it. Some of the most beautiful moments — most violent moments, most romantic moments — one gets in theatre become part of the nostalgia. The next generation does not know about it. So one reason for having this kind of festival is for the record. Purely for archival purposes...

"Badal Sircar, Vijay Tendulkar, Mohan Rakesh and Rajender Nath were four pillars of the renaissance in Indian theatre... They gave a different meaning to our life, a new perspective. The entire generation was very fortunate; so reiterating our gratitude is another reason. I do hope and feel very strongly that through this the younger generation will be as inspired as we were. They will also get something from this. That is how theatre becomes rich and richer."

Palekar's association with Tendulkar is quite special, though minimal. "My debut in theatre was in a Tendulkar play. So that is the starting point. Then my debut in films was also in `Shantata! Court Chalu Ahe!' And my directorial debut was also with a Tendulkar script, `Akrit'. I have almost held on to his little finger and he has shown me the way ahead. I have always looked at him like that."

From his several debuts, Palekar has followed his own path but for the festival he re-read the entire Tendulkar and absorbed his work again. Palekar and Sandhya Gokhale made a presentation of Tendulkar's female characters interweaving excerpts of three articles written on the same subject by Professor Pushpa Bhave and Kalindi Deshpande. While Pushpa Bhave looked for the fighter spirit in Tendulkar's female characters, Kalindi Deshpande pointed out that they have accepted defeat in the end against the strong, violent, at times vicious but extremely real male. Tendulkar's reaction when this question was put to him was that his female characters might pause temporarily but never quit. The point, however, remains — and Palekar's presentation also ended with it — that the relevance of Tendulkar's work was only our defeat, defeat of the society that is yet to find solutions.

Hope for the future

Tendulkar's depiction of violence and corruption in all walks of life is extremely disturbing, yet real, and as applicable today if not more. "Tendulkar is not only contemporary but also relevant. It's we who have failed. We have to find answers to the questions that are raised by his work. I have been trying to talk about the place of woman in our society in my work... When I look at Tendulkar's plays, the turmoil and questions, I have understood his men through the failures of his women; through the fights I want his women to put up, but they don't. And I think, `what a crushing male dominated system!' Tendulkar gives you a sheer range of work with quality and hard-hitting strength."

Realistic does not always mean pessimistic. Going by that logic, Palekar pins his hopes on the younger generation, one of the main objectives behind the festival. The festival not only had several college-going youngsters helping out backstage, it also provided a platform for groups to stage "Ramprahar", a sharp dig at the growing religious fascism. Avishkar, a theatre group from Mumbai, dramatised Tendulkar's autobiographical articles.

But when theatre personalities shared handpicked memories from Indian theatre's renaissance, one wondered if that spirit still burned in the younger generation. "What is the core of experimental? Our life was far simpler compared to the fast-paced and complex lives of today's generation... I can understand their dilemma, they have far too many options, all kinds of possibilities in theatre, television, films... With all those choices to do something with concentrated effort and a focused committed approach is more difficult and complex."

For someone who seems to learn from and value the past, making it relevant and exemplary and roping in Gen Next seems only logical. Whether the Gen Next takes one of the most creative, sensitive and social movements forward nurtured by the likes of Tendulkar is a different matter altogether.

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