Reclusive and reticent, it is a hard to convince Amol Palekar for an interview. In Delhi as the head of the jury of the forthcoming Vatavaran film festival, he opened up about the lack of ideas on environment protection in mainstream cinema. “We still talk about the girl meets the boy stories. We haven’t come out of that even after 100 years of filmmaking. Where have we come out of that?” he asks. Of course, there was a time when “Do Bigha Zamin” got made, and the movie still retains its relevance, but Palekar wonders if one film makes a difference. “If you look back you can also say that there was a time when ‘Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam’ got made. That was again an exception, a minority. Most of the cinema was atrocious even at that time.”
“First and foremost,” he argues, “when we talk of Indian cinema why do we only talk of mainstream Bollywood cinema? Why don’t we ever talk of parallel cinema, why don’t we ever talk of regional cinema? Why do we talk only of the commercial success of a film? It is only one aspect of Indian cinema and we are very happy about it but there are also other kinds of cinema.” Even the media doesn’t often reflect upon the need for variety. “I would put it this way, that we are becoming much more self-centred. What concerns us is what do I get out of this. How I move forward, what kind of society I want, what do I do for somebody else doesn’t bother us and you see the reflection of it in the movies.”
Was that the reason that he almost quit the mainstream business in the 1980s? “Whether as an actor or as a director I have never ever been part of the mainstream,” Palekar gently retorts. “I have always been swimming against the stream. This year I have completed 45 year in show business and I am happy to be able to do something non mainstream consistently for such a long time.”
While his films with Basu Chatterjee and Hrishikesh Mukherjee were commercially viable right from “Rajnigandha”, Palekar sees it differently. “People loved Basu da’s films because they were non-mainstream. The very concept of Amol Palekar becoming popular came through because he was not larger than life, because for the first time a hero would travel by bus or local train.”
One can’t overlook the fact that the media as well as the film industry tends to see him only as a lovable everyman. They forget that after the initial success, Palekar did films like “Agar”, “Bhumika” and “Gharonda” which had him depicting not just layers but layers of negativity. It didn’t have the feel good humour of his first couple of films. It was pared down to pragmatism that the city shoves down the throat. Palekar nods. “If you choose to look only at ‘Golmaal’ then it is your choice. I have nothing to say. I started my career with three superhits, ‘Rajnigandha’, ‘Chhoti Si Baat’ and ‘Chitchor’. The fourth film that I chose to do was ‘Bhumika’. My choice was clear. Shyam (Benegal) had actually given me a choice whether I want to play the hero’s role essayed by Anant Nag but I picked the counterpoint. As you rightly put it, ‘Gharonda’, though placed in everyman space, was a completely grey character. I did it and people loved me again for that, for doing something totally different and convincingly and ‘Gharonda’ was a huge commercial success. To aisa bhi nahin hai…” Palekar leaves the sentence half complete in his trademark style.
After a pause he picks up the strand. “Whether people will like it or not, whether it will fit in their moral code was never the question in my mind. I did ‘Gharonda’ because it gave me tremendous challenge as an actor to do various things. Before I stopped acting the last film I did was Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s ‘Khamosh’, where I am the murderer,” he reminds us.
As a filmmaker, he has grappled with different shades of sexuality and questions the labels that society puts on man and woman. “My concern is finding various shades of man-woman relationships. That is the basic idea but I also like to explore as many aspects of sexuality as possible. Like ‘Daayara’ was about a transvestite, a transvestite by choice. He likes to be a woman. In ‘Anahat’ I explored female sexuality and in ‘Quest’ I explored homosexuality in the backdrop of man-woman relationship.” Were there any pressures when he saw the protagonist Binni in “Thodasa Roomani Ho Jaayen”? Unconventional, she was unlike the Hindi film heroine, we were used to watching in the times of “Maine Pyar Kiya” and “Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak”. “No. That’s why I consider myself extremely privileged that I have been able to do non-mainstream cinema consistently, exactly as I wanted to do without thinking how the market will respond. I could do that because people supported my work.” Today independent filmmakers shout from the social media after completing one venture and here is a filmmaker who is doing it for decades.
“Shouting from the rooftop is not my nature at all. I am known so much for understatement that when one of my contemporaries was talking about my acting, he said acting kahan karta hai. I feel that was the best compliment.”
Would he like to return to the sets? He was last seen in Marathi film “Samaantar” with Sharmila Tagore. “I never said I have stopped acting,” Palekar clarifies. “I will act if there is a role which gives me some challenge, butterflies in my stomach. I don’t want to play a generic father. When I was only an actor I didn’t follow a beaten track, why will I do it now?”
Does this mean that he can try an over-the-top character as well? “It depends on what you mean by over the top. I have no issue with melodrama. The only point is it should be justified. You justify it to me and I am game to do the role.” A brilliant example of being illogical, he reminds us, is the climax of “Amar Akbar Anthony”. “It is both illogical and non-scientific, but I love it because the total framework from the word go to the end is illogical. In this case being illogical becomes the logic. If the complete logic of the film is no logic, then I have no quarrel. I am not being sarcastic. But what confuses me is when the director expects the actor to underplay in one scene and be melodramatic in the next.” One director who has impressed Palekar with his command over drama is Raj Kumar Hirani. “I loved his Munnabhai series.”
Right now he is raring to return to the turnstiles. “We had planned to [time] take off till December-end. I have plenty of ideas in the head,” he signs off.
On the growing intolerance in the society in the light of SC’s judgement on Article 377 and the murder of his friend, rationalist Narendra Dhabolkar
“We have become very focussed on ourselves. The issue to me is, are we becoming more intolerant. What I want and what I need is the ultimate truth. I don’t care what you say. I may not agree with you but I should still respect your right to say something. When I say I am a heterosexual I must be able to respect somebody’s choice to be a gay. This doesn’t mean that I should also become a gay. There was a nice quote by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. I don’t remember it verbatim but what he meant was that constitutional morality is not natural, it is to be imbibed. We all need to help it grow. We have to learn it. Democracy is not in our soil, it needs to be cultivated.”