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On Nishant, Manthan, Ardh Satya and more, Khalid Mohamed recaps iconic writer Vijay Tendulkar’s politics of violence

Vijay Tendulkar(1928-2008)

An overnight bag  perched on his lap, he had reclined into his seat at an auditorium of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune – for the preview of the film adaptation of his iron-strong play, the political allegory Ghashiram Kotwal (1976).


Financed by the NFDC, it had been directed by the Yukt film co-operative comprising K.Hariharan, Kamal Swaroop, Saeed Akhtar Mirza and Mani Kaul. At the end of the screening, he had left for Bombay, without saying much.


The fact is that the film was seen scantily, the NFDC had to eventually write off the financial debt incurred by its investment.


Yet, Vijay Dhondopant Tendulkar (1928-2008), a sheer force of nature, wasn’t the sort to complain beyond a point about an experimental enterprise. After all, he had thrived on shattering taboos, political injustice, social inequities and domestic violence perpetrated on women since time immemorial. A playwright, film and TV scriptwriter, political journalist, essayist, social commentator, at a young age he had aligned himself to leftist beliefs and had participated in the freedom struggle.


So, why do I write about the nation’s fearless commentator today? Not because it’s his birth or death anniversary. It’s simply because there has been no one like him and perhaps never will be, going to the extent of making highly provocative statements on the Godhra riots of 2002.


Born to a Saraswat Brahmin family in Girgaum, Bombay, his father held a clerical job and simultaneously ran a small publishing business. The ambience at home was such that he wrote his first story at the age of six. Five years later, he wrote, directed and acted in his first play.


His repertoire is so vast that I can only point out his most iconic plays: Amachyavar Kon Prem Karnar, Gidhade, Shantata! Court Chalu Ahe and Sakharam Binder. Of his films his collaborations with Satya Dev Dubey (Shantata! Court Chalu Ahe) Shyam Benegal (Nishant, Manthan), Govind Nihalani (Ardh Satya, Aakrosh, Aaghat), Jabbar Patel (Samna, Sinhasan, Umbartha), Amol Palekar (Akriet), Aruna-Vikas (Gehrayee) and Ketan Mehta (Sardar) are his most significant and groundbreaking works.


Curiously, despite his relentless criticism of the governance  -- whichever happened to be at centre – he was awarded the honour of Padma Bhushan in 1984.This was during the tenure of the Congress, with Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister.


Circa 1981, I had solicited an interview with Vijay Tendulkar to understand what made his writing so corrosive and brutal, as if he was retching out the violence within him in words. He asked me to meet him, early evening, at a modest hotel in Shivaji Park, where he was in the midst of finessing a film script. Frankly, I was nervous, would I be able to dredge out apt questions. Fazed, yes, but I had to give it a go.


Sustaining eye contact throughout our conversation, he suggested that I should quit taking notes, and pushed his mini tape-recorder towards me. I said I was used to the ritual of taking notes, to which he retorted, fine, so was he at my age.


Over to our conversation that was:


Do you find more limitations in creativity for cinema than you did in journalism and theatre?


There are limitations in all the three spheres though not to the extent you find in cinema. When I’m working on a film script, I’m left to myself. The subject at times comes from the filmmaker and at times from myself. There are discussions before and after the writing.


I like to know the director’s perspective from the start. There have been occasions when the subject appeals to me at face value but when I come to know the director’s true feelings, I like it less and less. For instance, I was willing to write a comedy which had some sense. It was based on a short story by Woody Allen about the problems and escapist fantasies of an office worker. The filmmaker wanted me to underplay the humour, make it terribly serious, so I withdrew,


I don’t like the current situation where the director has a completely free hand over the script. After all. I have worked very hard on it, keeping in mind the end-result.


I don’t create a structure first, write a one-page synopsis, and then continue with the flow of situations. I start with the first scene, establish the characters and plot. I have always claimed that there is an undercurrent to every script. It’s not there in words but there is an element, something like a rhythm. When someone adds or subtracts from a script, even if I do, it has to be done with tremendous care. Quite often the director doesn’t understand this, some portions don’t fit and stick out like an ugly patch.




Take Aakrosh. I have nothing against Govind Nihalani, he is a valued friend. But that intimate scene between the tribal couple (Om Puri-Smita Patil) was not there in the original script. The man does have a nightmare but in that  situation,  I thought the intense love-making scene marred the rest of the film’s aesthetic quality.


The Lavni song-and-dance wasn’t in the script either. Another point we had a difference on was the film’s climax, where Om kills his sister. It is dramatic, had developed very well, but also took you away from the thematic content.


When I saw Aakrosh at a preview, I couldn’t take the scene and also the one that follows – the closing which sounds like an explanation. An explanation is necessary only when there’s something that can’t be understood.


During the shoot, Govind kept telling me that Om’s face is coming out so strong that the audience will expect him to do something at the end. I told Govind that I have come across several such faces of tribals who are totally impotent, helpless.That’s what the reality is. When he kept insisting I said well go ahead though I’m not in agreement with you at all. When I saw the film again, I didn’t hate it that much. It had removed you from the real theme and the idea of giving the viewer a catharsis, had become theatrical.


Smita Patil & Om Puri in Aakrosh(1980)

Casually, I can mention Shyam Benegal’s films. In Nishant, there was a scene which becomes excessively violent. After the first trial show, a lady said she could see that it was relevant but she could not bear to see it. Shyam was disturbed by her reaction and felt it should be toned down considerably. Another scene which I thought was  the backbone of Nishant had to be largely edited out because Shyam wasn’t satisfied with Girish Karnad’s acting in that portion.  


In Jabbar Patel’s Saamna, the relationship between the characters of Dr Shreeram Lagoo and Smita Patil is shown in slow-motion scenes. In the script, Smita does not enter the scene at all and is always in the background. When the film was entered at a German film festival, the scenes were edited out and the result looked much better.


Personal turbulence comes out powerfully in your plays, especially Sakharam Binder. Would this have to be toned down for cinema?


Any of my plays could be adapted into a film. I wouldn’t have to make them ‘moderate’ because I have never bothered about the commercial viability of my subjects. Many producers, almost all, even G.P.Sippy wanted to make a film out of Sakharam Binder. Basu Chatterjee thought he could make a commercial film out of it.


A subject need not necessarily be for only for theatre, cinema or journalism. All the different media have their place. When I was in journalism, people would say that this is no the proper place for a creative person, but I got the maximum satisfaction out of journalism. I had joined journalism, 1948 onwards, and had worked for many newspapers like Navabharat, Maratha, and Loksatta. I also wrote for the Marathi Times and Manus.I finally quit because I was dissatisfied with other aspects – the newspaper set-up where the circulation and the advertising team which dominate the editorial department.


Can we go back in time to your days as a film reviewer?


I was in my 20s when I entered journalism. In the language papers – I don’t know about the English ones – one had to be a Jack of all trades. One had to be able to write on politics, economics, cinema. When I reviewed Hindi films, Raj Kapoor had just arrived and Bimal Roy was there. The films then were romantic and confused. Largely, the Punjabi cult was coming in, the robust one-sided way of looking at life, and there was more music than thought.


I loved to see the American movies which helped me to develop a visual sense. I couldn’t follow the dialogue closely and concentrated on the images. And then came along Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, which stunned me with its presentation of reality without a trace of glamour.


Have Hindi films changed in any which way during, let’s say the last 30 years?


They’ve become worse and vulgar. That’s because the total situation in the country has deteriorated. A person like me has no hope, our problems are beyond solution. Like the problem of poverty which is here to stay for countless generations.


Even unconventional filmmakers have been able to get rid themselves of the romantic quality. They escape into romantic of some smart rhetorical solutions. This is not progress, it’s an excuse. Like the filmmakers of the 1950s, we want to show that problems are capable of simplistic solutions.


The sense of despair has been very pronounced in your stage plays. Now, in your films one gets the feeling of resignation to the conditions around us. Has this been a conscious effort?


Maybe I have changed. Still, I write for myself and project myself. When I was very young I came face to face with the world of alcoholics. The shock I  felt was expressed in Gidhade, and then in Sakharam Binder and Baby. The thesis of inner violence needs to be developed, and yes, I have written a play about a very explosive relationship between a naïve college-going boy and a girl who is his senior and a lesbian.

Theatre allows me to go deeper into studying personal relationships.


I can’t ever become a cynic or a sceptic because my upbringing in a typical middle class home doesn’t permit me that luxury. People who know me are puzzled by what I write. They find my work shocking while as a person, they say I’m mild and soft-spoken. There is a relationship between the characters I write about and myself. Like them, I can’t stand up and confront a crisis if given a choice.

From my childhood, I’ve had a fear of loneliness, of insecurity. The insecurity persists and with it an undefined element of aggression.


How far do your films draw from your personal experiences?


Not completely. Yet I cannot do a film unless I get involved in its theme. Experience does count but there are certain feelings, situations and relationships which you know exist.


In this sense, the Nehru fellowship I got in 1973-’74 to go out, meet people, study everything from political movements and the life of criminals and the jails they are locked in, was a turning point. Before this, I had a second-hand knowledge of life, this opportunity broke the barriers and opened me up.


The Dalit poet, Namdeo Dhasal, took me around the red-light areas in Golpitha and to criminals’ hide-outs. I had passed through those roads, knew the squalor but not the dehumanised, impossible contradictions they lived in.


As a city-bred person, I didn’t know much about the villages. While studying, I stayed in the interiors, and after I convinced them that I had no ulterior motives, the people allowed me to understand them, experience their problems.


This finds an echo in Aakrosh, doesn’t it?


Bhaskar (Naseeruddin Shah) is more or less myself. Aakrosh is not about a particular incident but a combination of a number of incidents I came across. You can find a whole village living under fear. In some places, this fear is more gross, in others it is subtler.


Like Bhaskar, I went to the villages without any intention of getting involved. And I left without doing anything, with a feeling of frustration. All that happened once, was that I participated in a satyagraha over a caste issue. I was sentenced to jail for seven days but was released after three days.


Your very first film script for Shantata! Court Chalu Ahe also had similar situations of pent-up anger and the absurd.


It wasn’t my first film script. Before that I had ghost-written for a couple of Marathi film producers. I needed the money, someone else needed the credit.


Dubey was so obsessed by the play that though I wrote the script cinematically, he shot it like a play, in the same scene-by-scene order, and with actors from theatre.


Often your films have a complexity, and undersurface. But in Nishant and Manthan, I found simplifications and stereotypes?


Originally Nishant was to be written in a ‘jatra’ form for Utpal Dutt. The subject based on a real-life situation in Telengana was mentioned to Shyam. He said he wanted to make a film out of it, he came from the same village where the incident had happened.


The family which abducts the schoolteacher’s wife may have come out as supremely evil. That’s because the four brothers were meant to symbolize evil. Except for the oldest and youngest brothers, there was no attempt to present them as characters. The Indian mind works on a single track – it there has to be vendetta, kill or rape. This is true of the sophisticated classes as well. Their fantasies of hitting back are either sexual or ending in murder.


For Manthan, the script ended with the cooperative project as an unsuccessful one. The workers from the town go away corrupted and the villagers react contemptuously to their departure. That was my ending. Shyam ended with ‘hope’, with a boy joining the queue for a better tomorrow. But then the director is supreme.


Shabana Azmi & Girish Karnad in Nishant(1975)

How did you react to the Yukt Cooperative’s film adaptation of Ghashiram Kotwal?


My name is there on the credits, yes. There was a wide gap between what they had conceived and my script. Moreover, they didn’t have enough money. I was unhappy that they had made it abstruse but again couldn’t do a thing about it.

Mohan Aghashe in Ghasiram Kotwal(1976)


How did you combine journalist Arun Sadhu’s two novels Mumbai Dinank and Sinhasan for Jabbar Patel’s film?


I had read Mumbai Dinank long ago at the manuscript stage and the other soon after it was published. While writing, I didn’t refer to the novels at all. Jabbar would tell me which points he wanted incorporated. The idea was to make a film which exposed the hollow core of the so-called democratic Maharashtra government. There were some characters retained from the novels, while some new ones were created.


The bureaucratic system of our government doesn’t allow any individual to seek reform or change. Even if there is one thinking person, he will say, “Well, what can I do about it?” It’s the same story at prisons. A sensitive jail warden will console himself, “Why should I care if no one else does?”


From politics and social exploitation what moved you to the theme of exorcism for Gehrayee?


The theme came from Aruna-Vikas. Again, the system of writing the script was different. I didn’t write it myself. They would write it, we would discuss it and finalised it together.


Rationally, it is not possible to give an answer on ghosts, spirits and exorcism. I had to go to a house in Poona to collect an article on the occult and while the person was talking to me about what had been written, I felt as if I had lost control of myself. I was sweating, as I left the house I felt I was coming out of a high fever.


I’ve seen ‘mantriks’, possessed children, and once I saw food turning into excreta – this,incidentally at the house of a friend from a communist party, who still refuses to believe what happened.


The way Gehrayee turned out, I know it lacked something. It got lost in the rituals though it was supposed to be about the possessed girl (Padmini Kolhapure) and the disintegration of her family.


There is talk that you’re ready to direct a film on your own?


I want to try at least once. I have certain ideas and concepts about filmmaking which I’ve put into my scripts. Many times, my calculations have clicked.


I have four to five scripts which were commissioned but never collected. Perhaps they weren’t glamorous enough. Lately, many of the big producers have approached me to direct what they call a “non-commercial” or “art” subject. They were surprised when I refused. So maybe, my ambition of directing a film will remain a pipedream. The industry’s major producers talk of less money than even the low-budget filmmakers. So, why should I work more for less pay?


Khalid Mohamed is a Mumbai based film critic, screenwriter, producer & filmmaker.


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