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Glory.. without compromises

Mahesh Elkunchwar, the radical Marathi playwright, was honoured in the city last week. Reema Gehi got him talking.

art and culture Updated: Jan 13, 2009 19:30 IST
Reema Gehi

Last week, he was honoured by the Awishkar theatre group with a five-day-long festival of some of his most definitive


plays like Sonata, Yuganta and Aatmakatha.



The self-effacing 69-year-old playwright, actor, director and former college professor is rooted in Nagpur. I met him at a Dadar hotel to ask:



Your response to the Awishkar honour..


(Smiles) It’s a special feeling when those whom you consider family acknowledge your work. I’ve known the Awishkar repertoire for more than 40 years. They have seen and experienced my growth as a writer. At times, I do wonder if I deserve the honours conferred on me.. perhaps because I believe that my plays hold very little relevance in today’s context.



Since several of your plays are being published, surely it’s because another generation wants to revive them.

Yes. In fact, Irawati (Karnik) wanted to adapt and direct one of my plays for the Awishkar festival. I agreed. But the fact that young directors want to stage my plays doesn’t alter my thinking.



My plays were written in the 1970s, today’s generation speaks another language.. and its way of thinking is very different.



But unlike the plays of Vijay Tendulkar, yours didn’t touch on subjects of topical relevance.


(Cuts in) This was one of the main accusations levelled against me.



What inspires you to write then?


What is inspiration? I have never understood this terminology. I am never certain about what I’m going to write. If I feel something in the pith of my gut and the subject creates ripples within me, I try to bring those images together. That’s how the process of writing begins. My plays have all come to me.. it was essential to express certain feelings at a point of time.



What defines a good playwright?

The best playwright is someone who doesn’t overwrite. It’s up to a good director to decode the silences and interpret the pauses.



How many good directors have you come across?

(Smiles) The director is the sovereign. I have been fortunate to work with intellectual minds like Amol (Palekar), Vijaya (Mehta), Satyadev (Dubey) and Dr Shreeram (Lagoo), who truly understood the idiom behind my text. Although there were innumerable disagreements during rehearsals, there were times when they helped me understand nuances which I had overlooked as a writer.



Why have you directed only one of your plays — Kshitija Paryant Samudra?


That production staged in Pune was a disaster. Everyone who watched it will vouch for that. I learnt that I’m not a good organiser.



What are your views on play writing today?


To be very honest, I’m completely cut off from the theatre scene today. So would be very unfair for me to pass judgements. However, when people tell me about the Pune and Mumbai stage scene.. I sense that although the scenario seems very vibrant, no one’s doing anything radical — or for that matter even remotely experimental.



What are your views on Marathi theatre?


Commercial Marathi plays don’t motivate you to see them the way they used to three decades ago. A play like Sandhya Chaya was primarily written for commercial Marathi theatre, yet it was a landmark. I haven’t even heard of any such extraordinary plays in recent times.



You don’t see talent in theatre today?


There’s certainly no monopoly of talent by the Marathi theatre any more. What’s good is that there’s a lot of distinctive talent from all over the country like Ratan Thiyam, Irawati Karnik, Neelam Mansingh, Kavungal Chathunni Panicker and Bansi Kaul.



How do you look back at your cameo acting roles in

Aakrosh

and

Vaastupurush

?


(Shrugs) Govind (Nihalani) offered me a role in Aakrosh because he was working on a shoestring budget. I played a radical social worker.. all I had to do was look angry. Yet I couldn’t get the scene right even after 15 retakes. (Grins) Naseeruddin Shah would come fully prepared and he would seethe with anger when I was standing next to him. I wasn’t cut out to be an actor. I’m extremely self-conscious.



Again, why did you write screenplays for only two films?


To be honest, no one approached me with subjects after Holi and Party. I’ve worked with only Ketan (Mehta) and Govind.



The screenplays were adaptations of my own plays. So, the flow came naturally. Also, my goals were small. I never wanted to make it extremely big. I never wanted to join the film industry. Frankly, I loathe commercial cinema.



Why?


What’s the purpose behind it? I couldn’t sit through more than 20 minutes of the remake of Devdas. It was embarrassing. Maybe, I am old-fashioned. Tell me, how could Mr Sanjay Leela Bhansali show an entire dance sequence with a courtesan and a landlady in the same haveli? That was nothing more than a commercial gimmick to get two stunning dancers together.



(Pauses) One cannot simply tailor a classic piece of writing to meet the demands of the producer.. and in turn the public.


What do you feel about parallel cinema?


Making money is not a priority there. It is like theatre, where losing money is a guarantee.. yet we still pursue it. The profit margins are not big, neither are the losses. Though the scale is small, there’s quality. (Pauses) At least I think so.



Why have you never based yourself in Mumbai?


I can’t imagine living anywhere else but in Nagpur. I lead a double life there. It’s necessary for a writer to live in that kind of space. I had a cushy job of a college literature professor there. It was a perfect arrangement.



And how would you look back at the decades gone by?

I wanted to be a vocalist but realised that I was very lazy for the kind of dedication required for singing. My generation didn’t have the luxury to depend on theatre for their livelihood. Writing for theatre was facile and to- the-point.



I chose theatre as a medium to express myself. Like my contemporaries Sulabha and Arvind Deshpande, I pursued other jobs to keep my passion for theatre alive. If I were dependent only on theatre, I would have had to churn out whatever was commercially viable and make compromises. I didn’t want to make compromises.