Amitabh’s memoir had recently been re-published and now everyone was reading it. I could not help being bemused by the attention death had brought him. As if dying had lent his career a new lease of life. His book was now selling on the pavements. There were so many events to honour his memory. Every theatre group worth its name was trying to cobble together an event using his name as a branding tool. I refused to attend any of them.
A few months ago, I had turned down an opportunity to speak at the Prithvi Theatre Memorium in Mumbai. A part of me knew that I had possibly risked the chance of being misconstrued. In the same way that Amitabh’s silences had always been judged and dissected by his critics, fans and the media – especially, in the years after Malegaon. The pressure on him to take a stand had never quite abated.
I was cynical about this new-found recognition because I had witnessed my husband turn into a shadow.
How Amitabh had grappled with a gnawing hollowness – a mounting disbelief in basic human goodness, transparency, and the legal system of this country, qualities and institutions that he had sworn by all his life – eating away at his mind. After every court hearing and press interaction, Amitabh seemed more self-defeated, as witnesses suspiciously switched allegiances, as newspapers tainted his intentions and involvement, depending on the colour of their conscience, as judges floundered, as the case dragged on. As Amitabh blamed himself – not so much for the price of his art, but the nature of his resistance.
The thought that shallow caste and communal politics, which he had fought against and discarded all his life, now chased him everywhere he went. He was a man, not just grappling with his own vision – the projection of it, the purpose of it – but with a dangerously changing nation.
Amitabh wanted to reach out again, but wasn’t sure how to anymore.
He had lost relevance, I suppose.
I had just come home from a prolonged meeting with Amitabh’s lawyer, who advised me to quietly have the case closed. Now that Amitabh was dead, he insisted that there was no point contesting the charges of sedition that were levied on him more than a decade ago. To go on and on about Malegaon.
“Rawat is all set to launch his own party, Mrs Kulasheshtra. Let bygones be bygones. At least, this time we can capitalise on public sympathy for your late husband, settle matters, discreetly,” the lawyer had swallowed uncomfortably, adding: “That’s the thing about death. It brings a sense of closure. Maybe, it will be good for you too. I mean, how long will you keep responding to mechanical court summons, travelling in the hot sun, selling your pots and pans to meet mounting legal expenses...and all for what, huh? It’s not like there will be any new witnesses, at any point. Rawat, the main accused too was let off long ago. Kahani ko abhi aap the end kar daliye...this is India, where even gang-rape cases take forever to resolve...this is the time for you to relax, Mrs. Kulasheshtra. Jitna footage iss case ko milna tha, mil gaya...why waste time on ideological warfare, at this point? Activism was Kulasheshtra’s thing... in any case. Aap bas apni retirement ki sochiye...think selfishly, Sarlaji...kabhi kabhi compromise is the best...”
The doorbell rang just then, breaking my chain of thoughts. I opened the door a crack and saw a familiar but not particularly welcome face.
Facing me on our modest cane two-seater sat veteran Marathi theatre actress, Anupama Apte, a ghost of her former self. She was one of Amitabh’s most well-known “finds” who had gone on to carve a unique place of her own in regional theatre, even starring in a few Hindi films, in small side roles. I knew she had always been infatuated with Amitabh and couldn’t come to terms with his lack of interest in her.
Anupama had lost a lot of weight; her voluptuous body now hung loosely on her frame. She wore a long cotton skirt and a plain off-white kurti. Anupama lived in Dadar, Mumbai. She had a daughter who studied in a boarding school in Lonavala, from her first marriage to a director who failed to make it big in Bollywood. An FTII pass- out. Her second husband was a film distributor. Also, a decade younger. She was trying her luck in both Hindi and Marathi serials, she mentioned. She had been out of the country for a year on some film assignment and so couldn’t visit earlier.
Apparently, she had come to condole.
“Amitabhji was the one who told me to start focusing more on emotionally strong parts, to take up roles I could never dream of executing. I was always a director’s actor...I loved him too, you know,” she put her cup away, leaning closer towards me, wiping her eyes, for effect.
“I remember crying so much after he narrated the script, Sarlaji. The way he described Maya, as a flesh and blood character – a young woman with gaping wounds, who wants to get even with her father.”
I listened patiently as Anupama went on with her memories, telling me of the time she had auditioned, and had subsequently been rejected for the role of Maya, by him.
“Sarlaji, Amitabhji sat me down and said, ‘It’s a very demanding role, one that needs emotional starkness and complete surrender. Maya is complex, and, yet supremely childlike...you need to work much harder on your expressions. Learn to give in to the character, completely. Give up on who you are, don’t hold so much back,’ he told me. I was stung. ‘Are you saying you don’t trust me as a performer? That you doubt my capability, all of a sudden?’ I had interrupted. ‘Everything I say is not about me. Or my feelings, Anupama,’ Amitabhji reprimanded me.
“I caught his hand, at this point and pressed it against my cheeks. ‘Is it true, then, about that Parisian actress? Everyone’s talking about her role as Sakuntalam, about this thing you shared...Amitabhji...Sir... was it true? Or was it the effect of the time you spent in Mumbai... I mean the Ballav Salve fiasco...?’”
Known in theatre circles as a loudmouth and trouble-maker, Anupama looked at me sideways, trying to gauge my reaction. I should have known her vested interests in raking up the past. After all, she had been the one to first tell me about Amitabh’s fling with Mrinalini. I pushed open a window, allowing the cool evening air to enter the living room. It had been unused for a while.
Excerpted with permission from Cut: The Death and Life of a Theatre Activist, Sreemoyee Piu Kundu, Bloomsbury.