on the actor's trail

Sushma Deshpande on transforming herself into a vengeful grandmother for ‘Ajji’

The playwright and stage actor plays the lead in Devashish Makhija’s revenge drama.

Devashish Makhija’s second feature after Oonga (2013) is a revenge drama revolving around a young girl’s rape. In Ajji, the titular grandmother (Sushma Deshpande) is deeply disturbed by the rape of her beloved granddaughter Manda (Sharvani Suryavanshi). The investigating police officer is in league with the rapist, an influential land developer (Abhishek Bannerjee), and Manda’s parents don’t seem to care either. Ajji decides to seek revenge, and takes the help of Leela, a prostitute (Sadiya Siddiqui). Ajji has been selected for the New Currents section at the Busan International Film Festival and the Indian competition section at the Mumbai Film Festival, both in October. The Yoodlee Films production will be released in Indian cinemas in the coming months.

Sushma Deshpande’s credits include a handful of films and the biographical play Whay Mee Savitribai, which she has written and performed. She spoke to Scroll.in about the challenges of shooting in real locations, handling sequences that required her to slaughter chickens, and coming to terms with the movie’s vigilante theme.

Devashish’s casting team had approached me, and he told me the story when I met him. It was very interesting. Devashish has great clarity, and the way he has studied the problem is fantastic. When he met me, he knew about my interviews, what I had done before, small things about me. He told me across the table, you are going to be Ajji. How could I say no when somebody was offering me such a good role?

Ajji (2017).

I have been so busy with the Savitribai play that I haven’t been approached for too many films. People probably thought I was too busy with my Savitribai performances. I have been in films made by friends – Umbartha, Katha Don Ganpatraonchi, Bangarwadi.

I also get bored giving auditions, unless I know the person involved. In the case of Ajji, I told them I wasn’t interested in an audition. The filmmakers arranged a taxi from my residence to the production office, so I went. There, Devashish told me I was going to do the film. No audition, nothing.

After he sent me the script, I emailed him and said I wanted to know Ajji’s history – what is her relationship with her husband, her childhood. I was in Pune – I divide my time between Pune and Mumbai. He sent me four-five four pages of Ajji’s history and said, you can contribute to that history too.

Ajji is a strong lady, very open, someone who understands the meaning of womanhood. It was easy to connect to that role. She is very supportive and despite not having a good relationship with her daughter-in-law, she is not against her. She is not ready to take injustice on behalf of her grandchild any more. It is not like she suddenly decides – it is a process.

Bringing poverty to the screen

Are you going to take a workshop, I asked Devashish. He laughed and said, I don’t work without workshops. Part of the preparation included visiting the locations, such as slums in Goregaon East in Mumbai. I remember that Sadiya [Siddqui] and I went there. We had to be comfortable with the locations, including the pipeline and the slums. When you decide to do such a role, it is a part of the game.

I am very aware of poverty, although the poverty in Mumbai is different from rural Maharashtra. I remember Sadiya and I climbed on top of the pipeline. The question wasn’t how I did it – how wasn’t the word here. The directed expected me to and I did it.

Sushma Deshpande and director Devashish Makhija on the sets of Ajji. Courtesy Yoodlee Films.
Sushma Deshpande and director Devashish Makhija on the sets of Ajji. Courtesy Yoodlee Films.

The abattoir in the film is also in a slum. The butcher organised a workshop for me and for Sudhir Pandey, who plays the butcher in the film. I cut meat for the first time. It was all properly planned. We started with cutting a chicken very slowly. I got the opportunity to do things I have never done before during the shoot.

One chicken that I was given had already been killed. It was warm when I touched it. For a few seconds, I wondered, how was I going to do it? Cool, I told myself, I am going to do this, I have to do it.

If my mother were alive, she would have asked me, why are you doing this? But the scene has meaning in the film, so I did it. The assistant director, Pooja, asked me afterwards, how was it? I replied, let’s have this discussion after the film.

My performance in the Savitribai play helped me a lot during the shoot. I can change saris anywhere, including on location, and it is not difficult for me at all. One time, I told the car’s driver to get off and I changed right there. At some other locations, we had a small room organised for me. Since we had done workshops, we knew exactly what we were supposed to do.

A time for vengeance

During one of the workshops, one woman talked about an incident in Sholapur, where a husband had raped his daughter. His approach was, this is my fruit, and I am going to taste it. The wife was working on the farm and her daughter was at home. The man came home and raped the daughter. When the wife came home, she hacked off his penis. She went to the police and fed the penis to a dog in front of the police station.

Jaywant Dalvi’s Purush has the same theme [a social worker castrates the politician who rapes her after she fails to get justice.] I spoke to Devashish about the play.

The scene where Ajji seeks revenge was discussed during the workshop. Ajji wants to, but she also isn’t sure. She wonders, is it possible? But she has to try. Her inner power propels her to do so. The sequence was shot over one night.

I understand the debate over vigilante justice, but I also understood Ajji and her family. She is attached to the child, and nobody else is doing anything for her. It is a personal issue for the character. She is not somebody who will take such a crime lying down. She doesn’t care for the law, she doesn’t care for anything, but she feels strongly for the child.

(As told to Nandini Ramnath.)

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Why should inclusion matter to companies?

It's not just about goodwill - inclusivity is a good business decision.

To reach a 50-50 workplace scenario, policies on diversity need to be paired with a culture of inclusiveness. While diversity brings equal representation in meetings, board rooms, promotions and recruitment, inclusivity helps give voice to the people who might otherwise be marginalized or excluded. Inclusion at workplace can be seen in an environment that values diverse opinions, encourages collaboration and invites people to share their ideas and perspectives. As Verna Myers, a renowned diversity advocate, puts it “Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.”

Creating a sense of belonging for everyone is essential for a company’s success. Let’s look at some of the real benefits of a diverse and inclusive workplace:

Better decision making

A whitepaper by Cloverpop, a decision making tool, established a direct link between inclusive decision making and better business performance. The research discovered that teams that followed an inclusive decision-making process made decisions 2X faster with half the meetings and delivered 60% better results. As per Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino, this report highlights how diversity and inclusion are practical tools to improve decision making in companies. According to her, changing the composition of decision making teams to include different perspectives can help individuals overcome biases that affect their decisions.

Higher job satisfaction

Employee satisfaction is connected to a workplace environment that values individual ideas and creates a sense of belonging for everyone. A research by Accenture identified 40 factors that influence advancement in the workplace. An empowering work environment where employees have the freedom to be creative, innovative and themselves at work, was identified as a key driver in improving employee advancement to senior levels.


A research by Catalyst.org stated the in India, 62% of innovation is driven by employee perceptions of inclusion. The study included responses from 1,500 employees from Australia, China, Germany, India, Mexico and the United States and showed that employees who feel included are more likely to go above and beyond the call of duty, suggest new and innovative ways of getting work done.

Competitive Advantage

Shirley Engelmeier, author of ‘Inclusion: The New Competitive Business Advantage’, in her interview with Forbes, talks about the new global business normal. She points out that the rapidly changing customer base with different tastes and preferences need to feel represented by brands. An inclusive environment will future-proof the organisation to cater to the new global consumer language and give it a competitive edge.

An inclusive workplace ensures that no individual is disregarded because of their gender, race, disability, age or other social and cultural factors. Accenture has been a leading voice in advocating equal workplace. Having won several accolades including a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate equality index, Accenture has demonstrated inclusive and diverse practices not only within its organisation but also in business relationships through their Supplier Inclusion and Diversity program.

In a video titled ‘She rises’, Accenture captures the importance of implementing diverse policies and creating an inclusive workplace culture.


To know more about inclusion and diversity, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Accenture and not by the Scroll editorial team.