on the actor's trail

From ‘S Durga’ to ‘Sacred Games’ and ‘Manto’: Rajshri Deshpande on playing strong, fearless women

After playing Subhadra in the Netflix series, the actress will be seen next as writer Ismat Chughtai in Nandita Das’s ‘Manto’.

Rajshri Deshpande hasn’t yet watched the Netflix series Sacred Games, in which she plays Subhadra, the wife of Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s gangster Ganesh Gaitonde. But Deshpande has already been given a rude reminder that the internet neither forgets nor forgives.

The first season, directed by Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap, has been widely praised for its adaptation of Vikram Chandra’s novel of the same name. The show features many scenes of nudity, and among the actors who have courageously shed their clothes and inhibitions is Deshpande. Screenshots from a sequence in which Subhadra and Gaitonde are having sex have made it across the internet and Whatsapp, and have been sent to Deshapande too.

“It is everywhere on the net and that’s so bad,” said the actress, who is currently shooting for a film in Rai Bareilly. “I’m constantly complaining to Instagram and Facebook to take it down.”

By taking the sequence out of context, trolls are sending a skewed message about the series, which examines the investigation into Gaitonde’s death by Mumbai police inspector Sartaj Singh, Deshpande pointed out. “I’m not surprised though – when I did [Sanal Sasidharan’s] Sexy Durga, people would ask me if it was a porn film. I’d be like, at least do some research, read what the film is about. People who haven’t watched Sacred Games and have just seen that scene will have the wrong picture. But that’s technology for you – it’s brilliant that it has transformed our lives but horrible that it is also used as a weapon.”

Deshpande knew right from the start that her role involved frontal nudity. “Gaitonde and Subhadra’s relationship is an intimate one, so I completely got why the scene was necessary,” she said. “Anurag sir even told me that I could tell him if I was uncomfortable. But I don’t have such inhibitions. I’m portraying love, not degrading anything.”

Rajshri Deshpande as Subhadra in Sacred Games. Courtesy Netflix.
Rajshri Deshpande as Subhadra in Sacred Games. Courtesy Netflix.

Deshpande got some practice dealing with trolls after Sexy Durga, Sasidharan’s Malayalam-language movie that ran into trouble with Indian censors because of its provocative title. The movie was eventually renamed S Durga. Deshpande plays a woman who, while eloping with her boyfriend, gets embroiled with a bunch of misogynistic and violent men.

“I feel like Sexy Durga, the film, is exactly like Durga, the character,” Deshpande said. “The film’s journey mirrors the harrowing one that Durga herself goes through in the narrative. The feeling that it is safe now, okay now it is not, okay it is and so on.”

Durga was difficult to play, and Deshpande found herself crying every day during the shoot.

“You could say that for the 22 nights that we shot inside that car, I didn’t sleep,” she said. “The camera was ever present and there wasn’t a division of shots – it was mine now, and some other character’s later. So one had to be present, alert and in the role throughout. It was exhausting but necessary to show the experience of the characters accurately.”

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S Durga (2017).

Deshpande made her screen debut in Reema Kagti’s thriller Talaash in 2012. After a couple of television stints, she garnered attention for her role in Pan Nalin’s Angry Indian Goddesses (2015). S Durga was her breakthrough, and Deshpande theorises that the movie drew the attention of the casting director of Sacred Games, Mukesh Chhabra, and his assistant Mandar Gosavi, to her talent.

“When Mukesh Chhabra called me for the audition, I was quite scared,” Deshpande revealed. “As an actor one goes through so many auditions and so many rejections too. Most of the time, one is not thin or fat enough, does not have cheek bones that are high enough or a stomach that is flat enough.”

Deshpande’s Subhadra makes her first appearance in the fourth episode, and the character gradually gains indispensability and power in the Gaitonde household.

“It is when Subhadra comes into Gaitonde’s life that he first has this feeling that here’s someone who can overpower him,” Deshpande said. “Yes, he is fascinated with Kukoo [Gaitonde’s lover played by Kubbra Sait], but with Subhadra, it is a relationship of dependence, care and understanding – a marriage. She is in charge when it comes to just the two of them. Initially, she feels no love for him. But when she falls in love, there is a complete shift in their relationship. If you notice, in the bedroom, she is on top of him.”

As part of her preparation, Deshpande read Chandra’s novel, but she had her own take on Subhadra. “I wanted to be a blank canvas,” she said. “I wanted to be the Subhadra that Anurag sir and the writers of the show had envisioned. I wanted to grasp their vision and then add my colours and breathe life into the character.”

Subhadra is a lot like the women Deshpande has met during her work for Nabhangan Foundation, the non-governmental organisation she set up. Nabhangan Foundation has adopted two villages in Marathawada in Maharashtra, and works with farmers, women and children. “It’s a weird co-relation between my reel and real life – I feel like I’ve definitely met Subhadra before; I have witnessed her strength before,” Deshpande said.

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Manto (2018).

The actress has another release in 2018: Nandita Das’s Sadat Hasan Manto biopic. In Manto, Deshpande plays the Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai, who was one of Manto’s friends in Mumbai. Once again, a casting director helped Deshpande bag the role. “Honey Trehan was looking for an actor for Chughtai,” she said. “He made me meet Nandita. In that first meeting, Nandita said we’ll read something together. I began the reading. After a while, she closed the script, looked at me and said, arre Ismat aapa!”

Deshpande is a fan of Chughtai’s writings, and deems it a blessing to be able to play her. “Even Ashish, who is the grandson of Chughtai, saw my picture and said, arre aap to aapa hi ho,” Deshpande recalled. “I was like even if this is a passing role, I’ll do it.”

Deshpande had to put on weight for the role, but the transformation required of the actor was greater. “You can gauge the woman that she was from her writings and from conversations with her family,” Deshpande said. “But still, crafting her on screen also involves the use of one’s imagination, one’s experiences as a woman and one’s encounters with other strong women.”

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