The recently released Marathi film, a biopic in accordance with present trends, calls itself Bhaai with Vyakti Kee Valli as a subtitle. Both need to be explained to the non-Marathi viewer if such an entity exists for Marathi cinema.

Bhai was one of two names that writer-director-playwright-screenplay writer-actor-music composer-harmonium player PL Deshpande was known by. The other was Pu La, which stood for Purushottam Lakshman, his first and middle names. Both names, when pronounced, carried a load of love and affection.

It is not difficult to see why – while other writers were only respected and admired, Pu La was loved. He was loved because he loved. He was loved because he carried no writerly airs about him. He was loved most of all because he made people laugh. His impish, indulgent, affectionate laughter, which carried not a shred of malice, was directed as much at his own foibles as at others. He was serious only when he wrote about music and then his writing often bordered on the sentimental and the hyperbolic. But in music too, he laughed at stuffed shirt punditry and its hierarchies.

In his essay on Lata Mangeshkar, he says, “Pundits turn up their noses at film music because their ears are blocked to all except one track. But music flows from all sides. Film music is today’s folk music and Lata Mangeshkar is our real national artist.”

Bhaai – Vyakti kee Valli (2019).

Vyakti kee Valli, the subtitle of Mahesh Manjrekar’s biopic, refers to Deshpande’s hugely popular collection of character sketches Vyakti ani Valli. Published in 1962, it won the Sahitya Akademi award in 1965 and is now in something like its 40th edition. The ‘vyakti’ of the title is the individual and ‘valli’ is the nicely off-kilter individual. The vyaktis and vallis that people the book are creatures of Deshpande’s bountiful imagination, but it is an imagination fed by a lifetime spent befriending the most incredible variety of human beings from clerks to musicians, scholars to sculptors, housewives to backstage men.

When we staged Girish Karnad’s Yayati at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai, where Deshpande had once been a beloved executive director, I asked a backstage worker tentatively for wings. “Wings?” he said. “You can have as many as you want. When Pu La saheb was here, he made sure that artists would not lack for anything they needed.”

The man then went on to tell us how proud he and his colleagues had been working under Pu La. “He appreciated not just people like you, but people like us too. His hand would always be on our backs when he spoke to us, like a friend. He made us feel our work was worth something in this place.”

Before Bhaai was released, the film publicity people uploaded a clip of the finale that showed Bhimsen Joshi (Ajay Purkar), Kumar Gandharva (Swanand Kirkire) and Vasantrao Deshpande (Padmanabh Bind) jamming to Kumar’s popular song Jamuna Kinare Mora Gaon, accompanied on the harmonium by Pu La (Sagar Deshmukh). All three musicians were Pu La’s friends. He has written with great feeling about the latter two in his book Guna Gaeen Awadi (I Sing your Praises with Love). The book also contains essays on Bhaskarbuva Bakhle, known for the stage songs he composed for Balgandharva, Mallikarjun Mansur the no-nonsense classicist, and Lata Mangeshkar, the queen of film songs. This eclectic choice of musicians reflects Pu La’s belief that “in the universe of melody and rhythm there is no high and no low”.

Bhaai – Vyakti Kee Valli (2019).

An anecdote Pu La narrates about Vasantrao Deshpande puts snobbery in its place. In a concert in Nagpur, Vasantrao had just finished singing a rousing Kaushi Kanada. A stunned silence followed. Suddenly a cracked old voice spoke up sniffily. “What gharana would you say you belonged to?” Vasantrao snapped back, “To a gharana that starts with me.”

Needless to say, neither this book nor his translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Chhelebela (Childhood Days), which lay with him for 12 years before it was published, nor the diary he wrote about his days in Santiniketan, top the popularity list of his writings. At the top of that list are the books that made his middle-class fans laugh, books that he presented in his one-man shows in auditoria bursting at the seams, books that made him “Maharashtrache ladke vyaktimatva” (Maharashtra’s darling personality). Vyakti ani Valli is at the very top of the lot, which includes Batatyachi Chaal, Varyawarchi Varaat and Asa Mi Asami.

If one had to choose a succinct phrase to describe Pu La, it would have to be Master Entertainer. I remember a session we had in London at his host Rambhau Tadkod’s place in Kilburn, when he read out a hilarious chapter from Batatyachi Chaal. In this story, a bunch of imaginary characters from an imaginary chawl decide that they must go on a picnic because picnics are the done thing. By the end of the reading, we were rolling on the floor. For days afterwards, we bandied about phrases from the story to lighten our grey-skied London lives.

Noticing the effect private readings had on his friends, Pu La decided to do public shows. The first show saw only a scattering of people in the large auditorium of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Mumbai, and even this small audience was wary. They were used to three-act plays with multiple characters. One writer on the stage reading from a book made little sense to them. But before long, they were falling off their seats laughing. Word went round swiftly till a point came when people were camping in front of theatres to fight for tickets to Batatyachi Chaal.

Batatyachi Chaal.

If there was one value Pu La stood for, it was lila, the idea of the world as divine play, spontaneous, joyous and all-embracing. Writing about Bhaskarbuva Bakhle, he suggested that the natural deity of music was the playful Krishna rather than the solemn Ram. Vishnu Digambar Paluskar’s music, he said, was restricted because he allowed only one rasa to flow through it: bhakti. Bhaskarbuva’s music, on the other hand, danced to all nine rasas, truly reflecting the glory of the universe. Given a choice between the strait-laced ascetic and the hedonist, he chose the latter without hesitation.

Kakaji, the bon vivant in his play Tuzhe Ahe Tujapashi (To Each His Own), has been created expressly to take the mickey out of Acharya, the uptight Sarvodaya leader. “God has created colours and fragrances in this world, given taste to man’s tongue, for what reason? Will you not acknowledge the gift?” demands Kakaji. “The koel sings in the spring – for you. The clouds gather before the monsoon to play their pakhawaj – for you. The peacock prances and lightening dances. Who is all this for? Surely for you and me? Then why not acknowledge it?”

While laughter was Pu La’s instinctive response to human life, one cannot say the same for his wife Sunitabai. Perhaps living with him made her stern. She needed to rein in his carefree joie de vivre to give some shape and direction to their life. Ultimately, however, despite the companionship they shared and the respect they had for one another, her autobiography Ahe Manohar Tari... (Although Everything Looks Beautiful...) appeared to be aimed exclusively at revealing Pu La’s feet of clay. In the gale of responses that shook the Marathi world, with some readers admiring Sunitabai’s honesty and others criticising her for what they perceived as her injustice to Pu La, the man himself remained unfazed, though slightly shaken.

Pulavrittant, directed by Jabbar Patel.

In Jabbar Patel’s documentary Pulavrittant (The Pu La Chronicle), Pu La says about the book, “I was stunned when I read it. But I felt happy too. People have been calling me things like ‘Maharashtra’s favourite deity’, which embarrasses me. I’d rather be an ordinary man like any other. Sunita has painted an excellent picture of me as an ordinary man.”

I cannot resist ending with one of Sunitabai’s plaints. She was away from home. Proofs of one of Pu La’s books were scheduled to arrive during her absence. She had left strict instructions that he should read them carefully and correct them before sending them back. Proof-reading is a tedious task that she would have done conscientiously and well had she been at home.

But Pu La was incapable of taking it seriously. The proofs did arrive. Pu La pored over them dutifully. A couple of pages down, he realised that the typesetter had made so many mistakes, he was damned if he was going to correct them. So he sent the proofs back uncorrected, with a one-word comment: “Dukkar” (pig).