In the 1970s, there were angry young men, led by the smouldering Amitabh Bachchan. And then there was the happy young man, represented by one actor. He was wispy, with a thin moustache, a Beatles haircut and a smile that radiated optimism and resourcefulness. He resembled a neighbour who had accidentally strayed onto a movie set.
Amol Palekar actually had an acting range that hasn’t always been exploited to the fullest, but in the ’70s movies Rajnigandhi, Chitchor, Choti Si Baat and Gol Maal, he displayed tremendous skill as a middle-class bumbler managing to beat the odds.
Palekar’s lengthy and illustrious career straddles art, theatre, cinema and television. He trained as a painter at the JJ School of Art in Mumbai. He started directing plays in the late ’60s. He made his film debut in 1971 in the Marathi film Bajiraocha Beta, and his career exploded with Basu Chatterjee’s Hindi-language Rajnigandha in 1974.
Palekar made sure to lace the cheeriness with some angst. Among his well-regarded roles in the ’70s and ’80s were in Bhimsain’s housing crisis film Gharonda (1977), Shyam Benegal’s biopic Bhumika (1977), Kumar Shahani’s critique of capitalism Tarang (1984) and Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s suspense thriller Khamosh (1986). Palekar also appeared in several modestly budgeted films, some of which were never released. He began directing films in 1981 with Akriet. Palekar also helmed television shows, notably Kachchi Dhoop (1987) and Mriganaynee (1991). The last film he directed was We Are On! Houn Jau Dya in 2013.
All through this, Palekar continued to stage plays and paint, living up to the image of the consummate artist.
On November 24, which was also his 75th birthday, Palekar notched up another milestone by making a return to the stage after 25 years. Palekar was the lead attraction of the play Kusur, written by Sandhya Gokhale and co-directed with Palekar. Kusur was staged at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai, where Palekar began his career in theatre.
Produced by JSW and Anaan Nirmitee and presented by Bookmyshow, Kusur unfolds over a single night. Palekar plays Ashok Dandavate, a retired Assistant Commissioner of Police from Mumbai who is volunteering at the Police Control Room. The phones keep ringing through the night, and one call, from a woman who appears to be a victim of domestic abuse, has Dandavate rivitted. Palekar is on the stage for the play’s entire 80-minute duration, and dexterously guides the audience through his character’s tics as well as the script’s twists.
Hoots of appreciation and applause (and a rendition of Happy Birthday) greeted Palekar’s return to the stage. Kusur is expected to have a 25-show run in such cities as Mumbai, Pune and Guwahati. In a wide-ranging interview, Palekar spoke to Scroll.in about his formative years, his comeback and his years in front of and behind the camera.
What made you decide to return to the stage, and what was the experience like?
It was a special moment for me because of the emotional connection I have with the NCPA. One of the starting points of my career in theatre was when the NCPA was formed [in 1969]. A festival had been organised to mark the foundation stone laying ceremony, and starring along with Pandit Ravi Shankar was a young director named Amol Palekar. The play, based on Badal Sircar’s Ballabhpurer Rupkatha, was my first.
Also, my last theatre performance, for the play Kala Wazir Pandhra Raja, was at NCPA.
Did theatre take a backseat to acting in and directing films?
I had actually stopped acting in plays pretty early on. My focus had been on direction.
I did a fair bit of experimentation. Sometime in 1972 or ’73, for instance, I brought Marathi theatre out of the proscenium and into alternate spaces. I had done a play called Gochee, written by the famous poet Sadanand Rege. We used to perform the play anywhere we could – in canteens, in a garage, in the foyer of Jaslok Hospital [in Mumbai].
After my journey as a director began, I focused more on films. But there is another side to it too. My problem is that I easily get bored with what one calls success. It was considered an arrogant statement when I first made it, but when I do something well and people love it, I stop enjoying it. So the challenge is always to try something else.
I am very proud and happy that audiences kept loving me for being different, for both my boy-next-door image as well as my performances in films like Bhumika and Khamosh.
People tell me, why don’t you act, we miss you. That made me think that I must do something to repay this, be tested all over again. Hence, the play. I loved its complexity and intensity, and the fact that I had to be on the stage for 80 minutes. It was physically and emotionally daunting.
You were born and raised in Mumbai. How did you come to study painting at the JJ School of Art?
I grew up in Shivaji Park. I still have family and friends there, such as the actor Haidar Ali and the cricketer Sunil Gavaskar.
I have three sisters, two of whom are older than me. My only direct connection to the arts was in the form of my paternal uncle Mohanrao Palekar, who was a celebrated guru of classical music. One of my cousins was an assistant director, but otherwise, there was no connection to films.
The family was lower middle class. My father, Kamlakar, worked at the General Post Office, and suffered from poor health. Because of this, my mother, Suhasini, began working as a clerk in a firm in the 1950s. When I look back, I feel extremely proud – here was a woman with four children who took care of all of us.
I studied at Bal Mohan Vidyamandir, and my last two years were spent at a boarding school in Gholwad. It was felt that I was becoming a bookworm and needed to experience extra-curricular activities and a life beyond that of a Bombay-based family.
I remember the values my parents gave us. Take my first major decision, to study fine arts at the JJ college. My family didn’t know what it meant. Would I become a painter? Would I be able to sell my work? I told them I wasn’t sure. I had no clue about how I was going to earn a living.
In the end, they said, if you are so sure, go ahead. Just make sure that you don’t give up halfway through. Go all the way and make it a success. For a lower middle-class family to have that courage…
Later on, whenever I was at a crossroads, I would remember this. If I made a compromise, it would be insulting to my parents. Whatever progressive vision or thoughts I have is because of them.
You continue to engage with politics – you have spoken out repeatedly against censorship, for instance.
I don’t believe in party politics, and I will go on questioning and criticising any party. As a citizen and a creative person, I am concerned about the contemporary space and our lives. If politics affects this space, then I will be involved. I don’t see an artist as an island who is unaffected by what is happening around him or her. It is with this clarity that I will stand up and raise my voice.
You have continued to paint and exhibit your works.
When I turned 70, I went back to my first love, which is painting. I am now primarily a painter, and I am enjoying myself thoroughly.
My first solo show was in 1967. In fact, that was also the year I made my debut in theatre. So in a way, I am completing the circle.
You haven’t been in a film since 2009’s ‘Samaantar’, which you also directed. What will tempt you back to the movies?
I keep rejecting film roles because there is nothing exciting. To give you an example, I recently did a commercial for Tata Sky, which reunited me with Zarina Wahab [his co-star from several films]. That was fun, and I was flooded with calls. But after that, there were two-three offers every week, and they all wanted me to do the same thing.
The role has to be challenging. The content of the play or the film has to be interesting. And I have striven throughout my journey to not be regressive. If I can’t bring out a progressive thought, at least it shouldn’t be regressive – that’s the least I can do as an actor. I have turned down so many roles because of this. But then, that is who I am.
Tell us something about the cultural ferment of the late 1960s and ’70s, when your career in theatre and cinema took off.
Those times were something special and very vibrant. Experimentation was happening in every field, in literature, theatre, music, films, the visuals arts. We were all in touch and would help each other out. That slowly withered away, as every moment does, but I was fortunate to have been dabbling simultaneously in three different spaces.
At one point, I had a show of my paintings, I was shooting for a film during the day, and rehearsing for or performing a play in the evening. It was jam-packed.
Some of your peers continue to be hard at work – such as Amitabh Bachchan, the counterpoint to your happy-go-lucky screen image.
I have immense admiration for Amitabh. Hats off to his energy. He has retained his quality and gives a convincing performance even when he is selling an agarbatti. I also greatly admire Gulzar saab for his dignity, poise and energy. Looking at them gives me some courage. I use their examples to test myself.
That said, I was never interested in becoming a salable product. I chose the path of not being that.
How did you meet Basu Chatterjee, who directed you in some of your biggest hits, including ‘Rajnigandha’, ‘Chhoti Si Baat’ and ‘Baaton Baaton Mein’?
I knew Basu da from before. He used to come and see my plays. Also, in those years, a film society movement had emerged. Basu da used to run a film club called Film Forum along with Basu Bhattacharya and MS Sathyu, and we would all meet frequently.
Therefore, when Basu da started making films, it was natural that he should ask me. From my side, I kept my gratitude towards him and Hrishi da [Hrishikesh Mukherjee] by giving priority to their films.
How would the middle-class hero from Basu Chatterjee’s films behave today?
The characters would not be as relevant as they were. Take Baaton Baaton Mein. The romance takes place during a local train journey that the hero and the heroine take every day. He sketches the heroine during the journey. Would that even be possible today? Train travel has become so cumbersome.
Besides, the idiom of the younger generation has changed completely. It was the details that made Basu da’s films interesting, relevant and contemporary.
You also have a string of unreleased films to your credit.
One of the most beautiful experiences I had was in a film that was completed but not released. It was the only film by the actor Jalal Agha, and was called Nirvaan. It starred Naseeruddin Shah, Sarika and me, and was shot extensively in what is Jharkhand today. It was a love triangle of sorts, and a very challenging film.
I jokingly say that while Naseer is a truly great actor, I have been better than him in the films we have done together – Bhumika, Khamosh and Nirvaan. This is a joke, of course.
Many of the films you directed are not available, such as ‘Akriet’ and ‘Thodasa Roomani Ho Jaayen’.
I am very bad at the marketing and commercial side of filmmaking. Thodasa Roomani Ho Jaayen, for instance, was produced by Doordarshan. Even I don’t have a copy of the film.
Your films with your first wife, Chitra Palekar, differ in theme and flavour from your collaborations with Sandhya Gokhale, your second wife. The earlier productions tackle social issues, while the later works examine relationships.
The focus and clarity has become sharper over the years.
Earlier, I was trying to explore something different. For instance, I wanted to try out the musical format in Thodasa Roomani, because I had previously done so in my television show Kacchi Dhoop.
In films like Ankahee and Thodasa Roomani, the contributions of Chitra as well as Kamlesh Pandey were immense. These films could not have been made without them. Similarly, in my subsequent films, Sandhya’s contributions have been immense. I am grateful to all these people for having helped me get my focus right.
I was also fortunate that I never had to think about the commercial success of the films. I fought to make them my way.
Among your most cherished roles is in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s ‘Gol Maal’, in which you play Ram Prasad and his fake twin Laxman Prasad in order to fool your employer. Was it as much fun to make as it for us to watch?
To begin with, some people still think that I have a double role in Gol Maal. I point it out that I have actually done three roles. Ram Prasad and Laxman Prasad are both creations of the protagonist. One is created for getting the job and the other is for the fake twin.
Hrishi da was extremely naughty. He would also allow for a lot of improvisation. The shoot was like a picnic. We had a lot of rehearsals and then very smooth takes. We never looked at each other as competitors. We never felt, this actor will get more and I will get less. We were all trying to make the situation as nice and funny and meaningful as possible. If one of us had to take a back seat, of course we did.
In between the comedies, you appeared in Shyam Benegal’s ‘Bhumika’. What made you want to play Keshav Dalvi, the predatory husband of the actress portrayed by Smita Patil and based on Hansa Wadkar?
I knew Hansa Wadkar. She lived two buildings away in Shivaji Park. Going over to her place and playing with her daughters was part of my routine.
When I heard about the role, I grabbed it. Shyam had actually offered me the role that Anant Nag ended up doing. I knew Shyam from before. He told me, I am in a minority. I believe that you can do Keshav Dalvi, but everybody else says that Amol is a hero. I told Shyam that if you give me a choice, I will only play Keshav Dalvi.
Like Hrishi da and Basu da, Shyam too would let us improvise and try out new things.
Among your best roles is in Kumar Shahani’s arthouse film ‘Tarang’ (1984), in which you play an ambitious industrialist.
Tarang feels fresh even today. I was and still am an admirer of Kumar Shahani. I remember how Kumar, in his own quiet way, had immense clarity. The way in which we discussed the character and his layers was exciting.
Kumar told me that the budget was limited since Tarang was being produced by the National Film Development Corporation. I told him that I had do the film on one condition – he would pay me sava rupaya [one-and-a-quarter rupees]. I told him to use the money kept aside for my salary for something else. I respected Kumar’s urge to experiment. It was my contribution to a film as diametrically opposite commercial cinema as possible.
I remember the first day of the shoot. The cinematographer, KK Mahajan, was a wizard. He wanted to shoot just before sunrise. We went to what was then a newly constructed bridge at Vashi. When the costume came to me, Kumar said, this is not the shade I want. He was very firm, and he cancelled the shoot. For an extremely low-budget film, if a man could say no over the finer aspects of the shade of a suit… Here was a man who wouldn’t compromise.
In ‘Akriet’ (1981), your Marathi-language debut as a director, you examine the ritual sacrifice of children. Why did you pick such a difficult subject?
Looking back on choosing to produce and direct the film and act in it, it was a hara-kiri kind of statement. I was at the peak of my popularity, and rather than encashing on it, I chose to make a film set in rural Maharashtra with an almost entirely new cast and crew. It was also unheard of to have a negative character as a protagonist.
You later made the glossy and very mainstream ‘Paheli’ (2005), with Shah Rukh Khan and Rani Mukerji. Were you accused of being a sellout?
Yes, of course we heard that phrase.
Sandhya, who had written the script, and I had approached Shah Rukh to act in the film. He decided to produce the film too, and insisted on retaining Sandhya’s script. That was his greatness.
Paheli was based on a story by Vijaydan Detha, but Sandhya made important contributions to the story. She had a different interpretation – the woman asserts her right to choose between her husband and the ghost who assumes her husband’s form. Vijaydan loved the interpretation so much he wrote a letter to Sandhya.
The film had the quality of a folk tale, which is why it wasn’t shot in a realistic way, unlike Mani Kaul’s Duvidha, which is based on the same story.
I don’t consider myself as a god. Any criticism is well taken. I will try and discuss or argue and give my point of view. Beyond that, there is nothing. My work is open to criticism.
Despite growing up in Mumbai and building your career here, you now call Pune your home. How has the move worked out for you?
I moved to Pune nearly 20 years ago. Even today my friends ask me, why have you moved away when people are dying to come to Bombay?
Pune is more peaceful. I wake up listening to birds chirping, and this is a great luxury that you cannot buy in Bombay at any price. We can see only green tops from all our balconies. If, say, we finish our work at five and want to watch a play or catch a concert at six, we can do so. In Bombay, you will need to plan five days in advance.
It reflects in my output. Before moving to Pune, I would make one film in five years. After I moved to Pune, I made a film every year.