Amol Palekar on his new play, why he rejected so many films, and the power of dissent

Dipanita Nath
Amol Palekar, interview, theatre, Eye 2019, Sunday Eye, Indian Express news

Palekar in Kusur, his new play

Bal Gandharva Rang Mandir, a historic hall in Pune with almost 1,000 seats, is suited to big plays. On December 1, it took one actor to hold the auditorium — including 320 in the balcony — captive. Amol Palekar won a standing ovation as he returned to theatre after 25 years with the production, Kusur. A week before, on his 75th birthday, he had opened the play to a similar reception at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai.

In Kusur, Palekar plays a retired cop, who turns up on a short-staffed day at Mumbai Emergency Control Room to help out with callers who have dialled 100. The play is adapted from the Danish thriller Den Skylidge by long-time collaborator and wife Sandhya Gokhale, and directed by her and Palekar. As he moves slowly among the ringing phones, the actor appears to play his age. “Kusur keeps me on my toes for 80 minutes without any relief, compelling me to race against a pre-set soundtrack. The challenge is to keep the audience absolutely glued to the seats,” says Palekar. Excerpts from an interview:

How was the experience of being on stage, after all this while?

Though I have been a faithful audience of national as well as international theatre, I have not been active on stage for the last 25-27 years. Entering the wings and the proscenium with a relatively frail body and rusted craft was one scary challenge. I used to reject scripts offered to me all along, for the lack of any challenge as an actor. But then Sandhya offered me her immensely layered play.

First and foremost, I had to recall the basics. Everyone keeps telling me that I have a good memory but I wasn’t sure. I rehearsed four-five hours for about four-five weeks. Getting a grip on technical aspects such as the audio tracks, movements, etc, was yet another challenge. My technical team consists of some of the best in their respective fields. I could rely on them entirely. This month-long behind-the-scenes hard work will not be seen by the audience. If they like it, I will feel fulfilled.

What made you leave the stage 25 years ago?

The contemporary scene in performing arts has changed dramatically. It is a game of how you advertise, promote and catch a million eyeballs. I abhor all this. I like to create and let my work speak, which is not a prudent approach anymore. When your budgets for publicity and promotion exceed the budgets for the creation of work of art, the encroachment of market forces is evident. So, it is better to withdraw — be it from films or theatre.

Do you think cinema exploited your talent enough?

I thoroughly enjoyed my acting career. I was immensely attracted to the structural flow of a script or the designing of a particular scene. I was privileged to work with every top director and technician in our country. So, I could observe them sketching their own work in their own distinct styles. I do not regret a single film I am associated with.

I have rejected many more films than I have accepted. I was not very keen to churn out routine roles, nor did I have the compulsion to earn more and more money. I did the loveable boy as passionately as I did the villain in Bhumika (1977), Khamosh (1985) or Aakrit (1981). What amazes me is that despite a relatively smaller body of work, the audience love is disproportionately huge. I loved being a director more... I started my directorial career in 1980. In 40-plus years, I acted in about 50 films; directed about 16 films — six in Hindi, eight in Marathi and two in English.

How do you look back at your early days on stage?

I was privileged to be a part of the Indian renaissance period in art and culture. I belong to the earlier generation when my guru, Satyadev Dubey, as well as the seniors such as Vijaya Mehta and Arvind and Sulabha Deshpande used to compete with each other in the state drama competition. Rajabhau Natu, who started Purshottam Karandak (an inter-collegiate theatre competition in Maharashtra that turns 55 this year), used to design the lights in my theatre productions despite being a competitor. I never ever performed as a school or college student, though. It is a known fact by now that I am an accidental actor. I kept walking the less-travelled path without succumbing to the pressures of market forces. It’s extremely tough to do so today.

Amol Palekar, interview, theatre, Eye 2019, Sunday Eye, Indian Express news

Amol Palekar with co-director and wife Sandhya Gokhale

What brings you back to theatre?

Many groups had approached me last year for creating an event on the occasion of my 75th birthday. I shy away from such events, however, I do understand their earnest desire to unfold 50 years of my career in performing and visual arts. Similarly, I feel overwhelmed when my fans ask me , ‘Why have you stopped acting?’ I felt compelled to fulfill that demand.

Five years ago, Sandhya came up with this idea. We watched a Danish film which she thought could be adapted. So, from November 24, 2018, five months went in acquiring the rights, two weeks for writing and fine tuning the script, six weeks for rehearsals and designing the play. Exactly after a year, I performed at NCPA. With Sandhya around, we are always driving with a fast pace in the rightmost lane.

Does the fact that Gokhale and you are married impact how you work?

We have been working together for 20 years — we have made eight films together along with several other projects like serials and documentaries. We know each other’s temperaments. She is a multi-task whirlwind; I am a mono-centric slow driver. Our politics, sensibilities, likes-dislikes are very similar. So, there is never an argument on the basics. There is no sexual politics when we are collaborating, so the criticism could be the harshest. I am very lucky to have her — someone who is very creative and whose aesthetic is rich, while also having excellent legal and commercial knowledge and managerial skills.

With painting, films and theatre, you have gone a certain distance and left these forms. You stopped painting in 1982 and returned to it five years ago.

One cannot actually walk away from an art form which has absorbed you for so many years. It is a part of you. All these roles are my essential aspects. While I was acting in films, my training as a theatre actor always guided my instincts. While I was directing a play, I always looked at it as a three-dimensional blank canvas. As I was directing my films, the painter in me was always alive in designing a frame. All through these roles, there is a common thread — the observer in me, he is the closest to my heart.

From 2015 to 2018, I had about nine solo (art) shows which is not a huge number. That, in fact, shows that it is not my means of survival. Besides, I have chosen the path of philanthropy, which is a completely fulfilling experience. Almost all my work got acquired. I am preparing for exhibitions scheduled for 2021.

Is a return to films next in the pipeline?

If a film script offers me a stupendous role and challenge, then why not?

How do you move between abstraction and realism in your art practice?

I find abstraction fascinating. It is not necessarily obscure. It communicates through all mediums, though the narrative arc of a painted canvas, or a film or a play. Ideally even films ought to have layers of abstraction; if a film throws subliminal possibilities of exploration at the audience, I will scale it higher than the one merely unfolding a series of corporal experience. Unfortunately, our viewers are usually spoon-fed with ready answers leaving no space for any sub-text, subtlety, finer nuances, etc. ..Somehow reality limits my imagination; the details bind my mind to its context. Whereas abstract is full of infinite, unseen, unexplored, fluid, unfamiliar images...just like free-flowing, unshaped trickles.

At the NGMA, you were interrupted while speaking about government interference in art exhibitions. Do you think dissent is more in danger today?

Much has been said by me in that regard. The disturbing factor was the silence from majority of artistes when in reality they felt harmed. Expression of dissent is the only democratic tool that I was exercising, which is my fundamental right. That incident took place on Friday night, and within 40 hours, the government retracted its autocratic decision. I strongly believe that howsoever small a protest may be, it does have ripples. We need to have the courage to face the consequences of dissent. I have never shied away from my anti-establishment stands; I hope I get the strength to continue in the same zeal till I return to the pavilion.

This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ' The observer in me is closest to my heart'