Makarand Deshpande is a theatre director, playwright, and actor with a contemplative, philosophical approach to his craft. He has written several influential plays that convey the abstract and surreal nature of existence. Apart from the intellectual strand in his work, his contribution towards the performing arts has been enormous, as he has been part of more than 50 plays. He is also a well-recognised film actor, playing prominent roles in films like Jungle, Sarfarosh, Swades, Makdee, Satya, and Darna Zaroori Hai. He co-founded the Ansh Theatre Group in 1993 and has conducted plays in several languages throughout India.
Deshpande has recently started an interactive online acting workshop series called the Actors Gym, where he imparts knowledge and shares his experience with aspiring performing artists from all over the world.
In conversation with Prerna SM Jain, he talks about his artistic journey and philosophy of life.
How did your journey into theatre begin?
I had no inclination towards it in my childhood. In fact, I acted only once in my school. I was far away from any sphere of art. I was a sportsman. I used to play all the Indian games and was involved in mountaineering. I was a good cricketeer and it was while playing cricket on the ground that I felt that one day I might have to retire early. It was because I looked at my coach who worked in a bank. He was a great bowler who could not play for India. His name was Abdul Ismail. I felt bad and I told myself that I don’t want to be a part of anything where I have to retire early. At that point in time, my college was running short of actors, and I just went in for it. The journey just began without me even realising it, and with time I realised that I was more comfortable with art. Then there were many unknown questions in life, and to answer them I became a writer. Once the scripts were written, they needed to be directed, so I became a producer. Then nobody could stop me and this has been my journey for the last 30 years.
You have been a part of more than 50 plays which were all very diverse. How was the experience and which play has influenced you the most?
‘Maa in Transit’, when I lost my mother. In Hindu shastra it is written that the ‘Atma’ goes on a journey. In a ritual, a crow eats a rice ball called ‘Pind’ to allow the soul of the departed to rest in peace. But for days the Atma stands next to the bank of the river before that ritual happens. While the Pandit was telling me about this, I thought what if I could meet my mother? That is how I wrote this surreal play. At the end of it, the mother manages to convince me that she is at peace, and I could let her go. That play was applauded by most of the watchers. I performed in Banaras as well and it was quite an experience. I had thousands of people. It was during the Ram Katha of Morari Bapu and he asked me to perform the play. We had pyres on the stage and pyres across the Manikarnika Ghat. That was a play very close to me.
Then there was another play called ‘Miss Beautiful’ which was about aging parents and their relationship with their son. They are asking him to get married so that they can die in peace. The son tries to tell them that they have seen enough hardships in their life and should not worry about him. He does not require a beautiful wife in order to be happy. He tries to console them and say that they must rather let death come beautifully, to not be afraid of it. It is a not just about acceptance of death. The way we achieve things in life, death is also achieved: you need to own it. As you are born, so will you die. Don’t be afraid of it but make it beautiful. How a son can take care of parents and help them see it, that was the point.
What is your creative process when it comes to writing plays and casting people?
It is questions that arise in life. If I feel I need to answer something, then I express it though the plays. My last play was ‘Ram’. I wanted to put across the Ram that I know and feel. So, that was the play. My casting happens because I have people working with me for many years. I need actors who are talented, who have a lot of energy and who can devote time. These three things are very important. I have done some farce as well where I had to have actors who were physically dynamic. Where an actor could sing and dance as it was relentless comedy. The rehearsals would happen for more than 8- 10 hours a day for three months, so you can imagine the level. I have worked with senior actors and new ones, but the stories remain the same.
How has the Covid- 19 pandemic affected the theatre industry?
Completely. Theatre has stopped. People have written plays but they don’t even know when they can even start rehearsing. I wrote a farce and started rehearsing it online during the second week of the lockdown, thinking that in a month or so, things will be okay. But now, three months later, we know that theatres will not be opening for another two to three months. How do we get the audience in? One doesn’t know. Theatre is expensive when the audience doesn’t come. If you will have guidelines that theatres can fill up only to a certain capacity, it is going to be very difficult. You are going to have to ensure that actors also don’t come close to each other. Probably stand-up comedies and monologues will work. We can only wait as of now, take care of our health, and see what happens.
How are digital platforms different from the theatre experience?
Digital theatres will happen, but it’s difficult to perform, it is not like music. You have to enact and have a magnification. You can sit and tell a story and perform, but that is not performance beyond a point. I would like to start my digital theatre, but I would need lights. It cannot be a situation where everyone is just at home and performing; that would not be right. It has to be live and not a recording. So, those things need to be done right. I have been working on my online acting workshop, Actor’s Gym, which has been a great experience. In tomorrow’s class, I have somebody from Canada, from Bangalore, Australia, USA and that has been very educational.
How have you utilised your time during this lockdown?
I have been reading and writing a lot. I have been contemplating. You know about my Actors Gym. Then, I have cooking. I can make very good Kheer, Sheera, Upma, Poha, Basundi and Sabzi. It will be according to my own recipe, but it will taste really good! Shy of roti, I can make almost everything. When I am able to make roti, that will be the point when I can say that I am a cook. Till then I am trying to be one.
What is the most memorable compliment that you have ever received?
It would be when I performed a Marathi adaptation of my Hindi play ‘Sir Sir Sarla’. The Hindi play happened in 2001 and the Marathi adaptation in 2019. After the play was over, a person from the audience came to me and asked, ‘Why didn’t you perform this play in 2001? I lost 19 years of my life! My 19 years could have been better.’ He said that the play has such an impact that it can change a person’s life. That was a memorable compliment.