To those who have watched the Angry Indian Goddesses, today’s guest needs no introduction. But to those who haven’t – allow me to present to you the absolutely amazing Rajshri Despande – who played the role of ‘Lakshmi’ in AIG, which gave Bollywood a fresh new talent with colossal potential!
Rarely does a Bollywood film come out with women playing meaningful roles let alone the main role – and somehow the society seems to have made its peace with this diabolical setup. What irks me is the lack of vehement and vocal discontent among the popular actresses that play such roles and contribute to the already problematic imbalance! Of course, it is a larger problem and actresses alone can’t break the spell but can’t wonder about it either. At the back of my mind, my conscience is asking to look at how things are getting a little better and that the paradigm is (EVER SO) slowly shifting in favour of women in cinema. I like what my conscience is doing – and I am absolutely embracing it after films like Piku, Queen and a few more making my conscience drive home the point.
In December 2015 came Pan Nalin’s Angry Indian Goddesses (AIG) and it convinced me to cling on to the lost hope of wanting to watch women play important roles in cinema, in Nalin’s case, in front of the camera! Of course, there is a long way to go for women filmmakers all over the world, but with the first step comes progress and AIG to me is that step! After having watched the film, I got in touch with Rajshri to congratulate her on her performance in the film and we have since been in touch. She was kind enough to give me enough time for an elaborate conversation – excerpts of which can be found in this blog. Presenting to you, Rajshri Deshpande in the ‘Female Idol’ blog series.
RD is a self-made woman with multiple feathers in her cap, hailing from Aurangabad, a place that probably has not much resonance to the world of cinema as such. She graduated from Symbiosis in Law but moved to advertising for her career. There she taught herself a lot by working as a media planner for over 2 years before she quit to setup her own agency – juggling arts and passion along with it. She is a trained Kathakali Dancer, has learnt Kalari, and Sword fighting.
“My parents are government servants and they retired like that, my sisters and doctor and teacher respectively. There was absolutely nothing about my family that had anything to do with cinema, except me.”
“The journey was far from easy. My parents were clear about having good education, as that was a typical criterion in order for you to get a good groom. Even though I enjoyed arts so much that I wanted to take it up fulltime, there were financial roadblocks. I remember taking tuitions and later, while I was still in college, I got to work for this ad agency part-time so my days would be in college, while evenings in agency. That is how I managed my education. Unfortunately, arts took a backseat because job became priority for supporting my family.”
“But soon I realized, I wasn’t enjoying my work anymore. Creatively, I wasn’t growing at all. So one day I decided: ENOUGH!”
I think, having been through tough times to achieve something one is so passionate about, resonates so deeply among almost everyone pursuing arts or humanities, in this country today! For a woman, putting up with the patriarchy and misogyny that out society so generously exudes is so much more difficult. Even though we had a moment of ambiguity during our conversation about what feminism is and how important it is for fighting this patriarchal epidemic, I moved on to the next topic I wanted to discuss when she said this: “If feminism is standing up for yourself, then I am one – I think everyone should be feminists.”
We then came to a very interesting point of our conversation when I was curious to know how she went about learning art forms like sword fighting, Kalari and Kathakali – all of which are highly patriarchal and extremely male dominated. I imagined that it must have been quite a challenge to which she said:
“My dad brought me up just like he would a boy. There was nothing that I was said no to; in fact he encouraged me to learn all that I wanted to. And it so happens that I liked martial arts so much that when people used to dissuade me saying it is a boys’ sport, I used to pick fights with all of them!”
We ended up talking about various other things about the way female characters are portrayed in Indian cinema and how important it is for actors to do some homework before going in front of the camera as x,y,z person. We then started talking about AIG, how it happened and how it is now appearing to be a fairytale et al.
“It (AIG) was a very beautiful experience. I think the reason I was chosen for this role is because of my extremely diverse life experience, the amount of traveling that I have done and how that has helped me internalize a multi-cultural outlook to life. They were looking for someone who was emotionally very charged up.”
And when I asked her experience about working with her co-actors she said she did not personally know them from before and also because the rest of them have all done film work before. It was only during the workshops that she got to know all of them and has since been quite good friends. It was heartening to know that the team went through elaborate workshops to get to know their characters and also each other’s characters in the process – an act which not many films do, but should be a norm for the character development.
While we wrapped up our conversation discussing about the future of cinema and opportunities for women in cinema, RD said something very beautiful and I think I have screamed about it out loud on many occassions: the need for women to support each other, collaborate and look out for each other and to break the spells of stardom and films that get released at the merit of familial legacy. The pathetic situation that a filmmaker faces, when despite her film being outstanding, unless she breaks down the walls of distribution monopoly, is just inconsolable.
We talked about how films get recognized in festivals abroad and suddenly they become the subject of desire and awe! It is true, AIG itself was one such film and there are so many such across languages. Of course, every beautiful film has to go through the horror of censor: a self-anointed committee of irrevocable tragedy – if it did manage to get the attention inside India in the first place.
She is very excited about her upcoming films, one in Malayalam, one in Bengali and a Hindi film by a British filmmaker – with characters that are quite different and challenging from one another.
There is also a beautiful side to her, a side, which she thinks, every individual must possess. RD gives a lot of her time to charity, not for profit activities. During the Nepal earthquake, RD who was in Kashmir, traveling – flew down to Borle and spent a lot of time to rehabilitate women and orphaned children. She also spent a significant amount of time at the Dharavi as a part of Dharavi diaries and also given about 7 months and ongoing in the cleaning of beaches. She doesn’t believe in identifying a cause and working towards it, rather she offers her time to any cause handy, at any given point possible. A very noble and appreciable quality – something innate in people pursuing arts in its truest sense.
In the end, what I learnt is that she is all set to spread her wings across the globe – as long as the story and the characters are appealing to her. Here’s wishing RD a fantastic future and hoping her life and work would inspire many young women to follow their dreams purely for the love of it.
This is one of the many inspiring tales under the WMF umbrella. And personally, I am way too excited to take up this pet project than I am ready to admit. Stay tuned and watch this space. Here’s hoping: one is never devoid of female idols anymore!