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26 January 2023

Behind the Scenes

When I think of Sai Paranjpye, it is with a smile on my face. Whether it is the memory of her films like Chashme Buddoor or Sparsh; or her television serials like Ados Pados, they were stories one could relate to. In fact, for those of us who watched these in the 80s, ‘Miss Chamko’, ‘Lallan Mian’, tutti-frooti ice cream, the hare and the tortoise, are all cultural reference points for us to bond over. So, when I came across Sai Paranjpye’s memoirs on my last trip to India, I picked it up on a whim.

Rs: 599
Pages: 452
HarperCollins Publishers India

A Patchwork Quilt is just that – a patchwork of memories - of Paranjpye’s life, travels, plays, films – and the persons and personalities she met along the way. Of how she manned a tea stall in a posh hotel in French Riviera and made up a ‘tea cocktail’ for a client who wanted his tea ‘strong’ - by the simple expedience of mixing it with Jamaican Rum, orange juice and a few whole spices. She even came up with a name on the spot - ‘Himalayan Hurricane’. Of how Ebrahim Alkazi, the theatre doyen, told her she needed to lose weight if she wanted to get good roles. Of how she didn’t have the heart to tell him she wasn’t interested. (And she didn’t lose weight either.)

A happy childhood

It’s filled with interesting nuggets about her childhood. Brought up by an unconventional single mother (Shakuntala Paranjpye was a social worker, writer, actress and parliamentarian) and an avuncular grandfather, little Sai was surrounded by books and music throughout her childhood. Her grandfather taught her Sanskrit, making her read to him every morning as he shaved, emphasising correct diction. Her mother taught her English.

With her mother and grandfather,
enroute to Australia

Plump, uninterested in sport, the little girl didn’t have many friends. The adults who deigned to talk to her were more interested in knowing salacious details of her mother, who was divorced. So, Sai began to create imaginary worlds, filled with interesting characters. Once, when her mother ran out of bedtime stories, she asked Sai to tell her one instead. Sai promptly narrated a thrilling tale of a princess and a wizard. Every night after that, her mother would ask her to narrate a new story. Which was fine, writes Paranjpye, only, soon, she was also asked to write them down. Her mother collected them and had them published. So Sai was a published author at eight!  

Those college days

Paranjpye’s subsequent career choices didn’t quite meet with her redoubtable mother’s approval – a journey that traversed radio, theatre, television, and films. But these meanderings give us a glimpse of a life lived to the fullest.  She writes in depth about her time at the National School of Drama, All India Radio, the Film and Television Institute of India, Doordarshan, and Children’s Film Society.

There isn’t room for many regrets – not even her ‘failed’ marriage to Arun Joglekar or the untimely death of her daughter, Winnie’s, husband. As she writes, Arun and she had the most amicable of separations and continued to be the best of friends. Paranjpye refuses to be maudlin about that or about all the things she hasn’t done yet.

Her ’quilt’ is made up of the warmth of her sunshine, with patches of sadness and poignancy. But, like in her films, she deals with her travails with the same light hand with which she wielded her camera. Not even the exasperation of being called ‘a woman filmmaker’ can keep her down for too long.

With Saeed Jaffrey and Deepti Naval
on the sets of Chashme Buddoor
The second half of the book contains a chapter each on each of her films. The book sparkles with her impish humour, especially when she chronicles the various ‘jugaad’ she had to adopt to get her films made. She talks about her failure with the same blunt honesty as she mentions her various successes. With the benefit of distance, she also looks objectively at her films and plays, shouldering the responsibility for her failures just as much as she – justifiably – takes credit for the successes.

Paranjpye is as forthright in her writing as she is in real life. She doesn’t hold her punches. In the chapter, Sparsh, for instance, she talks about how difficult it was to find a producer until Basu Bhattacharya stepped in. Unfortunately, what she had considered a boon turned out otherwise. She talks about how the money financiers had given her was used by Bhattacharya to make his own film, Grihpravesh; of how he nearly derailed the movie because he wouldn’t give them any money to pay vendors; how he refused to provide uniforms for the children of ‘blind school’ and they were at their wits’ end until Bombay Dyeing stepped in to help; how he very nearly stepped in to process the rough cut, while delaying the procedure so Sparsh couldn’t be submitted to the National Awards Committee on time; of how she and her editor hurried through the editing when Bhattacharya had to go to Bangalore. Sparsh eventually won three National Awards, but other than Naseer, no one was paid. Not even Paranjpye. [Naseer sent his Man Friday to Bhattacharya's house every day, writes Paranjpye, until Bhattacharya finally paid his dues.]

Farooque Shaikh and Naseeruddin Shah in Katha

She had her revenge when she based Vasudev ‘Bashu’ Bhatt (Farooque Shaikh), a conman who can charm anyone, on Bhattacharya. [Which led to Bhattacharya, as chairman of the selection committee, not approving Katha's application for the National Awards.]

She’s equally forthright about her own culpability – Sparsh was originally supposed to star Sanjeev Kumar and Tanuja. The latter had driven Paranjpye around to meet several people who might be able to help produce the film, introduced her to several others. But when Kumar stepped out of the film once Bhattacharya stepped in (he had had a bad experience working on the latter’s Anubhav), and Naseer stepped in, the heroine changed too. Shabana took over. Paranjpye rues that she didn’t have the courage to tell Tanuja directly and simply ghosted her. She writes admiringly about Tanuja’s generosity of spirit – when she ran into the actress after Sparsh had been critically acclaimed, Tanuja ran up to her to congratulate her on the plaudits that ‘our film’ had earned.

Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi in Sparsh

She talks admiringly about how Naseer prepared for Sparsh, shadowing the principal of the school for the blind so he could better portray his character on screen; of how Shabana asked her how much she should cry, and then did exactly as she was told – one tear rolling down her left cheek; of how ‘Lallan Mian’ in Chashme Buddoor was Saeed Jaffrey’s contribution, and of how Jaffrey got a unit hand to get him an onlooker’s lungi for his character; of how Leela Misra insisted on completing her last shot even though she had suffered a paralytic stroke on the sets of Katha.

What’s even more heart warming is Paranjpye’s admiration for the technicians she has worked with, whether it is for her radio plays, the theatre or films. Each chapter details their contributions in detail, as it does the contributions of her various friends and acquaintances who stepped in to help in myriad ways, major and minor, including the residents of the chawl who welcomed them into their homes in Katha, and then offered their belongings as props in the film and the mill workers who gave up their ‘gala’ for Disha. 

Raghubir Yadav and Nana Patekar in Disha

She is also appreciative of Randhir Kapoor, who upon being complimented for Biwi O Biwi, remarked “This is nothing compared to Chashme Buddoor. That is a true comedy.” It’s a compliment she cherishes because, as she says, “… it’s rare for someone to praise someone else’s work in the film industry, especially behind their backs.”

She talks of how she ‘plagiarises from life’, as she uses an offhand remark from a mill worker as a dialogue in Disha.  Of how her inspirations range from Jean Paul Sartre to Neil Simon to the uniquely Maharashtrian tamasha. She writes about designing the sets for her plays, and of her naivete in business.

Her anecdotes, even the unpleasant ones, are narrated simply and forthrightly. There’s no malice intended, even towards people who have treated her badly. The ‘This is the way it is’ attitude is refreshing, to say the least. What comes through every chapter is the indomitable spirt – not just Paranjpye’s but that of her associates and friends who all worked in theatre and films for a pittance to fulfil their passion for the art.

Written in Marathi (Saya: Maza Kalapravas) and then translated into English, A Patchwork Quilt is not for the faint of heart – it runs into a whopping 452 pages. As the tagline says, it’s a ‘collage of her creative life’. So, those looking for tabloid fodder are bound to be disappointed. Those who have read the Marathi original might find the English translation very different –because, Paranjpye who translated her memoirs herself, rewrote some of the chapters.

And as I read A Patchwork Quilt, with its sepia-tinted patina of a time gone by, I was cocooned in the warmth of my own memories, not just of her films or serials, but also that of my childhood and of the places I had been, and the people I had met. Suffice it to say that I still have a smile on my face. Dip into this book, when and where you will, and I guarantee it will bring a smile to yours.

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