`My writing has always been honest'

Print edition : December 02, 2005

Vijay Tendulkar - VIVEK BENDRE

Interview with Vijay Tendulkar.

VIJAY TENDULKAR has received both bouquets and brickbats in a playwriting career that has spanned five decades. His first plays Grihast and Shrimant appeared in 1955. In his heyday, from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, brickbats were more frequent. His plays such as Gidhade (1970), Sakharam Binder and Ghashiram Kotwal (both 1972) offended the self-appointed moral brigade who branded him a subversive writer who courted controversy and peddled sex and violence. Smug notions of morality received a beating in his plays, which exposed middle-class hypocrisy in a clinical, naturalistic manner, something no other playwright in Marathi had attempted before him.

Tendulkar is internationally known as a path-breaking theatre writer. But from newspaper columns to short stories to novels, filmscripts and television programmes, he has done it all, bringing to each genre the searing honesty that has been the hallmark of his writing.

In the last few years, he has not written much, except for a couple of novels (a form he turned to rather late in his career) and some autobiographical articles for the Diwali bumper issues of various magazines. The articles are proof of his innately dramatic, visual style. In a three-day festival from October 3 in Pune, organised to honour Tendulkar, a couple of young directors transformed these articles into stage presentations.

The days of brickbats are long past. Lately accolades have been pouring in. Today, Vijay Tendulkar is recognised as one of the greatest Indian playwrights ever. Girish Karnad, who inaugurated the Tendulkar festival in Pune, called Sakharam Binder the finest Indian play in a thousand years and said that the Jnanpith Puraskar, the country's top literary award, should have gone to Tendulkar much before it was given to him (Karnad).

A conversation with Tendulkar spans an entire spectrum of subjects. He comments on the apathy of the government and the bureaucracy after the 26/7 deluge in Mumbai, the latest books he read, the latest films he saw (he is an avid watcher of international cinema and is present at all the film festivals in Mumbai), all in a quiet, understated style far removed from some of his sharp, explosive writing. "I had to struggle for survival very early in life," he says, "due to a lack of any formal qualifications." Excerpts from an interview Vijay Tendulkar gave Mukta Rajadyaksha:

You talk of a lack of formal qualifications. How does a writer called Vijay Tendulkar emerge and make it big despite this handicap?

The education and training came from elsewhere. The atmosphere at home was devoted to literature and the theatre. My father ran a small-time publishing business besides doing a clerical job. The house was full of books and he encouraged me to read. He took me to see a lot of plays. As a boy, theatre fascinated me, especially the manner in which men did women's roles and then smoked beedis backstage.

When did you start writing?

My early writing was entirely for myself. The 1930s and 1940s was a tumultuous period in the country's history. I participated in a small way in the 1942 movement. Owing to that, I stayed away from school a lot and was often humiliated whenever I turned up in class. I was confused, a loner without many friends, not much of a talker. Writing was an outlet for my emotions.

Most of your early plays were written for Rangayan, a unique theatre group that had people like Vijaya Mehta, Shreeram Lagoo, and Arvind and Sulabha Deshpande. Until it folded in the late 1960s, Rangayan was a pillar of the experimental theatre in Maharashtra and a milestone in the history of Marathi theatre. There was much acrimony when it closed shop. Looking back, what do you feel about those days?

A group like Rangayan cannot carry on forever. I'd rather forget the acrimony and remember what Rangayan gave me - the freedom to write whatever I wanted and some wonderful writers and directors to convey my words to the audience. Those 12 or 13 years were some of the finest days of my life. I was fortunate to be a part of that milieu.

Your plays are full of stage instructions. Would that hamper a director's freedom?

I have rarely interfered in any director's interpretation or way of working. I usually fill in a lot of details because I want to express whatever is in my mind as I write. The director is free to do what he or she wants. It's been the same with my film scripts.

Thirty to 35 years down the line, how do you react to the controversies generated by plays like Ghashiram Kotwal and Sakharam Binder?

All I can say is that I wish I had been given a chance to explain my stand. Instead, they just opened a front against me. My writing has always been honest. I've never tackled something I didn't understand. Politics had nothing to do with it. True, Ghashiram was inspired by the rise of the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and the transformation of an artist like Bal Thackeray into a mass leader. But the focus of my exploration there, as in most of my other plays, was on human tendencies, human frailities that change people almost overnight. You know, I've written over 30 plays on various themes. There is a plethora of characters. But people still tend to point to those that generated these unnecessary controversies.

What is your take on the media today? You began your career writing for newspapers, then you went on to theatre and film and television...

I believe there is hope for the theatre, especially Marathi parallel theatre, with many young people trying to do something meaningful. Television disappoints me. I can understand the revenue-driven private channels going in for a certain kind of programming but what on earth is Doordarshan doing? Look at the BBC or other public broadcasting channels and compare that with the pitiful state of Doordarshan! And then newspapers! For them, the reader is just a number that adds on to their circulation figures.

You have never written for the so-called mainstream cinema...

No. I was invited [to write] by some big producer-directors, such as Raj Kapoor and Yash Chopra, but I realised that it was not my scene. For the mainstream, indeed for most cinema, the writer is no more than a hack. I have written for people like Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani and enjoyed the experience. But by and large, I've realised that there isn't much satisfaction in writing for a collective medium.

But then, theatre is a collective medium too. You never know what directors and actors will do with your words!

True, but theatre is different. It is possibly the medium I'm most comfortable with. There is, I feel, more respect for a writer's word there. And it is a medium that's open to change from one performance to the next. Speaking of words, I really envy musicians sometimes. Vocalists... they can transcend the word quite easily, get away from its heaviness and achieve the unsaid element in communication

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