Vijay Tendulkar: The Rebel for All Seasons

Khalid Mohamed writes about the defiant rebel that was Vijay Tendulkar.

7 min read
Vijay Tendulkar, a warrior against injustice.

(This story was first published on 5 January 2019 and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark Vijay Tendulkar’s birth anniversary.)

Vijay Tendulkar defined defiance. On the heels of the communal riots in Gujarat in 2002, he had spoken out loud, inciting a major controversy. His effigies were burnt and he was hounded by the media to elaborate upon his statement.

Subsequently, he had rationalised that the statement had stemmed from “genuine and spontaneous anger which I never see as a solution for anything. Anger doesn't solve problems."

Some could see that as a subterfuge or a way to avoid an acrimonious argument. Anger and protest against injustice of any form, after all, were the cornerstone of his estimable body of work which was surprisingly optimistic rather than defeatist.

In the earlier millennium, circa, 1972 his epic play Ghashiram Kotwal, a discourse on political Machiavellism in 18th century Pune, was seen as a not-so-veiled critique on the rise and power of the right-wing Shiv Sena. Attempts were on to stop the play’s overseas tour through Europe. A truce was reached. Before the start of every show, an announcement had to be made, words to the effect that that no malice was intended.

Durga Khote gives the mahurat clap for <i>Shantata Court Chaaloo Ahe! </i>featuring Sulbha Deshpande. Vijay Tendulkar’s play was adapted to film by Govind Nihalani and Satyadev Dubey.
Durga Khote gives the mahurat clap for Shantata Court Chaaloo Ahe! featuring Sulbha Deshpande. Vijay Tendulkar’s play was adapted to film by Govind Nihalani and Satyadev Dubey.

Controversies dogged his plays, especially Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe (1967), Gidhade (1970) and Sakharam Binder (1972), since he didn’t soft-pedal his words about domestic, sexual and political violence behind the closed doors of the urban lower middle class milieu.

Despite recurring censorship and the conservative section’s vociferous objections, the prodigious writer was soon to be justly canonised as a theatre rule-breaker, some of his other comrades-in-dissent being Badal Sircar, Mohan Rakesh, Girish Karnad and Habib Tanvir. Indeed, the iconoclast during his own lifetime became an icon, as much in the realm of Marathi theatre as in his unsparing social commentary expressed through literary essays, novels, short stories, journalism and film scripts.

Today (6 January) is Vijay Tendulkar’s 92nd birth anniversary. To date, his work has not been in vain, his influence continues to be widely pervasive and cherished. Fortuitously, there have been no slavish imitations. Moreover, scholastic attempts continue to explore the corridors of his creative genius.

Theatre critic Shanta Gokhale has raised the pertinent question, “Where did these riches stem from? He had no model to follow,” adding informatively, “Tendulkar got his first glimpse watching his father rehearse. It wasn’t a glimpse that enthused him. People just stood on the stage and said lines. What caught his young imagination was cinema. He played hookey from school to watch Greta Garbo, Paul Muni, Greer Garson, Charles Laughton and other greats whose ‘themes, stories, scene construction and most importantly, world view’ had a profound effect on him. Then he saw the Prabhat Studio film Manoos (1939), which proved that dialogue didn’t have to be melodramatic to create drama. The characters spoke naturally and still achieved great dramatic effect.”

Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Chittoprasad’s sketches on the Bengal famine of 1943 are also cited as influences on the playwright.

Priya Tendulkar with father Vijay Tendulkar.
Priya Tendulkar with father Vijay Tendulkar.

Vijay Tendulkar’s beginnings, as in the case of a majority of brilliant minds, were shaped by the conditions around him. He was born in Mumbai’s Girgaum neighbourhood, sub-divided into ‘wadis’, community enclaves many of which have long vanished with real-estate development. His father, Dhondopant held a clerical job and ran a small publishing business besides acting on stage.

Uncannily at the age of six, Dhondopant’s son had written, directed and acted in a play, and showed no interest in completing his school studies. At 14, he participated in the 1942 freedom struggle movement and went on to join Nabjiban Sangathana, a splinter communist group. He was arrested briefly for attending the party’s study circle. Perhaps he was a Marxian idealist at the outset but went on to become sceptical about the leftist ideology, maintaining, “All I liked about communists was their sense of sacrifice and discipline.”

It was reality – personally tracked and experienced – which he turned to, asserting , “I can’t write in a vacuum. I can’t write about characters without shaking hands with them.” Armchair writing wasn’t for him. Throughout his life, periodic outings to remote villages, smalltowns and the seamier folds of the metro cities, lent a hard, reportorial edge to his narratives.

He was known to close himself, quite often in a mid-rung hotel room, and complete drafts of plays and films about rural and urban exploitation of the underprivileged at the hands of the casteist power wielders.

Tendulkar’s film scripts and stories, decades later carry heft and hubris. A shelful of award tropies, and in 1984 the Padma Bhushan title were bestowed upon him. Would a sniper against the system be honoured, today? No chance.

On my part, I was in awe of Vijay Tendulkar. In the course of an interview for Filmfare, I found him to be candidly harsh on some subjects and mellow on others. Director Jabbar Patel had fixed up an appointment at a downbeat hotel close to Shivaji Park . Right away, he didn’t approve of me taking notes and handed me his dictaphone, saying, “Take this,return it when you’re finished with the transcription.” He neither wished to praise nor approve of the film version of his play Ghashiram Kotwal (1976), directed as a cooperative effort by Mani Kaul and K Hariharan along with other graduates of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune.

At its preview at the institute, he had chosen to keep his opinion to himself. He had cabbed it down to Pune, carrying an overnight duffle bag. But it was obvious that he was appalled. The play which spoke and communicated directly to the theatre audience had been obfuscated beyond comprehension. “Since it’s a well-intentioned experimental film, I will not express my disappointment beyond saying that I was numbed, but not in a positive way. Style shouldn’t devour the substance. The last shot rolled on for 10 minutes, without a cut, which is quite a technical feat but…” he trailed off without completing the sentence.

Om Puri in <i>Ghashiram Kotwal.&nbsp;</i>
Om Puri in Ghashiram Kotwal. 
Incidentally Om Puri had made his film debut in Ghashiram Kotwal. “Of the actors today,” he had remarked, “I have nothing but praise for Om and also Naseeruddin Shah but I do hope that they select their roles with care.” He had just seen Bezubaan (1982), in which he had portrayed a redeem-less blackmailer. “Naseer’s performance was excellent,” the writer noted. “But there has to be a certain responsibility. It struck me that Naseer had ended glamourising a crime like blackmail.”

Clearly, Tendulkar was at ease with cut-to-the-chase director Jabbar Patel. Their Marathi films: Samna (1974) on a cat-and-mouse conflict between a wastrel and a sugar baron, and Umbartha (1982) on the fortitude of a woman superintendent at a women’s reform home, were simply crafted, giving precedence to the story content.

Director Shyam Benegal with actors Amrish Puri, Anant Nag, Mohan Agashe, Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah and Smita Patil on the sets of <i>Nishant</i> (1975), based on an original screenplay by Vijay Tendulkar with dialogues by Satyadev Dubey.
Director Shyam Benegal with actors Amrish Puri, Anant Nag, Mohan Agashe, Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah and Smita Patil on the sets of Nishant (1975), based on an original screenplay by Vijay Tendulkar with dialogues by Satyadev Dubey.

The writer’s films with Shyam Benegal – Nishant (1975) on a dysfunctional feudal family with allusions to the Mahabharata, and Manthan (1976) on the obstacles in setting up a milk cooperative – remain milestones of parallel cinema.

The films with Govind Nihalani – Aakrosh (1980) about a public prosecutor’s awareness of the inhuman treatment of scheduled castes and Ardh Satya (1983) a psychological study about a cop on the edge, cemented his reputation of a writer with an individualistic, gut-busting signature.

Offers by Raj Kapoor (who was working on the script of Ram Teri Ganga Maili, 1985) and Yash Chopra didn’t fructify. Presumably, Tendulkar -- unlike progressive writers, like KA Abbas and Kaifi Azmi -- didn’t see himself fitting into the Bollywood system.

Smita Pail in <i>Umbartha </i>written by Vijay Tendulkar<i>.</i>
Smita Pail in Umbartha written by Vijay Tendulkar.

Undoubtedly, theatrework was Tendulkar’s forte. He would frequently emphasise that theatre was the medium he was most comfortable with.

The transition from stage to cinema, was a given.

Theatre critic Mukta Rajadhyaksha has remarked that his plays kept “the focus on human frailties which change people almost overnight.” Rajadhyaksha reminds us of the imperishable significance of his plays of the 1950s and ‘60s for the experimental theatre group Rangayan-- where he worked with Vijaya Mehta, Shreeram Lagoo, Aravind and Sulabha Deshpande – and of his later plays Mitrachi Goshti (1981) about a lesbian relationship,

Kamala (1981) on the real-life sale of a woman to a journalist and Kanyadaan (1983) about a Brahmin girl who marries a Dalit man.

Vijay Tendulkar, with his forever-appraising eyes, was a magnetic man with an expressive face and slicked-back hair. One could read his face, which became somewhat inscrutable when he covered it with a snowy beard.

His wife Nirmala, son Raja and daughter actress Priya Tendulkar passed away before he did at the age of 80. To the last, his eyes didn’t lost their inquiring, challenging gaze. Sifting through his interviews in print and on television, I come across an uncharacteristic quote ascribed to him: “I don't dream but it’s my wish , my dream, to play a clown. I want to paint myself and act like a mad person.”

Madness? Not likely. A warrior against injustice, yes.

(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and a weekend painter.)

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