Vijay Tendulkar has been both cursed and praised for his works and yet, in spite of everything, remains one of India’s most famous playwrights.
How does one start to describe the work done by someone like Vijay Tendulkar?
For a large population in India he may be one of the top 4 playwrights (the other three being Mohan Rakesh in Hindi, Badal Sircar in Bangla and Girish Karnad in Kannada) but Vijay Dhondopant Tendulkar (1928 to 2008) straddled the Marathi literary world like a colossus. His influence was such that the era other than when he ruled is described as the one ‘before’ or ‘after’ Tendulkar!
Tendulkar’s play Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe (Silence! The Court is in session) received the Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and the Sangeet Natak Akademy award in 1970 catapulting him into national fame, while Ghashiram Kotwal, staged in 1972 brought him international stardom. His plays brought him bouquets and brickbats. While Kanyadaan in 1983 received the Saraswati Samaan, a slipper was hurled at him for the same!
In Kanyadaan, Tendulkar tells us the story of an inter-caste marriage between Arun Athawale, a Dalit belonging to the Mahar caste, and Jyoti Devlalikar, a Brahmin. While Jyoti’s idealist father does not believe in caste distinctions and literally pushes her into the alliance, Arun’s alcoholism, his ill-mannered and foul-mouthed behaviour quickly escalates into physical violence after marriage. But despite this suffering Jyoti chooses to remain with her husband, not out of love, but purely for the principles of duty and sacrifice. Kanyadaan brings forth the disillusionment of principles which run aground when tested in real life. In the end, Jyoti accuses her father for rearing her as a ‘guinea pig’ for his ‘experiments.’
Ghashiram Kotwal, with a tally of more than 6,000 performances worldwide, is believed to be the longest-running play in the history of Indian theatre. It marks the farthest point to which any Indian play has pushed the frontiers of theatrical art. Fusing folk music traditions with those of Sangeet Natak and modern theatre techniques including an innovative use of choreography, Ghashiram Kotwal traces the depths of immorality to which a sexual predator can descend and the extent to which the larger good of the people can be consequently compromised. Ghashiram Kotwal’s climax, which made a powerful statement on group psychology and violence, led to Tendulkar being awarded the 1974-75 Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship, which enabled him to spend time with convicts inside prisons, and even to witness three hangings. He emerged a strong opponent of the death penalty later. Ghashiram Kotwal reveals to us the exploitation, the corruption and hypocrisy which have become an accepted part of our system. But as Tendulkar has himself stated, the play presents more problems than solutions: ‘As long as you don’t know the problem fully, it is easy to find solutions,’ the playwright asserts.
Vijay Tendulkar’s work was rooted in deep compassion and respect for human life. He did not believe that an evening at a theatre can change society but he hoped that it would at least raise some level of public awareness.
Tendulkar’s plays evoked multiple emotions from the audience, from one of sheer disgust to shock, surprise and admiration. One can put down Tendulkar’s book as a perverse aside or an ill-motivated intrusion into one’s private life but as social scientist Ashis Nandy wrote, ‘Tendulkar never guarantees a good bedtime read…He never fails to make you feel that you have entered a dentist’s chamber with an undiagnosed abscess in the molars.’ Tendulkar’s plays gives ample opportunities to the audience to dislike his world. Dislike you may; hate or criticize you might: but ignore you cannot!
Women play a central role in Tendulkar’s plays. His female characters are mainly from the lower and middle classes: housewives, teachers, mistresses, daughters, film extras, slaves, and servants. Through these women characters, Tendulkar brings out a broad range of emotions, from the unbelievably gullible to the clever, from the malleable to the stubborn, from the conservative to the rebellious, from the self-sacrificing to the grasping.
Leela Benare’s speech of self-defence in Shantata (as part of a mock-trial, Leela is accused of infanticide and having an illicit relationship with a married Professor) is reminiscent of Nora’s speech in Ibsen’s play ‘The Doll’s House.’ Soliloquies were used by Tendulkar as an important dramatic device to voice the psychological turbulence originating from the self-conflict in the character’s predicament. As another critic said ‘Tendulkar never judges his protagonist but concentrates instead on painting him with unsettling compassion, perceptiveness and thoroughness.’
Tendulkar agrees saying ‘good-bad, right-wrong; once you tag things like that, you lose the ability to see the complete truth…. A murderer can also be a loving father. Don’t tag things. Words are insufficient to describe the picture in totality. Try not to get trapped in the dictionary meaning of words.’
There has been a consistent criticism about Tendulkar being obsessed with violence. He agreed that he used it deliberately, not with a view to change the society but to bring about the point. When we watch Shantata, we realize that the inherent animal traits in a human being are waiting to explode. No amount of role playing and hypocrisy can hide the fact that the beast of violence, whether physical or emotional, lurks deep within us and that events in the outside world are not its cause but its result. The external event is but a trigger that awakens the beast within.
Tendulkar’s violence was a metaphor to showcase all kinds of injustice. The violence was not about male dominance over females or the strong over the weak. In Sakharam Binder, the weak acquires power out of the very weakness she displays earlier. Sakharam, the protagonist, thinks he has the system by the tail and he can disregard the culture and societal values as long as he is truthful. Sakharam picks up women discarded by their husbands – castoff wives who would otherwise be homeless, destitute or murdered with impunity-and takes them in as domestic servants and sex partners. He rules his home like a tyrant, yet each woman is told that she is free to leave whenever she likes. ‘I will give you a saree, fifty rupees and a ticket to wherever you want to go,’ Sakharam tells the woman. What he does not anticipate are the moral and emotional complications of this arrangement, which prove heartbreakingly ruinous to everyone involved.
Tendulkar showcased the power relationships which humans inherently display. His violence transcended the physical, making it even more disturbing, dangerous and thought provoking. A brutalized character in Gidhaade is shown wearing a blood-stained saree to signify a forced abortion raising the objection from the censor board. In fact, the film evoked strong reactions and once Tendulkar was beaten up by one of the audiences for showing such graphic violence!
In many of his plays, the violence becomes an end in itself. Many of Tendulkar’s characters use the violence as a mean of grappling with the world shot through with an unpredictable, dangerous, undefined evil that threatens to destroy unless one strikes out at it pre-emptively and through one’s own version of violence. Being a passive, impotent witness and subject to someone else’s victimization can lead to self-hatred, and in turn to self-destruction. In Kamala, Tendulkar shows a self-seeking journalist, Jaisingh Jadav, who treats the woman, Kamala, purchased from the flesh market as an object that can buy him a promotion in his job and a reputation in his professional life. He pursues his goal unquestioningly and never stops to think what will happen to Kamala after this exposure. Tendulkar makes a jibe at the modern concept of journalism which focuses on sensationalism.
Amitava Kumar, an author in one of his interviews with the playwright says, ‘It was nakedness being put on display. But this was not a striptease. It was an angry stripping away of the illusions hiding something that was both oppressive and hideous. Instead of being titillated, you were touched by the spirit of rebellion.’
While stage actors like Nilu Phule as Sakharam, Sulabha Deshpande as Leela in Shantata, Mohan Agashe in Ghashiram Kotwal as Nana Phadnavis and many other iconic actors added to allure of Tendulkar’s plays, he also played a key role as a father of parallel cinema launching directors like Govind Nihalani and actors like Om Puri. In his film ‘Akriet,’ directed by Amol Palaker, Tendulkar showcased reality in the way a woman is treated not just in rural India but in many parts of educated, modern and urban India.
In ‘Ardh Satya,’ another brilliant movie directed by Govind Nihalani, where the protagonist (played by Om Puri) frustrated with the corrupt police force, lets out his anger and unwittingly kills the under-trial. Tendulkar, writing such intense scripts told Amol Palekar that ‘many senior directors have found the script too dark. Think carefully whether you wish to make a movie out of it!’
The last stanza of Dilip Chitre’s poem in the movie sums it nicely:
Ek palde mein napunsakta
Ek palde mein paurush
Aur theek taraazu ke kaante par
Balancing impotence on one side of the scale
And manhood, on the other.
This needle of perfect balance points us
To a Half-Truth
When the anger boiling inside Tendulkar erupted like a volcano on screen, it was at times too hot for the audience to handle. They were used to the dreamy world of Bollywood, where writers like Salim-Javed ruled. In Marathi, his familiar territory, films like Saamana, Sinhasan (a cult political movie) and Umbartha (a landmark movie on women’s emancipation) showcased his mettle as a screenwriter. In the screenplay of the movie Sardar, ‘The Last Days of Sardar Patel,’ Tendulkar presents not just a chronicle of what Sardar Vallabhai Patel did but, as he says himself, ‘..presented the multifaceted and most complex relationships between the three greats of that period viz. Gandhi, Nehru and Sardar.’
Tendulkar’s movie Aakrosh is a great example of his potent writing that can make you peel off the arm-rest in disgust and frustration at the state of affairs. In the powerful script, violence perpetrates violence not to seek revenge but as the last resort. When the protagonist Bhiku picks up the axe in the climax, it is not to cut the contractor to pieces but to avoid further humiliation. The movie remains relevant till date making one realize that not much has changed for the Lahaniya Bhikus of the society.
Tendulkar wrote what he experienced, felt and lived through. As Henrik Isben said ‘Before I write down one word, I have to have the character in my mind through and through. I must penetrate into the last wrinkle of his soul.’ Tendulkar’s plays have dealt with themes that unravel the exploitation of power and latent violence in human relationships. As he noted, ‘The basic urge (to write) has always been to let out my concerns vis à vis my reality; the human condition as I perceive it.’
One often wonders what made Tendulkar bring to force the character of such deviant minds. Was it his small-town upbringing in a lower middle-class Saraswat Brahmin family in Kolhapur where he had to contend with an insane uncle (one of his maternal uncles spent time in a mental asylum while another one committed suicide) or an elder sister, who died an old spinster (his father refused to make her a showpiece and refused to give dowry)? Or was it the years spent in a gutter-ridden chawl in Bombay where he lived with his growing family in penurious circumstances, and saw life unvarnished by middle-class mores a major influence?
He saw violence early in life witnessing a few incidents of stabbing during riots in Mumbai. His brother, who had turned alcoholic and whom he had to often pick up from liquor dens and take home, opened up a new world for the author in Vijay Tendulkar. He was exposed to the very dregs of the society which found way into his plays and scripts. Tendulkar had to suffer the long illness of a bed-ridden wife and the tragic death of his son and daughter.
There is no exaggeration in saying that Tendulkar is without doubt the most influential playwright in India. He was in some sense a moral force. His politics may have been left-of-centre, but basically he was a humanist. He leaves behind a repertoire of more than fifty years’ of work, for us to enjoy, argue, dissect, debate, and experience each time we see his movies or watch his plays.