Makrand Despande’s medium is his message. Ask him, what is still live, authentic, tangible and unfiltered in 2022? What’s still a human-to-human form of communication with sincere, undoctored reactions? “Theatre alone is. It is the only medium that can thwack our collective societal consciousness with such an impact,” says the writer and director of the play Balatkar—Please Stop It. Ever since his Hindi play premiered at the prestigious Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai on May 14, it has been making news for its lingering impact on the audience.
Deshpande is a veteran theatre actor and a playwright who is known for his work as an actor in mainstream cinema. The 50-plus actor’s is a face not easy to forget—unkempt, overgrown curly hair with a bushy moustache. He featured in Shah Rukh Khan’s Swades in 2004, and has also acted in pivotal roles in films such as Sarfarosh, Makdee, Bbuddah... Hoga Terra Baap and Darna Zaroori Hai. He has directed over five films in Bollywood. However, theatre remains his first love.
Deshpande’s stage repertoire is spectacular. He started his acting career in 1990 at Prithvi Theatre with support from the founder of the group, Sanjana Kapoor. His love for the medium egged him to start Ansh Theatre Group in 1993 with his peer KK Menon. And till today, he has written and directed over 50 short plays and 40 full-length plays, including Sir Sir Sirla, Joke, Maa In Transit, Krishna Kidding etc. His 2017 Patni, with sitarist and composer Niladri Kumar, has been a runaway hit.
Deshpande calls himself ‘an artiste with a contemplative, philosophical approach to his craft’. “In today’s time when the world is shouting that original writing is dead, theatre is alive at Ansh through original ideas.” The group’s legacy hinges upon his reputation as a maverick artiste.
In December last year, he was felicitated with the ‘Pillar of Democracy’ award for stupendous work in theatre by Democracy, a portal started by Dr Vaidehi Taman, the editor of The Afternoon Voice in Mumbai. Deshpande says that such recognitions make him feel as if someone really understands his contribution. “Let’s all unite our hearts through art and love,” he exclaims.
So what drives him to direct more plays? “After the play, a friend walked up to me to say that for the first time, he felt utterly helpless and had tears in his eyes. The play touched him so deeply,” recounts Deshpande. Balatkar—Please Stop It is about a theatre company that decides to do a play on International Women’s Day. The subject decided by the director makes the actors uncomfortable.
The two-act ‘play-in-play’ laughs at our hypocrisy when it comes to our discussions around rape. Although the play had just four shows in two days, he has been getting requests from friends and theatre lovers to stage it across the country. Now, the Ansh Theatre Group has to work out the logistics to accomplish this.
“Drama is my inner need as a human being, as a man, and a citizen of this country to voice my concerns via the most lively medium—theatre. As a playwright and director, I felt the need to put the centuries-old trauma of rape on stage. Unlike documentaries or movies about rape, we provoke dark humour. It’s a satire on people celebrating the so-called International Women’s Day to ostensibly empower women,” he says.
Buoyed by the turnout and the feedback he has received, Deshpande is exploring the possibility of staging the play even in regional languages. More importantly, he wants his 18-member troupe to travel to nondescript towns in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to perform it. He is in talks with a playwright in Hyderabad for a possible collaboration in Telugu.
Deshpande’s next play will be about the war. “You will hear about it shortly,” he says. When he is not acting in big-budget movies such as the multilingual RRR or writing plays, Deshpande can be found playing with his pet cat Atom. He will be next seen in the upcoming multilingual romantic sports movie, Liger, directed by Puri Jagannadh, starring south star Vijay Deverakonda and Ananya Panday.