Mumbai 1994. I am standing in front of the attractive Kitu Gidwani in a Juhu bungalow about to deliver a dialogue in Sai Paranjpye’s TV serial, Party-ana. As if, Kitu was not distracting enough, I was supposed to cry in that particular scene with a good 25 people on the sets intently watching me. And without any glycerine for support. Strict instructions of the director. As can be imagined, amateur actor that I was, I froze.
Sai ordered a cut, slowly disembarked from her director’s chair and walked up to me. I thought, that was the end of my tryst with acting. Sai quietly lit a cigarette, blew some smoke and said in chaste Marathi, “Ghaabru Nakos (don’t be afraid). Just picture someone very dear to you and imagine that the worst has happened. The tears will start flowing immediately. Take your time.” She gave me 10 minutes to prepare myself. Kitu was back. I was back. And this time the tears flowed easily. “Cut. Fantastic job, Rahul,” Sai thundered, stubbed her cigarette and walked off to have some chai. This is the quintessential Sai. Arguably, one of India’s best film directors with the ability to get work out of a rank amateur!
But my story begins in 1981. Sai made the film Chashme Buddoor, the charming comedy set in wintry Delhi about the escapades of three young friends played by the late Farooq Sheikh, the late Ravi Baswani and Rakesh Bedi. The three friends end up chasing the same woman played by the petite, Deepti Naval. Combined with the subtle humour of the late Saeed Jaffrey, who plays the neighbourhood paanwala, this is one priceless film. When the film released in the erstwhile Natraj Talkies in Pune’s Deccan Gymkhana, I went and saw it four consecutive times in as many days. I goaded and persuaded four different sets of friends to come see the film with me, advance booking the tickets everytime, blowing a big hole in my pocket.
I narrated this story to Sai in the summer of 1994, as we sat one evening, biting into some delectable kebabs in a wayside eatery in Bandra, Mumbai. Sai was so impressed that she announced, “Rahul, you are my friend for life. Just make any wish and I will fulfil it!” This is how, I landed the role in Sai’s comedy serial a couple weeks later.
But Sai has always been like this. Imagine my joy, when my then employers, a multinational bank allotted me a flat, absolutely next to Sai’s in a Juhu high-rise. I was overjoyed that I would actually be staying next door to my favourite film director. Sai was informal and fun. It also helped that Winnie, Sai’s pretty daughter was my contemporary at college and her director son, Gautam was a couple years my junior. Impromptu pot-lucks were regular and much fun was had by all.
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Later in 1997, I remember interviewing Sai’s nonagenarian mother, the late Shakuntala Paranjpye for a Pune newspaper in her large bungalow behind the popular, Vaishali restaurant in Pune. Shakuntala, a one-time actor, writer and noted social worker had been briefly married to a Russian painter, Sai’s father. Shakuntala was an extremely articulate woman who could wax eloquent on any topic under the sun. As the interview progressed, it became amply clear to me that Sai had indeed inherited a lot of good genes from her mother.
The other interesting feature of Sai’s personality is her ability to take serious topics like the environment and convert them into entertaining films. Her 2004 children’s film, Chakachak is proof of the same. In the film, Sai drives home the message of wet and dry segregation of garbage and wet composting at source through a group of eight children. The children, not only clean up their neighbourhood but manage to motivate their seniors to do the same. The film has all of Sai’s creative ingredients in place. Funny and catchy names such as Gundappan for the villain and Bhola-Dhola, Kawwa, Tawwa and Chiwwa for his cronies.Speaking to the audience at the film’s premiere, Sai had said, “I have made the film with children, because only they are now capable of leading the fight against environmental degradation in this country. The adults have failed miserably.”
The 78-year-old director has lost none of her zest for life. When I called her a couple of days back, she said, “Listen, I am releasing my autobiography in Marathi on Sunday, September 25th in Pune. I want you to be present!” I have made a diary note.
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