on the actor's trail

Sushma Deshpande on transforming herself into a vengeful grandmother for ‘Ajji’

The playwright and stage actor plays the lead in Devashish Makhija’s revenge drama.

Devashish Makhija’s second feature after Oonga (2013) is a revenge drama revolving around a young girl’s rape. In Ajji, the titular grandmother (Sushma Deshpande) is deeply disturbed by the rape of her beloved granddaughter Manda (Sharvani Suryavanshi). The investigating police officer is in league with the rapist, an influential land developer (Abhishek Bannerjee), and Manda’s parents don’t seem to care either. Ajji decides to seek revenge, and takes the help of Leela, a prostitute (Sadiya Siddiqui). Ajji has been selected for the New Currents section at the Busan International Film Festival and the Indian competition section at the Mumbai Film Festival, both in October. The Yoodlee Films production will be released in Indian cinemas in the coming months.

Sushma Deshpande’s credits include a handful of films and the biographical play Whay Mee Savitribai, which she has written and performed. She spoke to Scroll.in about the challenges of shooting in real locations, handling sequences that required her to slaughter chickens, and coming to terms with the movie’s vigilante theme.

Devashish’s casting team had approached me, and he told me the story when I met him. It was very interesting. Devashish has great clarity, and the way he has studied the problem is fantastic. When he met me, he knew about my interviews, what I had done before, small things about me. He told me across the table, you are going to be Ajji. How could I say no when somebody was offering me such a good role?

Play
Ajji (2017).

I have been so busy with the Savitribai play that I haven’t been approached for too many films. People probably thought I was too busy with my Savitribai performances. I have been in films made by friends – Umbartha, Katha Don Ganpatraonchi, Bangarwadi.

I also get bored giving auditions, unless I know the person involved. In the case of Ajji, I told them I wasn’t interested in an audition. The filmmakers arranged a taxi from my residence to the production office, so I went. There, Devashish told me I was going to do the film. No audition, nothing.

After he sent me the script, I emailed him and said I wanted to know Ajji’s history – what is her relationship with her husband, her childhood. I was in Pune – I divide my time between Pune and Mumbai. He sent me four-five four pages of Ajji’s history and said, you can contribute to that history too.

Ajji is a strong lady, very open, someone who understands the meaning of womanhood. It was easy to connect to that role. She is very supportive and despite not having a good relationship with her daughter-in-law, she is not against her. She is not ready to take injustice on behalf of her grandchild any more. It is not like she suddenly decides – it is a process.

Bringing poverty to the screen

Are you going to take a workshop, I asked Devashish. He laughed and said, I don’t work without workshops. Part of the preparation included visiting the locations, such as slums in Goregaon East in Mumbai. I remember that Sadiya [Siddqui] and I went there. We had to be comfortable with the locations, including the pipeline and the slums. When you decide to do such a role, it is a part of the game.

I am very aware of poverty, although the poverty in Mumbai is different from rural Maharashtra. I remember Sadiya and I climbed on top of the pipeline. The question wasn’t how I did it – how wasn’t the word here. The directed expected me to and I did it.

Sushma Deshpande and director Devashish Makhija on the sets of Ajji. Courtesy Yoodlee Films.
Sushma Deshpande and director Devashish Makhija on the sets of Ajji. Courtesy Yoodlee Films.

The abattoir in the film is also in a slum. The butcher organised a workshop for me and for Sudhir Pandey, who plays the butcher in the film. I cut meat for the first time. It was all properly planned. We started with cutting a chicken very slowly. I got the opportunity to do things I have never done before during the shoot.

One chicken that I was given had already been killed. It was warm when I touched it. For a few seconds, I wondered, how was I going to do it? Cool, I told myself, I am going to do this, I have to do it.

If my mother were alive, she would have asked me, why are you doing this? But the scene has meaning in the film, so I did it. The assistant director, Pooja, asked me afterwards, how was it? I replied, let’s have this discussion after the film.

My performance in the Savitribai play helped me a lot during the shoot. I can change saris anywhere, including on location, and it is not difficult for me at all. One time, I told the car’s driver to get off and I changed right there. At some other locations, we had a small room organised for me. Since we had done workshops, we knew exactly what we were supposed to do.

A time for vengeance

During one of the workshops, one woman talked about an incident in Sholapur, where a husband had raped his daughter. His approach was, this is my fruit, and I am going to taste it. The wife was working on the farm and her daughter was at home. The man came home and raped the daughter. When the wife came home, she hacked off his penis. She went to the police and fed the penis to a dog in front of the police station.

Jaywant Dalvi’s Purush has the same theme [a social worker castrates the politician who rapes her after she fails to get justice.] I spoke to Devashish about the play.

The scene where Ajji seeks revenge was discussed during the workshop. Ajji wants to, but she also isn’t sure. She wonders, is it possible? But she has to try. Her inner power propels her to do so. The sequence was shot over one night.

I understand the debate over vigilante justice, but I also understood Ajji and her family. She is attached to the child, and nobody else is doing anything for her. It is a personal issue for the character. She is not somebody who will take such a crime lying down. She doesn’t care for the law, she doesn’t care for anything, but she feels strongly for the child.

(As told to Nandini Ramnath.)

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