One of the most prominent Marathi filmmakers and a once-upon-a-time actor of the '70s, Amol Palekar turned director with the Marathi film Aakriet.
His Bollywood directorial venture, Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Paheli, became India's official entry in the Best Foreign Film Category at the 2006 Oscar Awards.
Anuradha SenGupta speaks to the man who has his head held high, but feet firmly on the ground.
Anuradha SenGupta: It’s Ganesh Utsav time and the celebrations are on all over Mumbai. Does the festival hold any special significance for you?
Amol Palekar: Not at all. Being an agnostic I do not participate in any religious functions. I keep myself away from all that.
Anuradha SenGupta: Why call yourself an agnostic and not an atheist?
Amol Palekar: I am an atheist also. But I think to begin with, I am an agnostic.
Anuradha SenGupta: Do you not see any merit in the feeling of bonhomie, camaraderie and celebrations that a religious function throws up?
Amol Palekar: I feel sad that in most of our religious or cultural functions, we have lost our cultural identity.
If you go to a Mahrashtrian wedding you don’t feel that you are attending a Maharashtrian wedding. People are either doing bhangra or they are enjoying popular film’s hip-hop music.
A traditional Maharashtrian wedding has its own lovely charm. We have lost our traditions and culture.
Anuradha SenGupta: Do you not see any merit in the fact that being an eclectic I can wear a tanter (cotton) saree, eat idli sambar and then dance to bhangra in a wedding. Don’t you see that as an amalgamation of cultures?
Amol Palekar: I have no quarrel with either sambar vada or tanter saree. But if a tanter saree starts overshadowing my kohlapuri saree, then it’s not right.
Anuradha SenGupta: I have read some of your interviews where your statements suggest that you perhaps want the people to ignore the fact that you have also been popular actor. Why is that?
Amol Palekar: I am of course extremely proud of the fact that I have spent a major phase of my career as an actor. But I don’t want to look at the past.
That phase is over and has left behind nostalgia. I want people to know what I’m doing now. There is much more beyond the actor ‘Amol Palekar.’
Anuradha SenGupta: People do that all the time. But it’s you who tries to make a stronger attempt at dissociating yourself from that.
Amol Palekar: No, that’s not true. If I have ever done that then I feel its wrong. I don not want to talk about Golmal and Chitchor all the time.
That is only nostalgia, nothing more than that. I would be happier talking about what I’m doing now or what I’m going to do tomorrow.
Anuradha SenGupta: Would I be right in saying that Amol Palekar is very different from the character that made him popular as an actor?
Amol Palekar: When I played a villain in Bhumika some of my friends said: “You can fool the rest of the world by saying that you were aghast playing a villain. We know the truth that it is actually the real self of you.”
Anuradha SenGupta: Are you not tempted to act again in a self directed film? It’s been a really long time, isn’t it.
Amol Palekar: No I really don’t think so. I don’t miss the actor’s phase of my career. It’s difficult for people to believe it because most of them would even die to be an actor.
In fact I never wanted to be an actor. When I say that I became an actor by sheer accident, I mean every word of it. If at all there was something that I had dreamt of was that of becoming a filmmaker.
Anuradha SenGupta: You have worked with Chitra in your first few films, and recently with Sandhya (wife). Do you feel when professional and personal relationships coincide, it makes working easy?
Amol Palekar: My relationship with Sandhya, Chitra, or my daughter Shalmali has always been excellent. It was equally easy sharing the work with them.
Anuradha SenGupta: So you are a women’s film maker, isn’t it?
Amol Palekar: That could well be my brand name.
Anuradha SenGupta: Now that you are making a third film on this subject, what is so special about sexuality as a theme that draws you so much towards it?
Amol Palekar: Basically, I’m exploring all the possible layers, angles and depths of a man-woman relationship. In Daira I had talked about the transverse search of a man-woman relationship.
In Anahat I explored about the theme of female sexuality. Whereas in Quest it is the search of the protagonist (Mrenal Kulkarni) is shown who plays a lawyer in the film and is happily married until she discovers that her husband is involved in a homosexual relationship.
Anuradha SenGupta: It’s quite interesting to see that our sexual instincts are very basic and also the driving force for many. And yet, in Indian cinema this subject is not talked about or explored in the manner that it should be.
Amol Palekar: I would like to explore all the possible angles of a man-woman relationship in my films. It’s also important for me to portray these things in my film because by doing so, I am trying to view this aspect as it exists in the society.
Anuradha SenGupta: How do you think are we dealing with our relationships? Do you think that when one has more choices, fidelity becomes almost impossible?
Amol Palekar: I would not jump to any such conclusions but I would say that with more and more choices, your life becomes complex. You have to deal with all kinds of complexities in life.
In Quest both my protagonists Sayi and her husband Aditya are young professional couples who are faced with difficulties and crisis due to the fast-paced life that they lead.
With the demands of their own professions and the fast paced life it becomes difficult for a person to cope with the crisis in his personal life.
Does your professional life gives you the chance to pause, sort out the problems first, and then move ahead? The answer is no, it doesn’t.
Anuradha SenGupta: When you started off in films, most of your films were based particularly on man-woman relationships.
But as you grew as a director, your focus became narrower and you started focusing more on the sexual complexities that a man-women relationship brings up. Why so?
Amol Palekar: I would rephrase that sentence and say that all my films have focused mainly on man-women relationship. My film Akriet was also based on the complexities that a relationship throws up.
Whether its Anahat, Ankahi or Thoda Sa Romani Ho Jaye, these were all revolving around man-woman relationships. Barring perhaps Kairi which is different kind of film based on human relationships.
Anuradha SenGupta: But a lot more social comment came into these films. Why do you think that happened?
Amol Palekar: I would again say that my concern and focus point while dealing with human relationship is to find the perception of a women’s place in our society.
How uncomfortable I would feel as a male to accept a woman as equal or perhaps in a better position.
Simultaneously, there is another theme that keeps recurring in my films which is that of marginalised classes in our society.
Anuradha SenGupta: Why do you feel so strongly about it?
Amol Palekar: My mother was a strong women and she had taken lot of pains to brought us up. Somewhere I think that women have always been admired by me. I have been curious to know more and more about them.
My eldest sister has had a great influence on my life. And as I moved on these concerns and search to find out why as a man does it hurts my mal ego to see a women coming equal to me.
Anuradha SenGupta: How has the society reacted to your films?
Amol Palekar: Doing first and foremost a regional cinema that too with Marathi films, is a tough task. I find myself extremely fortunate that I’m making my tenth film in the Marathi cinema.
To be able to do so many films without making any compromise and exactly the way I have wanted to, is a great achievement.
Anuradha SenGupta: Do you think that multiplexes have managed to give Marathi films the fillip that everybody thought that they would give?
Amol Palekar: Certainly it has. In fact it was my Marathi film Anahat that we first opened in multiplexes. And I think that it has opened the doors of Marathi regional cinema and also the non-mainstream cinema.
Anuradha SenGupta: As an artist who has chosen to work in Marathi films, knowing that it will probably give a smaller audience than otherwise, how do you ensure that your cinema survives?
Amol Palekar: As I mentioned, about eight or ten year ago the Marathi cinema was in its pits. At that time there were only six films being made in year. And now just in past one year we produced around 70 odd-films.
Marathi cinema is bouncing back. New directors are coming up with fresh ideas and different story line and people are patrionising their work. They want to watch such cinema more and more.
People like my self, Jabbar Patel, Sumitra Bhave will continue to make consistent efforts to put Marathi cinema ahead.
Anuradha SenGupta: Do you think that Darwin’s theory of ‘survival of the fittest’ applies to languages and cultures also? And if it does, are you comfortable with that.
Amol Palekar: I think you have to survive and in order to sustain that survival you have to find what is your strength or the USP.
Anuradha SenGupta: How tough has it been financially to get people for the kind of cinema that you made or wanted to make?
Amol Palekar: It is tough to get financial assistance for making regional cinema and that too when it has no elements, formula or masala of the mainstream films.
Anuradha SenGupta: A lot of questions were raised when you made Paheli with Shah Rukh Khan and Rani Mukherjee. How tough is it to stick to Marathi films when you can see that a mainstream Hindi film gets so much talked about, draws more buzz and attention.
Isn't it tempting to keep your promises to regional cinema then?
Amol Palekar: I don't think so. I did not make Pahelifor any kind of buzz or publicity. I just wanted to tell a story and that was my starting point while making Paheli.
The focus was not to sign big sellable stars and then think of a story to make it a hit. I don’t make films like that.
Story itself starts making its own demands. As a nice and faithful director all I do is that I allow it to grow naturally. Story tells whether it needs an intense script, a big star cast or song and dance in it.
Anuradha SenGupta: You haven’t made any hilarious film from a long time. Where is your sense of humour?
Amol Palekar: Probably it's just around the corner.