New Delhi: “I don’t think I can write an autobiography. Some of the stories I write represent my life, while others are a part of my imagination. It’s almost as if the author is standing bare in front of an astute reader,” said P.L. Deshpande in a documentary.
And if you ask any Marathi reader who is familiar with his work, they’ll tell you that the man was a master at capturing aspects of life unique to Maharashtra — be it the chawl life of Mumbai or his take on Mumbaikars, Punekars and Nagpurkars, an essay that beautifully and hilariously dissects the Maharashtrian identity.
Popularly known as PuLa (an abbreviation of his first and second name) or Bhai, the multifaceted genius was an author, playwright, screenplay writer and film director, actor, singer, harmonium player, music composer and director, orator — and through it all, a keen observer of life and the human experience.
Salil Deshpande, a Mumbai-based journalist describes him as “the R.K. Laxman of prose, but less acerbic and more jovial”.
One of his best-known works is a collection of character sketches titled Vyakti aani Valli, which won him the Sahitya Akademi award in 1965.
Earlier this year, Mahesh Manjrekar’s two-part biopic on PuLa — Bhaai, Vyakti Kee Valli — released, starring Sagar Deshmukh and Irawati Harshe. The film attempts to tell the legend’s life story recounting key incidents, punctuated by melancholic scenes of him on his deathbed. It faced criticism for not only in its lack of cinematic flair, but also for failing to bring to life the very essence for which its subject stood — to spread joy.
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Today, on P.L. Deshpande’s birth centenary, ThePrint flips the pages back over the life and legacy of this literary giant.
The argumentative philanthropist
PuLa’s deep understanding of the human psyche shone through the characters he developed in his work. He tapped into human behaviour like no one else with his trademark style of humour and satire.
Abhijeet Deshpande, a Mumbai-based film director and scriptwriter, believes that if there is one thing to learn from Deshpande’s work, it is how he “presents complexity with simplicity”. His insight into social behaviour set him apart. He noticed what a lay man could also see, and further elevated it with nuanced characteristics, like in his essay on the Maharashtrian identity.
The nuance also reflected in his own life, when he was up against strong political personalities. P.L. Deshpande and Bal Thackeray were both strong personalities from Maharashtra and raging successes in their respective fields. Thackeray, an accomplished cartoonist, had a lot to say on the political front, while Deshpande used his art on a more social level. The two men had an intellectual conflict of sorts, and often spoke against each other in public. Abhijeet describes it as akin to “watching Federer and Nadal play against each other. It was a treat for the Marathi audience to watch such great personalities disagree.” However, in spite of the grudges, there was mutual respect between the two.
PuLa was also openly critical of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s move declaring Emergency, and translated Jayaprakash Narayan’s ‘Prison Diary’ into Marathi. And while at Doordarshan, he became the first person ever to interview Jawaharlal Nehru on Indian television.
It wasn’t just his professional work that has earned him respect.While Deshpande and his wife, Sunita Thakur lead a simple and austere lives, their philanthropy is well known. In the mid-1990s, they set up a foundation in his name that, till today, has donated has over a crore of rupees for numerous causes. The foundation has benefitted various “re-addiction and rehabilitation centres, a hostel for children of prostitutes, as well as a science laboratory at a village school meant for children displaced by the devastating Koyna earthquake”.
“During the India-China war, there was a blood donation camp and I decided to do my bit. With a needle in my vein, a volunteer came up to me and asked me to donate money instead. In that situation I really was in no state to deny for I feared that they’d just take all my blood. So I complied and organised multiple humorous acts and raised Rs. 40,000 for the soldiers,” he said.
At the Global PuLa Festival — a year-long celebration of P.L. Deshpande and his contribution to the artistic community of Maharashtra, which commenced last year and comes to an end today — social activist Dr. Anil Achavat recounted his first meeting with the man: “I don’t think any Marathi writer has done as much as he has for our society. He backed us with Muktangan (an innovative educational programme). During hard times, we turned to the government but we did not receive any grants. He helped us financially by giving us Rs 2.5 lakh.”
The legacy of PuLa
Honoured with a Padma Shri in 1966, a Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1967, a Kalidas Samman in 1987, a Padma Bhushan in 1990 and a Punyabhushan in 1993, PuLa’s legacy is a culmination of the love and respect he received over time. His work continues to resonate with people long after his passing, despite the fact that much of it has not been translated into Hindi or English.
Abhijeet tells ThePrint, “When you come across such work so early in your career, it helps shape your thought process.”
On PuLa’s second death anniversary on 16 June 2002, the Department of Posts issued a commemorative stamp with a portrait and a sketch of him as Sant Tukaram — a character from his play Tuka Mhane Ata — along with a pen and a tanpura, symbolic of his contribution to literature and music.
In a documentary on his life, PuLa said, “When I die and go to heaven and God asks me ‘I gave you this gift, what have you given to the people in return?’ I would say, ‘Dear God, I haven’t kept track of what I have given to people, but what I have received is something even Gods aren’t given, which is their laughter.’”
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