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Trial By Fire’s Rajshri Deshpande is a fighter on screen and in 30 Maharashtra villages

From playing Ismat Chugtai in Manto to Subhadra in Sacred Games, Deshpande is a widely-known name in the industry. But she’s more than that.

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Rajshri Deshpande is now fighting the drought in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad. Last time she was Neelam Krishnamoorthy, fighting a 25-year-long legal battle for the victims of the 1997 Uphaar tragedy in Netflix’s Trial By Fire. For Deshpande, the real and the reel are not very different, much less polar opposites.

The Sexy Durga actor is particular about the roles she plays on screen. And she hasn’t wavered from her core idea of her character — ‘ordinary’ people who rise above their realities. From Ismat Chugtai in Nandita Das’ Manto (2018) and Subhadra in Sacred Games (2018) to Shobha Trivedi in The Fame Games (2022), Rajshri Deshpande’s roles have made her a widely-known name in the industry. But there’s more to her than playing popular characters.

“Acting for me is not separate from social work,” says Deshpande, a social worker in the Aurangabad district who has also done yeoman’s work in 30 villages — restoring water supplies and securing government funds for 200 toilets. Rajshri ‘tai’ has not just opened schools for women but also enabled many cotton pickers to become teachers.

“I want to be a teacher,” says Aandi Appasaheb More, a class I student at the zila parishad school in Pandhari village, smiling brightly on a video call that occasionally has bad reception due to poor network. Aandi is among the many girls whose parents sent them off to pick cotton earlier. About a hundred girls attend the school today.

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Nepal to Nabhangan

Deshpande’s work extends beyond the villages of Maharashtra. She volunteered in relief work after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal that killed thousands and demolished hundreds of homes.

Holding a postgraduate degree in advertising from Pune’s Symbiosis International University, Rajshri Deshpande was born to a farmer’s family and struggled financially through the years. That was when she decided to work at the grassroots level. “What I have learnt from my mother is that if I want sustained change, it is not enough to raise money and leave it at that,” she says. On 26 February 2018, she started a non-profit called Nabhangan Foundation and co-opted villagers into it. Together they worked for the changes one sees in Aurangabad today.

“I do not like NGOs. They often do the work governments should be doing. NGOs should only exist like salt on a plate — to make people aware of the situation on [the] ground. But more often than not, they are forced to do the government’s work,” says Deshpande.

Deshpande’s first project was to clear out a dried-up canal in 2016 at Pandhari village. She needed Rs 1.5 lakh so she reached out to people through Facebook. Lyricist Varun Grover and director Neeraj Ghaywan, who had won the National Award that year, donated Rs 1 lakh for the project. “They did not know me at all, but once they heard what I wanted to do, they immediately gave me the money,” she says.

For 15 days, 50 farmers engaged in cleaning and dredging the canal. Yogesh More was one of them. “You figure out that some people are here to work, and that is how I felt with Rajshri tai. So I decided to join her. After all, we were all working to make our village better,” says Yogesh. Soon, others warmed up to Rajshri too. In monsoon that year, the villagers saw the dried Bemble river overflow.

But for Rajshri, this was just the first step.

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The change one sees now

Rajshri Deshpande knew that education was the next step after water and sanitation. So she started collecting funds — from the government and through various public appeals — to rebuild the village school. Today, it is bustling with activities — from workshops to visits by industrial houses and even drama competitions. Teachers ensure that children have all-round development. “We try to add fruits or laddoos to supplement midday meals,” says Deshpande.

All these initiatives were motivated by Deshpade’s own experiences. “I still remember the stench from the toilet in my school,” she says.

Arushi More, Ashwika Sambhaji Kalhore, Ayesha Ramjan Shaikh love coming to school every day and want to become collectors or teachers when they grow up. For Rajshri, watching these girls dream is more fulfilling than social media fame. “We need to understand that likes and shares do not make our lives better,” she says.

From planting trees and generating jobs for women to Covid relief work, the Nabhangan Foundation has put its best efforts into the betterment of Aurangabad. But the organisation has many unfulfilled projects. “We still have a long way to go,” says Rajshri. The actor hopes to work with Shah Rukh Khan someday, whose Meer Foundation also lent a hand to her organisation.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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