Sai Paranjpye’s memoir gives a close look at her career, but has some glaring omissions

Without the insight provided by personal details, the discussion of her long and fruitful career seems banal

If you’re a movie fan and meet someone who understands your references to Miss Chamko, or who, while passing around a cigarette, says, “zara munh kadva karva le”, you know you can build something with that person. At the very least, an adda. Films like Chashme Buddoor (1981) and Katha (1983) occupy a special place for some of us who were watching films in the 1980s. The inept Naseeruddin Shah from Katha and the bright-eyed Deepti Naval and Farooq Shaikh from Chashme Buddoor jostled with superstars and modified our memory of cinema of that period. Sai Paranjpye, in particular, with her (RK) Narayanesque humour, captured the middle class and its foibles and graces in a fable-like form. This quality stems from the very sunny and comic vision of life she brought to the world of arts. This sunniness warms but doesn’t scorch. Her memoir A Patchwork Quilt beckoned with the promise of this warmth and nostalgia. I won’t call her “pioneering” and “woman director”, in order to respect Paranjpye’s vexation with such labels. She writes, “Wherever I go I am never allowed to forget that I am a woman filmmaker. This can get quite exasperating….To the eternal question that I am plagued with — what is the main disadvantage of being a woman director — my answer is: being endlessly harangued with this very question.”

The book has interesting tidbits about her work and the people she worked, argued and lived with. It begins with an invocation to her intrepid mother Shakuntala, who acted in V Shantaram’s Kunku (1937) at a time when women were nowhere near the screen. Paranjpye inherited cultural capital and talent from her family and, in some sense, the life of a multifaceted artist was scripted for her early.

A Patchwork Quilt is the English translation of her Marathi memoir Say: Maza Kalapravas (Rajhans Prakashan, 2020), which grew out of her popular column ‘Saya’ in Loksatta. In it, she described her journey through the “magical labyrinth of radio, theatre, television and film, like a carefree gypsy.” The book’s subtitle indicates that it is not an autobiography: Paranjpye writes the autobiography is a “genre of self-revelation” and one that makes her sceptical. “An honest life story should leave nothing out. Every detail of a life well-lived should be shared with the reader,” she writes. Finding herself not ready to undertake this journey, Paranjpye instead chooses to document her creative journey.

Although the account of her growth in different creative fields is detailed, it is a little disappointing. The personal details figure in a precious and curated manner; hiding behind the disclaimer that the account is not autobiographical. Bereft of an insight into the self, the details seem banal. How about asking some pertinent questions about the times one has lived in? Does Paranjpye, given her long innings, believe that art is in better health now? Or, is it less meaningful? Does it deliver on the promises it makes; does Paranjpye’s focus on optimism obfuscate these questions even for her, let alone the reader? The comic vision amidst chaos and unexpected turns of events makes this book quintessentially Paranjpye, but its lack of interiority is bewildering.

Rita Kothari is professor of English at Ashoka University

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