She is Pan Nalin’s Lakshmi, Sanil Sasidharan’s Durga and now Nandita Das’ Ismat Chughtai. In just a little time, Rajshri Deshpande has wowed us with the versatile characters that she has portrayed and will be portraying. Not one to be shy of challenging roles, Rajshri believes in exploring the layers in each character, making them her own.

The actor who is breaking stereotypes on screen is equally passionate about the social causes she supports in real life. From her inspiration, to her recent roles, her wish list and more, Rajshri indulges us in a heartfelt chat.

Rajshri Deshpande

Rajshri Deshpande

Given your filmography, would it be right to say that you have an affinity towards strong women characters/stories?

Yes, of course, I have an affinity. But I feel that every woman is an interesting character. Every person has several many layers; some films show those layers and some don’t. Be it the character of a mother, sister or friend, there are layers to each character, which a lot of films don’t show because they don’t think that is necessary for the story. But if you see characters in older films like Mandi, for example, each and every character has proper layers, so you feel that every character is important. Similarly, in Angry Indian Goddesses, everyone has layers; every person is important on screen. I think that every woman is an important person in the film, it’s not about how big / lengthy the role is or how much screen time you get in the film.

How important is it for you to find a similarity between yourself and the character you play?

I feel that every character I’ve played, has some similarity to my real self. Because I believe that as Indian women, all of us have similar journeys. Maybe some women have money, while some don’t, so their struggles are different, but the journey is similar.

There are characters that I’ve felt, have been with and feel that I know them, which is why each of my characters become stronger, because I’ve seen all these women (in real life), and each of them is a strong person, just their circumstances are different.

Look at Ismat Chughtai’s stories and her characters, you will see that each and every person is strong. In her stories, there is no villain but everyone has grey shades depending on their circumstances. That’s the reason I take each of my characters seriously, treat them with the same passion. It’s a huge responsibility to play someone else. When I was playing Lakshmi (Angry Indian Goddesses), I had the responsibility towards all the housemaids, all those women who come from a small town, from lower class families. They are not always the stereotypical people as portrayed by us. They are also chilled out people, who wear sunglasses, dress up and so on.

I give full credit to Nalin (Pan Nalin, Director), because many a times if you’re showing a character who is poor, it will be a thin person, wheatish color, etc., but Nalin broke the stereotype and cast me. And that’s what a director’s vision is.

Coming to your recent film Sexy Durga, what drew you to it?

This character is special, like Lakshmi was. It had something different. Durga is my responsibility because I believe that women today are facing such problems. They have a voice, but even if they scream, nothing happens. Durga is very special to me because I understand these women. I work for a rescue foundation that rescues minor girls working in brothels, aids victims and other helpless girls. I’ve been working with them for the past three years and I interact with these girls on a daily basis. I counsel them, talk to them, listen to their stories. When Sanil (Kumar Sasidharan, Director) and I were discussing Sexy Durga, I cried because I’ve heard such stories, I know what has happened to so many of these women, how they’ve been shattered in life.

It’s a very difficult character to portray, but I’m ready to slog, to bear the pain, because I have to tell this story to the entire world. This is what my girls are going through. Even though they are walking and talking, they are shattered. And all this has happened because of our sick society. That gave me the inspiration to play Durga, to be able to bear the pain. And I guess, directors who cast me also know somewhere that I have the inner strength to play these characters.

Poster of Sexy Durga

When the roles are so emotionally draining, what encourages you to play such characters? Where do you draw inspiration from?

It is all because of my mother. My mother is a very strong lady who has gone through a lot in life. She used to work in the municipality department, she was a firefighter at that time and could have earned a lot of money but she was not corrupt. So, she was constantly shifted from one department to another, from one village to another. I have come from a lower middle class family where we had to struggle. And at that time I hated my mother, I would constantly think why she wasn’t home, why did she leave me alone?

I never understood then what my mother was going through. She always told me that education is important to be able to make a better life. And I hated studies. But then I started understanding my mother, what she used to say, and why it was important to be a good human being. No matter what she went through in life, my mother always did something for everyone. She has given me the inspiration to give something to my society, to my people. That is the reason I’m associated with a lot of social causes.

All this inspiration comes from my mother. And every character that I’ve played, every strong woman, is a reflection of her.

You recently bagged the role of Ismat Chughtai in Nandita Das’ Manto. What does it mean to play such an illustrious character?

It’s a huge responsibility, playing Chughtai is like a dream. I’ve been reading her works since the past eight years. I know about her, read out her stories and do monologues too. I’ve also assisted Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah) sir on his play ‘Ismat Apa Ke Naam’.

If I’m able to be even one percent of her, it would be a big thing for me. Chughtai was such a strong, fiery woman. She wrote about lesbian relationships, extra marital affairs, in that era, and she never felt bad about anything. Today we are not as progressive as they were.

She was this fiery person and I’m really glad that am playing her.

What was the process of bagging this role like?

Nandita (Das) is someone who does all her homework before approaching someone, she knows everything about the person before meeting. She wanted someone who looked a little similar to Chughtai. So, she called me and just wanted to see me. When we met, she narrated the story to me and then we started discussing Ismat. I knew a lot of things about her and I was telling Nandita what I liked about her, my favorite situations and so on. And suddenly, Nandita got up and said, “Apa, aap hamare gale nahi milogi?” (Apa, in reference to Ismat Chughtai, won’t you give me a hug?)

I had tears in my eyes. The moment I put on those glasses (for the role), I felt, “This is what I want to do, these kind of roles”. This is my path of life.

Rajshri as Lakshmi in Angry Indian Goddesses

Considering that you’re so well versed with Chughtai , what more are you doing as prep for your role? What inputs has Nandita shared?

Nandita told me to pay attention to the intricate details. For example, Ismat used to like chewing ice. These are very small details, which not many people know of, but they make a huge difference. How she was clumsy as a person, how she used to live with each of her characters and how every character is some where, a reflection of herself.

Having played such varied roles, what other roles are on your wish list?

There are many. Everything for me is a state of mind, the character I portray should have layers, be it a strong person or a shallow one.

There are so many women I would have loved to play – Bandit Queen, Silk Smita; I would have loved to be part of Bhumika, Mandi, Katha, Sparsh and so many other films.

I’d love to work with Gulzar saab, Vishal Bhardwaj, Anurag Kashyap, because the way they treat their women characters is amazing. I also want to work with Naseer sir as an actor. I’d definitely want to work everywhere but first I want to do a lot of work with our people in India.

Lastly, the films you have been part of have traveled to several film festivals and excelled too, what does this festival recognition mean to you as an actor?

These festivals are a great platform for actors like me. Because unfortunately people still think about actors in a typical way, the good-looking saleable faces. And it will take time to get out of this mentality.

But it’s a good time for smaller films, they get a release, make some money, but you also need some noise about it. Festivals create that buzz. But there is still a long way to go. We need to break the barriers of commercial and independent cinema. Commercial films are great but there has to be a balance. And festivals are giving us that platform, to go out there. It’s very important for us to reach out to festivals and make a mark there.