And I played 'Shyamchi Aai' on Screen...

Interview of Gauri Deshpande (Part Two)

Zee Talkies recently announced the film awards for 2023 in their grand annual event 'Maharashtracha Favourite Kon?'. Gauri Deshpande deservingly won the 'Maharashtra's Favourite Female Actor' award for her graceful portrayal of Shyamchi Aai in the movie Shyamchi Aai, directed by Sujay Dahake.
We had Published an in-depth interview of Gauri in Sadhana Yuva Diwali 2023. Rucha Mulay had penned the interview and has now translated it as well. We will publish the interview in two parts on Kartavya Sadhana. The first half would showcase Gauri's journey of her acting career and the second half would focus on her experience of bringing Shyamchi Aai to life.

(Click here to read Part 1)

It seems you do what you do thoughtfully and carefully. So, tell me now, why did you decide to audition for a film like Shyamchi Aai?

- Why not?! In many households of Maharashtra, Shyamchi Aai has been the first ever real book that children read for generations now. The book is filled with the sweetness of love, tolerance, and sensitivity. As a child, I also felt that "My mother should be as loving as Shyamchi Aai". In school, in a skit, I won a hearty applause for the sentence "You protect your feet from getting soiled, similarly, protect your mind as well from getting soiled, Shyam". (Not unlike many other girls, mind you!)

Plus, this being a film by Sujay Dahake, a sensitive, thoughtful, experimental, and award-winning director, it felt just right for me.

But I didn't give this audition straight away. I mean, I had just come to know that Sujay has started working on this movie from a social media post. That post was 'Shodh Shyamcha' (Finding Shyam). It was basically an audition call for the role of young Shyam. As they had announced auditions for only Shyam, I thought the actor who plays the mother must have already been finalised. I remember thinking that I would have certainly auditioned, had I known. 

I shared this audition call post with a friend - Nikhil Dada, and suggested he should let his son audition for Shyam’s role. Then I never even thought about the movie, until one fine day I received a message on Facebook from a man named Azam Karnik. He says, “I am on Sujay Dahake's team, we are looking for an actor to play Shyam's mother for Shyam's Aai movie. Are you interested?” I said in my mind, “AM I INTERESTED? Of course I am!” But Azam Karnik didn't even have a profile photo on Facebook, no one from the film industry was in his friend list. No mutual friends, so I was not sure.

But Sujay was on my friend list. So, I just dropped a “Hi”. His immediate reply was if Azam from his team was in touch. After the verification, he sent me the script. He told me to shoot the video and send it in two-three days. He said he wanted to see if my voice would be suitable for the mother's character. So, I sent an audio along with the video. A few days later I got to know that I had passed the audio test. The next step was a meeting in Mumbai. We talked about my work so far, all my background, his background and then as I was leaving, he handed me the script of the movie and asked me to read and share my impressions the next day. After taking the script in hand, I realised that the script has been written by Sunil Sukthankar. Another green flag, right there, and my desire to play the role only grew.

When we met again, he recorded the entire script in my voice. And I also shared my views about the character with him. Again, several days passed and one day I got a call from Sujay to say “You are Shyamchi Aai”. I was on cloud nine. Not just because I got the part, but it is a great satisfaction I was carefully evaluated on relevant criteria and then got selected. I was selected on the basis of my voice, my understanding, dialogue delivery skills and acting skills only. We had not even known each other in person before.

Then a few days later another funny thing happened. I got a call from Nikhil Dada. He said his son Sharva had not only auditioned but was actually selected as Shyam! I acted all cool and said, "Oh and do you know who Shyam's mother is, it’s me!” And thus, the joyful journey began.

After reading the script of the film, what did you think about the character of Shyam's mother? What did you and the writer-director think about how to portray this mother? Which qualities of a mother have you mainly tried to portray while portraying this role?

- As a child I wanted an ever-loving mother like Shyam’s mother, as a teenager I knew for a fact that no real mother is so overly sweet and Shyamchi Aai was certainly a product of fiction! I could readily laugh about it. When I read the script, I had already worked as a therapist for a few years, so now I saw her as a parent who treats the child as her equal and explains socio-economic complexities by simplifying, but never denying. She trusts her children, but does’t overlook their mistakes either. She has a helping nature. She knows all her children well and seems to understand their emotional needs and nature and interacts with them accordingly. She becomes their friend without ever saying it. I shared my impression with Sujay and he liked them. 

Sujay and Sunil sir were in complete agreement about the character. They insisted that they didn’t want to portray Shyam's mother merely as a loving but demure or silently suffering lady. They wanted to focus on her being strong of character, wise and rational. Although Sane Guruji was mild natured he was not a weak person. He was a revolutionary. And the mother who reared him must have been an equally forward thinking, courageous and resolute woman. I had clear instructions to portray a woman of substance. As for the method of portrayal, we agreed that while we would use the older regional style of Marathi, we’ll not overdo the accents and high-pitched nasal sounds. The need to sound real and convey our content was much greater.  

What will be seen in the film about how the mother reared Shyam?

- She was keen that her children get education, that they make their own decisions in their lives. She never demanded they obey her just because she is the mother, she explained why it was the right thing to do. May it be asking Shyam not to pluck young buds from the tree, or to explain how poverty may cause victimised people to make violent and wrong choices, to make Shyam help an elderly woman with a heavy load of firewood, in spite of her lower social class or to send hot food to the sick Mathuri - a lower class woman who came to help with the outdoor chores. It is evident that she imbibed values by practising, not preaching.

Her sensitivities prevailed in Sane Guruji’s personality. He could be non-judgemental about a thief, considering he may have stolen to survive. He could understand that circumstances may bring out the worst in a person. Certainly, his mother’s values were at the core of these gentle sensitivities in his mind. That is why in his stories, we always see a plausible justification of people choosing to do wrong. That is why we see his sinners redeem themselves. 

Sujay Dahake is a National Award-winning director. His films often deal with out-of-the-box themes. Did you feel any pressure to work with him on your debut? How was the overall experience of working with this director?

- There was no pressure after the audition. There was only a lot of excitement. Yes, his films tend to deal with out-of-the-box themes, so I had no doubt that he would have a different take even on this familiar story. He gave Sharva and me a head start with script reading, so that we had enough time to read the script together, to practise and to build a bond between us even before the shoot started. He had thought out every character in detail, giving instructions accordingly. He had considered a lot of possibilities about the shoot location, art direction, and the visual image in the cinema. He wanted to shoot the movie entirely in black and white. We were constantly amazed by the glimpses of his vision and intelligence. He also maintained a very positive atmosphere on the set. 

How was the working environment on the set? Who are your co-stars? How was the experience working alongside them?

- The atmosphere was great. Everyone had a huge workload. But everybody carried it willingly with a smile. When a lot of people's energy is in sync like that, it's a lot of fun to put a project together. Being the protagonist, I might have been a wee bit pampered, but any actor who had been on that set for even a day, felt that atmosphere there was great. An atmosphere of good humour prevailed. There were some upsets of course, but they were temporary.

Even after a year and a half after the shoot, most of us are still in good touch and the credit goes to the onset positivity. I could find physical and emotional comfort on the set. So, my biggest concerns were only about delivering my pieces right. 

Sharva who played Shyam and I were both newbies but the director treated us as well as the other established actors. 

Sandeep Pathak and Om Bhutkar both had image breaking roles. Both of them kept their stardom aside and were smiling and playing along with everyone. Sandeep Pathak has played the role of Shyam's father. I did not feel any discomfort while acting as his character's wife. He was a great co-actor. Om Bhutkar's face is now hard to separate from Sane Guruji's, his demeanour was so genuine. Seeing veteran actor Jyoti Chandekar step into the shoes of Durvanchi Aaji was a lesson in acting. Mayur More is a big name in Hindi Web Series, but this is his debut film in Marathi. The effort he put into mastering Old Marathi was great. His face is very expressive. What can I say about Sharva? Along with the innocence of his age, he has a deep understanding of the language, acting and content. He is sensitive. He also worked thoughtfully by observing, discussing, and categorically understanding instructions. All the actors on the set were enthusiastic. Everyone was working not only with professionalism and discipline but with heart. I think I will always expect such a healthy environment in future. The first experience spoiled me. 

Vijay Mishra, our DOP, deserves a special mention. He has presented this 'feeling' in black and white.  Even though he is not a Maharashtrian and does not relate to the social history of this region, he had a great vision of how to shoot a period drama rooted in Marathi culture. Every individual visual, people and locations alike, carried the story forward beautifully. Vijay’s vision was exceptional! We could see very closely how well he managed the game of shadows. I hope the audience enjoys the film as much as we enjoyed the process of making it.

Shyamchi Aai played by Vanmala and by Gauri are going to be inevitably compared. How do you think you will cope with it?

- The story is the same but the approaches of the two directors are different. This script is written thinking why you should see Shyamchi Aai again in today's era. There will be comparisons. Both good and bad. But as I talk to people, it seems that people are more curious than sceptical. The context of time is very important. There is a difference between what Acharya Atre felt at that time and what we see and feel today.

An important difference is that we will get to see glimpses of how his mother’s rearing influenced different actions and decisions of Sane Guruji in his adult life. We will portray her being able to make important domestic decisions, her being competent and in general the boss lady. 

What will this story from 100 years ago bring to today's audience?

- I think Shyam's mother was just like your mother and mine. She wanted her children to thrive and become good people. She empowered the children by leading by example. She had simple wishes for her own son, that he should be fearless, that he should not resort to mean ways to get what he wants from others, that he should not be ashamed to do any good deed, or to admit wrongdoing, that he should help others, that he should be sensitive and be able to act with love. This is every mother's dream for every child. That dream is timeless. I think the audience should watch this film to understand its present-day context and to look forward to the future. 

What would you say about Shyam, whose mother you play? The role of Shyam was played by three actors of different age groups, but you played the role of mother alone. How was this experience? How was your bond? What special efforts did you make for it?

- I have not tried anything special, to be honest. I responded to all three of them with the same approach and energy as they put in. I have shared the most screen time with Sharva. We rehearsed for two months. So, our chemistry was visible. Cuddling with each other, always feeling free and comfortable with each other was organically achieved. 'Effortless' is the right word for it. Shyam's mother treated Shyam as an equal and so did I, actually, so did we. We were always together, always discussing with each other. I believe people will like us as mother and son.

Mayur has beautifully portrayed a young adult Shyam, who is lonely due to being away from his mother, a little estranged from his home, but still connected in heart with his mother. With him, I mainly play the role of a sick mother, so we have emphasised on non-verbal conversations. By the time Om Bhutkar came in as Sane Guruji, the mother had passed away so we didn't share much screen time, but we did share some emotional moments together as Sane Guruji reminisces his childhood and fond memories of his mother and then brings the book ‘Shyamchi Aai’ to life.

All three of them invoked a different aspect of motherhood in me in their own way and with that understanding we materialised that relationship. There is a conscious similarity in the appearance and behaviour of the three of them. The choice of the three actors in their looks and their demeanour is such that it seems easy to accept that he has naturally grown up and eventually has become an adult. 

The film is going to be in black and white, was the shooting done differently for that?

- I can't give the technical aspects, but the use of natural light, the specific times of day for shooting, the palette of checking whether things in colour actually look good in black and white, etc. were very different. For that, the visualisation and homework of the Sujay-Vijay pair was amazing. 

As an actor making her debut on the big screen in 2023, did it feel brave or stupid to do a period drama, a black and white film, a mother's role, with a simple look in a 9-yard saree, chapped hair, zero make-up, early in her career? If it felt that way, why did you decide to take this dare?

- The age of the actor and her role as a mother is seen in a slightly different way. So, I did feel a wee bit of fear about playing the role of the mother of such a big boy in the first movie itself. What if I don't get the roles of so-called heroines after doing this? But of course, the strength of the story and the character, and association of everyone who made the film made that fear momentary. And I have not played a role much older than my actual age. It was a time when girls got married very early. My screen age spectrum is 25-35. Many people thought I don’t even look like a mother. Some thought, like Shyam, mother also would be played by actors of three different ages. But I hope they will get satisfactory answers to all the questions after watching the movie. 

Another point of hesitation was that I might get offers for similar roles, similar period films only. Will I be viewed through the same lens? It is possible, but I definitely wanted to do this role despite all that. There will definitely be someone who will remember my performance beyond my character and my look. I have not yet decided whether to accept or reject such roles in the future in terms of type casting. In that sense, the fact that Teen Adkun Seetaram has already been released will prove to be good for me. That role belongs to today’s time. I come across as a confident professional, wearing posh western outfits. She is funny. And the good thing is that my film with a small role came out first and now Shyamchi Aai will come out. Here is also my growth as an actor. And this transformation already feels better.

What are your upcoming projects? What kind of roles would you like to play in the future? Is there something like your dream role?

- I will not spoil the surprise by talking about upcoming work. I hope people will enjoy them as they see the light of the day. And in the meantime, I'll be seen experimenting with theatrical reading as usual.

I would love to play a role that is nowhere close to how I am, how I look and how I act. Rural woman, gangster, speaking a different dialect, mime play... anything. I would love to be recognized for versatile strong performances by the likes of Shefali Shah, Rasika Duggal, Smita Patil. I also want to do mindless comedy. I find it very challenging. Female actors with great comic presence are rare. I would like to be one of them. I can't guarantee the success of what I'll do, but I'll be happy if I can enjoy the process. If there is ever a biopic on Smita Patil and Madhubala, and if I get to play the role of Smita and Madhubala in it, those will definitely be my dream roles. 

What will Shyam's mother teach Shyam differently today?

- I think she will make him aware of the judicious use of tools and technology. Unfortunately, we live in a very hateful environment right now so this mother will definitely tell him that no custom, tradition, culture, religion, caste, or any identity should be held in greater respect than humanity and love. Perhaps if today's Shyam has different sexual sensibilities, she will accept them with an open mind and empower Shyam to make his own decisions wisely.


Speaking to Gauri was a refreshing and enriching experience. Here is wishing her well in all future adventures!

(Interview & Traslation : Rucha Mulay

Gauri Deshpande

साने गुरुजींच्या श्यामची आई या पुस्तकावर आधारित, सुजय डहाके दिग्दर्शित नवा चित्रपट 2023 च्या दिवाळीत महाराष्ट्रभर प्रदर्शित झाला. त्या निमित्ताने त्या पुस्तकाची नवी आवृत्ती साधना प्रकाशनाकडून आली आहे. 

पुस्तकात 42 प्रकरणे आहेत, त्यातील विविध प्रसंगांना अनुरूप अशी सिनेमातील 35 छायाचित्रे समाविष्ट केली आहेत. पुस्तकाच्या मुखपृष्ठावर सिनेमातील श्यामची आई व वडील, आणि श्यामची भावंडे आहेत. आकर्षक छपाई व हार्ड बाऊंड स्वरूपातील ही आवृत्ती, कोणीही कोणालाही भेट देण्यासाठी आणि संग्रहात ठेवण्यासाठीही महत्त्वाचा ऐवज आहे. वर तसेच वर हे पुस्तक सवलतीत उपलब्ध आहे.


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Please make a small but important correction, if possible. Gauri is NOT awarded as "Maharashtra's Favourite female actress". She has received Jury recognition prize/mention/award for her appearance in the film. Ms. Genelia Deshmukh ji is "Maharashtra's Favourite female actress" for the year 2023 along with Ms. Mrinal Kulkarni ji as Maharashtra's favourite actress in supporting role. Though, we wish Gauri best wishes to reach up to this award in the future.

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