WHEN THE FIRST Netflix original from India, Sacred Games, was streamed, it led to a lot of talking points—of India’s capability to produce a world class series; of the series letting each character breathe a life of its own; the crisp writing and deft direction. Criticisms for the show included use of female characters as “enablers” for men, and, the skin show (which Varun Grover, one of the scriptwriters, has taken in his stride and has promised to address in future). Rajshri Deshpande, as Subhadra, ticks both the boxes. She is an enabler in the journey of Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui); and, has also shed her inhibitions in an intimate scene. Her topless photos have been discussed on various WhatsApp groups and even porn sites, but her role also got her the long-pending appreciation.
She first features as a domestic help in the Gaitonde home. Her presence is barely noticeable until she becomes an indispensable part of Gaitonde’s life—first his saviour, then wife, and eventually, life coach.
Deshpande comes from a lower middle class family in Aurangabad. Her father could only dream small for his three girls—graduation and marriage. But, by the time the youngest, Rajshri, grew up, she had other plans. Marriage would happen, but she wanted to study first and live her dream. Deshpande taught dance, and later, worked in an advertising firm to support her education at the Symbiosis Law College. “But, when you start earning at a young age, money becomes very important,” she says. “Things start revolving around money. It happened with me, too. I missed out on exploring life, reading books and travelling.”
Marriage, in 2007, to her long-time friend, changed things. A supportive spouse understood her plight. “You should breathe now,” he told her one day. Rajshri moved to Mumbai, took up theatre, and, travelling. “Books teach you, watching a good film gives you perspective, but it is travelling that helps you get an insight,” she says. After a few stints in theatre and short films, she did two scenes in Aamir Khan-starrer Talaash (2012). She followed it up with a television show Kuch Toh Log Kahenge, but then realised that long-format television shows were not her cup of tea.
Taking a break, Deshpande went to Nepal, when the country was reeling under the aftermath of the earthquake. And, she could not help but work in a village there. “Around the same time, I also started working for a rescue foundation helping trafficked girls,” she says. The satisfaction she got led her to more social work, while also pursuing acting.
Over the last four years, she has worked in two Maharashtra villages—Pandhari and Math Jalgaon. She built schools and toilets there, and even revived dead rivers through rainwater harvesting. Last year, she founded the NGO Nabhangan Foundation. “I am trying to do my best,” she says. “I don’t have that kind of manpower, or funds. But, my intentions are good. And, I know that my reel work, too, is somehow talking about the problems that we face.”
Deshpande is wearing a crisp Lucknowi kurta, light makeup and a warm smile. In the last few weeks, she has been advised by friends to “not look like a jhalli”, hence the effort to dress up well. But she is comfortable in her skin, she clarifies, pointing to her unthreaded eyebrows. As an actor, she has been through many phases—of acceptance, and rejection, because her stomach was not flat enough, or cheekbones not high enough. But, she has eventually come to realise that it is her understanding of the character that matters more. “When Subhadra talks about kharwas with Gaitonde, she goes back in time to her childhood where she fantasised about the dessert,” she says. “That one line reveals so much about the life she has lived.” She was all praise for the writers of the show. “Even the sex scene was a part of the narrative structure, of the evolving love.”
“Anything can backfire—in S Durga, there is no nudity, but the film got into issues,” she says. “In Angry Indian Goddesses, I was wearing a sari, and still the film got its share of criticism. You never know the response that you will draw. In today’s time, people also forget things in a snap.” Deshpande talks about the unfortunate times we are living in. “No one would talk about the river I revived in a village.”
Sanal Kumar Sasidharan—director of S Durga in which she plays the lead, and Unmadiyude Maranam, which has her in a prominent role—remembers that Deshpande got in touch with him after watching his film, Oraalppokkam (2014). She told him she wanted to work in the kind of films he was making. A lot of actors would not do that. “Plus, she is very bold and very professional,” he says. “I have not seen many actresses like her. Most actresses are very conscious of their bodies and looks; they do not take acting as a profession, which is very important, and a quality that Rajshri possesses.”
Pan Nalin, the director of Angry Indian Goddesses, recalls the energy he felt when Deshpande walked in to meet him and casting director Dilip Shakar. “Our room could not hold her energy!” he says. “Her enthusiasm and courage to take on any kind of roles were absolutely non-ignorable. Rajshri’s honesty and talent are exactly what Dilip and I were looking to complete the seven roles of Angry Indian Goddesses,” he says.
He is surprised that it has taken so long for filmmakers to notice talents like Rajshri. “So, I am not at all surprised that finally people are recognising Rajshri’s skills and talent,” he says. “But, sadly, credible actors have a very tough time in establishing their credentials than the ones who are born in the industry with mega-star surnames!”
Deshpande, however, is not complaining. It could not have been better, she says. In fact, some really interesting roles have started trickling in. She will be seen playing Ismat Chughtai in Nandita Das’s Manto. Casting director Honey Trehan had seen her in a few films and called her to meet Nandita Das. “She asked me to read some of her stories and then at one point said, ‘arre, appa!’” She was cast.
Last year, Marathi actor Sandeep Kulkarni called her. “They were looking for a new face to play Savitribai Phule (in the Marathi film, Satyashodhak). Somewhere, they got to know about me and my social work,” says Deshpande. “We have been idolising these people for a long time now. I had to do it right and to do that, I had to study them closely and understand their work. I even had to understand them as women—the mindset that led them to writing certain stories, or taking up certain social reformation work. There could have been nothing better than playing these women who have left so much work to ponder over.”