A few years ago, when Makrand Deshpande’s theatre group, Ansh, had reached a milestone, I had written a personal impressions kind of piece on him for the Prithvi Theatre newsletter. Prithvi has always been his stomping ground; but for an occasional foray south Mumbai-wards, he didn’t even feel the need to extend the reach of his theatre outside the charmed circle of his admirers in Juhu. Still, he is considered one of the foremost Hindi playwrights and directors.

This year, Ansh celebrated its 21st anniversary with a 10-play festival, which was a major achievement for the usually laidback guy, who knows there are enough people to exult on his behalf the many who started their theatre careers with him and look upon him as a guru.

A scene from Kasturi, the first Makrand Deshpande play that seemed complete in ideas and execution
A scene from Kasturi, the first Makrand Deshpande play that seemed complete in ideas and execution

Back in 2011, I had written: My first encounter with Makrand Deshpande was a quarrel. He had acted in a play called Mahim Ki Khadi, on which I had made a comment with which he disagreed. The next time I met him, he had set up his own group, written a play, and directed it. For the next few years, he was madly prolific. His early plays like Dev Vanar, Airawat, Samrangan were inspired by mythology and written in the beautiful, poetic Hindi of a scholar, not that of a young man whose mother tongue was not Hindi, but Marathi. His other plays like Ek Kadam Aage, Dream Man, Kutte Ki Maut were abstract, mostly unstructured works-in-progress that he would be polishing right till the time the show opened. And then would shut them down as quickly, because, as he explained, “I have lots of plays waiting to be done.” All written in long hand on lined paper.

When asked what his new play was about, he would give some jumbled answer and say, “Now you make sense of it.” After reading what has been written, he would quip, “I understand my own play now.”

He laughed when people said they didn’t understand his plays, but still enjoyed them. It was true; his ideas were unique, his production design crazily imaginative (with Vijay and Teddy Maurya) and actors clamoured to work with him, because nobody else was writing plays like his. Ratna Pathak, Sonali Kulkarni, Sudhir Pande, Saurabh Shukla, Anurag Kashyap, Kay Kay Menon, Mita Vashisht, Mona Ambegaonkar acted in his plays, because he was such an exciting playwright and director unpredictable, eccentric, unstoppably creative. His pace and energy were nurtured by Prithvi Theatre, so much so that he did not care to step out of that comfort zone.

The first Makrand Deshpande play that seemed complete in ideas and execution was Kasturi and a little after that, when plays like Sir Sir Sarla and Sa Hi Besura were appreciated, he admitted that he had started writing plays that were accessible. He slowed down his frantic writing and started running his plays for longer periods and also taking an occasional peek outside Prithvi. Quality now took precedence over quantity. Still, Makrand must have set a record for having written and produced the largest number of plays (about 45 at last count) in the shortest span of time. He’s not the same mad, restless, on-the-edge Makrand, but he is not complacent or static yet. His habit of coming up with startlingly original ideas is tempered with an understanding of audience tastes and box-office demands — not to the extent of selling out, but to the point where his audiences say that they understood his play and enjoyed it.

At this festival, he revived Kasturi with a new cast and with suitable upgradations. The earlier production in the late nineties had Ratna Pathak Shah, Sudhir Pande and Mona Ambegaonkar; the new one has Makrand himself in the role of a cop and a fictional forest officer; Shalini Vatsa plays the buttoned-up author Maya and Chitrangada Chakraborty is her sexy alter ego, Kasturi.

In essence, Kasturi is like the famous N Richard Nash play The Rainmaker, in which a plain woman discovers love, but that’s where the similarity ends. Maya is the kind of woman who lives her life according to a timetable; she dresses in severe, dull-coloured clothes and creates an uninspiring romance in the book she is writing, that has a forest officer hero, with the odd name of Tiger Nawab. In life, her sprightly ‘sister’ Kasturi leads her to a cop, Dhurandhar Wagh, and nudges her into acknowledging and expressing her sexuality. Kasturi means musk, a rare and exotic scent found in the gland of the musk deer — here it signifies the spirit of femininity, a sexual charge that a woman may sometimes be unaware of, but when the right man comes along, he can sense it. Maya is, of course, the illusion that the writer creates in her mind, but cannot bring it out of her computer into her life.

Like so many Makrand Deshpande plays, this one, too, has a teasing quality to it, inviting the audience to ask and answer their own questions about Maya and Kasturi and their somewhat scruffy ‘Prince’, whose task for winning the ‘Princess’ involves not aiming an arrow at the eye of the fish, but changing a light bulb in an inebriated state. Maybe today’s woman would much rather prefer a man who may not be able to speak of love, but is handy around the house.

Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator. She tweets at @deepagahlot