Many of you would have noted the death of Padma Bhushan Vijay Tendulkar, playwright, scriptwriter and civil liberties champion (he was also the father of the late Priya ‘Rajani’ Tendulkar). The theatre, film and journalist fraternities have paid rich tributes to him.
Many of these would have made reference to his iconoclasm but omitted any reference to his play, Mitrachi Ghoshta (A Friend’s Story), where the central character is lesbian and the story is about her struggle to cope with her sexual orientation and (as Rohini Hattangady, who played the character, has said) ultimate ‘inevitable’ suicide.
When I saw the Hindi version of the play, Kahani Sumitra Ki, (perhaps it was the late 1990s) staged by Chetan Datar and his theatre group, I thought it was dated and, of course, depressing. I had recently come out then and was, perhaps, more of an idealist then. Still, Tendulkar had the guts to dare to be different.
As I look back now at the play, it’s distressing how the fiction of his play is still a truth for many lesbians even today. The play’s other main character, Bapu, –
“ultimately comes to represent: a homophobic society that keeps its blinders on to naturalize straight relationships as the norm, even if this should lead to a tragic end.”
(Source: Humanities Retooled)
Incidentally, Tendulkar also wrote the screenplay for the Smita Patil-starrer, Umbartha (based on Shanta Nisal’s novel Beghar), which featured a lesbian couple who set themselves afire.
Tendulkar was in his teens and lived in Pune when he became acquainted with ‘Mitra’, the girl on whose life he based Mitrachi Ghoshta. This was in the early 1940s. A classmate of Mitra from college became friends with Tendulkar and would talk about this girl whom the playwright had seen many times before and even seen her performance on stage. The actor friend also told him about Mitra’s affair with another girl which “practically finished her (Mitra’s) life” when it ended.
Tendulkar recounted all this and more in his June 2001 preface to the play’s English translation (by Gowri Ramnarayan), which was published by Oxford University Press. He remembers “the shock waves and confusion” that the story about Mitra’s lesbian affair caused in his young mind. “I had just begun my career in writing then. But what I heard about Mitra did not prompt me to write about her at once. It took some years to surface in the form of a short story. It was written in the mid 50s…. The title was Mitra. It appeared in one of the Diwali annuals in Marathi, and was appreciated.”
A few years later, when he had moved to Mumbai, Mitra was again on his mind. By then he had seen her living as a spinster in Pune. Tendulkar said, “I was an adult then, with enough knowledge of the same-sex world which existed around me but was still considered a taboo. The thought of writing and staging a play on such a relationship was out of the question. Yet the play Mitra materialized.”
It was staged only a few times by some young actors. The play was “hated by the women and sneered at by the men in the audience”.
Mitra is widely acknowledged as the first Marathi play (and perhaps even the first Indian play) on same-sex relations. Tendulkar, however, emphasized that it was merely about “a young boy touching twenty, inexperienced in many human ways, and still a virgin when he comes in contact with Mitra. He feels a deep attachment for her after the first feelings of wonder, and gets involved with her until she destroys herself.”
In a note to the translation, Hattangady, said that, “Sumitra, that is Mitra, being ‘different’ is the core (essence) of the play.” Much before Hattangady played Sumitra, she had read the script “and liked it. The subject was new and different — in the first instance, almost unpalatable.” For Hattangady, it was “a chance, and a challenge” to play “such a character (Nothing like this had been tackled before in India, on stage or the screen, way back in 1980.)” Tendulkar greenlighted the performance only after he had seen it himself because “the subject could be easily misinterpreted.”
“…Even when we performed it, it was labeled as a ‘bold subject’ or ‘what sort of subject is it?’ It did not run too well as a commercial play, but those who saw our performance, still remember it as an ‘unforgettable’ experience.”
As an aside, Hattangady wrote that she read up on homosexuality “to get a better idea… and came to a broad understanding that these attractions are of two kinds, one based on circumstances and two, on physical hormonal imbalance. Mitra belongs to the second category.” Surprising that even in 2001 she harbored such out of date notions about homosexuality. But Hattangady also uses the words ‘abnormality’ and ‘different’ in quotes in the note.
Another incident she has recounted shows her sensitive nature: “To go for the rehearsals, I had to travel by local train in Mumbai…. One day while traveling, a eunuch boarded the train. There was not much of a mad rush. The train stopped at the next station. A few ladies got down and a few entered. They looked strangely at the eunuch. I was watching them and the ‘look’ on their faces. Isn’t Mitra also ‘different’? That look on their faces said so many things to me. From that day onwards, Mitra came closer to me still.”