Apr 12, 2008

P L Deshpande

Mumbai's leading poet, playwright and philanthropist might serve as an opening approximation of P. L. Deshpande's place in Marathi culture, but only if it were followed by a string of such qualifications as comedian, singer, musician, raconteur, screenwriter, film director, translator, actor and author of enough books to fill this space with their titles alone. He was known as "Mr Multi-Media Man" and indeed there was almost no area of popular and intellectual culture within Maharashta that he had not dominated for decades. "Pu La" as he was affectionately known by his Marathi initials was as widely popular as a harmonium player as a movie actor, his comic cassettes were continual best-sellers and his unstinting generosity made him a revered supporter of a range of charities. One way to describe him as India's Woody Allen.

Deshpande, who had been suffering from Parkinson's for the last six years, died in the hospital he had himself inaugurated. He was to be given a full state funeral, an event wisely resisted by his widow, Sunita, as the antithesis of his aesthetic.

PL Deshpande was the first person to produce Indian TV program. He was sent to BBC in 1958 for training for this purpose.

Purushottam Laxman Deshpande was born in Bombay and attended Fergusson College, where he set up a literary circle: "We ran it with complete confidence that the future of Marathi literature rested only in our hands." A typically self-mocking comment which can hardly disguise the fact they were proved right. His love of literature was reflected by the series of public readings of Marathi poetry that he set up with his wife and which became sell-out stadium events.

Deshpande seriously studied the harmonium from a young age and eventually became a leading player, as accompanist for some of India's most fabled singers and also composing his own hits, whether the devotional song "Indrayani Kathi" or the children's number "Naach re mora". Indeed his harmonium tapes were a staple at every Marathi home, where few social gatherings would end without some discussion of Pu La and his activities.

Deshpande made his first film, Kuber, in 1947, in which he was acting and play-back singing; by Mothi Manse in 1949 he created the music; and he spent the next decades on countless movies in which he was either actor, play-back singer, composer, narrator or writer. On his last film, Ek Hota Vidooshak (1993), Deshpande created the screenplay and dialogue.

Perhaps his signature work was the play Batatyachi Chaal about a ramshackle Bombay apartment building, which is one of the few of his works translated into English.