Actor Rajshri Deshpande may have entered the popular Netflix series Sacred Games in the fourth episode, but her short role as Subhadra, the wife of Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Ganesh Gaitonde, made an impact. “I don’t think about the length of the role, but the importance of character,” she says, over the phone from Raebareli in UP, where she is shooting. “I’m glad that I got to play Subhadra as she is a very important part in Gaitonde’s life,” says the actor.
Screenshots and video clips of her intimate scenes with Siddiqui started making the rounds on social media and porn sites. “The scenes are part of the narrative. We had the best writers and director on board. I’m not degrading myself. What I’ve portrayed is consensual love. Unfortunately, our society doesn’t wants to discuss this. We don’t talk about menstruation, forget sex,” she says, adding that the audience has also appreciated the other sweeter moments that the couple shared.
One of her previous projects also ran into controversy, Malayalam filmmaker Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s film S Durga (2017). “Sexy” instead of “S” was the original title that had the censor board worried. But the film won laurels all over the world last year, including Hivos Tiger Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, Golden Apricot Award in the International Feature Competition category in Yerevan International Film Festival. Set in Kerala, an inter-faith couple is on a run at midnight, and eventually takes a lift from two gangsters. Deshpande, who plays the female protagonist, had a tough time shooting for the film.
“Playing Durga was very difficult, as it was not easy to get out of the character. I had to be strong. As an artiste, we have to be very strong, as we’re portraying someone’s story, that is being screened all over the world. Portraying something happening in the society for real,” she says. The actor has also acted in another Malayalam movie, Haram (2015), where she played a double role — of an actress and her nude double. She bagged the role while learning Kathakali and Kalaripayattu in Kerala Kalamandalam. “They were looking for someone who could look different in Western and Indian outfits,” she says.
After several rejections and small roles in Talaash (2012) and Kick (2014), and TV shows, such as Kuch Toh Log Kahenge (2012) and 24: India (2013), she was noticed as Lakshmi, a fiesty house help in Pan Nalin’s Angry Indian Goddesses (2015).
Coming up, she will be seen as Urdu writer Ismat Chugtai in Nandita Das’s Manto. In the 1930s, Chugtai wrote on themes such as female sexuality and femininity, middle-class gentility, and class conflict. “She was one of the strongest writers of India, and it is a shame that more people don’t know about her. She was also a progressive social worker. I was talking to her grandson and he told me how people used to keep coming over to their house and discuss their problems with aapa, and she used to try and solve their issues. She was not just writing Garam Hawa, but also living it in real life. It’s a huge honour to play her,” says the actor, who will also essay the role of social reformer Savitribai Phule, in Marathi film Satyashodhak, directed by Nilesh Jalamkar.
She also acted in British crime drama McMafia, which aired on BBC One earlier this year. Created by Hossein Amini and James Watkins, it was inspired by the 2008 book by journalist Misha Glenny. Deshpande plays Manju, a sex worker and girlfriend of businessman Dilly Mahmood (played by Siddiqui). This is her third collaboration with the actor. On playing real and fearless women, the actor replies, “I’m not a fantasy character, I’m a very real person, I look very real,” she says.
Her tryst with acting started with theatre. In Aurangabad, her hometown, she did Marathi theatre in Kamlesh Mahajan’s group. When she shifted to Pune to study advertising, she did experimental and parallel theatre with Mohit Takalkar. “I saw an ad for a job in a client servicing agency. It also said they would give Sunny, the car. I didn’t know what I had to do, but I was attracted to the car,” she says.
After working there for two years, she started her own agency on a “chai ka tapri”. “After one year, we rented a small garage, and then had a proper office space.” But there was a point in life when depression hit her. It was then, in 2009, she decided leave her job and shift to Mumbai. Here she started working in theatre groups of Naseeruddin Shah and Manav Kaul, among others. “As a child, I enjoyed mimicking actors like Hema Malini and Amitabh Bachchan. I don’t know how good I was but people laughed and it made me very happy,” she says. “Like, in every Maharashtrian household, celebrating Ganpati was a huge affair. We used to perform and dance on stage, that’s how my journey started,” she adds.
A prominent part of Deshpande’s life is social work. After working with several organisations, during which she also travelled to Nepal after the 2015 earthquake, she set up Nabhangan Foundation, which has adopted villages in Maharashtra — Pandhari and Math Jalgaon. The organisation introduced rainwater harvesting and started rebuilding schools and toilets in the villages. “Three years back, when drought hit Maharashtra, there were many villages where help didn’t reach. I’m trying to make a difference to the villages,” she says.