The last decade bore witnessed to the India cinema unbecoming and at the same time forbearing at varied levels. Art cinema, short films, web series were welcomed and treated at par with the mainstream commercial cinema.
Audience took to broadening their minds and appreciated the good work which was being catered on small plates or platforms. This attitude has encouraged cinema-makers to go full-throttle on experimentation and ideation. As a result, we are being dished incredible content irrespective of the platform and outreach.
One such short film as the category says, and a hidden-gem as we say, is Satindar Singh Bedi’s ‘Kamakshi’. Bedi, a student of FTII, made this short film in 2015. The story revolves around the protagonist who is an 80-year-old water-seller.
‘She digs a well with her horse, Kafka, and oxen, Huuri, in a bid to turn the barren land green. As she digs deeper and deeper, he water erupts makes the desert green,’ is how IMDB puts summarizes the story.
The short film went on to gain accolades in national and international film festivals. It bagged four nominations and three big wins. According to an Indian Express report, the film was widely appreciated at Berlinale 2015, Indian Panorama at International Film Festival of India (IFFI) and even clinched four awards at the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF).
However, the appreciation and awards did not go on to be the talk of the town. It was the 78-year-old lead actor, Parvati Limbaji Suryawanshi , who did.
Parvati, fondly known as ‘Parubai’ to those who know her, starred as Kamakshi in Bedi’s black-and-white Marathi film. Before going on to become a movie star, Parubai was a waste-picker at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune.
Parubai’s stint at the FTII campus began as a waste-picker who would saunter around picking glass, metal, used papers and plastic so as to sell as scrap.
But like most of the Bollywood actress, it took one of the amateur filmmaker students to notice her and give her a break, even though the ‘break’ would mean acting for their small-time assignments.
Critics may call Parubai’s acting in Kamakshi as ‘skill’, but little do they know that ‘Kamashi’ borrows heavily from Parubai’s life. Thus, casting a waste-picker was an inevitable choice and as it turned out, the best one!
Married at a young age, Parubai lived through the famines of 1972. She worked as a laborer in the water-scarce region of Solapur, along with husband. Soon after the drought hit, they were left jobless.
While speaking to The Indian Express, “There was no food. Our cows and calves died, we had no time for them as we struggled to feed ourselves.”
Three of her children lost their lives in the famine.
But she did not let her hopes die. She left home in pursuit of work and took to working as a laborer at well-construction sites.
She and her husband were packed off in a truck and sent to Gujarat to a contractor who hired them as ‘cheap labor’. Working at hardworking, menial jobs like breaking stones and carrying them, digging well, harvesting crops would fetch them only Rs. 10/day. They did not have a shelter and had to sleep at makeshift shelters.
“My husband was reluctant to take me along, but I insisted. We went wherever work took us: Gangthadi, Vapi, Navsari. My husband would lift big stones and put them on my head to carry. Bigger stones meant more money,” she says.
One fine day, the couple fled the work site and eventually found themselves in Pune after days on foot, buses and train. Here too, Parubai did some basic work until she was hired as a waste-picker with the Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat in 1982. She was later employed at the FTII and the rest we know is history.
Parubai may not have any acting experience, but she has acted in about 20 students’ films. And while she is fluent in Marathi, she negotiates her remunerations in broken Hindi with students who pay her a small sum.
Four years ago, cataract struck her and made it difficult for her to carry on as a waste-picker. Today, her income largely comes from the money she earns from acting.
In 2009, Parubai was paid a handsome amount of Rs. 11,000 for acting in a diploma movie. She made a house of tin-sheet for herself with that money. 10 years ago, she also lost her husband and one of her sons. She now lives with her alcoholic son who has been deserted by his family. However, she did see some ‘achhe din’ as she now stays in a small home in the Janata Vasahat slum.
“I don’t understand cinema at all,” confesses Parubai to the publication. All she knows is to become her character and act when the director says action.
‘Kamakshi’ is Parubai’s favorite of the 20 movies she has acted in. Although, she thinks she looks like a witch and makes a face as she says that.
She says, “That shoot really tired me out. The sequences were really difficult and tricky. I had to climb down the well, sleep in water and even chew stones. All this in one sari. I thought I would contract pneumonia. But you have to suffer. That’s how it is during a film shoot. Potachi khalgi bharnyasathi aamhi kaam karto (I continue to work, to be able to feed myself). There’s no one to support me. Even today, I don’t have electricity in my house.”
Parubai is a regular at the campus and can be seen even on days she has a holiday. She comes in the afternoons and spends her evenings with the students. She now considers them as her family.
“It’s here (FTII) I find some solace. I’m alive only because of these kids (students),” she says, signing off.
Talking about her latest projects, she has just wrapped up shooting for a commercial film in Pune and Latur. The film is all set to hit the theatres soon.
Parubai’s face gleams with sunrise lights of her acting career as she walks into the sunset years of year life.
Title image: youtube