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September 3, 1999
'Stereotyped' Role Gives Young Actress Insight into Indian Culture
Shanthi Shankarkumar in Chicago
She wounded her hand, but her performance and the movie were certainly not hurt.
The low-budget (about $ 1 million) film went on to win accolades at the festivals where it has been shown so far, including the Sundance, Montreal, and Chicago festivals. It has also won awards at festivals in New York and Brussels. It has been released in France, and will shortly be distributed in Spain, Denmark and Norway. The producers are hoping the film will be released in America and India soon.
Anyone coming in contact with Deshpande during the shooting of the film would never have guessed that she would do justice to her role of a demure, shy Indian bride who joins her Indian-American husband. She was a bundle of doubts and quite a nervous wreck, as the fainting incident testifies.
Says director Emmanuelle Craisle: "She was very scared before the shooting started. She did not want to be associated with a traditional Indian woman."
As a second-generation Indian-American, Deshpande, 26, considers herself more American than Indian. Essaying the role of a traditional, reticent Indian wife was going against the very grain of her strong, very American personality.
Says Deshpande: "When I first read about the character I did not want to play her because I thought she was very weak, quiet and subservient. As an American, I had always been taught to speak my mind."
But as the film progressed, Deshpande discovered a silent truth about Indian women: "I realised that being quiet is not a sign of weakness. The character I played was very similar to my mother, so I learned to respect my mother even more. It took a lot of strength on her part to come to a new country, not speak the language and make new friends."
The film explores two parallel relationships. One between Deshpande, who plays a new Indian bride, and her Indian-American husband (played by Ajay Naidu) and the other between an Italian husband (played by Vincent Amato) and his American wife. Deshpande and Amato light up the film with their luminescent portrayals of people struggling to come to terms with new environments and bewildering relationships.
"She was the most amazing discovery of the film along with Amato. They were both non-professionals," producer Dominico Albonetti says.
"Anjalee suffered through the film because of the strong similarities her character had with her own mother. We used to call her the "Princes' " because every time she wore a sari and her makeup there was a transformation and magic on the sets."
Deshpande's parents moved to the US from Bombay in the sixties. She was born in Royal Oak, Michigan, and realised that acting was her forte when in high school. Of course, the acting bug was also in her genes.
"My dad had done Marathi plays and I was around actors. I always wanted to do Marathi plays, but my dad wouldn't let me because of my American accent," she says with a laugh.
She went on to get a scholarship for acting at the Kalamazoo College in Michigan and then moved to New York for three years to pursue acting. Besides Once We Were Strangers, she has also acted in Shopkeepers (a film by British-Indian filmmaker Ave Luthra about young Indian gangs). She also did a television show called Ghost Stories and a film, Promise Kept by CBN (Christians Broadcasting Network) which was aired on Doordarshan.
Even as her performance in Once We Were Strangers brought her recognition and more roles, Deshpande decided that her calling lay more in directing than acting, more in theatre than in films. She went on to join Northwestern University's School of Drama on a full scholarship. "Acting is a lot of fun, but directing is what I really want to do. I plan to do a lot of Indian theatre work here. I would love it if Marathi playwrights would get in touch with me," she says.
"I would love to stage their plays here. Unfortunately, there are very few Marathi plays translated into English. But I would love to work with Indian playwrights who would like their work to be staged here as well as with Indian-Americans who have written plays here. I would also like to do Sanskrit theatre based on dance and music. For my thesis, I hope to work on Shakuntala."
Her ultimate fantasy, however, is not so eclectic. "It would be like a dream if I got to act in Hindi films," she exclaims.
Deshpande also hopes that as a director she would be a catalyst of change. "There are so many South Asian Americans who are looking forward to doing good work in theatre and on screen," she says. "But now they are either taxicab drivers or a face in the crowd. An actor can't change this, but a director can."
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