The Marathi manoos’s fondness for good literature is well-known. Among the many excellent writers in Marathi, few are more beloved than Purshottam Laxman Deshpande. The man was something of an all-round cultural figure. He wrote, acted, composed music, sang. But he’s best known for his humorous writing. Pu La, as he was fondly called, had amusing things to say about every situation, from shopkeepers in Pune, who value everything but the customer, to post offices that never deliver letters on time to religious gurus who con people.
The writer is the subject of a tribute performance by Mandar Bhide, a well-known name in Marathi stand-up comedy. Bhide’s show Maazha Shatrupaksha: Doctor Aani Hospital will be staged on Sunday, August 18 at Cat Cafe Studio in Andheri. We spoke to him about slipping into Pu La’s shoes.
What made you choose Pu La Deshpande?
Pu La Deshpande chose me, to be honest. When I started doing stand-up in Marathi in collaboration with Bharatiya Digital Party (BhaDiPa), there were a lot of people who kept requesting us to put together a show based on the work of Pu La Deshpande. He has a massive following from people across all age groups. My generation, the proverbial ’80s kids read a lot of his books while the millennials have seen a lot of his videos on YouTube. Pu La wasn’t just a great writer but an equally powerful orator. There has been no one like him; there will perhaps never be. The first show that we did based on the work of Pu La as part of BhaDiPa was Mumbaikar, Punekar, Nagpurkar. We had one comic representing each city, cracking city-specific jokes. Looking at the tremendous response that we got for the first show, we decided to explore and do more in that zone.
Pu La Deshpande’s humour is timeless. How’re you giving it your unique spin?
We have adopted his style of storytelling to narrate our life experiences. A stand-up bit, which transcends time is very difficult to write because current pop culture references and trends are a low hanging fruit for comedy content. The focus is to write things that will make people laugh even 20-30, maybe 50 years from now. So we take special care to do more characters, interactions and word play when we write our material. So while the jokes are our original jokes, we have written them in Pu La’s style of storytelling.
Pu La Deshpande has large shoes to fill. Do you feel you can do justice to his legacy?
Oh, they’re extremely large shoes to fill! When we market a show as based on the works of Pu La, we get truckloads of people. For instance, we performed to an audience of 850 people at Bal Gandharva auditorium in Pune during Pulotsav in 2018. Most of these people come for the show because they are fans of Pu La. At a regular stand-up show, we usually get people between the age group of 18 and 45. For Pu La-themed shows, the average age of the audience is 50. It becomes extremely unnerving at times because that audience comes with a lot of expectations. They are expecting glimpses of Pu La at that show. The writing, the performance has to be top notch or else things can go wrong real fast. Fortunately, we have done well in all the shows till now but I don’t think we will ever be able to do justice to his name. And we set that expectation right at the beginning of the show with our signature line, “Keep your expectations low. Te Pu La aahet, aamhi Mu La aahot,” meaning, we are mere kids compared to the legend.
Tell us about ‘Maazha Shatrupaksha’.
Maazha Shatrupaksha is inspired by Pu La’s work called Mi Ani Maazha Shatrupaksha, where he talks about people and situations that cause him the most annoyance. His scope was aimed at people who build new homes or move into new homes. I take on doctors and hospitals. Hospitals are not places that are associated with happy memories for anyone, unless it’s the birth of a newborn. What I am aiming to do through this stand-up special is to make those tense, dark moments lighter for people, so the next time they are at a hospital, perhaps my observations can help ease their pain somewhat.
What’s your view on the Marathi stand-up comedy scene?
Stand-up did not exist in India till 2009 is what a lot of people will tell you but it is something that Pu La Deshpande did right from the ’70s and ’80s. It wasn’t called stand-up back then but it was stand-up. After Pu La, unfortunately, a lot of physical comedy, cross-dressing and mimicry took over the Marathi entertainment industry. Bharatiya Digital Party started in 2016, belting out great Marathi content on YouTube and Facebook. In April 2017, a comedian and very close friend of mine named Aditya Desai, who had been performing in Hindi and English since 2012, performed Marathi stand-up. BhaDiPa released a video of his performance on YouTube. A lot of youngsters from all over Maharashtra, expressed their interest to perform stand up in the comments section of that video. These ‘applications’ were screened, comedians were shortlisted and the first proper Marathi show happened in September 2017. It has only grown from strength to strength in less than two years. Marathi comics are now selling tickets in volumes at par with a few of the leading Hindi and English comedians in the country.