Meet Parvati Suryavanshi aka Parubai, the waste-picker who started picking roles in student projects at India’s best film school.
If she were versed in actorspeak, she would tell you that the story of the lead character she plays in the short film Kamakshi could well be her life’s narrative. She would have drawn parallels between her character who scrounges for water to sell to the needy and her own youth, during the 1972 famine, when she left home to work as a labourer on well construction sites.
But you hear nothing of this when you meet the waste-picker pottering about the sleepy sprawling campus of Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). One thing she takes pride in is that she hasn’t stolen a single piece of metal from the campus in the three decades she’s been there.
Along with picking used papers, glass, plastic to be sold as scrap, Parubai aka Parvati Limbaji Suryavanshi, 78, started picking up roles in student projects on campus.
Her IMDb page describes her as “an actress known for Kamakshi (2015) and Makara (2013)”. Kamakshi, the diploma film of Satindar Singh Bedi draws from the mythological figure of the goddess of compassion. It made good noise at national and international festivals: competed at Berlinale 2015, was part of Indian Panorama at International Film Festival of India (IFFI) and bagged four awards at Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF). Parubai plays the titular role of the old, lonely yet determined woman obsessed with obtaining and providing water in the drought-hit terrain. Prantik Basu-directed Makara was shown at 2013 Rome Film Festival.
She has worked in over 20 student films till date. “More, but not less,” she says in Marathi, the only language she is fluent in. With the students, she speaks in broken Hindi.
The landless labourer in water-scarce Solapur didn’t have it easy even before the 1972 famine. “My husband and I worked as daily wagers in farms. The drought took away all work. There was no food. Our cows and calves died, we had no time for them as we struggled to feed ourselves,” she says.
The family climbed on a truck when a contractor came looking for cheap labour. Taken to Gujarat, husband and wife spent days breaking stones for road construction, digging wells, harvesting crops. Nights were spent in temporary shelters or in the open.
“My husband was reluctant to take me along, but I insisted. We went wherever work took us: Gangthadi, Vapi, Navsari,” she says. “My husband would lift big stones and put them on my head to carry. Bigger stones meant more money.”
“I don’t understand cinema at all,” she says. For her, acting is doing what’s told once the director shouts: ACTION!
Of all the films she has worked in, her favourite is Kamakshi, although she grumbles that she looks terrible in it — “almost like a witch”. The film demanded great amount of hard work from the team, especially the lead.
“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,” she says. She had to wear the same sari throughout the film. “I thought I would contract pneumonia. But you have to suffer. That’s how it is during a film shoot,” she adds.
“Potachi khalgi bharnyasathi aamhi kaam karto (I do this work to feed myself), since there’s no one to support me. Even today, I don’t have electricity in my house,” she says.
Walking 4 km to FTII is part of her daily routine. Even when there’s no work, she leaves for FTII in the afternoon and spends her evenings on the campus. She says the students mean more to her than her own son and grandsons. Pointing at her sari, with great pride, she says a Bangladeshi student’s mother brought it all the way from Dhaka for her.
While some say she is an ideal actor, does what’s told, others feel she can only fit into roles with limited dialogues. Some think she’s a natural, others feel she overacts. Despite that, roles continue to land in her kitty. She’s just finished shooting for a commercial film in Pune and Latur.
Makara-director Basu says, “I was looking for good storytellers. She fit the bill. Her scenes were written from her own experiences and anecdotes. She has a peculiar way of talking which I find very interesting as a filmmaker. Also, having been associated with film production process for so long she’s quite adaptable to shooting conditions and physical challenges.”
She lost her husband a decade ago. One of her two sons (she had lost three more to the 1971 famine) died a few years ago. The surviving one, she says, is a drunkard whose wife and sons left him and that he feeds off his mother. “It’s here (FTII) I find some solace. I’m alive only because of these kids (students),” she says.
Over the last four years, she has developed cataract which hinders waste-picking. For acting gigs, the students pay her a fee — often her sole source of income. She badgers students for cash when there are no assignments.
Until 2009, when she earned Rs 11,000 for a diploma film, she stayed in a two-tin-sheet shanty. Her house now is located in Janata Vasahat slum on the steep slope of the Parvati Hill. She’s among the first few settlers there. Parubai and her son live in the rear, hidden from public view. The son sold off the copper utensils, the meagre furniture, the tin sheets off the roof. “I had built this hut from money I got for that film. At least, I have a proper place to sleep now,” she says.
She reminisces about her time in Gujarat where the husband-wife earned about Rs 10 a day but had to flee after the muqaddam (expediter) started punishing them for helping a co-worker whose family fled after taking an advance. Parubai left with her husband and children, too, and roamed for days, on foot, in buses and trains, until they reached Pune. She did odd jobs until 1982-83, when she joined the Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat as a waste picker. A couple of years later, she got a waste-picking job at FTII and with that Parubai made her modest entry into the world of cinema.