On days that Rajshri Deshpande remains missing in action in front of the cameras, you may find her immersed in making villages and villagers self-reliant. An actor and activist, who comes from a family of farmers from Aurangabad, Rajshri has indelible memories of roaming in the farms, playing in the fields and growing up with the crops. She is naturally sensitive to the needs of rural India, and has been making strides towards creating and supporting sustainable solutions for water, sanitation, education and more in villages. Truth be told – social work is not a byproduct of her celebrity status.
Watching her family members struggle due to drought conditions and the impact of urban development, Rajshri Deshpande felt driven to bring about a change. While on screen, she has been seen in strong roles in projects such as Angry Indian Goddesses, Sacred Games, S Durga, Manto and most recently Trial By Fire, off screen also she is a strong example of ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’.
In 2018, she launched her NGO Nabanghan Foundation for rural regeneration and community building to empower villages. There has been no looking back ever since. In an interview with Health Shots, Rajshri Deshpande opens up about the need for people to work on the ground level, her mother’s role in pushing her to make change happen, and what social work means to her.
Excerpts from the interview with Rajshri Deshpande
1. What are your childhood memories of growing up in a village?
Rajshri Deshpande: I spent my childhood in Aurangabad in Marathwada region, Maharashtra. My summer vacations were spent in the villages. So, my strongest childhood memory was roaming in the farms and growing up with the crops.
I’ve seen the struggles of a farmer up, close and personal. My own father was suffering because of drought and many other issues. But at that time I was very young and didn’t know what was really happening. Sookha padaa hota thha and we used to play at 45-48 degree Celsius without chappals. My childhood was such that even if we got a thorn in the foot, we didn’t have tears in our eyes. Mitti lagaa dete thhe, patta lagaa dete thhe and then set out for playtime! We used to eat mangoes and get pimples on the face due to the heat. As I grew up, I got to know what is drought, but then one gets into the usual protocol of life.
I moved out to Pune for graduation and worked in advertising for many years, I also did theatre, mimicry and dance. But I always felt something was missing… I was not happy.
2. What urged you to go back to your roots and work towards upliftment of villages?
Rajshri Deshpande: When I was pursuing theatre and became closely associated with literature of Munshi Premchand, Uday Prakash, Vijay Tendulkar, GD Madgulkar, they took me where my villages were… When you read, it affects you. When you do something, it affects you deeply and then you start questioning. During childhood, I never understood why my maternal uncle was suffering, growing different crops, and why the meetings happened. After I went to Mumbai, I went back to my roots and sat with my parents and understood the ground reality. I got to know how there are government policies, but no bridge to reach people.
When the 2015 Nepal earthquake had struck, I volunteered to work there. My mother was very happy, but she told me that unless you work on sustainable change consistently, change won’t happen. She said, “Aage kya?”, and that triggered me to understand how there was no sense in temporary work. We have to work on sustainable change and for that, I needed commitment, planning and research. And along with my film work, I started paying attention to social work.
3. What keeps you motivated in bringing about change?
Rajshri Deshpande: When I started out, my mother said start small and don’t think you can do it all! She suggested, “Start and see if it’s possible to do it, how much time can you dedicate, and even if you want to dedicate that time, can you work on it consistently?” Water was the first thing I worked on in a village with help from some friends. Initially, the villagers didn’t trust me. But after 4-5 months they felt kuchh toh kar rahi hai ladki. Gradually, the whole village came together and we started seeing slow but steady change.
I felt ‘ho gaya’! But again my mother asked me a question, “Do you think everything will change with water?” She emphasised on the need for holistic development – healthcare, education, community farming and more. I concentrated on grooming leaders to take the work forward, and today they are working closely with government offices.
4. Clearly, your mother has played an important role in making you the woman you are today.
Rajshri Deshpande: You know, if you look at a farmer’s family, it is the woman who knows about farming more than the farmer. When we usually talk about a farmer, it’s the man who is shown holding the hay or the man who is plowing the fields, but a woman actually does more work than the man in the farm. My mother is also from a farmer’s family. She was the first matric (matriculation pass) of her village. She saw how people suffered, and that’s why she chose education as the way forward.
From her, I learnt that farmers need to be given other skills because they cannot depend on nature all the time. My father went through depression when his farm was affected as he was dependent on it. If he had done another business, he could have saved both.
5. A lot of celebrities raise funds, but not a lot of them are working on the ground like you. How much more gratifying is it?
Rajshri Deshpande: I cannot comment on people who are raising funds. But I feel we don’t have plans and people who implement them on ground. There are tons of research papers lying, but what next? We put one (Instagram) story, but did people get help? Did their life change? What happened later? Nobody is going to the rural part of the spaces and checking. If people are doing clean-up drives in a section of Mumbai and the environment is not getting cleaned up, kuch toh gadbad hai na! We are not actually finding the culprit!
People like to brush the dirt under the carpet, but that doesn’t remove the dirt. Someday, the carpet will be full. We have to work on implementation.
6. How do you manage balancing your work as an actor and activist?
Rajshri Deshpande: Very few people know that I am a celebrity. In villages, people don’t really know I work in films. Sab mujhe ‘Taai’ bulaate hain. I am a social worker there. Also, on-ground, I don’t look the way I look on screen. On the contrary, those who know me feel that when ‘Rajshri can do this, we can do it too’. That’s when I give them the suggestion to start small. Also financially, I am struggling as an actor… So, it is nothing that celebrity hun toh aasan hai mere liye!
7. How do you define social work?
Rajshri Deshpande: I don’t know what social work is. It’s a space of humanity for me. It’s a moral responsibility which everyone has, to realise that if people around me don’t have food or education, what am I doing about it? If I can do something about it, I should do it. Some people call me an activist, environmentalist, social reformer and philanthropist… I don’t know what term I should use for myself because it is all just work for me… it’s a moral responsibility.
8. Any message of women empowerment?
Rajshri Deshpande: Not just for women, I have a message for every human being, including the LGBTQI community. You should be kind – to yourself and to others. Be there for others. Listen. Talk. Tell people what’s going on. Understand yourself and stay away from negativity and toxicity. What will help you is how kind you are to yourself or your body. Be true to yourself and follow what you feel like!
(Rajshri Deshpande is nominated for the Health Shots She Slays Awards in the Social Cause Champion category. To vote for her or to review our other nominees, please check out the She Slays Awards nominations.)