During the days when Rajshree Deshpande is lost in acting in front of the camera, you will find her engrossed in making villages and villagers self-reliant. An actor and activist, who hails from a family of farmers in Aurangabad, Rajshree has indelible memories of roaming around the fields, playing in the fields and growing up with the crops. She is naturally sensitive to the needs of rural India, and is taking steps to create and support sustainable solutions in villages for water, sanitation, education and more. Truth be told – social work is not a byproduct of her celebrity status.
Seeing his family members struggling due to drought conditions and the effects of urban development, Rajshree Deshpande felt inspired to make a difference. While on screen, she has been seen in powerful roles in projects like Angry Indian Devi, Sacred Games, S. Durga, Manto and most recently Trial by Fire, off screen too she is a strong example of ‘Jahan Ichha, Durda Ek’. the way’.
In 2018, she launched her NGO Nabanghan Foundation for rural regeneration and community building to empower villages. Haven’t looked back since. In an interview with Health Shots, Rajshree Deshpande opens up about the need for people to work at the ground level, her mother’s role in inspiring change and what social work means.
1. What are your childhood memories of growing up in the village?
Rajshree Deshpande: I spent my childhood in Aurangabad, Marathwada region of Maharashtra. My summer vacation was spent in the village. So, my strongest childhood memory was wandering around the fields and growing up with the crops.
I have seen the struggles of farmers, up close and personal. My own father was suffering due to drought and many other problems. But at that time I was very young and didn’t really know what was going on. It was dry and we used to play in 45-48 degrees Celsius without sandals. My childhood was such that no tears came to my eyes even though I had thorns on my feet. Put the soil on, put on the leash, and then it’s off to playtime! We used to eat mangoes and we used to get spots on our faces due to the heat. As I grow up, I know what drought is, but then one gets into the normal protocol of life.
I went 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 wasn’t happy.
2. What prompted you to return to your roots and work for the upliftment of the village?
Rajshree Deshpande: When I was doing theater and became intimate with the literature of Munshi Premchand, Uday Prakash, Vijay Tendulkar, GD Madgulkar, they took me to my villages… When you read, it affects you. When you do something, it affects you deeply and then you start questioning. As a child, I never understood why my uncle was suffering, growing different crops, and having meetings. After moving to Mumbai, I came back to my roots and realized the reality by living with my parents. I learned that the government has policies, but there is no bridge to reach the people.
After the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, I volunteered to work there. My mother was very happy, but she told me that unless you constantly work on sustainable change, change will not happen. She said, “What next?”, and that made me realize that there was no point in temporary work. We need to work for sustainable change and for that I need commitment, planning and research. And, along with film work, I started paying attention to social work as well.
3. What motivates you to make a difference?
Rajshree Deshpande: When I started, 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 if you want to dedicate that time, can you work on it consistently?” The first thing I worked on in the village with the help of some friends was water. At first the villagers did not believe me. But after 4-5 months, they felt that something is happening. Gradually, the whole village came together and we started to see a slow but steady change.
I thought ‘Ho Gaya’! But again my mother asked me a question, “Do you think water changes everything?” He stressed the need for holistic development of health services, education, community farming and more. I focused on grooming leaders to take the work forward, and today they are working closely with government offices.
4. Obviously, your mother played an important role in the woman you are today.
Rajshree Deshpande: You know, if you look at a farmer’s family, the woman knows more about farming than the farmer. When we usually talk about a farmer, it is shown as a man holding grass or plowing a field, but in reality a woman does more work than a man in a field. My mother also belongs to a farmer family. She was the first matric (matric pass) in her village. She saw how people were suffering, and so she chose to pursue education.
From him, I learned that farmers need to be given other skills because they cannot rely on nature all the time. My father went through depression when he was dependent on his farm. If he had done another business, he could have saved them both.
5. Many celebrities raise funds, but many of them are not working on the ground like you. How satisfying is it?
Rajshree Deshpande: I can’t comment on people raising funds. But I think we lack the plans and the people to execute them. There are many research papers, but what next? We put up an (Instagram) story, but did people get help? Did their lives change? What happened later? No one goes to rural areas and checks. If people are doing a cleanliness drive in one section of Mumbai and the environment is not being cleaned, kuch toh gadbad hai naa! We haven’t really found the culprit!
People like to sweep the dirt under the carpet, but that doesn’t remove the dirt. Someday, the carpet will fill up. It should be implemented.
6. How do you manage to balance your work as an actor and activist?
Rajshree Deshpande: Very few people know that I am a celebrity. In the village, people don’t know that I work in films. Everyone calls me ‘Tai’. I am a social worker there. Also, on the ground, I don’t look like I do on screen. Instead, those who know me think that ‘Rajashri can do it, we can do it too’. That’s when I suggest they start small. Even financially I am struggling as an actor… So, celebrity hun toh aasan hai mahar liye is nothing!
7. How do you define social work?
Rajshree Deshpande: I don’t know what social work is. This is a place of humanity for me. It is a moral responsibility that belongs to everyone, to realize that if the people around me don’t have food or education, what am I going to do about it? If I can do something about it, I should do it. Some call me an activist, an environmentalist, a social reformer and a philanthropist… I don’t know which word I should use for myself because it’s all just work for me… it’s a moral responsibility.
8. Any message of women’s empowerment?
Rajshree Deshpande: I have a message not only for women, but for everyone, including the LGBTQI community. You must 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. How kind you are to yourself or your body will help you. Be true to yourself and follow how you feel!