'Untimely death': Priya ‘Rajani’ Tendulkar's story tragically remains unfinished

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·6-min read

As Rajani, she spearheaded a movement in the ’80s. Priya Tendulkar became the messiah of middle-class women, harassed by the indifferent attitude of essential and public service industries in the TV serial. The Doordarshan offering inspired homemakers and professionals to raise a shindig over being short-changed for what was their due.

Along with husband Karan Razdan, Priya later co-hosted the show Kisse Miyan Biwi Ke, which had the duo help married couples discover harmony in a discordant equation. Ironically, the real-life pair couldn’t practise what they so convincingly preached and soon separated.

Priya Tendulkar as Rajani
Priya Tendulkar as Rajani

That snapped something in the otherwise sassy Priya. Lost in an emotional labyrinth, she was further stymied by cancer. The sudden passing away of her mother, the untimely death of her brother and keeping her pain to herself, not wanting to disturb her aging father – eminent playwright Vijay Tendulkar – weakened her further. Priya passed away in 2004 at the age of 48 after a heart-attack.

A crusader, who helmed radical shows like The Priya Tendulkar Show and Zimmedar Kaun and blew the lid off societal hypocrisy… A writer, who could shake and stir social scruples… capitulated so easily to the changing weather in her life is heart-breaking. Someone who dreamt of painting like Amrita Sher-Gil and writing like Somerset Maugham, Priya Tendulkar sadly left her promising canvas unfinished…

Rajani
Rajani

Priya Tendulkar was born on 19 October 1954 to theatre thespian Vijay Tendulkar and Nirmala. She had two sisters – noted actor Sushma Tendulkar and Tanuja (Mohite) and a brother - cinematographer Raju Tendulkar.

Given the literary and liberal atmosphere at home it was no surprise that Priya Tendulkar was a firebrand herself. Her first stage appearance was as a doll in director Satyadev Dubey’s play Hayavadana (1969).

A vibrant personality, she later attempted several jobs - as a receptionist in a luxury hotel, an air hostess, a model and a news reader.

Priya’s elder sister, the late Sushma Tendulkar, was a prominent theatre actress and social activist. Reportedly, a failed relationship, had turned Sushma into an alcoholic. According to www.movietalkies.com, one morning it was time for dad Vijay Tendulkar’s controversial play to open but daughter/actor Sushma, the key character, failed to turn up. 

Priya offered to double up for her sister and took centre-stage. Then on, Priya went on to work in father Tendulkar’s prominent plays including Anji, Shantata Court Chalu Aahe, Baby, Kamla, Sakharam Binder, Ek Hatti Mulgi and Kanyadaan, winning several State awards between the ’60s-’70s.

To digress, Priya looked after her sister devotedly. A rehabilitated Sushma, later became a consultant at the same rehab centre, which had treated her.

Anant Nag and Priya Tendulkar in  Ankur
Anant Nag and Priya Tendulkar in Ankur

Priya’s first film appearance was in Shyam Benegal’s Ankur (1974), where she played Anant Nag’s compliant wife. Her other Hindi outings included Sasti Dulhaan Mehanga Dulha, Trimurti, Gupt and Aur Pyaar Ho Gaya (between 1986 -1997).

Priya also featured in hit Marathi films Tuch Majhi Rani, Gondhalat Gondhal and Mumbaicha Faujdar (between 1977 -1984). She was paired opposite Anant Nag in the Kannada film Minchina Ota (1981). The Gujarati movie Pooja Na Phool (1983) had her in a pivotal role.

First Person by Priya Tendulkar
First Person by Priya Tendulkar

A fine writer, she penned Marathi books including First Person and Kadachit Ek Vyakti Chi Pratima Asu Shakte. Priya’s compilation of short stories, Jyacha Tyacha Prashna won the Damani Puraskar. Some of her other works are Janmalela Pratyekala and Panchatarankit.

Asahi, a column, which she wrote for an eveninger, won the Sahitya Parishad Puraskar. 

In a newspaper article Priya, once reportedly reflected on the rape of a tribal girl on a train in Mumbai, in the presence of five male commuters. She recalled how when she was much younger, she had nearly suffered the same fate. Two urchins had come to her assistance, while the commuters looked away apathetically.

What made her an icon of sorts was her character of a whistle-blower in Basu Chatterjee’s Rajani (1985). Her titular act as a bourgeoisie housewife, who crusades against social injustice and consumer woes, courtesy a lethargic system became a Sunday sermon for family audiences.

From gas cylinder shortages to fraudulent electricians, postmen, telephone wiremen… Rajani captured the travails of a middle-class existence and empowered women to avail of their due.

Ekta Kapoor’s Hum Paanch (1995) was another popular sitcom, which had her play the protagonist’s dead wife, albeit chastising her husband from her garlanded frame.

The Priya Tendulkar Show was a pathbreaker in that, as host, she discussed social taboos and prejudice. Zimmedar Kaun, also in the early ’80s, directed by Vijay Tendulkar, held heated debates on secularism, minorities and historical falsifications. Gulzar’s feminist serial SwayamSiddh was another notable achievement.

Kisse Miyan Biwi Ke, a unique marriage counselling show, hosted by Karan Razdan and Priya in the late ’80s, struck a chord amongst spouses battling marital issues.

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Apparently, Priya was first involved with Ankur co-actor Anant Nag. The relationship ended before reaching the altar. Priya met Karan Razdan, the scriptwriter of Rajani on the sets of the serial. He played the subdued husband to the activist wife in the show. The talented duo got married in 1988. A supportive Priya, was said to have contributed immensely to Karan’s career as a writer. She also acted in Karan’s written serial Hakke Bakke.

While they served as mentors to sparring spouses in the hit serial Kisse Miyan Biwi Ke, the real-life couple ironically separated in 1995. It’s alleged that commitment issues left Priya shattered and from then on began her decline.

Marriage, as an institution, is on the verge of crumbling. I have no regrets. Every experience, good or bad, is a great teacher, especially if you are in a creative field,” Priya was quoted saying in an interview to the TOI. She maintained she’d never marry again as she didn’t want to commit the ‘same mistakes twice’.

Dr Venugopal Nair, who was treating Priya for ‘seven’ years was quoted saying, “She was disturbed after her separation with her husband and required treatment… She was mentally upset due to problems in her life... She would want me to sit and talk to her. She wanted me to take her to the Powai Shiva Mandir... She appeared stern on the surface but was actually soft.” (rediff.com)

Towards the end of the ’90s, Priya was reportedly diagnosed with breast cancer. A private person, she didn’t discuss her disease and stayed away from self-pity. She wore wigs to cover the harsh effects of chemotherapy and continued doing two to three shifts a day.

One afternoon, she returned from a shoot and went to sleep but never woke up. She passed away following a heart attack on 19 September 2002 at her Prabhadevi residence, four years after she was diagnosed with cancer. The attack was said to be the secondary effect of cancer.

Priya with father and theatre thespian Vijay Tendulkar
Priya with father and theatre thespian Vijay Tendulkar

Uncannily, the morning she passed away she had reassured her father that he needn’t worry about her. Vijay Tendulkar was a broken man that day having lost his ‘star’ child. Just a year earlier, he had lost his wife Nirmala and cinematographer son Rajendra, reportedly to liver cirrhosis. After leaving instructions that the body should be taken to the electric crematorium at Shivaji Park, the devastated litterateur reportedly left. He did not attend the funeral.

After her demise, ex-husband Karan Razdan, who attended her funeral, was quoted saying, “You cannot find a more trustworthy wife … the highs and even the lows, were beautiful. We had some differences and parted. We never spoke against each other nor did we ever meet again (rediff.com).” Karan dedicated his directorial Roshni (2002), which had references to their marriage, to his late ex-wife.

Filmmaker and friend Aruna Raje had known Priya since she shot a commercial for a sewing machine with her at the age of 15. “Seeing your children pass away when you are alive must be unbearable,” she said about the senior Tendulkar.

“We’ve been through similar situations in our marriages… Priya was very private. I never ever forced a confidence; she shared them whenever she felt like it. She liked to mask her difficulties and put up a brave front,” said filmmaker Aruna Raje (rediff.com). She however remarked that a ‘fun loving, enthusiastic, creative’ person like Priya ‘deserved to be happy’.

Vijay Tendulkar then on lived a solitary life suffering from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, which eventually claimed his life in 2008.

Reportedly, Sushma Tendulkar, who did odd jobs, finally died at the Kripa Foundation for drug addicts and alcoholics in 2012. Her death was not made public in keeping with her wishes.

Today, the talented family lives on in the celebrated works they have left behind – be it the written word or moving images.

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