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An outstanding actor, a gentle soul

Sulabha Deshpande went beyond being an actor, in her association with the development of Marathi theatre.  

For Hindi cinegoers, >Sulabha Deshpande has left an indelible mark through small, but memorable roles in films such as Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hai (1980), Ijaazat (1987), Virasat (1997) and the more recent English Vinglish (2012). But the actress who breathed her last yesterday, was so much more: a stalwart in theatre and one of the key forces behind the renaissance in Marathi theatre in the 1980s. We spoke to a few filmmakers who remember Deshpande, the outstanding actor and the kind, warm human being.

Govind Nihalani: She was genuine and sensitive

My career started with a film that featured Sulabha Deshpande as the heroine: Shanta ta! Court Chalu Aahe (1971). I co-produced and photographed it and Satyadev Dubey directed it. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship with her and her family. With Sulabha, we have lost one of the best actresses we had in Marathi and Hindi theatre and films. The best thing about her is that she was an affectionate, genuine and sensitive human being. Look at any of her performances — be it a small appearance or major roles, there is no artifice. You don’t feel the actor is acting. The way she empathised with the character and interacted with her co actors made her endearing to everybody, including directors and writers. She may not have been a high-profile actor but she was highly respected.

She also went beyond being an actor, in her association with the development of Marathi theatre. Her group Awishkar, which she started along with husband Arvind Deshpande, shaped the renaissance of Marathi theatre. After her husband passed away, she took over the reins of the group, and along with Arun Kakde, who is in his 80s now, ran the show.

Even today, the group stages original work in Marathi theatre, encouraging writers and actors. They never went commercial.

One of my favourite performances is Sulabha as Leela Benare in the black-and-white Shanta ta... Her screen presence and voice modulation were amazing and she looked beautiful. She did some great work with Satyadev Dubey, and directed Sakharam Binder, written by Vijay Tendulkar. Her body of work is huge and of very high quality. She remains a yardstick for acting.

When I came to know about her illness two weeks ago I went to visit her. I sat there and held her hand. She looked at me, but I am not sure she recognised me. I think I saw her giving me a faint, quiet smile.

Umesh Kulkarni: A director’s actor

In the original script of Vihir (2009), the character Sulabhatai played wasn’t there. We created a family for the story and thought of casting her as the grandmother, but she was too old for that. But Girish (Kulkarni, the writer) and I felt a kind of void. We really wanted her to be in the film and gave her a call. She told us to send her the script. While she said the script was okay, she wanted to know where her character was. We still didn’t have a character and requested her to join us in Wai, where we were shooting. We were able to create a character for her as this old lady who has lost touch with reality and sees illusions. Which is the exact opposite of how she was as a person.

I first met her when I was assisting Sumitra Bhave, and I found her to be passionate about theatre for the youth. She had this affectionate persona that would remind me of the way I feel about my grandmothers, who I loved.

Sulabha was a director’s actor — she would completely surrender, and was very enthusiastic.

She had a great understanding of the finer nuances of films that went beyond the character she was playing to knowing the whole design. That gave me a lot of faith — when you work with such people, in a way they tell you if you are on the right path. Your focus on your art just gets deeper and stronger.

Her contribution to experimental Marathi theatre is tremendous. The whole movement she began with Awishkar, teaching a generation of people, being committed to a cause goes beyond personal achievements. It is something we sorely miss.

I was blown with her presence and the beauty of her rawness in Shanta ta... Her face and posture were evocative. One could sense that she had gone through a lot in life. When I called on her a year ago, she was still associated with television serials. She told me how she had to keep doing this, because to her, it was like breathing.

Sudhir Mishra: I felt inspired by her

When I came to Mumbai in the early 1980s, these are the people I was with: Arvind Deshpande, Sriram Lagoo, Satish Alekar and Sulabha Deshpande. They were encouraging people who loved theatre and cinema. At the time, the theatre scene in Mumbai was quite amazing. Her grace, and that of her friends; their giving of their knowledge and ideas was the reason many of us stayed back in the city. She was the kind of actor who would own the stage; watching her was electric. As a youngster, she was a part of a bunch of people I looked up to and felt inspired by.

Shyam Benegal: A great team player

Sulabha was a well-known actress on the Marathi stage and came on to the Hindi stage largely because of Satyadev Dubey. That is how the larger audience beyond the Marathi-speaking one came to know of her talent. She was an outstanding actor, as was her husband Arvind Deshpande. They were a great team. Many actors including Amol Palekar emerged from their theatre group, Awishkar. I met her in mid-1976 when I first got to work with her.

She had a wonderful part in Bhumika (1977) as Smita Patil’s mother and post that, she acted in several of my films. She was also one of the most disciplined actors I have known and a great team person as well. With her in your team you could be 100 per cent sure everybody would give their best. She was also self-effacing, and perfectly executed what was given to her. She was a wonderful person who was very warm and helpful to newcomers. She would do that without any patronising.


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Printable version | Aug 4, 2021 9:37:38 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/entertainment/An-outstanding-actor-a-gentle-soul/article14388161.ece

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