National Film Award winner Sumitra Bhave is dead

Her probing films changed the Marathi cinematic landscape

Updated - April 20, 2021 02:12 pm IST

Published - April 19, 2021 04:23 pm IST - Pune

Eminent director, producer and screenwriter Sumitra Bhave, who made an indelible impression on vernacular cinema with her trenchant films penetrating the psychological recesses of the human mind, passed away early Monday in Pune following a brief illness. She was 78.

She breathed her last at a city-based hospital, said sources.

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Ms. Bhave, who along with her fellow collaborator, filmmaker Sunil Sukhtankar, gave a string of sophisticated films like Devrai , Doghi , Vaastupurush and Kaasav that belonged to a select elite of Marathi and Indian vernacular cinema. Their films bagged several international, national and regional prizes including multiple national awards.

She was unique in the sense that she did not hail from a cinematic background. Her films, which mediated ecology, mental illness, modernity, tradition, education and social mores reflected her moorings — and formidable training — in the field of active social work.

A veritable “social scientist”

Ms. Bhave was a veritable “social scientist” filmmaker whose long and rich social work experience was mirrored in her carefully crafted films which were feted with several international, national and regional film awards.

Born in January 1943 in Pune, she graduated from Pune’s famed Fergusson College, followed by a post-graduate course in social work from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai.

This was followed by a stint as a Marathi news reader at the Delhi All India Radio. Besides working later at TISS, she taught social work at Pune’s Karve Institute of Social Service and was involved in a number of social research projects and experiments like one at Uruli Kanchan’s Sarvodaya Adhyayan Kendra and as part of a Community Aid and Sponsorship program (CASP) at a ​​Mumbai slum.

She turned to the medium of cinema from 1985 onwards and had a kindred soul in the form of Sunil Sukthankar as her collaborator. Like Ms. Bhave, Mr. Sukhtankar, a student of Commerce, had a vision of creating social awareness through cinema. Their great achievement was to transcend the traditional themes — feudalism, exploitation, marital problems — explored ad nauseam in parallel cinema.

A masterful essay

The duo’s breakthrough film Doghi (1995), a masterful essay on the clash between modernity and tradition in a society in perilous flux, won three National Film awards.

Vaastupurush (2002), on a feudal family in western Maharashtra caught in the throes of changing times, was another critically acclaimed triumph and reportedly a particular favourite of Ms. Bhave and Mr. Sukhthankar.

Astu (2015), starring Dr. Mohan Agashe, dealt with Alzheimer’s disease while Devrai (2004), brilliantly tackled schizophrenia in a way no film — Marathi or in any other Indian language — had done before. It showcased a sterling performance by Atul Kulkarni, who also acted in other Bhave-Sukhtankar projects.

The popular Dahavi Fa (2002), which also starred Mr. Kulkarni, was a powerful exposition of a discriminatory, grinding education system — a worthy cinematic companion to Charles Dickens’ 1854 classic Hard Times .

The much-acclaimed Kaasav (2017) starred Alok Rajawade as Manav, a disturbed, alienated and suicidal boy who is sheltered by a woman Janaki (played by Irawati Harshe) battling loneliness.

The film sensitively and intellectually eschewed the gimmicks deployed by mainstream cinema to relay how patience and understanding can bring relief to people battling depression.

Never the kind to dumb down complex issues to the level of mainstream ‘houseful’ blockbusters or tearjerkers, Ms. Bhave’s credo behind her endeavours was always to “help create a healthy society”.

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