It was the opening night of Yayati, a play in Hindi produced by the Indian National Theatre. The curtains were about to part when I managed to reach Rang Bhavan, the open-air theatre in Dhobi Talao, Mumbai. As a teenage theatre enthusiast, I was overawed to see that the auditorium was filled to the brim. People around me were talking about a young writer called Girish Karnad, who had written a path-breaking Indian play. They were also excited that every top name in the theatre world — Amrish Puri from Hindi, Tarla Mehta from Gujarati and Sulabha Deshpande from Marathi — would be performing on stage. And, above all, it was directed by none other than the young, firebrand Satyadev Dubey.
Whatever unfolded on stage in the next two hours, I had never experienced anything like that before!
While returning home after the performance, the crowd around me in the local train ceased to exist: I was in a different world. I remember being bowled over by the fact that a costume drama could be performed with such an austere simplicity. I also kept remembering the magical moments filled with understated yet brilliant performances, especially that of Sulabha, who had played the least important role of a daasi.
Soon after that in 1967, Dubey offered me a role and I made my debut in theatre with a Hindi play, Chup! Court Chalu Hai. I also made my entry on silver screen with a Marathi film Shantata, Court Chalu Ahe in 1968. The lead actor in both was Sulabha.
I still remember being in awe of her dazzling performance in Yayati and getting an opportunity to rub shoulders with such an outstanding performer right at the beginning of my career was indeed a great privilege. Despite being a celebrity, she was a disciplined, hardworking actor and a simple, warm human being. In fact, seniors such as Amrish Puri and Sulabha made all the juniors like me feel at ease from the word go.
The first show of Chup! Court. was performed in the annual Maharashtra state drama competition in Nagpur and the fact that we bagged almost all the prizes was no surprise to the theatre world. After the results were announced, an impromptu party to celebrate our success ended early in the morning, with Sulabha singing a sensuous laavani in Marathi and then Purisaab taking the evening to a heady climax with Babul mora.
Later, for quite a few years, such parties after the first show of a new Theatre Unit production used to be held at “Arvind”, Sulabha’s residence; the dissections of that performance invariably led to heated arguments, but the tempers used to cool down the moment Sulabha emerged from the kitchen with the plates filled with typical, Bombay-style fish preparations.
And then, breaking away from Vijaya Mehta’s theatre group Rangayan, Arvind Deshpande and Sulabha formed their own theatre group Awishkar. They both toiled hard to convert a dilapidated school hall near Dadar railway station into a viable, alternative theatre space. Subsequently, Chhabildas went on to become a hallowed space in the Indian experimental theatre movement.
As the inauguration of Chhabildas Theatre, Pratima, a play in free verse by one of the finest poets/playwrights in Marathi, C.T. Khanolkar, was to be performed. I was privileged to act with Sulabha once again. Additionally, she agreed, though reluctantly, to direct the play, which also featured Shreeram Lagoo.
During the rehearsals, the director Sulabha had a tough time, making the actors do choreographed movements; so did the music composer Bhaskar Chandavarkar with our live singing. In the party after that show, Deshpande’s home reverberated with applause not merely for the performances but also for Sulabha’s culinary skills.
Much later, we were shooting for Kantilal Rathod’s Ramnagari in Hindi. The film was based on an autobiography of a successful singer actor from Marathi folk theatre. While a bhajan was being shot on us, Sulabha, playing my urban, uneducated mother, started correcting and teaching me a few things in singing, and that duet suddenly got transformed into a heart-warming moment between the mother and son. She did it with such finesse that it was like attending a master class. While watching the edited rushes of that song, Jaidevji said, “A composer rarely gets such pleasure of seeing his own composition being bettered!” and then embraced both me and Sulabha.
The ease of getting under the skin of the varied characters that she played in films was equally brilliant. Plays such as Avadhya (Marathi), Sakharam Binder (Hindi) were remembered mainly because of Sulabha’s unexpected depiction of sensuous, earthy women. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that for a few decades in Marathi theatre, no actress other than Sulabha managed to stamp her own identity, which was as brilliant yet distinctly different from the Vijaya Mehta school of acting. Her contribution to the experimental and children’s theatre as well is stupendous.
Unfortunately, the present-day media, obsessed with “commercial success” tends to overlook such nuanced details. Marathi theatre is also considered (and often looked down upon) as “regional”. And more regrettable, the present-day generation remains oblivious to this glorious part of our cultural history.