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Friday, May 14, 2021

Sumitra Bhave’s persistence, generosity was an inspiration for independent cinema

Sumitra Bhave collaborated with generations of filmmakers and actors, who were enriched after working with her.

Written by Chaitanya Tamhane |
Updated: April 21, 2021 8:31:11 am
Filmmaker Sumitra Bhave passed away at 78: (Express archive)

I woke up on Tuesday morning to terrible news. It had, anyway, been a tough week because we lost Vira Sathidar, the cultural activist and poet who acted in Court, and some of my very close relatives are in critical condition. I knew Sumitra Bhave was in the ICU for the last few weeks and I was hoping that she would recover, given her boundless energy and spirit for life. I couldn’t believe it when I heard she is no more.

It goes without saying that her passing is a huge loss to Indian cinema. There are very few filmmakers who were as prolific as she was, and who could do what she did for the independent film movement. She collaborated with generations of filmmakers and actors, who were enriched after working with her. She was no less than an institution; she forged the paths and careers of many other bright stars. She has made numerous important films in Marathi, which told stories rooted in a strong social and cultural context and yet depicted a universal human condition. Her films were also social projects — she would form families, not teams, while she worked with entire communities to make films happen — this also reflected in the conversations I had with her about cinema and I took great inspiration from them.

When I went to offer her a part in The Disciple, I was nervous even to speak to someone so accomplished, but I also knew she was the only one who could do justice to the role of “Maai”. Luckily, she agreed. She was full of nerves and excitement because she had never acted herself. This nervousness was nothing but her humility and the desire to give her best. There was not even a hint of ego or the baggage of seniority in her behaviour. Not only did she blow us away with her performance, she was so good that we finished our work in half the time we had scheduled for the recordings.

I regret that she could not watch the finished film. We organised a private screening of The Disciple for the cast and crew in January, but she had had cataract surgery. Even then, she considered attending the screening to just “hear the film”. I had to convince her to drop the idea and get rest. Such was her enthusiasm! We thought we could do a screening again in a few months. Her not having watched the film will always be a big, sad gaping hole.

The first time I met her to narrate the role, I was stunned by her optimism, energy and positivity towards life and cinema. Filmmaking was a way of life for her, and she didn’t know any other way of being. I don’t think that the thought of retiring or stopping ever crossed her mind. She told me, “We have to value life and enjoy it. Do what we are here for.”

I must also mention her generosity: She refused to take money from us for the film although we insisted. She had some medical issues but she travelled to Mumbai twice from Pune, when it was not an easy journey for her. I remember my assistants running around in different shops and buying gifts for her. It was as if we were working with our favourite, most giving grandmother. But she was so young at heart, that everyone called her “maushi”, which is what you call your mother’s sister in Marathi.

I remember my last conversation with her. She was excited about her latest film, Dithi, which hasn’t yet come out. She had requested me to share her films with the executive producer of The Disciple, Alfonso Cuarón. I wish I had made it happen sooner. Having said that, it’s not a time for regrets. This is an opportunity to celebrate Sumitra Bhave’s legacy, her warrior-like spirit and endless curiosity for life. She was a living example of how to find your purpose, and to selflessly dedicate yourself to it, despite the odds and difficulties; sheer love and passion was her guide along the way.

This column first appeared in the print edition on April 21, 2021 under the title ‘Her family of films’. The writer is director of The Disciple and Court

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