Mumbai: Sulabha Deshpande, one of the finest actors of Indian theatre and cinema, passed away at her Mumbai residence Saturday after a prolonged illness. The veteran actor, considered to be one of the pioneers of the experimental theatre movement that swept Bombay in the 1970s, was 79. Her funeral will be held at the Dadar crematorium at 5.30 pm on Sunday.
Veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal described her as “one of the great figures of Marathi cinema”. According to him, she was equally well-known for her work in Hindi movies as well as in Marathi and Hindi theatre. “She was a wonderful actor, very disciplined and always a team person. She never had any airs about her and was always helpful to the actors that she worked with. I particularly remember her work in Bhumika (1977),” Benegal said.
She had also acted in memorable roles in movies like Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan (1978), Gaman (1978), Bazaar (1982) and Ijaazat (1987). Among the recent movies, she had appeared in the Gauri Shinde-directed English Vinglish (2012).
But it is Deshpande’s contribution to theatre that remains of paramount importance. She started her career in theatre by directing plays for the students of Chhabildas Girl’s High School.
She was a recipient of the 1987 Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for Hindi-Marathi theatre acting.
Starting her life as a teacher in Chhabildas High School, Dadar, Sulabha’s romance with theatre began when she asked the famous author-director Vijay Tendulkar in the 1950s to write some plays for the school students.
Tendulkar, along with Vijaya Mehta, Shriam Lagoo and Arvind Deshpande, who later married Sulabha, were the initiators of the experimental theatre movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which she (Sulabha) joined subsequently.
Over the years, Sulabha acted in scores of movies, mainly in lovable mother or grandmother roles, or evil mother-in-law characters, in both Hindi and Marathi films, besides key roles in several TV serials and Marathi theatre, her first love and earned critical acclaim as well as audience approval.
Among her prominent films were Bhumika, Gaman, Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyo Aata Hai, Vijeta, Virasat, English Vinglish, and Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastan.
On stage, she acted in Marathi plays like Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe, Sakharam Binder, Baba Harvale Aahet, among many others.
She was seen on the small screen in serials like Rishtey, Badalte Rishte, Tanha and Mrs Tendulkar among others.
She was associated with Rangayan, a leading Marathi experimental theatre group of Mumbai. In 1971, she co-founded the theatre group Awishkar with her husband Arvind Deshpande and Arun Kakade. “In 1971, when Arvind and Sulabha started Awishkar, little did the two know that it would become the starting point of the iconic Chhabildas movement… It ended up shaping what Marathi theatre is today. I doubt they were aware of it at the time,” said Kakade.
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