I first met Sumitra Bhave at the Hyderabad Filmotsav in 1986 when she presented her short film Bai (1985), a fascinating perspective on domestic violence in the slums of Pune, which was based on a true story, I was stunned with her confidence about the subject she had made the film on and her command over filmmaking despite this being her maiden effort in filmmaking. Incidentally, the ’86 Filmotsav was also the first international film festival for both, Sumitra and myself. We grew close to each over those ten days perhaps because we had our newness in common though Sumitra, a filmmaker, was on the other side of the fence and I, aspiring critic, was on this side. Another reason we bonded perhaps was because she and I were of the same age, with six months between us, her being born on January 12, 1943. We had similar tastes and while she was a single mother, I was married with a growing daughter. But she never ever talked about her personal life with me and I, too, knew where to draw the line. She respected that. When I read about her sad demise in my social network on April 19, 2021 at the age of 78, I was shocked. The last time we had met, we had a long conversation about her various films though the focus was on the film being screened at the then Kolkata International Film Festival, Kaasav (2016), co-directed by Sunil Sukthankar, her directorial partner in many of her films. I remember how thrilled and satisfied she was for finally being able to make a much needed film that focusses on depression and suicidal tendencies among today’s youth. The highly critically acclaimed film won the Best Feature Film Award at the 64th National Film Awards, which were held in 2017.
I took the opportunity of interviewing her for a one-to-one and learnt that though she had never been to a film school, her academic background gave her the courage and the confidence to move ahead and make socially relevant films revolving around issues linked to marginal women. A look at her resume answered some of my silent questions. After doing her postgraduation from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai, Bhave did a short stint with the Indian Council for Social Research followed by a UGC Fellowship to do research on Gandhian concepts of social work. She had two Masters Degrees, one in Sociology and one in Political Science before she went to TISS. She then joined the Karve Institute for Social Sciences in Pune and had nostalgic memories of having developed methods of indigenous research to study social problems that do not lend themselves to academia or scholarship. Her favourite projects include studies of women criminals and another on unwed mothers.
Dr Francis Maria Yassas, a UN representative working on similar lines of developing methods of indigenous research, inspired Sumitra to join Streevani, an organisation that strives for the empowerment of women through ensuring their social, economic, political and legal rights and development.The fruits of her work there took concrete shape in the form of a book titled Tava Chulyavar : Oral Life Stories and Self-images of women. Dr Yassas also inspired her to try a visual representation of some of these stories on celluloid. And so Sumitra Bhave’s life changed forever as she became a filmmaker with a social purpose. Under the auspices of Streevani, Sumitra made Bai, dramatizing the life-story of a poor working woman burdened with frequent childbirth and oppressed by an alcoholic and violent husband. Bal went on to win the National Award in the Non-Feature category for the Best Film on Family Welfare. The citation commended the film for its “its realistic portrayal of a poor, oppressed housewife who succeeds in her determined effort to rehabilitate herself and realise her potential to be on her own.” She followed the film with another National Award winning film, Paani (1987), moving from the individual to the collective, this time capturing real footage of the painstaking efforts of a group of women in a drought-prone area who succeed in bringing water to the village. Another film, Mukti (1990), highlighted the problem of drug addiction among Pune’s youth.
Somewhere along the way, with the departure of Dr Yassas from Streevani, Sumitra, too, left the organisation to work independently. She was joined by her frequent collaborator, Sunil Sukhtankar, introduced to her by her daughter during the making of Bai. A theatre activist, Sukthankar graduated with a Diploma in Cinema with specialisation in Film Direction from the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune in 1989. They made a short fiction film called Chaakori (1992), which became a huge hit with the audience at the Mumbai International Film Festival of Documentary, Short and Animation Films in 1994. Chaakori, which translates as wheels, sensitively tells the story of how the life of a young village girl changes radically by the simple device of her learning to ride a bicycle. She learns it clandestinely at night, because the cycle is taboo for the girls in the village. The expression of undiluted joy in her face as she rides away into the fields doubles up as an expression of freedom for a young girl, deserted by her husband, burdened by domestic chores and oppressed through lack of education.
After Chaakori made the rounds of film festivals abroad, Sumitra and Sukthankar ventured into feature films with Doghi (Two, 1995), a full-length feature film in Marathi . The film explores the ostracising of one of two sisters (Renuka Daftadar), who is trafficked to a red-light area of Bombay and who sends money to her family back in the village but is not welcome to attend her own younger sister’s wedding! Doghi received much critical acclaim. It won three National Awards – Best Film on Other Social Issues, Best Female Playback Singer (Anjali Marathe) and a Special Mention for Uttara Baokar. The film also won 9 Awards at the Maharashtra State Film Awards besides the Grand Jury Prize at Cinema Delle Donne in Italy. It also screened in the Indian Panorama at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in 1996 in Delhi.
Talking of festivals, Sumitra and me met only at film festivals as I was settled in Mumbai and she lived and worked in Pune. She was not much of a letter-writer or even a telephone user so we remained content to meet and catch up at film festivals. She often invited me to her home in Pune but I could make it only many years later to watch Zindagi Zindabad (1997), her first and perhaps her only film in Hindi, at her ethnically decorated simple home. I did not like this film very much though it explored the socially relevant world of street urchins and tea boys in the gullies of Pune ,who frequent the red-light areas and become HIV positive, while some turn to drugs too.
The contribution Sumitra and Sukthankar to Indian cinema in general and Marathi cinema, in particular, defies comparison. Their films taken as a body of work, explores the irony of existing social structures, often with a definite closure that suggests a resolution of the issue the film takes up. She and Sukthankar, together, gave Marathi cinema a new direction and Pune and its outskirts, new meaning. You have to pick just any film at random from their filmography and see that it explores some significant social issue or other not necessarily centred on gender every time. If Devrai (2004) dealt with schizophrenia with a masterful performance by Atul Kulkarni, Astu (2013) explored the world of a retired professor slowly and surely slipping into Alzheimer’s, causing endless worry in his married daughter devoted to him. Dahavi Fa (2002) questions the division of a single class into sections determined quite unfairly on grounds of social and financial background on the one hand and academic differences on the other. But too many songs somewhat spoilt the spirit of the film. Badha (2006) dealt with how superstition and belief in dated religious rituals in a village destroys the lives of two young woman, one who is educated but a Dalit and childless, and the other who is positioned as a “possessed” woman but in reality, cries out for sex with her husband. Vastupurush (2002) is a film, where the ancestral home of a family fallen on bad times defines the main character in the film and according to me, this is one of the director-duo’s most outstanding films.
Sumitra went ‘solo’ with her last-released film, Dithee (2018), which she directed alone. The film is based on the novel, Aata Aamod Sunasi Aale, by Marathi writer, DB Mokashi. On the surface, it is a simple enough tale about Ramji (Kishore Kadam), the village ironsmith, dealing with a loss of life. The film is woven and threaded with readings from scriptures authored by Sant Dnyaneshwar and devout songs as the protagonist Ramji (Kishore Kadam) is a Warkari, of a group of Warkaris who journey to Pandharpur singing along the way to offer their prayers to Vithhala, the deity worshipped by Sant Dhyaneshwar. Though it is a very dark and depressing film beginning with the harrowing scene of the drowning of a young boy whose body is never found, damaging his father Ramji’s life forever, it is a beautiful film which shows how a grief-stricken, middle-aged man finally comes out of his grief when he delivers a pregnant cow of her calf, a skill he happens to be the only one in the village to know and practice. This film, unfortunately, turned out to be Sumitra’s swan song.
Sumitra had left me behind long ago through her deservedly acquired fame and glory nationally and internationally. But as a person, she remained as grounded, as ever-smiling and as cheerful as she always was. In that sense, things never changed between us. She was working on three scripts simultaneously at the time of her death. Sadly, we will not see them being filmed by her anymore.