Sulabha Deshpande RIP

Just as Renee Jeanne Falconetti became synonymous with her role as Joan in Carl Dreyer’s silent film, Passion of Joan of Arc; just as Vishnupant Pagnis became synonymous with his role as Tukaram in Prabhat Films’ Sant Tukaram; so did Sulabha Deshpande, who passed away on Saturday, become synonymous with her role as Leela Benare in Vijay Tendulkar’s Shantata Court Chalu Ahe.

The last speech in the play is a story by itself. Sulabha had never felt convinced that Benare should make that long statement in self-justification at the end of her long, stubborn silence. Tendulkar had not thought it necessary either. But Sulabha’s husband and director Arvind Deshpande practically coerced him into writing it. Arvind’s contention was that, without a final statement, the play would be dramatically incomplete.  Having no recourse but to speak the speech, Sulabha brought such refined histrionic skills to it, that it became one of the great speeches of Marathi theatre. “Every now and again,” Sulabha once told me with a twinkle in her eye, so much part of her personality, “some aspiring young actor turns up asking me to help her prepare the speech for a competition or audition. I put the girl through her paces. The girl touches my feet, then disappears from my life.”

Later, in 1968, Satyadev Dubey directed a film in Marathi, based on the play. If Sulabha had been unhappy about the last speech in the play for logical reasons, she was now unhappy for an altogether different reason. “This man (referring to Dubey) made me run on a beach like a demented woman.” Dubey had put the speech on the sound-track and picturised it on Sulabha running through sand, falling, clawing at it, getting up and running again. It was an extremely effective externalisation of Benare’s inner pain, but exhausting for the actor. When I saw the film again just a couple of months ago, I was stunned by Sulabha’s young beauty and by the mischievous sense of fun and luminous vulnerability with which she lit up the character of Leela Benare.

There was an effortless quality to Sulabha’s acting, whether on stage or on the screen, that made one feel she wasn’t acting, but being the character she was playing. Paradoxically, the naturalness of her acting was not the result of intuition, but of an intellectual process. Dubey once complained, “The trouble with Sulabha is that she thinks too much.” However, another director, Rustom Bharucha, who worked with her in the late eighties on Franz Xaver Kroetz’s monodrama Request Concert, admired her for precisely that. Writing about doing the play in Chhabildas School Hall, home ground to Sulabha’s theatre group Awishkar, he says, “In our very first rehearsal it was clear to me that Sulabha … analyses the role, questions it, challenges the playwright’s premises, and then makes her choices to construct a specific interpretation. If this makes her sound too methodical, I should add that the true quality in her acting is her ability to play the emotion in totally different ways.”

Bharucha’s regret that “with her burgeoning career in film and television, she has less time to devote herself entirely to theatre”, was shared by many of her admirers. I asked her once, “What is acting in a television soap like?” “Oh,” she said, a bubble of laughter ready to burst in her voice, “It’s easy. You leave your brain behind, go to the studio, get into whatever zari-covered saris and flashy jewellery they want you to wear and say your lines.” Sure. But when it was Sulabha Deshpande saying the lines, you forgot the trappings and remembered only the voice, expressions and gestures.

Besides the practical exigencies that kept her doing soaps till the end, there were two very real problems that forced her off the stage. Her knees had begun to hurt, making standing for long hours on stage painful; and she could not remember her lines. “It’s dementia,” she would say, only half jocularly. Clearly, like many people over 70, she worried that her lapses of memory weren’t just signs of advancing age but something more serious. I doubt if she ever imagined that finally her pancreas would be her nemesis.

Amongst the numerous theatre, film and television actors who gathered at Sulabha’s funeral on Sunday, were some who had cut their acting teeth in Chandrashala, Awishkar’s children’s wing and Sulabha’s baby. For as long as they pass her legacy on to the next generation, Sulabha will  continue to live amongst us.

Published On : 07-06-2016