How Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukthankar have kept their directorial partnership going for 30 years

The award-winning filmmakers have worked on more than 20 feature and short films together.

Creating a piece of art, such as a painting or a novel, can be an isolating process. But cinema is a rare creative medium that requires many minds to work towards a common goal. And some of the best cinema emerges when the team works in symphony. Take Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukthankar, who have been working together for more than 25 years now and on over 20 feature and short films.

The widely acclaimed directors have carved a niche with their Marathi films that tackle social issues, such as HIV/AIDS, mental health and gender discrimination. They have also collaborated on short films and television serials. Together, they have won more than 25 awards, most recently for their 2016 film Kaasav, which combined the themes of depression and environment conservation. The movie won both the Maharashtra State Film Award and the National Award for best film.

Bhave, who has also worked on several award-winning solo projects, said she was lucky to have been approached by producers with such topics, around which she then wove her stories. “With the aptitude that I have, I immediately think of a story. Like a child I get excited about it,” Bhave told during a retrospective of her films at the Entertainment Society of Goa at Panaji. The screenings, from March 8 to March 11, were held to mark International Women’s Day.

“Also, no subject is taboo for me as I am curious about life,” added Bhave, who also writes all her films.

Kaasav (2016).

For Sukthankar, the filmmaking process starts when Bhave narrates the script to him. “Her scripts are full of instruction, art direction details, camera angles, etc,” he said. “So it’s an interesting process as right from the first you start visualising. I keep responding and together it grows.”

Sukthankar started assisting Bhave when he was a 17-year-old commerce student. After he graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, he continued working with her.

The two divide their work according to expertise. Apart from script and dialogue, Bhave also looks after costumes, location and casting. Sukthankar writes the lyrics and plans the music and the technical aspects, such as camerawork and sound.

But aren’t disagreements inevitable when you work as a team? Not for them, said Sukthankar. According to him, because the story is Bhave’s, the last word should be hers. “It’s a basically her child. But, it’s a democratic process. Not only two of us but the whole team of actors, cameraman, sound recordist, etc, everybody contributes and their points are taken into consideration.

Bhave added, “In a career of more than 30 years we rarely had serious issue. It was not much of a problem.”

Chakori (1992).

Bhave, who has a background in social work, never dream of being a filmmaker. But she realised the power of the medium when she was working on a project with women living in slums in the 1980s. “We had a street play group of illiterate Dalit women who were slum dwellers,” she said. “But, soon I realised that it had limitations, because the group couldn’t move to other places. Then I thought of doing a [audio-visual] story on one of the respondents and show how she changed her life, so that other women look at it and then start looking at their own lives. So, it acted like a mirror for them.” This culminated in Bhave’s first short film, Bai (1985), about a slum dweller who stays resilient through adversity. The debut won Bhave her first national award.

A few years and short films later, Bhave and Sukthankar collaborated on Chakori (1992), about a village girl whose life changes when she learns to ride a bicycle. The film was screened at 12 international film festivals and won two international awards. It also caught the attention of National Film Development Corporation of India chairperson Ravi Gupta, who approached Bhave to make her first feature film. The result was Doghi (1995), which launched Bhave and Sukthankar’s feature filmmaking career. The film traces the story of two sisters (Renuka Daftadar and Sonali Kulkarni) with vastly different fates.

Doghi (1995).

Like in Doghi, the duo’s movies are marked by strong female characters, even if they are not the protagonists. Bhave said this was not conscious. “Perhaps inherently I am a strong person,” she said.

Sukthankar said this was a natural outcome of the fact that a woman was writing the script. “Most of the men, when they write the script, they presume that the active character is of a male and females automatically becomes passive,” he said. “And they think that’s how the world is. That’s the perception of them as the world is not like that. But, when she writes, automatically it becomes different. It is not deliberate, as it comes naturally.”

Their films are also marked by their nuanced handling of complex themes. For instance, their 2004 film Devrai (The Sacred Grove,) which tackles schizophrenia, was born when they were approached by the Schizophrenia Society. Bhave wove environmental issues into the story in the form of the titular grove, protecting which preoccupies the central character.

Sukthankar said that often, themes such as schizophrenia are exploited by filmmakers. This can be misleading to viewers and send the wrong message. Their style of filmmaking focuses on giving you the right information and tackling the issue with sensibility and sensitivity, he said.

Devrai (2004).

Some of their films have been criticised for their neat resolutions and happy endings. But the duo begs to differ.

Bhave said these happy endings are an extension of how she sees life. “Any wise [person’s] life ends not in tragedy but in acceptance of whatever comes one’s way. That’s sarthak (bliss). It is what you have lived honestly for yourself. So, there are no tragedies.”

Sukthankar explained that a happy ending was not escapism, but optimism. “This blissful ending comes after lot of conflict, and fighting with negativities,” he said. “It is not a goody-goody ending and is not escapist. It faces all the truth and then it comes to positivity. That’s the main difference.”

But the critical acclaim is yet to translate into wide visibility. The pair still finds it hard to get their movies released commercially. They are now focussed on organising community and private screenings of their films. Some of these are organised by non-profit organisations attached to a cause that the movie addresses, or at film festivals.

Sukthankar said that the current film distribution system is no less than a feudal system – a sentiment also expressed by their friend, collaborator and actor Mohan Agashe – that is rigged against independent filmmakers. “They believe that the film should be entertaining or you should be in good books of channel authorities. So they have to promote you. It’s a different kind of politics,” he said.

Still, the community screenings ensure that their films reach the right audience and help recover costs. “These films are screened and then discussed, giving them a [shelf] life unlike other films that are released in 1,000 theatres but within one week, nobody is talking about them,” Sukthankar said. “And also, we need to understand that in any art form you will have a limited audience. You have to accept it.”

In the pipeline is Welcome Home, the story of a woman who leaves her husband’s home to stay with her parents.

What has kept them going for three decades and counting? “Audience response,” Sukthankar said. “The impact it makes on people is the greatest motivation for me. Slowly the audience is created and is increasing.”

For Bhave, the reward is in the filmmaking process. “When the story that is in your mind is actually taking place in front of you, with live human beings becoming those persons, it fascinates me,” she said. “For example to see Appa [Agashe’s role in the 2013 film Astu] sitting on an elephant in front of the Pune central market, which I visualised and when we actually did that it was so fascinating. I become Brahmadev (god of creation).”

Astu (2013).
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