I don’t feel I have retired from films, says the 88-year-old Sulochana

On her birthday, the yesteryear actress spoke exclusively with about her journey through cinema during its golden age, and life in general.

Keyur Seta

Sulochana Latkar, best known as simply Sulochana, is one of the living legends of Indian cinema. She acted in more than 250 films, both Hindi and Marathi, over a span of almost 50 years. A well-known name in both film fraternities, Sulochana was presented with the Padma Shri in 1999. She has also been awarded with the Chitrabhushan award and the Maharashtra Bhushan award for her contribution to cinema.

Sulochana Latkar spoke exclusively with on the occasion of her 88th birthday today. Going by her animated answers to our questions, she did not at all appear to be someone pushing 90. Here are excerpts of the friendly and nostalgic chat with the actress who has played mother to such varied stars as Amitabh Bachchan and Mehmood: 

How did you develop an interest in films?
It is difficult to tell exactly. I used to love watching films since childhood. They would show films inside a tent in our village. And since my father was in the army, we didn’t need to buy tickets (laughs). They used to screen films for a month and I would make a trip with my aunt every day. Sometimes, I used to glance behind the screen and wonder how people could appear on the screen. But at that time, I hadn’t thought of working in films. 

So, how did you venture into films?
It was never planned. When our village [Khadaklat, near Belgaum, Karnataka] was affected by the plague, we shifted to Kolhapur. As we had good relations there with Bhalji Pendharkar [eminent yesteryear film personality], I started working at his Jayprabha Studio.

I used to help in make-up and other such work. I was paid Rs150 as salary. Later, I ventured into the costume department. We also got to learn sword fighting and lathi [staff] wielding. In case we had no work, my father used to ask us to water the plants. Sometimes, we were asked to learn editing. Even 50 years ago, he insisted that girls should learn the art of editing.

They also had a big library where we would be forced to read. When our boss realized we lied about reading the books, he started to tell us to write about whatever we had read. This is how I developed an interest in reading. The habit has remained with me. To this day I feel empty if I don't read. 

In that era, wasn't it against social norms for women to work in films? 
It wasn’t so bad in our era. Before us, actresses like Durgabai [Khote], Shanta Apte, Snehaprabha Pradhan, Leela Chitnis and Shobhana Samarth had already entered the industry. They all were from good families. So, we didn’t face any bad experience. On the contrary, they looked after us and made sure nobody behaved badly with us. They cared for us just like our family members did.

I received good support from my parents since a number of girls had already ventured into acting, and they knew I had developed an interest for it. 

From all the characters you have played in your entire career, which gave you the maximum satisfaction?
I can’t pinpoint one. Vahinichya Bangdya (1953) made me a household name. My role as Jijabai, mother of Shivaji Maharaj, in Maratha Tituka Melvava (1964) was well appreciated. It is also my personal favourite. Maza Ghar Majhi Manasa (1956) is another film. Although it didn’t do well, I enjoyed playing the character of a doctor. I got to play a different role in it. 

Who has been your favourite co-star?
(Laughs.) This is difficult to answer. There were quite a few like Chandramohan, Ashok Kumar and Motilal. I used to like working with these heroes. There were also Shanta Apte and Durgabai Khote.

You have worked in many successful Hindi films. Can you recall some memorable moment while shooting any of these films?
Ranjit Studio remade my Marathi film, Stree Janma (1952), into Hindi as Aurat Teri Yahi Kahani (1954) and reprised my character in it. I wasn’t well versed in Hindi. They had a Hindi accent trainer on the sets. I had to speak lengthy dialogues in Hindi in this film. During one such scene, I mistakenly recited the entire dialogue in Marathi (laughs). Everybody on the sets applauded. It was only later when I heard the sound that I realized my mistake. I thought I would need to reshoot the scene. But Motilal said it had turned out very well, so it would be fine if I just dubbed the scene in Hindi. I can never forget this incident.

If you were born in today’s era, would you have liked being an actress?
It’s difficult to say. But the type of characters I see today, I don’t think I or Ushabai [the late Usha Kiran, her contemporary and rival in Marathi cinema] would have become heroines. I doubt that. 

Which has been your most satisfying film as an actress?
There are three such important films. One is Vahinichya Bangdya, due to which I got recognized even outside Maharashtra; Maratha Tituka Melvava, where I played Jijabai; and there is Maza Ghar Majhi Manasa. In Hindi, I would say Sujata (1959), Asha (1980), Main Sundar Hoon (1971), among others. 

Sulochana Latkar (seated) with Nutan and Sunil Dutt in Bimal Roy's Sujata (1959)

Marathi cinema is going places these days, even outside India. How do you see this?
I feel happy to see this. In the earlier period, Marathi cinema wasn’t given such importance. But today Marathi films are doing well on a par with Hindi films. So I feel this is a very important era. There won’t be much difference between Hindi and Marathi in the future. I feel Marathi films will be seen more outside India too. The new generation is talented and learned. They won’t take time to become successful, unlike our era. 

Do you still watch new films?
Yes I do. I also visit theatres. 

Which were the last few films you saw?
I saw Bajirao Mastani (2015), Natsamrat (2015) and Katyar Kalzat Ghusli (2015). People related to today’s films treat me with a lot of love and respect. I never feel I am no longer part of this profession. The makers of Katyar Kalzat Ghusli had organized a show for me since I couldn’t go to the theatre as there was a huge rush. They never let me feel that I have retired.