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Recollecting Shanta Apte's stage presence and individuality

Remembering the singing star of the 1930s and 1940s on her 53rd death anniversary (24 February), with help from actress Sarita Joshi.

Sonal Pandya

Even now, Sarita Joshi associates the scent of Eau de Cologne with the unforgettable Marathi-Hindi actress Shanta Apte, when she acted with her as a child artiste in the Gujarati plays, Yug Prabha and Sajan Kaun. The gracious actor took the young child under her wing, giving advice and acting tips. Sarita Joshi went to her house to learn classical music as well. A veteran actress of the Gujarati theatre and screen, Sarita Joshi never forgot Shanta Apte's stage presence and her individuality.

In the latter half of her career, Shanta Apte joined Marathi and Gujarati theatre because of the monetary benefits. Screen actresses of her calibre were highly paid once they decided to act in plays. Shanta Apte lived a grand lifestyle, befitting her star status. And contrary to her decidedly Indian avatar on the big screen, Sarita Joshi recalls that Shanta Apte strode around in Western attire — coats, ties, crisp shirts and trousers. Like most of the educated actresses of the time, she was well versed in English.

Sarita Joshi

Back in the olden days of Indian theatre, the plays were long, nearly five hours. Sarita Joshi remembers singing alongside Shanta Apte when she held centrestage with a damaru, a small two-sided drum, in her hand to help her keep the beat. The details all came back vividly to Sarita Joshi when she got an opportunity years later in the late 1960s to act in the successful Gujarati adaptation of the Marathi play, Kachecha Chandra or Glass Moon. Directed by her brother-in-law Arvind Joshi, Kaanch Nu Chandra focused on a version of Shanta Apte's life, a young woman undecided whether to join films and dealing with a controlling older brother.

With Durga Khote and Vasanti

Like Sarita Joshi, Shanta Apte began her career as a child artiste. She first appeared onscreen in Bhalji Pendharkar's Shyam Sundar (1932). She joined Prabhat Studios, with strong roles in the early landmark films Amritmanthan (1934), the first Hindi film to celebrate a silver jubilee, and Amar Jyoti (1936) alongside Chandramohan and Durga Khote. Shanta Apte purposefully took time off from 1935 to 1938 to focus primarily on her singing. Her brother Baburao Apte briefly acted for a while, but largely managed his younger sister's career.

Duniya Na Mane poster

Her comeback film was the Marathi-Hindi bilingual Kunku/Duniya Na Mane (1938), arguably her most famous role a young bride married off to an old man by her relatives. She relentlessly protests their union, shocking her in-laws by bonding with her widowed stepdaughter and caning her lecherous stepson. Shanta Apte even sang a version of HW Longfellow's poem, A Psalm of Life, in the film, one of the earliest instances of an English song being used in an Indian film. During the 1930s, Shanta Apte was as popular as the singing stars of Kolkata's New Theatres, KL Saigal and Kanan Devi. The classically trained singer held her own and had a magnificent screen presence when she sung her hit songs, 'Kamsini Mein Dil Pe Gham Ka' from Amritmanthan and 'Suno Suno Ban Ke Prani' from Amar Jyoti.

Apart from the screen, Shanta Apte had a reputation of being quite fiery. Her big screen crusading roles aren't too far off from her real personality. Iqbal Masud, the late film critic and columnist, rremembered Shanta Apte in the book, Bollywod: Popular Indian Cinema, as a young student at Chennai's Presidency College in the 1940s, when she visited the campus as a guest of the student union, dressed in trousers. And when the editor of Filmindia maligned her image, she herself stepped up to fix the situation.

The writer Saadat Hasan Manto, who occasionally wrote articles in Filmindia, detailed the infamous incident in his book, Stars From Another Sky, "During Babu Rao's association with Prabhat Film Company, Shanta Apte was considered India's most glamorous film actress, but the moment she left the outfit, she became the ugliest woman in India. Babu Rao wrote such venomous pieces about her in Filmindia that being the true Marathi she was, she burst into Babu Rao's office one day, dressed in her riding gear and whipped him six or seven times with her riding crop."

With Keshavrao Date and Raja Sen

Shanta Apte was also one of the first actresses to challenge their studio contract. As her stardom grew, she was limited by her stringent contract and in the last year before it expired, she was hardly hired by the studio for any roles. When she asked to be let out of her contract and was turned down by the company, Shanta Apte held a very public hunger strike in order for her demands and her dues to be satisfied. On 17 July 1939, she sat outside the Prabhat Film Studios in Pune with her brother and lawyer. Shanta Apte stayed there for two days wherein she only drank salted water. The top authorities tried negotiating with her and it was only at the insistence for her doctor and brother that she returned home.

Shanta Apte

The press was extremely harsh on her and called her hunger strike, a 'publicity stunt'. But it allowed her to move away from Prabhat in 1939 and chose her own career as a freelancer. She moved to regional cinema, appearing in a Tamil film Savithri (1941) and back again to great accolades as an activist in Debaki Bose's Apna Ghar (1942) and as the unsuspecting wife, married to a mad man in Swayam Siddha (1949). Shanta Apte even wrote her own autobiography in Marathi, titled ' Jaoo Mi Cinemat' detailing her honest and brutal struggle in the industry as an actress.

When reminiscing down memory lane and viewing online videos of Shanta Apte, Sarita Joshi remarked upon her 'distinctive eyes' and unconscious gestures that were evident when Shanta Apte performed onscreen. Sarita Joshi was able to imitate the great actress-singer straightaway, so vivid were her memories of that marvelous era. Her adulation of Shanta Apte aided her greatly when she took on the lead role in Kaanch Nu Chandra. Ultimately, Sarita Joshi regarded her as a strong yet angry woman, dominated by her elder brother. Shanta Apte passed away at the early age of 46 on 24 February 1964, a shadow of former feisty self due to alcohol and financial despair after her brother abandoned the handling of her career. More than 50 years after her death, her films and her singing remain, as a guide to the personality she once was.