Article Marathi

Remembering Ranjana, the fiery and versatile star of Marathi cinema

On Ranjana's 20th death anniversary, a look at how she broke the mould of the typical heroine and left her mark in a short span of 12 years.

Suyog Zore

Ranjana, daughter of yesteryear actress Vatsala Deshmukh, began her career as a child artiste in V Shantaram's Iye Marathichiye Nagari (1966). Her mother and Shantaram's wife, the actress Sandhya, were sisters. The film, made as a bilingual (Ladki Sahyadri Ki in Hindi), was a hit, but instead of riding on its success, Ranjana took a sabbatical from the film industry for almost a decade.

She then made a comeback in V Ravindra's Chandanachi Choli Ang Ang Jaali (1975). The film was produced by Shantaram under his banner Rajkamal Kalamandir. Ranjana played a small role as a domestic help in the film, but her performance was appreciated.

Later that year she did Zunj, her first film as leading lady. The film was directed by Shantaram's son Kiran and starred a newcomer, Ravindra Mahajani. The film told the story of a teacher from a village who gets raped by the local zamindar (feudal landlord).

The film gave Marathi cinema a new hit pair, Ranjana and Ravindra Mahajani. After the success of Zunj, they starred in several hit films like Duniya Kari Salaam (1979), Hich Khari Daulat (1980), Devghar (1981), Laxmichi Paoole (1982), Kashala Udyachi Baat (1983) and Mumbaicha Fauzdar (1984).

Ranjana challenged herself by playing different characters and that's why she had distinct personalities in each of her films. In some, she played a small-town or rustic girl; in others, she played a highly educated woman. She could mould herself in each of these characters without making it look forced.

The only similarity one could see in her roles was her fiery attitude. Be it a small-town girl who refuses to pay a dowry and cancels her own marriage in Bayko Asavi Ashi (1983), a sex worker in Kashala Udyachi Baat (1983), or a housewife, Ranjana played them all with such fire that it is impossible to imagine another actress in those roles.

It was a time when being timid and accepting every injustice as her fate was considered a movie heroine's virtue. Instead of bowing to the norms of the female lead, Ranjana carved her own path by playing unconventional roles, even if the performances were sometimes melodramatic in keeping with the taste of the day.

Ranjana also made a few other bold choices in her career. One was to appear backless in Shantaram's Chaani (1977). This was the first time an actress went topless in Marathi cinema and it caused an uproar among the self-appointed champions of Indian culture, but the film, which offered a sharp critique of people who discriminate on the basis of skin colour, became a hit.

Sadly things haven't changed much in the past 40 years. In those times female-centric films were a rarity and Chaani was one of the few to break the ceiling by not only having a female lead driving it, but also to do well at the box office.

Ranjana gained such huge popularity among Marathi cine-goers with just three films that she became the main crowd-puller for her movies. A testament to that fact is her name appearing before the male lead. The tradition which began with Rajkamal's Chaani became the norm that was followed in most of her films.

Arre Saunsar Saunsar (1981) became a turning point in her career. In the film, she played a young woman, Ratna, who is married into a rich family where she leads a happy life with her husband until his untimely death causes a whole lot of problems. The film was about how she faces all the problems and comes out victorious.

Arre Saunsar Saunsar (the title was taken from a well-known Marathi song by the illiterate poet Bahinabai Chaudhari) not only helped Ranjana reach the zenith of her popularity, but also won her first state award for Best Actress. It was probably the most challenging role of her career as she had to portray all stages of a woman's life, from young woman to mother to an old woman. She was only 25 at the time.

Another reason Arre Saunsar Saunsar is still remembered is its unforgettable music by Anil-Arun. Songs like 'Vithu Mauli Tu', 'Raja Lalkari Ashi De' and 'Kaalya Maatit Maatit' became classics.

Though Ranjana did a significant number of films with Ravindra Mahajani, her pairing with Ashok Saraf became legendary. They worked in 21 films together and the pair became a new success mantra in Marathi cinema.

Unlike conventional actor-actress pairs, Ashok Saraf and Ranjana did not restrict themselves to playing only lovers on screen. In films like Arre Saunsar Saunsar (1981), Devghar (1981) and Bayko Asavi Ashi (1983), Saraf played the villain whereas in Ek Daav Bhutacha he played a ghost who helps Dilip Prabhavalkar's character unite with Ranjana.

Despite that, Ashok Saraf and Ranjana are still considered one of the most successful pairs in Marathi cinema. Ranjana won her second state award for Best Actress after two years for Gupchup Gupchup (1983), for a comedy role that was a complete contrast to her role in Arre Saunsar Saunsar (1981), proving her versatility as an actress.

While Ranjana was scaling new heights of popularity with each film, fate had a different plan for her. Her prospering career came to an abrupt end at the young age of 32 when she met with an accident during the shooting of Jhanjar (1987). After the accident, she was confined to a wheelchair. After spending 13 years in a wheelchair, Ranjana died of a heart attack on 3 March 2000.