For the consummate actor Bharati Achrekar, the past year has marked 50 years of a multifaceted career, since her professional stage debut in 1968 at 16. It isn’t a milestone that Achrekar has taken particular note of given her easy-going approach to a career that has brought her immense satisfaction almost by chance, as she likes to puts it. She grew up in a bustling Dadar neighbourhood, in the musically-inclined household of noted classical singer Manik Varma, her mother. “Music was in my blood,” she says. A prize-winning turn in an amateur production of P.L. Deshpande’s Sundar Mi Honar came to the notice of M.G. Rangnekar of the esteemed Goa Hindu Association. He cast her in Dhanya Te Gayani Kala, a play in which she played Tansen’s daughter, and sang compositions by the formidable Bhimsen Joshi. It was an auspicious debut in a long-running production that led to more parts in commercial Marathi theatre, before a self-imposed hiatus of several years from 1972, during which she worked in Bombay Doordarshan as a producer for the culture beat. “It was an exciting period for television. I remember taking Smita Patil’s interview when she joined as a newsreader,” she reminisces.
Grounded in theatre
It took another musical play to draw Achrekar back to theatre — Vijaya Mehta’s 1978 production of Anil Barwe’s Marathi classic Hamidabai Chi Kothi. Following that, she worked in Mehta’s Mahasagar with Neena Kulkarni and Vikram Gokhale among others, which turned out to be a winner at the turnstiles all over Maharashtra, aggregating more than a 1,000 shows over five years. “That’s when I decided to leave television to primarily pursue theatre,” says Achrekar. While singing parts continued to come her way, she established herself as a versatile performer with acting chops to spare.
The grounding in theatre certainly held her in good stead on the big screen. Even in standard issue Hindi film melodramas, Achrekar was able to anchor the archetypal characters she played with human qualities that made them identifiable. Debuting in Basu Chatterjee’s Apne Paraye (1980), opposite Girish Karnad, she was the mean-spirited housewife, but escaped the typecasting that was de rigueur in cinema those days, especially for female actors.
In Chatterjee’s Chameli ki Shaadi (1986), her comic timing was used to good effect. Her supporting parts in films by K Vishwanath – Sur Sargam, Sanjog (both 1985) and Eeshwar (1989) – were compassionate portrayals of flawed women.
These early forays led to a litany of bit parts over the next couple of decades that did little to tarnish her accessible everywoman image after the 1988 television serial, Wagle ki Duniya, established her as a national household name. Some memorable celluloid turns slipped in from time to time, for instance, in Krishna D.K. and Raj Nidimoru’s Flavors and, more recently, in Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, where she never appears on screen, but only through the cadences of her distinctive voice, she is friend, philosopher and guide to Nimrat Kaur’s harried housewife.
In television, she has been continuously employed for the past three decades, in mostly serials that offered meaningful parts (including a recent starring role in Sumit Sambhal Lega, the Indian version of Everybody Loves Raymond) with only a couple of daily soaps of the saas bahu ilk thrown in. As a sideline, she also doubled up as producer of such shows as Zamana Badal Gaya. This busy phase coincided with her theatre career being placed on the back-burner, as she waited for the right part for a performer of her calibre and vintage. “Original plays were increasingly scarce; good writers had moved to television, and on the stage, mostly revivals of classics were finding favour,” she observed.
Back on stage
Achrekar’s latest theatre project in more than 12 years is Anahita Uberoi’s Gaa Re Maa, written by Adhir Bhat and Siddharth Kumar, in which she plays, once again, a classical singer whose son decides to become a DJ, much to her initial chagrin. This is a project for which producer Ishita Arun had Achrekar in mind for several years. It marks several firsts for the veteran performer. It is her first foray into theatre in a language other than Marathi — she speaks both Hindi and English in the play.
The premiere performances at last November’s Prithvi Theatre Festival was the first time Achrekar performed at Prithvi Theatre or the Royal Opera House, since her big commercial ventures on the Marathi stage never left their customary prosceniums. “It was a never before experience in new intimate spaces, in a brand new genre for me,” she says. Venues aside, even the audiences seem to be completely different from those she was accustomed to. Gaa Re Maa thus marks the beginning of a welcome new innings for the actor, and she’s certainly enjoying the ride.
Gaa Re Maa will be staged this weekend at Sophia Auditorium and Bal Gandharva Rang Mandir; more details at bookmyshow.com