Shanta Apte – Profile
by V.P. Sathe in 1977
No film star created as much sensation by her behavior as did Shanta Apte, who was aptly described as “the stormy petrel of the Indian screen.” Now a decade after her death, she seems to have created another sensation. In the Diwali issue of a local Marathi weekly a stage artiste Nayana Apte has confessed that she is the daughter of Shanta. So far, at least it was not publicly known that Shanta Apte ever got married or that she had a child out of wedlock.
Nayana Apte writes: “In 1946-47, when Shanta Apte had stopped acting in any film she became Mrs. Shanta Apte. Her husband was a rich landlord and related to her. His surname was also Apte. He could not recognize the artiste in her. He was strongly opposed to her artistic ambition. Shantabai thought that she would be able to persuade him by staking all her cleverness. But she failed. He was equally obstinate. It was perhaps characteristic of the Aptes. In three months Shantabai left her husband She was pregnant. I was born at Andheri. I was christened Nayana.”
She adds that she never saw her father. For that matter though I remember meeting Shanta Apte in Andheri in 1947, for an interview for a local English weekly, I did not see her husband.
Apart from this rather belated revelation by her daughter Nayana, Shanta Apte had a very eventful career as both film and stage star. Born at Neera, she was the daughter of a station-master who was also a good singer. Shanta Apte learnt singing in childhood and made a name for herself as a singer at Ganpati festivals in Poona. When the movies began to talk, there was a demand for artistes who could sing. The teenaged Shanta was cast as Radha in Saraswati Cinetone’s mythological “Shayamsunder”, opposite Shahu Modak as Krishna. Shanta Apte’s elder brother Baburao Apte played Radha’s husband in that film. The Hindi version did not fare well, but the Marathi version was a phenomenal success. It was the first talkie to run for 25 weeks at one theatre, in Bombay.
Despite this success Shanta Apte did not get any other role. She did not receive encouraging press notices. In 1947 when I asked her how she happened to be a film actress she replied “To tell you the truth I had no idea about films when I first appeared before the camera. I was too young then and interested only in music. It was because I was told that I would learn music in a film studio that I stepped in there. But after my first experience I would probably never have taken to films as a career had it not been said that I could not act at all. When the director himself said that I could not enact any rate I had to accept the challenge. That is why I joined Prabhat three years later.”
For almost three years she did not get an opportunity to display her talent. It was only after Prabhat had shifted its headquarters to Poona, that Shanta Apte signed a long term contract with Prabhat. Her first film for Prabhat was “Amritmanthan”, based on a story by N. H. Apte. Set in the Buddhist period, the picture was a plea against religious sacrifice.
She was cast as the hero’s sister. The role was emotional. Thee scenes showing her as a demented woman revealed for the first time that Shanta Apte could act. Her songs (especially Raat Ayi Hai Naya Rang Jamane Ke Liye) became a popular craze. “Amritmanthan” was the first Hindi film to celebrate a silver jubilee in Bombay. Though the leading roles belonged to Suresh Babu and Nalini Tarkhad, it was Shanta Apte and Chandramohan who got the bouquets after the release.
During her contract with Prabhat she appeared in “Amaryoti”, “Rajput Ramani”, “Duniya Na Mane”, “Wahan” and “Gopal Krishna”. “Amarjyoti” and “Duniya Na Mane” were directed by V. Shantaram. In “Amarjyoti” she played the romantic lead and the ward of a woman who hated men. In “Duniya Na Mane” she was cast as Nirmala, a young girl married to a man old enough to be her father. Instead of accepting the marriage as a ‘failed accomplishment” she revolts, refusing to have conjugal relations with her husband and making him realize his mistake. Shanta Apte was sincere and convincing. In a scene she beat her step-son with a cane. She was to repeat that scene in real life: she walked into the office of the editor of a film magazine in Bombay and caned him for writing scandalously about her.
Her performance in “Duniya Na Mane” proved beyond doubt that Shanta Apte was a very talented actress. In “Rajput Ramani” she played a spirited Rajput girl and in “Wahan”, she played a tribal girl seeking freedom. “Gopal Krishna” in which she again played Radha was her greatest vindication as an artiste. For, the very people who had said that she could not act as Radha in “Shyamsunder” hailed her portrayal in “Gopalkrishna.” In seven years, from a rejected actress Shanta Apte had grown into a sought after star.
During her association with Prabhat she had many disputes with the management. Those days the stars could not dictate; the producers ruled supreme. To assert her rights Shanta Apte had to fight. And she went on a hunger strike to demand justice from Prabhat.
Her association with Prabhat ended in 1938. She became a free-lancer—she was perhaps the first film star in India to do it. Shanta and her brother Baburao formed Shanta Apte concerns. She had been inactive for over a year at Prabhat till her contract expired.
She learned Tamil, Telugu, Bengali and Gujarati. Earlier she had learnt English. In fact, she had sung a poem by Longfellow in “Duniya Na Mane” and won plaudits for her diction. She appeared in a Tamil film “Savithri”. She played the title role. M.S. Subbalakshmi appeared as Narada in the same film. It was a treat to hear these great singers together in the film.
A singer of repute herself Shanta Apte was vehemently opposed to plauback singing by ghost voices. “If the film art is to be sincere and true then the present deception of playback must be stopped,” she said, and those artistes who can sing must be invited to sing and the audience should not be misled by borrowed voices.”
From Madras, Shanta Apte went to Lahore to appear in Pancholi’s “Zamindar” opposite S. D. Narang. Her temperamental behavior created a storm. But Pancholi managed affairs successfully. “Zamindar” was a success. And Shanta Apte’s song Chhotasa Sansar scored by Ghulam Haider became a memorable hit.
Back in Bombay Shanta Apte appeared in Debaki Bose’s “Apna Ghar”. She played the role of Meera, a young girl married to a widowed forest officer who lives in the jungle. All her
marital needs are satisfied; but she is not happy being just a housewife and mother. She is interested in the problems of the tribe living in the jungle.
Ultimately she leaves her home and dedicates herself to tribal welfare, refusing to subscribe to the orthodox theory that a woman’s place is behind the four walls of her husband’s home. With Chandramohan cast as her overpowering husband, who represented the ruling class, Shanta Apte symbolized mother India trying to break the fetters. She was ideally cast as the girl rebelling against old concepts. She gave a sterling performance.
Her other important role during that period was as Mahashweta in “Kadambari”, based on the Sanskrit classic of the same name and directed by Nandlal Jaswantlal (“Anarkali”, “Nagin”). Shanta Apte looked glamorous in this film.
During the wartime boom she appeared in a number of films: “Mohabbat”, “Bhagyalakshmi”, “Sawan”, “Panihari”, “Subhadra”, “Uttara Abhimanyu” and “Valmiki”. During the post-war and post-independence period Shanta Apte lost her star status. She appeared only in a few Hindi films like “Mandir”, “Mai Abla Nahin Hoon” and “Swayamsiddha” and a number of Marathi films like “Jaga Bhadyane Dene Aahe”, “Shilanganache Sone”, “Jara Japoon” and “Bhagyawan”.
Her performance in “Swayamsiddha” won her accolades. For here was a role which appeared to have been specially written for her: that of a woman whose husband is meek, almost mad. And her brother-in-law dominates the household. Unable to bear the injustice, the wife revolts. She succeeds in bringing her husband back to his senses and teaches a lesson to her brother-in-law.
The film was made in Calcutta and in 1949 the producers came to Bombay to sell it. No distributor was prepared to buy it. The only person who evinced any interest in the film was Tarachand Barjatya. He released the film at the Central and Excelsior cinemas in Bombay. With Shanta Apte no longer a star, the opening was poor. But the critics, among them M. D. Japheth (who those days reviewed films for the “Bharat Jyoti”) liked it. An impromptu press conference
was arranged with Shanta Apte at the Excelsior Soda Fountain. And thanks to the favorable press reaction, the collections picked up. “Swayamsiddha” clicked in a big way. The picture brought Bipin Gupta (who played the father-in-law) into the limelight.
Venus Pictures of Madras made another version of the same film “Bahurani”, with Mala Sinha in the role that Shanta Apte had played. Guru Dutt played the husband and Feroz Khan the brother-in-law.
“Swayamsiddha” was Shanta Apte’s last great performance. Indeed, her three outstanding performances were as a rebel revolting against injustice in “Duniya Na Mane”, “Apna Ghar” and “Swayamsiddha”. The last film in which she appeared was Mulu Manek’s Gujarati historical. The last decade of her life she devoted to the stage., Besides giving song recitals she played singing roles in Guajarati and Marathi plays pays. She appeared as a sophisticated girl in Acharya Atre’s “Lagnachi Bedi” and had roles in plays like “Manaapman”, “Saubhadra” and “Ekach Pyala”. She created a controversy on stage by introducing a new style of rendering popular old songs. During one of her performances, the instrumentalists annoyed by her constant variations of ‘alaaps’ walked out. But she stuck her ground and sang her songs till the last act without any accompaniment.
Thanks to her eccentric behavior accentuated by her drinking she got few opportunities to display her talent. She became an alcoholic. The separation from her elder brother who got married and lost interest in her affairs, added to her grief. The last three or four years when she was almost jobless were tragic. She died on February 24, 1964 in a desolate condition. She was 46. Her brother Baburao died a year or so later.
Shanta Apte was perhaps the first star to write a book. Entitled “Jaoo Mi Cinemat” (Should I join films) it was meant as a warning and guide to young aspirants. A Marathi play “Kachecha Chandra” (Glass Moon) was based on it. It has been a big success.
A few years before her death S. Mukerji had signed her to appear in Filmalaya’s first film with Dilip Kumar. But the picture was never made. And we lost the opportunity to see Shanta Apte in a mature role.