A story of unimaginable hardships, adversity, and courage, Sindhutai Sapkal led a life beyond the impossible. A child whose very birth was discounted by her parents, she went on to become a mother-figure to over 1,500 orphans, not to mention her own country.
A woman who dedicated her life in the service and well-being of children, and society at large, Sindhutai, or Mai, as she was fondly called by everyone, breathed her last on 4 January 2022. She was 73.
Her story was brought to life on the screen by actor-director-writer Ananth Mahadevan with his 2010 biopic titled, Mi Sindhutai Sapkal, starring Tejaswini Pandit and Jyoti Chandekar in the titular role. Talking to The Quint, Mahadevan explains how the national film award-winning movie and the journey changed him for the better.
Through the Director's Lens
"I read about who Padma Shri Sindhutai Sapkal was and was immediately enamoured by her journey. How was it possible for one person to lead such an impossible life? I immediately started searching for her whereabouts and found that she was running a shelter home for children at Hadapsar, Pune," says Ananth Mahadevan.
His real task, however, was yet to begin. "It was a huge deal for her to let someone come close to her, and rightly so. Why would she want to meet me, a random filmmaker? Only after she was convinced of my good intentions, did she permit me to tell her story," he adds.
She eventually opened up and how. "When she knew that I had no vested interests by telling her story, she started to warm up to me. And then when she spoke, a cascade of memories tumbled through her. She told me about each experience, each relationship of her life after she trusted me enough. She was a mammoth image, an enigma to emulate on screen," Mahadevan adds.
Soon after, their camaraderie turned into a beautiful mother-son relationship. "I started calling her Mai, like others close to her, and she always called me baala (son) then. It was a life-changing experience for me. We like to sit and crib and complain about little things. But here she was, with all her turmoils, still standing resolute. She imparted her positive energies, giving nature to me as a legacy," he said.
'Wanted to Show Sindhutai the Lady, Not Sindhutai the Orator'
It is indeed a tall order to capture someone's entire life in a limited time period. But the movie certainly captures the essence of Sindhutai's life which resonated with the audience.
"A critic mentioned how the film lacks Sindhutai's display as an orator. She was indeed a great speaker, and I have shown the moments of her life when she did speak up. But this movie is about Sindhutai the lady, not Sindhutai the orator," explains Ananth.
He shares how she told him about her two attempts to take her own life. Once, she laid down on a railway track and the other time she stood at the edge of a hill. Her biological daughter's cries made her turn back from the edge.
"Death wasn't cut out for me, she told me then. That's when she started to live her life. She was emotionally and physically beaten. But despite everything, she was alive. I would liken that to a phoenix rising from its ashes, and that is a story worth telling," he adds.
"'I've seen it all, what can happen worse?' Sindhutai said to me. It is this resolute spirit, strength and how she never gave up that one should take away from her. The hardships didn't make her bitter, but made her even more selfless. That giving nature, her courage is the legacy that she leaves behind for us to carry on," Mahadevan says.
The maternal figure that she was to all her children, she would nurture every child that came under her care, explains Ananth, adding, "If a child was sick, she would wait till the doctor examined them. Whatever was needed then for the child's well-being was managed by her. That's when her real gentle, protective and compassionate side came out. But with others, especially strangers, she was firm, and if need be, aggressive."
'Her Validation of the Film Meant the World to Me'
On being asked how Sindhutai reacted to the movie, he fondly recalls the memory with a laugh. "She plonked herself down next to me in the theatre at the premiere. We watched the film together. At the distressing moments of the story, she held my hand so tightly that her nails dug into them. She later told me how she relived her life while watching the movie and how accurately everything was shown. There couldn't be a bigger compliment to me than her validation that her story was done justice," Mahadevan says.
Arguably, the film was the turning point that brought Sapkal's story in the national and international limelight. She was already a revered figure in Maharashtra, her home state.
"She fought incredible hardships to come forward, went against the conventional norms of the society to reform it. I had to fight to put her story out too. It wasn't termed as a commercially viable cinema. She said that we must do what we love and not get swayed by the world. Well, her love towards her children and my love towards cinema converged and we were able to tell her story," Mahadevan tells us.
Not just children, Sindhutai Sapkal was known for defending the lives of the marginalised as well. She also rescued cows and had a deep passion for the wildlife. She often endeavoured to raise more awareness about these issues and lack of compensations granted in case of accidental deaths due to to man-animal conflicts.
Casting the Indomitable Figure
"Casting is everything to me in a movie. We started backwards first. Jyoti Chandekar fit the bill perfectly and was cast to play the older version of Mai. Later, we brought in Tejaswini Pandit, her daughter and actor, to play the character's younger version," Mahadevan tells The Quint.
"Some people were surprised at the casting of Tejaswini but I dismissed those apprehensions because I had found my Sindhutai in her. All my other actors delivered perfectly as well. That's the thing about Marathi actors, they are very raw, very real," he adds.
Tejaswini tells us, "At first, I was rejected from playing the role because of my features. I do not fit into conventional roles because of my green eyes, fair skin and brown hair. But Ananth ji called me again after watching my film Vavtal, which was playing in the cinemas then. He said we will work on the look, but I don't think anyone else can play her role better than you."
The rest was history. With this role, Tejaswini's career graph soared higher than before. She explains how filmmakers now started seeing her more like an actor rather than just a heroine. "This movie and role was way ahead of its time. It was a biopic carried entirely by female actors at a time when biopics were not made that frequently. People started taking my craft seriously after this and also were confident that I could carry a film entirely on my shoulders," she says.
"I believe that our cinema helped bring more recognition to the selfless work of Mai. If she had four helping hands before, now she had forty. Art has that power. I like to believe that with this cinema, we contributed in some little way towards Mai's journey. We are proud of the work that we did together," says Tejaswini.
The Legacy That Sindhutai Sapkal Leaves Behind
There is something for everyone to learn from Sindhutai's incredible journey; the life of a woman whose unshakeable faith and courage proves to be a beacon of hope for generations on end.
"When the world is going berserk, to imbibe her qualities has become more imperative than ever. Hope, and a spirit of giving, being kind and selfless is what is going to sail us through," Mahadevan says.
"Another thing that we can do now is to make sure her legacy stays alive by helping her children run the ashrams. It's up to us to make sure that they don't fold up. There is no government aid, there never was," he adds.
"I cannot put into words what she gave me in return. Mai has no idea how big a role she played in changing and building my career. I only hope that we get more people like her in this world, and when we do, I hope their stories come out. Sadly, we recognise the value of someone only after they are gone," Tejaswini says.
Grief and the Pressure of Social Media
Everyone lives under the pressures of social media where a post online means more than showing up in real life. But sometimes, celebrities are held accountable for their actions more often than the general crowd. Tejaswini had to pen a post on Instagram merely hours after the death of Sindhutai on how people judged her for not immediately reacting to the sad news.
She says, "I got messages from the most random people asking why I haven't posted anything yet, 'You are the face of Sindhutai Sapkal!' My point is, it is merely a piece of news to you, but to me it is a serious loss. To lose someone who contributed so much to my life, someone whom I respected so much left me shaken. We didn't speak everyday, but that doesn't lessen my love and respect for her."
"Why have we made it our personal diary? If I don't post something immediately, does that mean I don't feel anything for her? This constant pressure is very disturbing, let someone come to terms with the loss first," she adds.
"There is no need to say anything on social media. It is sad that they pressurise us so much, but I don't bow to it now," says Ananth.
"To know that I cannot even see her virtually anymore was too hard to digest and here I was getting messages to give a quote. We are stuck either way, whether we speak or don't," says Tejaswini.
"If we had social media campaigns back then, the way we do now, I'm sure the film would have had a greater reach. But nevertheless, we achieved the objective of the movie, which was to bring forward Mai's story," concludes Tejaswini.
"Mai taught me the importance of maintaining all kinds of interpersonal relationships. We must learn to accept each other how we are and build stronger bridges. Those are the relationships that we must work on, now more than ever," Mahadevan says.
Truly, the family and the circle that Sindhutai Sapkal built around her was huge. Even after being rejected by her own blood, her spirit remained undeterred. She was loved and respected amongst everyone and she showered them with equal affection. Her story is one that should be shared with the masses in hopes of creating a better world for us all.