Millennium Post

An artiste of the rooted world

There was a time in Indian cinema when movies used to be an entire package. There used to be song and dance sequences- sung mostly by Rafi, Kishore Da, Lata Didi or Asha Tai and on which actors like Shammi Kapoor, Dev Anand Sahab and Dilip Kumar aka Yusuf Khan Sahab in the 60’s and Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor used to either woo their ladies or repent over a glass of liquor at their misfortune.

That was also the time when movies used to mostly revolve around the rich-man-committing-atrocities-on-the-poor-man plot. Usually the rich man role was essayed by Prem Chopra and his likes. The rich man was the supreme authority until the end neared. It was then that he along with his gang of cronies was beaten black and blue. The cronies who used to be the second-third fiddles were cast as per the situation. If the plot had a comic timing then it had to be Rajendra Nath, Mukri, Kishore Da himself, Mehmood, Keshto Mukherjee, Johnny Walker, I S Johar and Asrani as well. The bad men who were usually portrayed as womanizers and being trigger happy included K N Singh, Prem Nath, Pre m Chopra Ajit, Pran, Kanhaya Lal, Jeevan, Ranjeet, Sudhir, Amjad Khan, Amrish Puri, Kulbushan Kharbanda, Danny Denzongpa, Madan Puri, Kader Khan and others.

This trend continued for much of the 20th century but by the 1980’s, the scenario at the Hindi film industry had pretty much changed or in certain quarters was still undergoing change. Actors and actresses were dancing to digital music of Bappi Lahiri and were not any more reticent to bare skin or to even smooch on screen. While the new audiences stood cheek by jowl with what they were being presented with, the older ones passed it off with disdain writ large on their faces. But character artistes were still very much prevalent in spite of their diminishing stature.

However the 1970’s as also the 1980’s were also the beginning of parallel or alternate cinema in Bollywood. But much before it broke ranks with the Hindi film industry, the era of alternate cinema had been initiated by acclaimed Bengali film makers somewhere from the 1940’s to the 1960’s. Men like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Bimal Roy, Mrinal Sen and Tapan Sinha can be identified with the same. Even Bollywood experimented with the same initially and Chetan Anand, elder brother of veteran actor Dev Sahab even won the Palme d’Or- The Best Film Award  for his movie Neecha Nagar at the first ever Cannes Film Festival in 1946.

When parallel cinema formally entered Bollywood, there were enough mainstream movies which were being made on huge budgets. Mostly the onus of showcasing this kind of cinema fell on young and not so young minds, who either had the good advantage of gaining formal education from the National School of Drama or the Film and Television Institute of India located at Pune. Hrishkesh Da (Mukherjee) and Basu Da(Chatterjee) took centre stage and gave memorable hits like Chupke-Chupke, Anand, Abhimaan, Guddi, Piya ka Ghar, Rajnigandha, Ek Ruka Hua Faisla among others. Amongst the very limited men who made movies with a social impact was Govind Nilhani too and there is a reason why I have traversed this entire passage of time which in itself seems like an aeon now. But I would still like to keep it wrapped for a little longer I guess.

When Govind Nilhani decided to make Ardh Satya- a 1983 cult movie, it was touted that the young filmmaker had perhaps lost his mind as he was hell bent on showing societal angst on a never before scale. His initial offering Aakrosh which came out in 1980 had just shared the Golden Peacock for best film at the International Film Festival of India held in the national capital in 1981 and Nilhani was expectedly buoyant. But since art cinema was and is still made on a shoe-string budget, Nilhani too had no money to counter the likes of established producers and directors like Yash Chopra and Raj Kapoor. The cast had to be ensemble and as is ostensibly clear it had to have actors who could portray emotions and not ask for too wide a pay-check. Nilhani who previously had worked with Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil and Amrish Puri in Aakrosh cast them as such for his latest project. However another actor was also cast to play the antagonist Rama Shetty’s role in the movie.

This actor who Nilhani recently described as someone with expressive and alert eyes lost the battle against a pertinent lung infection in Mumbai recently. His name was Sadashiv Amrapurkar. Nilhani did not know who Amrapurkar was but the former had a very able screenplay writer who did. Vijay Tendulkar, who wrote screenplays for many Bollywood movies, suggested Nilhani to watch a Marathi play where Amrapurkar was in the lead. Says Nilhani, ‘I had never seen Sadashiv‘s work before. So I went to see his Marathi play, a comedy called Hands Up, in which he was paired opposite the legendary Bhakti Bharve. Now, everyone knows Bhakti to be a fine actress. But Sadashiv who was relatively new stood his ground and gave a rousing performance. I noticed his great comic timing.’
Nilhani further says, ‘My first impression of Sadashiv was that he had very expressive and alert eyes. Also, his voice had the texture that I needed for the character. Half-way through the play I made up my mind to cast him as Rama Shetty. It was the best decision I could’ve taken for my film. Sadashiv didn’t play the role. He owned it and he lived every moment of the character. He wasn’t judgmental about Rama Shetty.’

Sadashiv Amrapurkar was so emphatic in his portrayal of Rama Shetty that he won the 1984 Filmfare award for the best supporting actor. Clearly, Nilhani had delivered on poignancy yet again but more importantly he had introduced an actor who was to leave behind a trail of worthy celluloid histrionics.

As news about the death of this thespian spread, I was particularly perturbed as another character artiste had died. In today’s cinema where there is no space for character artistes, the loss of Amrapurkar is immense. A cousin sister, who is renowned movie buff in family circles, took to the social networking site Facebook and wrote about Amrapurkar: ‘When I saw Amrapurkar raping Jayaprada in the 1986 movie- Aakhree Rasta I was too terrified and that picture was enough to haunt me for a very long period of my life. Amrapurkar in that movie shared my last name and I in my naivety had all sorts of thoughts coming to my mind.’ That was the impact that an actor like Amrapurkar had on his audience.

Born on 11 May, 1950 in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra, Ganesh Narwode adopted the screen name of Sadashiv Amrapurkar on stage when he began his career in 1974 as a Marathi film actor. He obtained a masters degree in History from the University of Pune and was always very deeply associated with social work. Social activist, Narendra Dabholkar who was shot dead some years ago for having exhorted people to abandon superstition had an unnerving follower in the actor who lent his heart and soul for Dabholkar’s Samajik Krutadnyata Nidhi (SKN).

It is believed that when Amrapurkar essayed the role of Maharani- a eunuch in the 1991 Mahesh Bhatt movie Sadak he became so deeply associated his role that eventually he decided to work for the upliftment of commercial sex workers in Ahmednagar. The actor who went on to win his second Filmfare award left a huge impact on the minds of the Indian film audience who are known to swell at cosmetic appearances more than impactful acting. Amrapurkar was last seen in Bombay Talkies- which was an experiment by four young and established directors to show case reality. Dibakar Banerjee who cast him in Star albeit for five minutes said after his death, ‘Who was to know that my story in the omnibus Bombay Talkies would turn out to be Sadashivji’s swan song? I am so glad I worked with him in Bombay Talkies.’

Amrapurkar had refused prosthetics for this role. This brings us back to the entire saga that I as a writer shared with you in the beginning. Cinema of yesteryears was known equally for its character artistes who provided the variety and essence to the art of film making and middle or the parallel cinema was about portrayal of reality. In today’s commercial cinema nothing of that sort exists. Amrapurkar, as also veterans like Satish Shah, Satish Kaushik, Kulbhushan Kharbanda (last seen in Vishal Bharadwaj’s magnum opus Haider) and Kader Khan had realised that the commercial cinema of the 21st century had no place for veterans like them. Most of them have silently faded into the oblivion to never return to the studio- the place they called home. With Sadashiv Amrapurkar’s passing away, an era has to come to an end. The void created will never be replenished.
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