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Once Upon a Cinema: Who was Satyadev Dubey?

  • Who really was Satyadev Dubey? Alongside his trailblazing work on stage, Dubey also had strong ties with Hindi and Marathi cinema. Amborish writes. Vijay Anand, Dev Ananddd

    The two men met at St. Xavier’s College, Bombay around the early 1950s. Both of them would go on to shape storytelling in their own ways. But it was the game of cricket that brought Satyadev Dubey, one of these young men, to Bombay. He could play decently and decided the only way to be able to play serious cricket was to learn it well. With that in mind, he moved to Bombay from Madhya Pradesh’s Bilaspur, his home town. At St. Xavier’s, he managed to find a place in the college team. The subjects he chose for himself were English literature and Hindi, which were, at least in his mind, a unique combination. This choice also reflected his worldview.

    To his utter amusement, he found there was one other individual in college with that exact same choice of subjects. This was the other young man we spoke about at the outset. They called him “Goldie”. Goldie Anand. Goldie aka Vijay Anand’s brothers had set themselves up in the film trade, but he was still trying to find his feet. And theatre fascinated him. He not only participated in college plays, but also wrote them.

    When Satyadev encountered Vijay, they seemed to find a common ground: literature. Legend has it that it was Vijay Anand who introduced him to the world of theatre and the Anand family. Both of them welcomed him with open arms. While Chetan Anand, his wife Uma Anand and the newly minted star Dev Anand received him warmly, theatre gave him a whole new vocation. Cricket was promptly forgotten, and Satyadev lost himself in the world of stage. He began reading and writing plays. He was also spending a lot of time with Vijay Anand. Vijay’s world was now expanding. He had assisted Chetan Anand, co-written Taxi Driver (1954) and was preparing to shoot his first directorial.

    Satyadev would often find himself on the sets. On one such occasion in the year 1958, as Vijay Anand immersed himself in the process of filmmaking, Satyadev was overcome by an urge to compete with his friend. Driven by it, he wrote a one-act play called Thodi Der Pehle, Thodi Der Baad, basing it on a British play he had read called Time and the Conways, by J. B. Priestley. Around this time Dubey also felt that he was just shadowing his friend, and it wasn’t helpful in shaping his own identity in any way. That is when he decided to redouble his efforts to find his voice through theatre.

    He began performing as an actor with Theatre Unit, a joint run by Ebrahim Akazi. When Alkazi went to Delhi to redesign the National School of Drama in his own way, Dubey took over Theatre Unit. One of his most iconic productions was Dharamvir Bharati’s Andha Yug, which he discovered as a radio play and eventually adapted it for stage. And it was while staging Andha Yug that Satyadev Dubey came across a young actor he had to cast. The boy was from V.K. Sharma’s troupe, so there was no question of saying no. V.K. Sharma was an esteemed colleague and someone who actively produced, directed and acted in plays. Dubey and Sharma often worked together. He decided to cast the boy as a mute soldier. Dubey was known to be temperamental and quite the quirky genius. The boy, named Jatin, didn’t turn up for rehearsals one day, and Dubey fired him. But eventually, he had to hire him back. Jatin Khanna ended up playing the mute soldier on quite a few stagings of the play, including performances in Delhi and Calcutta. Needless to say, Jatin Khanna would go on to become a rage on Indian screens under a different name, Rajesh Khanna.

    Satyadev Dubey built a reputation as a great teacher of stage acting, and in this capacity, he ended up schooling some actors who would eventually become screen legends: Amrish Puri, Amol Palekar, Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah, Govind Nihalani, Sulabha Deshpande…the roster is littered with great names. While he belonged to Madhya Pradesh, Satyadev had a fascination for literary works and plays in different Indian languages. He staged Girish Karnad’s Kannada plays Yayati and Tughlaq, and Badal Sircar’s Bengali play Evam Indrajit in translation. But when he debuted as a filmmaker, it was in the language of his karmabhoomi, Marathi.

    Satyadev Dubey was an active participant in the Marathi theatre scene. Almost a decade after Dubey had landed up in Bombay, legendary playwright Vijay Tendulkar wrote a play in Marathi called Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe. When eventually a film adaptation was planned, Satyadev Dubey directed it. It was made under the same title and in Marathi. One of Dubey’s disciples Sulabha Deshpande reprised her role of Benare from the stage, while another of his students, Govind Nihalani, manned the camera. The resultant film, Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe (1971), was a remarkable feat of filmmaking. Dubey was able to employ a cinematic idiom to effectively “translate” a play designed for the stage.

    Four years later when a talented ad filmmaker was bursting into the scene with his first film and Govind was the cinematographer, Satyadev Dubey wrote the dialogues. After Ankur, Shyam Benegal repeated him as a writer on Nishant, Bhumika, Junoon, Kalyug and Mandi. He also wrote Govind’s films Aakrosh and Vijeta. He was cast as the elderly priest with whom Nishant opens. In the same year, he played a young worker of Bombay docks who refuses to pay extortion money to the mafia. The film was Yash Chopra’s Deewaar (1975). Satyadev Dubey also wrote a Bollywood adaptation of The Godfather, called Vishwasghaat (1977).

    In an interview given to just months before his passing, Dubey spoke about his new Marathi film, Ram Naam Satya Hai. He said, “I think it will make a mark. Ram Naam Satya Hai may very well be my Ram Naam Satya Hai, but, the point is there is always a desire to make a film. This too is in Marathi. It's my commitment to Maharashtra. Somewhere it's the Marathi people and to some extent, the Gujarati people who gave me an identity. My teaching has flowered more amongst the Marathi students.” The film, which would have been Satyadev Dubey’s second directorial film, remains largely unseen.


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