By Joshy Joseph
Not long ago, a poet summed up in style: Cinema theatres are the psycho-analytical clinics of the working class. But the reality of this clinic was unveiled before this writer when I caught up with Mr Kashinath Sahoo, whose life journey is moving ahead on the road of longevity to immortality.
A surreal picture of a grand old man, a proud owner of the theater called Bijayashree, Sahoo is quite a spectacle. The chief guest of the local school for the Republic Day function, I ran into him at his hometown while he was getting ready for the event. With his hands full of toffees, he cut a surprisingly bright picture before me. His son came up with the shocker- Sahoo is A Century and One not out !
Indian cinema turned hundred this May. Like as always, Films Division would have planned to dish out a well balanced diet as the normal practice. But the Director General , Varinder Singh Kundu is keen on bringing in fresh air. Armed with an evolved taste, he has plans to break out from the stereotyped narratives to mark this moment.
The assignment is set with machine gun effect. A dozen films to celebrate the occasion. My call is to cover regions Odisha, W Bengal, Assam, and Manipur – the studios, theatres and the life and times around it. That’s how I met with the 101 years young Kashinath Sahoo.
While the owner is a century and one old, the technology of his theatre is less than a decade old with the latest cube technology projection. Hindi flick, ‘Race 2’ is running well in Sahoo’s theatre, Bijayashree. A grand wedding pandal or shamiana type ambience, the theatre is painted in colours that won’t miss the eye. The Indian Graffitti in full bloom. Seats are not set to the socialist pattern, but with clear divisions in colour.
The owner, a trained Kuchipudi dancer, used this place as a practice area for dance drama shows which later got converted into a modern theatre. Equipped with a dynamo to power the projection during the pre-electric supply days, Sahoo made his mark through his Bijayashree cinema. Those were the days of the pre -talkie era, when the cinematic experience were confined to fairs or touring talkies.
Before the advent of soundtrack, improbable it may seem now, the live orchestra converged the spectacles of cinema in these theatres. Picture this – western visuals with local harmonium or dhol as background score. Cut to the interesting soundtrack behind the story of Bijayashree. The soundtrack created by chattering and an intoxicating smell in combo wrap around you once you step inside. The chatterings come from ‘Saliyapatni’, a creature from the jackal family. Known also as ‘toddycat’, these gangs have taken possession of the theatres top portion. And all including the owner are happier for them.
In these parts, this funny animal is a good omen. Sending out a smell of a particular herb, these agile creatures are believed to bring in blessings and luck. Both for the person concerned and the place. No wonder, Bijayashree has undergone many transformations, now reached the cube technology projection era. Its survival…. Sahoo’s century…. people say all could be attributed to these interesting creatures. Who could blame them. The melting pot or meeting point ? History, art, myth, theatre, technology, temple and a set of beliefs blend together here at Bijayashree theatre,of Pipli in Odisha.
Hugging the past, after 63 years.
Gopal Ghosh is now 93 years young. Born in 1920, he was the hero of Odiya’s fourth film, ‘Sri Jagannath’ and the state’s first national award winner. That’s not all. As a student, he had the good fortune to meet the legend, Netaji and even now vividly recollects the entire episode. Living close to Netaji’s birthplace and ancestral home in Cuttack, Gopal Ghosh is bubbling with energy when he recalls the meeting.
Roopbharati, a film company formed by Gopal Ghosh way back in 1947, was backed by actors, technicians and common people. The shareholders teamed up to make a social drama, and in 1950 the film was completed. The film, ‘Sri Jagannath’ was a big hit and hit the jackpot. The heroine of this social drama was Gloria Mohanty.
Gloria, a gifted singer, still retains her silken sound, as I came to understand. For the first time after 1950, a good six decades and more later, the 93 year old hero and the 80 year old heroine got together before camera, on 21st Jan, 2013. It was for me, for my film on the Indian Centenary. A hand-wound Bolex camera made a prophetic entry into my frame. “As you become old, hugging the heroine is acceptable. “ Gopal Ghosh held Gloria close and quipped: “Those days this was a no no, we had to pretend to get the shot right”.
For my episode on Odisha, Gopal Ghosh stood still at the riverbed of time with the great Mahanadi river forming a fitting backdrop. As the sun went down slowly, up came the words from Gopal Ghosh –“Sun that’s going down and man who’s fading away”. I looked the other way.
Mahindro Mishra and Papa
‘ Indradhanura chaaye’ ( Shadows of the Rainbow), Odiya film by Sushant Mishra had won many awards , both Indian and International. Born on 23rd July, 1965, he is the son of one of Odiya’s best known publishers, Mahindro Mishra. The 80 year old doyen of the Odiya publishing scene, Mahindro triggered the cinematic visions in his son. Sushant weaves his celluloid memories around his father, who returned to Bhubaneshwar from his first foreign trip with a set of Chaplin film prints, a Bolex camera and a projector. This is history.
Sushant stands like an accused in the court room, as he watches his father Mahindro Mishra scan through the pages of the morning paper. To pep up Sushant, I play a simple trick, as I uttered: “Films generally recreate a father-son friction laden sequence within me. Here, the father himself becomes the inspiration.” “Feeling jealous….” I said. The result was perfect. The duo now felt more at home with me. I am almost there with the plans in my script.
“ Odiya film industry is now at the mercy of poor copies from Telugu flicks. Scene by scene replay of Telugu films have ruined the Odiya industry. The larger impact – the cultural aftershocks – will be more damaging”. Mahindro Mishra was uncorking his anger. I interrupted by asking Sushant, why is he keeping silent and added that mere analysis serves no purpose without active intervention through cinema.
After a brief moment of studied silence, I pull my trigger. “Be open. You were a successful publisher. But Sushant? Half waste? Or full waste?” The response was a bubbly laugh by Sushant. The old man loaded wisdom and philosophy in his response. “ There’s no life that’s completely wasted. The scales may vary; after all we are all winners and losers somewhere in between”.
When you introspect the sequence of personal stories, the listings of telephone directories start throbbing with life. Or let us think this way: lives could be confined into the pages of the directory. With this as the backdrop, I tried to see Sushant Mishra and his father, Mahindro Mishra, accidental anecdotes with layers of narratives beneath. All of a sudden, the thick eyebrows of my late father flashed through my skies…….
Mahapatra in. Mahapatra out.
Neerad Mahapatra and Manmohan Mahapatra are somewhat like Odiya Cinema’s Aravindan and Adoor.
Born on 12th Nov 1947, Neerad Mahapatra became the rainbow of Odiya cinema with a single film – Maya Miriga. An intensely private man, Manmohan Mahapatra has made eight films and won national acclaim for all of them. Yet, never did he go to the glittering award ceremonies at New Delhi. As if running away from all that.
As I step into the homes of the two Mahapatras, I notice one thing. While the award winners’ accolades, both big and small fight for attention from their drawing rooms, the same thing is missing from the two stalwarts of Odiya cinema.
Communicating with Neerad Mahapatra is rather easy. He is open about his viewing habits- from the Bollywood flicks of Salman Khan’s Dabang 2, Kahani, Life of Pi…He says watching these films in the theatre is a learning experience, not something of low taste. And added: “I watch all kinds of films and try to learn about them”. My reply was quick and straight: “Which means the viewer Neerad Mahapatra wouldn’t watch the ‘Maya Miriga’ by film-maker Neerad Mahapatra?”
The answer was insightful-that he hasn’t seen any spark or a distinct voice in Odiya cinema since Sushant Mishra. Mahapatra is known in film world as “Kadaligaachcho” meaning single fruit, like a plantain tree. I asked why.
“ I don’t believe in a basketful of fruits without any colour, flavor or goodness. One good fruit is good enough for me….”
The reply, revealed the man. I was impressed.
On the other hand, the other Mahapatra , Manmohan is like a soul searching for a body to enter in .I mean, in front of the camera. My still photographer Chandrakanta went ahead with few clicks and the man became restless. There’s an African belief that the more you are photographed, the less will be the life span. It drains out the life energy . Told the cameraman to switch off.
This is Manmohan Mahapatra’s first appearance before a movie camera after almost two decades. I told him about seeing his films at film society screenings. And was keen to know the Mahapatra behind the camera.
“ People must watch films, not the film maker,” he said.
“ To mark Indian Cinema’s hundred years, this archiving is unnecessary. I am not going to fall in line with your thinking too.”
The command came to switch off the camera. I made sure the camera was off. Suddenly, the loaded gravity gave way to a light, open mood. Manmohan Mahapatra opened up. And my camera too.
Adoor, Aravindan,Shaji, Girish Kasaravalli… all came up for praise. But not Neerad Mahapatra or Maya Miriga. Again came the command to switch off. Quickly came the observation, loaded with praise. “Forgot to tell you the best from our language -‘Maya Miriga’. This is the problem with the interview. You miss out things..”
That evening, at the unwinding session, Sushant turned into an oracle mood. “He just didn’t forget ‘Maya Miriga’. It was done on purpose” . What a way to forget the time to forget! I told myself. On camera, I have one Mahapatra. Off it, I have another. Which face should I present in my movie?
Aribam Shyam Sharma – Like a Buddhist monk
This is Aribam Shyam Sharma. The man who put Manipuri films in the map of world cinema. Better if we measure the weight of awards won by him, than the numbers.
His film, “Imagi Ningthem” ( My son, my precious) won the Grand Prix at the Nantes Film Festival in France. This was in 1982. A star director was born in Manipuri language. Before this ‘arty’ makeover, Aribam Shyam Sharma was the director the conveyor belt style productions in Manipuri. A hit maker.
In his view, though cinema is a western invention, becomes truly ours when the native idioms and marks of regional culture are creatively engraved in. Replanting and grafting attempts won’t do. He is a firm believer that regionalism is the soul of Indian cinema. It is the truth about people’s identity. Not a negative element- he says.
To underline this argument, he puts forward this : his films have less close-up shots than the other regional films. Because, Manipuris communicate not just with their facial expressions; but with their body too. This demands the camera and the frames to redefine the approach. The Manipuri facial expressions also fall into this approach rather well, he articulates.
For Aribam Shyam Sharma, the learning process is inspired by the Manipuri Gurus rather than the grammar of the film-making. Unlike any other Indian dance form, Manipuri dancer covers the face with a thin veil and this itself is like jumping right across the ancient texts of Natyasashastra. Manipuri Raas is the only dance form that challenges the fundamentals of Natyasashastra, Aribam underlines. Yet the same Aribam, for his work “Ishaanu” made for Doordarshan, used close-ups left and right is another story. Not surprising, though. Many of the so called masters of the medium, shorten their creative vision when they work for Doordarshan.
The conversation with Aribam Shyam Sharma is framed in memory. The style of communicating with words and the body in tandem, as in the Manipuri dance. Flashback. 10th May, 1942. Aribam is just 6 years old. Up in the sky, he watches with wonder, a set of birds, not seen before, in silvery shine. The world war had come to the doorstep of Aribam Shyam Sharma. Warning signs were given beforehand and bomb shelters were in place. Right under the bed. And trenches were ready in the backyard. The same house is still there without any major change. The Japanese bombs hurt the civilians too, and Aribam’s father, a local priest, used to chant mantras to heal the injured along with the home made mustard oil. But in the post-war cholera breakout, Aribam lost his father. While narrating these sequences of personal history, we pan through the various international awards won by this grand old man of Manipuri film. His face, now looks like that of a Buddhist monk.
In 1972, the first Manipuri film, ‘Matangi Manipur” saw the light of the day at Usha Cinema , Imphal. Aribam Shyam Sharma was the assistant director of this landmark movie. For the first time, he did a role too. That was his last. He went behind the camera. The actresses Roma, Rashidevi and Tomba are still around, living in Imphal.
Lamja Tomba and Raashidevi- two sides of joy
His name is not created for films, but created out of films. The first hero of Manipuri films, Tomba is known as Lamja Tomba, like the character he played on the screen. Still hides his age, thanks to the naturally black hair and is today devoted to the stage, his first love. Disciple of the legendary name of Manipuri drama, G.C. Tombra, is active with his stage productions. We caught up with him during a rehearsal.
I started asking him about the first Manipuri film, with him in the lead. The reply was bubbly laugh. “I was just looking at the scar on my face in the screen”- he said. He was 25 then. The opening batsman of Manipuri films is now 68. So is the heroine, Yengkhom Roma. She remembers well the reaction from the audience at Usha Cinema. For a moment, she thought that she had spoiled the scene. It wasn’t, though. The first dialogue in Manipuri came through her voice on screen. The joy erupted from the audience took some time to sink into Roma. “The last film of Usha cinema was yours – Imaginary Line ” she told me. Quick came my response: “Baptism was by you and funeral was done by me”.
While catching up with actress Raashidevi, she started sobbing while recollecting the past. The first Manipuri film was shot in Kolkata’s technician’s studio, where she had to reach on short notice, leaving her infant baby, months old at home in Imphal. The same weight of emotions washed her once more while I recorded her memories.
Theatres in Transit
The walls of the cinema halls are platforms of expressions of the funny kind. One sample I came across in Odisha: ‘Beware for vehicle thieves’. And in Kolkata: ”Eat movies. Sleep movies. Drink Coca-Cola”. A cinema hall in Manipur is named ‘Maachu Cinema’ but popularly known as Mandir . Because the architecture is that of a temple. Sadly, now the temple gates remain closed. ‘Roopbaani’ of Kolkata is now being reborn as an eye care hospital. “Nethra” theatre adorns the poster with close-ups of Amir Khan and Kareena Kapoor’s eyes. At Jorashonko Thakurbadi, the home of Tagore, Ganesh theatre lives only in the address. Cinema theatres all over the world indicate the location. Now, they merely mirror time.
In Mrinalda’s book, there’s no entry named Phalke.
Let me wind up this journey with Kolkata’s angry old man. Mrinalda turned ninety and mentally as sparkling and agile.
Odisha’s former chief minister Nandini Satpati’s father Kalindi Charan Panigrahi was an acclaimed writer in the language. His novel ‘Maattira Manusha’ was made into a film by Dada long ago and it created quite a flutter. The reason- the apparently Gandhian climax of the story was turned upside down by Dada for a Marxian twist. Nandini Satpati herself led the charge. Mrinalda, the fighter he is, hit back with equal vigor.
There was sound reason behind his strong resistance. Dada had got a letter of clearance from Kalindi Charan Panigrahi himself indicating satisfaction after the censoring . Now the film has two climaxes: a Marxian climax by Mrinalda and the other, a Gandhian climax by the producer.
When I stepped into the dwelling of Dada with Varinder Singh Kundu and R.V. Ramani, I was little jittery. Thankfully, my book, ‘Kolkata Cocktail’ is in Malayalam. Or else the news of my comments would’ve reached him. He doesn’t read ‘Imphal Free Press’. My Mrinalda attack was in connection with the Nandigram firing.
Indian cinema’s Big B got his first paycheck for a two minute commentary in Mrinalda’s “Bhuvan Shom”. When I met him, Dada is in the grip of writing a book. The new book is about his favourite film-maker, Charlie Chaplin. Dada read out many parts from the book, for us.
Way back in 1968, at the time of the first left front Govt , a de-colonizing drive was initiated. This de-colonising drive uprooted many of Kolkata’s statues. Statues which glorified the British elite. Truckloads of them were dumped into the Barrackpore backyard of the old garden house of Viceroy. One gentleman had filmed the journey of these statues in search of their resting place. This became the powerful visual narrative in Mrinalda’s famed Kolkata trilogy. Connecting this with his character of the book, Chaplin, Dada writes on the unveiling of ‘Peace and Prosperity’ statue from the film, City Lights. But more touching is another scene from the book.
Charlie Chaplin never got up from the sleep on the Christmas Day of 1977. As per his wishes, he was buried without any pomp and show in the village of Vevey , in Switzerland. But after two months, his body was stolen from the place and later , after a massive hunt , it was located at a corn farm near the Lake Geneva. The body was brought back to the village ,buried again at the Vevey cemetery. Twenty kilometers away, at the corn farm , the landlord, a farmer placed a wooden cross and celebrated the great man’s temporary abode with his trademark cane stick which had become the part of the cinematic folklore.
Back to Dada . I asked him : “Mrinalda, I am now working on a film on the hundred years of Indian cinema. And keen on talking with you, Dada.”
The ninety year old angry young man responded with surprising calmness. “I’m not there for this celebration. Indian cinema does not begin with Phalke. My account book has a different entry. Indian cinema began its journey with Pather Panchali.”
Dada at ninety. Cinema at hundred. Sahoo at hundred and one.
(Translated by Mathew Peter from Malayalam)