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Tribute to Pandit Satyadev Dubey

Honest distorter

Rishi Majumder


Satyadev Dubey

Till his last days he remained passionate about theatre. Rishi Majumder remembers a true theatrewala, Pandit Satyadev Dubey

For my first interview of Pandit Satyadev Dubey, in May 2006, I had a word count of 500. “So you want to chop off my arms and legs and squeeze me into a box,” he said, with an acerbic grin. That’s what I did then. It’s what I will do now.

A quote from the interview was used, out of context, for a sensational headline: “I want to do a play about sex.” I expected Dubey to be annoyed, but he seemed delighted. “Now I want you to write an article whose headline says: This man has gone mad,” he said to me, very seriously, at Prithvi Café, Juhu, Mumbai.

Prithvi Theatre, which the café belongs to, has staged all of Dubey’s plays and practically been his second home. Born in 1936 in Bilaspur, Madhya Pradesh, Dubey came to Bombay to be a cricketer. He joined Ebrahim Alkazi’s group The Theatre Unit instead, in 1962, and went on to head it. Over almost half a century of devotion to theatre, and well over a hundred plays, he directed some of the country’s most brilliant and groundbreaking productions. Productions like Girish Karnad’s “Yayati” and “Hayavadana”, Badal Sircar’s “Evam Indrajit” and “Pagla Ghoda”, Chandrasekhar Kambar’s “Aur Tota Bola”, Mohan Rakesh’s “Aadhe Adhure”, and Vijay Tendulkar’s “Khamosh! Adalat Jaari Hai”. He was singlehandedly responsible for taking many plays, written in regional languages, to a pan-Indian audience. Playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar had said that without Dubey he would be “a theatreperson known to Maharashtra only”.

Effective manager

In a way, he was Indian theatre’s most effective human resource manager. Had Dubey not spotted the potential in Dharamvir Bharati’s radio play, “Andha Yug”, and sent it across to Alkazi at the National School of Drama, it would never have been staged. He connected isolated experimental theatre groups from across the country, sometimes through his workshops — most of which were conducted free of charge.

I tried to enrol at one of his workshops once. I was given a Hindi monologue to memorise which began with “ Aaj Desh Ka Har Naujavaan Actor Banna Chahta Hai …” (Today every youngster in this country wants to become an actor), written by Dubey himself. I didn’t end up memorising it — a great regret.

His workshops churned out some of our most prominent theatrewallahs : Amrish Puri, Amol Palekar, Sunila Pradhan and Chetan Datar, to name a few. And Jaimini Pathak, whose theatre troupe I joined. There were moments, while working with Jaimini, when I was reminded of all I’d heard about Dubey’s acting methods. There was the exercise of holding a pencil between your teeth while mouthing dialogues to improve diction, something Dubey had first done when he was 18 to correct his lisp. Speech was paramount. The farthest member of the audience should be able to hear you clearly. This was something that must have served Jaimini well when he was performing a one-man play before hundreds of villagers in rural Gujarat. Emphasising certain words in a sentence may communicate one meaning, while emphasising others may communicate another. This made the actor as much of an auteur as the playwright or the director.

But I really regret not having trained under Dubey because I want to be a part of the stories around him. Like the one about him making women in his workshops who came from conservative families scream the filthiest abuses out loud — so they would lose their inhibitions.

Or the one about when he stood for the Lok Sabha elections as an independent, because you can’t “just stand and watch”, even though he probably knew he’d lose his deposit (Dubey used to be an RSS man but he denounced the Sangh after Godhra). His students drafted a manifesto which expressly said to people “don’t vote for him”, as a gimmick.

Worth of trophies

Or this story. His students were helping him clean out his house when they found in the rubble a Sahitya Akademi Award, a Filmfare Award and a National Film Award (Dubey wrote most of Shyam Benegal’s films, and directed “Shantata Adaalat Chalu Aahe”). The story goes that Dubey then ordered them to try and sell the trophies at the nearest scrap dealer’s.

When I interviewed Dubey again, it was for an article without a word count. I was accompanying playwright Ramu Ramanathan who was the editor of a theatre journal whose full issue this interview was to take up. We sat across Dubey in his drawing room, at his home in Mumbai’s Kalanagar, that was bare except for a floor mat and a script he was working on. I didn’t know whether that scrap dealer eventually bought those trophies, but they would have looked very out of place there. The interview comprised provocative questions posed to Dubey by his contemporaries, also theatre legends, like playwrights Mahesh Elkunchwar, Satish Alekar, and Vijay Tendulkar.

The interview has been lost. All that remains of it are a few fragments I found on my email. Here’s a particularly provocative question from Tendulkar, crucial because it touches on something that was integral to Dubey’s theatre and his life:

Tendulkar: “Instead of distorting the existing why don’t you create instead? You do sometimes create but it is distorted. Way out?”

Dubey: “Keep distorting honestly.”

On being prodded further: “Distortion perhaps is written into my psyche… That is my way of looking at things… (it’s) necessary. The reason why so many of Tendulkar’s plays have failed is because they were not distorted. He was such a fine writer, that it becomes the playwright’s theatre. But Tendulkar’s plays are better read… Besides, I react. I don’t distort. I remove distortion to give things a sense of proportion. The point is that as soon as you’re perceiving, you’re distorting reality.”

Evoking reaction

When I asked Dubey why he wanted me to write an article on him headlined “This man has gone mad”, he replied: “Because people will read it. They will react to it. They will want to see theatre. People keep writing nice things about me, and no one reacts.”

Tendulkar passed away a few years after this interview.

I last met Pandit Satyadev Dubey soon after Tendulkar’s demise, as I was walking out of Prithvi Theatre with theatre critic Pragya Tiwari. He was very unwell then, but didn’t let it show. He kept directing plays, though they didn’t seem to win him even a fraction of the acclaim he had seen. He spent most of his time at the café, dressed in a pair of jeans and tee shirt, talking about religion, politics, cinema or about how inflation was pumping up the price of a box of matches — as belligerently as he did before.

He asked us to join him for a drink at Holiday Inn nearby and we refused. We got into a conversation about the ‘golden era’ of Indian theatre, when Indian experimental theatre was being born. “I used to tell them I’ll be the greatest theatre person around, and they didn’t believe me,” he said. “Now look. They’re all dead.”

“People keep writing nice things about me, and no one reacts.”

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