A fine actor remembered - Hindustan Times
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A fine actor remembered

ByManu Dash
Feb 23, 2024 10:09 AM IST

Sadhu Meher, who died earlier this month, was enormously talented but did not achieve the great success of some of his contemporaries in parallel cinema

Sadhu Meher (1940-2024), who died on 2 February, made his debut in Shyam Benegal’s Ankur (1974) with Shabana Azmi and won the National Film Award for Best Actor that year. He went on to work for a host of eminent directors including Mrinal Sen for Mrigayaa (1976), RN Sippy for Inkaar(1977), Bhim Sain in Gharaonda (1977) and Tapan Sinha in Safed Haathi (1977). He also appeared in a few episodes of Basu Chattarjee’s serial Byomkesh Bakshi (1993-97). Despite appearing only in a small number of films, his magnificent acting left a strong impression on viewers.

Sadhu Meher (left) and Ananth Nag in Ankur (1974). Meher won the National Film Award for Best Actor that year for his performance in the film, which was Shyam Benegal’s directorial debut. (Film still) PREMIUM
Sadhu Meher (left) and Ananth Nag in Ankur (1974). Meher won the National Film Award for Best Actor that year for his performance in the film, which was Shyam Benegal’s directorial debut. (Film still)

Meher was from a remote village called Gudvelipadar in Boudh district (formerly Phulbani), which is part of the tribal hinterland far from the towns and cities of Odisha. Belonging to the weaver community and afflicted by dire poverty in his youth, he nevertheless managed to overcome adversity. After graduating in drama from Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata, he did a two-year diploma in acting at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, in 1966.

Shriram Lagoo (left), Parikshit Sahni (right) and Sadhu Meher in Kasturi (1980). (HT Photo)
Shriram Lagoo (left), Parikshit Sahni (right) and Sadhu Meher in Kasturi (1980). (HT Photo)

His first leading role as Kishtayya in Ankur catapulted him to fame with the film’s last scene astounding viewers and critics alike. Before this he had appeared in Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome (1969, now acknowledged as one of India’s earliest new wave films. Though he worked in fewer than 50 films in Hindi, Odia, and other languages during his career, each film bore eloquent testimony to his acting talent.

I first met Meher in Gudvelipadara a few years ago. As a poet and literary activist from Odisha,.I was keen to write his biography and Meher humbly disclosed his journey in the world of Indian cinema. Later discussions about his life and times with personalities like Mrinal Sen, Sandip Roy, Rajat Kapur, Manoj Mitra, Amul Palekar, Raghuvir Yadav, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Shyam Benegal provided more insights into the man and his creativity.

These conversations yielded many details about Meher: his father died on the day he was scheduled to perform in a college play; at FTII, he managed to get by with just one meal a day; and Indira Gandhi, when she visited FTII as Minister for Information and Broadcasting (1964-66), congratulated him on a four-minute acting performance. In addition to being a respected actor, he was also a talented editor and a dependable production manager. As an editor, he showcased his skills to directors like Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Tapan Sinha, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Sandip Ray and Utpalendu Chakravorty.

Despite his immense talent, however, Meher failed to sustain a long-term presence in the world of cinema, which was both intriguing and tragic. During the course of my research for the biography, I had a brief email exchange with his first director, Shyam Benegal, to understand the possible reasons for this:

Shyam Benegal in New Delhi during the National Children's Film Festival in 2014 (Raajessh Kashyap/HT City)
Shyam Benegal in New Delhi during the National Children's Film Festival in 2014 (Raajessh Kashyap/HT City)

How did you conceive the idea of making Ankur in Hindi?

Shyam Benegal:Ankur was based on a short story I wrote while in college.  It was originally planned to be made in Telugu.

Why didn’t neo-realism or parallel cinema thrive for a longer period in India? The term parallel cinema was used for films that did not follow the conventional film of mainstream Indian Cinema.  It eventually got integrated with mainstream films, which, in turn, lost their rigid format of narratives being studded with songs or dances.

What is the basic difference between the films that you made and those made by Satyajit Ray? Satyajit Ray made films in Bengali largely located in Bengal itself.  They represent Bengal’s culture with great sensitivity and precision.  My early films were made in Hyderabad / Telangana and represent the cultural character of the place including the use of the language (Dakhni).  My later films have been made in different parts of India and reflect those environments.

 Why didn’t you opt for commercial films when your actors worked for commercial films?I do not understand your question.  Films are films.  They cost money and have to be commercially viable.

Like Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, you too did not have a formal education in cinema direction but made neo-realistic cinema of a high standard. Do you feel that formal training is immaterial in this field?Formal training in the Cinema is as important as in any other profession.  However, it is also possible to learn informally.  Clearly this takes a much longer time.

What made you to choose Sadhu Meher in your first feature film?Sadhu Meher is an extremely fine actor and approaches his role in any film by detailing his part with great diligence.

Why didn’t you take him in subsequent films – Nishant and Manthan – in leading roles?You choose actors on the basis of their suitability for the role that they have to play.

Sadhu Meher is a brilliant actor. But he could not become as popular as Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri. What could be the reason according to you?Without doubt, Sadhu Meher is a brilliant actor.  It is possible that he has not been as successful as Naseer or Om because of his speech rendition in Hindi. His articulation is infinitely superior in Oriya as compared to Hindi.

Sadhu Meher on set in a photograph dated 13 July 1987. (HT Photo)
Sadhu Meher on set in a photograph dated 13 July 1987. (HT Photo)

How do you like to place Sadhu Meher in the history of parallal cinema in India?Sadhu Meher is among the first rank actors of our country.

As a director, what do you think are Sadhu Meher’s strengths and weaknesses?He has no weaknesses as an actor. If he does have any problem it has to do with his speech articulation in Hindi.

Sadhu Meher might not have scaled the peaks of fame but the solidity of his work continues to amaze. Perhaps it is time for a new generation of viewers to discover his films and appreciate his art.

Manu Dash is a bilingual poet, independent publisher (Dhauli Books) and director, Odisha Art & Literature Festival. He lives in Bhubaneswar.

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