Filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane had spent an uneasy, sleepless night. His uncle was ill with COVID-19 and in a critical condition; doctors had asked the family to be prepared for any eventuality. The next morning though, Tamhane received news about another individual he was close to: his Court actor Vira Sathidar.
A message from senior lawyer and activist Susan Abraham, who had introduced Tamhane to Sathidar and helped write the script for Court (2014), informed him that the 61-year-old actor had passed away.
"I couldn't believe it," Tamhane said, in a phone interview this week. "Vira wasn't that old, he was only 61¦hale and hearty and so full of energy and life. Later on, I spoke to the casting director of Court and also actor Shirish Pawar who had played Vira's 'chela'/right hand man [in the film] and both of them had spoken to him just 7-8 days ago. He seemed absolutely fine to them. He had recently become a grandfather, they told me. And then suddenly COVID struck him and he was gone..."
Tamhane didn't know Sathidar before working with him on Court. He had a several criteria in mind when casting for the role of Narayan Kamble, a singer and poet who would ultimately be portrayed by Sathidar. The role needed someone who could speak Marathi, looked a certain way, perform powadas [a form of Marathi poetry], and of course, act.
"We wanted somebody whose face reflected the history of a certain movement, reflected a certain lineage " the lineage of resistance. And it was turning out to be a real tough task because we auditioned so many people," Tamhane recounts. Amid these disappointments, Abraham suggested that the Court team meet with Sathidar, an activist and intellectual from Nagpur. "[Vira] was not a singer per se but he understood that world because he belonged to it. Sambhaji Bhagat, who did the music of the film and had sung the songs, also knew him. He was from that circle," says Tamhane.
Sathidar " who looked like a 40-something with his short, jet-black hair and moustache " seemed nothing like the character Tamhane had in mind. But his warmth and his audition made an impression. And a few days later, Sathidar sent him a photograph in which he sported a white beard, long hair, and a kurta-pajama.
"We wondered if he was pulling a fast one on us because that couldn't possibly be the same person!" Tamhane remembers. "But it was him! Then we knew that if we could make him grow his beard and work more on that look, we definitely had something. So we called him back for the second round of auditions and requested that he grow his beard." Sathidar was enthusiastic and supportive throughout the process, even though there was no guarantee at the time that he'd get the part. However, after his second audition, and with his new look, he was finalised to play Narayan Kamble.
Tamhane speaks eloquently of how, in a film, the script is a mere blueprint; it doesn't mean anything because it has to be visualised and then also realised. "The person who plays the role shapes the character with everything that they bring to the screen " their personality, aura, way of delivering the lines and also their life story. And thus, it becomes a two-way street where the director adapts the character and the lines to the actor who's performing it because it is also about their comfort level," he observes.
Tamhane says the Court team was privileged and fortunate in finding Sathidar because imagining anyone else in the part of Narayan Kamble is impossible. "He was the face of the film. There was so much truth in his screen presence and his entire being because he genuinely belonged to that world. He worked relentlessly towards the cause and was at the forefront of the anti-caste movement in Maharashtra and also in India. He was a poet, the editor of a magazine named Vidrohi, among many other things he did in his own capacity. And that is the point of working with people like Vira and other non-professional actors " to bring that truth into our film," says Tamhane. He observes that this is probably why Court turned out to be so different and "rather beyond [his] control and intent".
Sathidar was very curious about the filmmaking process. He went with the flow and made himself completely available to Tamhane in a manner that suggested he trusted a 25-year-old as a filmmaker and respected his vision of the project. "He never brought any baggage of being such a senior person in his field or having lived such a rich life or having done so much. He was open to how I saw Narayan Kamble, how I wanted him to render it, and then he made sure that he executed that," Tamhane notes.
Tamhane describes how Sathidar learnt the songs and beats, imbibing the flourishes that a performer like Sambhaji Bhagat would display on stage: "The film language is such that we do long uninterrupted takes. I wouldn't okay a shot till it was done entirely in one take, especially the songs. So doing the lip-sync for those songs " with the beats, the pauses and the body language " was an uphill task for him. It was very different from reacting to another character or just doing dialogues, here it was about being precise as clockwork, sync to the track. I remember we had loaded the songs on his mobile phone and he had spent so much time hooked to his earphones, memorising those pauses and imbibing the spirit of the songs, that by the time he came on stage for the shoot, he was flawless."
Court was "like a social project", says Tamhane, explaining that where people came from, the life stories of those behind the camera were of as much importance as what was unfolding on screen. Working in a close environment with a young crew and no stars, the unit became like a family, and the film became everyone's who worked on it.
Sathidar's constant reassurance to Tamhane was: "Don't worry Chaitanya, we will do it, I will do it." "On the fifth or sixth day of the shoot, and I know he had spoken about this on some interview of his, we were shooting at a magistrate's court. The next day he saw the footage on somebody's laptop and he came up to me and said, 'Chaitanya, ye bahut badi film bana rahe hai hum log. Ye bahut badi film banne wali hai (Chaitanya, we are making a big film here. This is going to be a big one.' I just found that conviction, that belief in the film so touching because I know many who belong to the film industry who can't tell if something is right or wrong, good or bad till the world has said so. So for somebody who is outside the film world to give me that assurance was very moving," Tamhane says.
Court would be selected as India's official submission for the 88th Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category. At the 62nd National Awards, it was selected as the Best Feature Film.
One day, the team was shooting on their courtroom sets while Sathidar, who had finished his portion, was hanging around and having some tea. Suddenly, they heard the police were on the sets and claiming a "Naxalite" was working on a documentary. "I was freaking out, imagining what would happen if Vira got arrested," Tamhane says. "We hadn't shot the main song " the bit where Narayan Kamble gets arrested. That was the springboard for the entire film for us. We hid Vira in a room, took the SIM card out of his phone and put it somewhere safe till the police left. It was like a film, fiction mirroring real life, but here it was the other way round."
Tamhane adds that Sathidar was used to such things. Courting police action and the threat of being arrested was nothing new for him because of the life he led: "A lot of people whose lives this film was inspired by, like Sudhir Dhawale, Arun Ferreira, Gautam Navlakha and Vernon Gonsalves among many others, were still facing these problems with the authorities. They were being arrested, re-arrested, their court cases were being delayed¦ Vira knew them, he was friends with them. He had seen the life of Narayan Kamble; he had lived that life even though he was not a performer. So he brought his life experiences to the set and to the character. Otherwise, it is not easy for anyone to pick up acting at the age of 55. One can't suddenly start pretending to be an actor, generate emotions on-call or even perform with music etc. Vira could only do it because of who he was."
Tamhan has fond memories of meeting up with Sathidar much after Court was made, at a chai tapri outside the IIT Bombay campus. "He was smoking, enjoying his chai and we were just chitchatting, talking about our lives and other things we are working on... He used to be very relaxed and chilled, I would often call him a 'mast maula' (free-spirited being). For all the books that he had written and read, for all his refined ideology, Vira was a very simple, warm and generous man," Tamhane says.
While Sathidar's demise feels like a personal loss for Tamhane and the Court team, the filmmaker underscores that this is a collective loss for society. Acting was only one part of Sathidar's life, but his legacy as a cultural activist, a writer, a poet and an intellectual looms large. "It is a huge loss to Maharashtra and to India at large," says Tamhane. "For me, I think it is as important as feeling the loss of a real saathi, a real companion."