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I first learnt of Nirad Mohapatra’s existence when we returned to the Institute after our first semester break. We had spent three months together in the same class without noticing the quiet Oriya back-benchers—there were a couple of others too—and to everybody’s surprise, Nirad had gone and scored the highest marks in the class. “Intellectuals” Vinay Shukla and I came only second and third. Soon everybody learnt to ignore his heavy accent and began to listen to the man.

I most likely made my first dent on him under much less glorious circumstances. For some reason rice came to be rationed in the hostel mess and I had no problems offering my cups to anybody provided they showed up at the right time. Soon Nirad began to stick around with me. He wasn’t much interested in my homemade Haryana ghee but a full rice meal (and the finger licking that went with it) was simply irresistible to him. I cannot even today eat rice without a thought of the desperation of rice eaters when denied this staple.

For some reason I keep thinking of another incident from our student days. Again one night we were eating in the mess when a rowdy actor came in and suddenly punched a bespectacled student at the back of his head. Nirad saw the act. “His glasses shone in my eyes as they went flying across,” he kept repeating visibly disturbed. We were studying Eisenstein’s Montage at the time and he may well have seen this image as a perfect illustration of one of the types of that dense concept. His vivid testimony drew a suspension order on the bully from Mushir sahib, our Vice Principal and Head of the Direction Department.

Towards the end of our three years we went on a long strike against the acting course students and our principal, Murari sahib, who we thought was siding with them. We called ourselves 100-United Students but the actors singled out four of us for special attention.

Shukla, George, Nirad and me

Shukla, George, Nirad and me, hanging by the Wisdom Tree, 1971

But unknown to anyone the same four had by this time also divided the future of Indian cinema among themselves: Nirad and KG George (“Kullakatil Geverghese” of Mushir sahib’s rolls) were to look after their respective states while Shukla would take charge from Mani Kaul and I, when time came, from a certain Satyajit Ray….

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Nirad and I, however, soon returned to the Institute. Our new Vice Principal-cum-HOD Dr Gopal Dutt had been impressed by our grades and offered us teaching positions. Beside a good-looking per lecture fee, we were given two train fares a year from hometown and a hostel room to stay. After years of hardboard sleeping on bunkers, travelling first class coupe was a heady jump. My father used to be given that privilege only upon rare transfers in his state government job.

If Nirad were alive today I’m sure he would agree that our best time in the Institute—or in the profession for that matter—was not as students in the Institute but as instructors. We commanded huge respect on account of our freshly proved merit. Vinod Chopra, “the brag”; Ketan Mehta, “the theatre inflicted”; Saeed Mirza, “the leftist sage” (yes, Saeed was an elder student when we were teachers; I still have one of his answer books assessed at 50/100); Kamal Swaroop, “the nincompoop from the backwaters of the Rajasthan deserts”; Arun Khopkar, “looking naked into women’s eyes as though nobody was watching”; Pankaj Parashar, “the dead-pan wit”; The Mainak Trivedi, “the fluid face wit”; Munir Khan, “the arrogant wit”; Vijay Saxena, “bhaia” and Santlal Balmiki, “begani shaadi mein Abdulla deewana” were the flavor of the times. (Those left out please excuse.) Today’s Jahnu Barua was the grinning Toshiro Mifune of those days; Rajkumar Hirani and David Dhavan just the ever-smiling blokes from Editing. Jahnu could also, without much persuasion, get into his sub-titling act, sending you in splits. His soft lilting piece of French dialogue translated as I’ll-slit-your-throat and a long growl ending with a snappy bark in Japanese was declaration of love. Late into the nights Nirad and I could be guests in any of their rooms (or they into ours) discussing profanities and profundities. Sometimes even actors strayed into the enemy zone: Zareena Wahab once slipped in shortly after Satyadev Dube, after which the good “Pandit” kept addressing her the whole night declaring that Hindi cinema audience heard a film rather than saw it. (Dube was then a dialogue writer.) On another occasion, Suresh Oberoi brought in a starlet (I forget who) to impress upon her that he wasn’t your regular run-around-the-tree actor but a thinking one who circulated and belonged comfortably among directors.

Those were the days when in order to record traffic sounds you booked a vehicle, landed up at the same Good Luck chowk, and came back with the same noise. This was the time when you labored to pour a steady stream of sugar grains on different surfaces of paper to record rain. Or whipped a tightly stretched tin plate to pass for lightening strike. This is when you joked about the farmer-producer’s illiteracy of film production procedures, whom you fooled by saying that a certain continuity mistake would be corrected during re-recording, and who promptly agreed with your solution but cautioned you not to forget to do it. This is when Actors broke rank with their department and wined and dined Editors to give them extra frames of a certain close up against the insistence of spoiler Directors. This was the period when on one of his rare visits Ray had joked asking Khopkar sitting in the second-last row of CRT to speak louder since he couldn’t lip-read him because of his beard, and Ghatak, perhaps on his last visit to the Institute, had snapped asking Ketan to sit properly. “Put your foot down!” he had told an unprepared Ketan Mehta taken quite aback. That’s when in order to buy raw stock you had to apply for an Import Permit at Indian Motion Picture Producers Association in Bombay; when a mere fade on the screen was a huge fuss that needed a special, higher-grade raw stock and an extra generation of processing in the laboratory. Video was then only an occasional news on the pages of the Time magazine and computer age simply science fiction. (KG George was the one who chased Time magazine in the library and updated us on the latest in the wide world.)

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We met some of the most fascinating women of our lives in this period.

Chandita Mukherjee who came with the flourish of a Marxist liberal from London narrating non-veg jokes in the canteen (then in front of the Main Theatre) and dropping ash all over the place. Ajit jokes were just starting and I was a complete stranger to them until Chandita narrated some to me. Stricken by her beauty I invited her to join me to subtitle archive’s print of Monihara and enjoyed her proximity for months. The portly Vijay Saxena’s appeal (“Sexy Saxena!”) on the other hand was her mix of typical housewifely looks from the Hindi heartland—she was in fact one, having joined the Institute just after marriage—and being a woman of great sensitivity and cultural refinement. She also sang beautifully with a papery voice. But her helpless “Bhaiiya, roko, roko!” in the general direction of her cameraman instead of the regular (and brutal) “Cut it!” at the end of a shot may well be a stunner unmatched in the annals of film history, before or since.

In complete contrast to both of them was Rani Burrah of Screenplay Writing. Draped in a default cotton sari and large south Indian bindi, Rani could often be seen crossing over from the canteen to the wisdom tree with a tea-glass in hand and cigarette in the lips. I saw my first beanbag—that’s right, a beanbag—in Rani’s hostel room and was fascinated by this ‘futuristic’ piece of fluid furniture. Both Nirad and I took turns to sink on this seating fad and smoke away rings and homilies. “I think…” “But you know…” “Having said that…” Ever lit like a bulb Rani was friends with everybody and I daresay I have yet to meet a woman of a larger heart and more generous disposition.

And finally Haimanti Bannerjee. Even though not formally a student, Mrs Bannerjee came to the Institute with impeccable credentials: As Prof Bahadur’s research assistant; as one raised in Tagore’s Shantiniketan where her father was a professor; and as Satyajit Ray’s first choice to play Ghare-Bahire’s Bimala. Haimanti had long letters written to her by the maestro discussing the role in detail—I saw them but they were in Bengali—but her in-laws had steadfastly refused permission. Swatilekha Chatterjee who eventually played Bimala is remarkably close to Haimanti in height and built, though a tad older and less attractive. “Five feet and seven and a half inches, aren’t you?” Haimanti mimicked Ray’s deep baritone recalling their first meeting in his house. Pity, I never checked with her if the kiss with Soumitra Chatterjee was already at the time in the script and whether that was her family’s specific objection.

To Haimanti, beside so much more, I owe my initiation into the tenets of Marxism, which then with Gulshan Kapoor and Nirad Mohapatra and Vishnu Mathur and Madan Bavaria we variously tested out in endless discussions against great works of cinema.

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Rani’s father had been in the ICS (at one point Reserve Bank of India’s Governor if I am not mistaken) and she had this spacious 5th floor flat among the iconic old style buildings lining Marine Drive. Placed at a convenient walking distance from Churchgate station, Nirad and I were welcome to its use whenever in Bombay. As darkness descended all kinds of us began to arrive there. Irrespective of whether you took the (large) rattling lift or the (wide) creaking staircase, you somehow always reached huffing and puffing. But that’s when your worries ended, Bombay was left outside and you were home. Dumping your overnighters in one of the inside rooms and after a wash, everyone would assemble in the living room. If a bottle wasn’t already in circulation, it would materialize from one of the bags and Rani would initiate you into the group scattered all over the room. These could be Girish Karnad, Anand Patwardhan or Sai Paranjape, or in later years Om Puri and Kulbhushan Kharbanda. Anybody passing by could answer the phone and either call you or take the message. If you used the phone, you dropped your coins or currency depending upon the services used. Nobody noticed when food came and went. At the peak of haze, goodnights would begin to be exchanged and Rani would withdraw to her room. You made it to whatever place was available on the beds or mattresses spread on the floor. Smooching was in order; I woke up to one beside me in the middle of the night once.

We must have oozed great innocence, Nirad and I, because next morning the ladies would guide us to our destinations—Films Division, IMPPA, Doordarshan, FFC, Film City, Akashwani theatre, Natraj studio and the like—in absurd details, even explaining how to cross roads. It must have been mainly for the ever-forgetful Mohapatra I imagine because I definitely was a crook.

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In Bombay and Pune you were not afraid to speak to a girl, even hold hands in public if she didn’t mind. Freedom and frankness was the name of the game. You spoke in English, not to show off but to really communicate. We picked up slangs, phrases and even straight vocabulary like infection from thin air—hi, hello, yeah, cool, man, dough, bucks, million-dollar-question, go-to-hell, and yes, shit, screw, fuck, fag, joint and the rest. When I first heard somebody say, “My old man will kill me yaar!”, my stomach turned. Equally when Shukla called whisky daaru it felt as though the drink in your glass had been collected from a running drain. But soon I began to see the spirit behind those expressions. “Parlez-vous!” I remember we once kept saying for months from a Godard film for no particular reason.

Speaking of whisky and daaru, Nirad and I were teetotalers when we joined the Institute. But by the time we finished we had been through everything: smoking, drinking and even having a go at ganja and grass if it came our way. It’s all about the width of experience, we told ourselves with genuine conviction, and decided to go as far as our conscience permitted. We were too chicken hearted for hard drugs, or Budhwar Peth for that matter; so we never went there.

Life seemed altogether less hypocritical in these parts; back home in Sonepat if you had no money, you’d go to all kinds of lengths to hide the fact; in Bombay and Pune, that you were broke was almost a fashion statement. We were living the attitudes we saw in European films and the place felt abroad for all practical purposes.

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Both our parents began to press us for marriage more or less simultaneously. We had jobs after all, what else were we waiting for? That we wanted to make films didn’t cut much ice with either party. “Just you say yes,” Nirad’s parents told him once, “and you don’t have to worry about anything else.” Which reminded us of Kodak’s campaign in the early days of photography: “You press the button and we’ll do the rest!” We had a big laugh.

While teaching in the Institute we both made short films, both spending our own money; Nirad a documentary on a Buddhist shrine in Orissa’s Dhauligiri and I a fiction film This is to certify… on cheating in the exams. (Recent news report from Bihar on the subject has its roots in the pre-history!) Encouraged by the success of my diploma film, I showed my rough cut to visiting dignitaries, even to Satyajit Ray. To his credit, the master sat through all thirty minutes of it (and manual reel change) in the old Sound Theatre—he had seen Vilaap at Teheran—but at the end said nothing. Mrinal Sen too on his day said nothing but, true to style, after a lot of talk. Hrishida advised huge trimmings, which I dismissed as coming from old school. In my heart of hearts, however, I knew that my film was a stillborn effort. Being impatient with IMPAA procedures, I had purchased my raw stock in honest black market but developed cold feet when it came to putting together accounts. I simply didn’t know how to regularize the theft. The result was that my three cans kept sitting heavy on my loft, while Nirad went up and down and broke even by selling his one-reeler to Orissa Tourism.

Other Oriya students somehow treated Nirad as a natural mentor; bade bhaisahib of sorts. “Maapatra babu,” they would call him as they intercepted us and then promptly go mutters and murmurs. When a starry-eyed group from Orissa came visiting, Nirad would be asked to address them. Standing informally among the front row seats of the main theatre, we could see his khadi-clad thin frame holding the microphone and go on a non-stop rampage. In the evenings we would split: I would go girl-hunting in front of the Archive hut where students congregated taking multiple rounds of Bhatji’s useless tea while Nirad went to smoking pot with one or the other of the bearded-unwashed-uncouth lot in different hostel rooms. (John Abraham would be a perfect company, had he not graduated two years before us.) That was our entertainment besides screenings and neither of us roommates ever interfered or went probing into the other’s area of interest.

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Nirad was a better, more accepted and more respected teacher than me; all these boys called him guruji and the title sat easy on his bone-thin, smiling personality. But when it came to the regular ‘professorial’ post in the Institute, my grades and awards had counted for more with the UPSC panel in Delhi and I was the one selected. In retrospect, however, I think this was only for the good of Indian cinema—the rejection freed Nirad to make a beautiful film like Maya Mriga. I don’t think I could have matched that film in grace, beauty and sheer artistic integrity, had I been the one chosen to practice and not preach.

After Maya Mriga, his associations with the Institute grew to higher levels as Academic and Governing Council member. But he continued to be available to teach. He specialized in Ozu’s cinema, wrote a pithy little paper on the master which continued to be used in summer Film Appreciation Courses until recently, and used his An Autumn Afternoon to great effect and fan following. “Gulf” ball is what he charmingly called the golf balls in that film and you could sense the whole class momentarily derail each time he referred to the white objects jump about across the famous Ozu cuts in the colorful frame. “Bah! Bah!” Nirad said enjoying the moment. “Ki bolche Mohapatra Babu,” one of us non-Oriya, non-Bengali would always tease him. “Vheri good yaar! Vhorks like music!” he would say.

Another of his favorite sequences from the same film was the last one where after the reluctant elder sister’s marriage, the adolescent brother keeps saying he too now wants to get married, a prospect that would leave his old father further alone. Over this scene the smiling old man has but one word to speak again and again—“Sohoka”, “Sohoka”—as realization dawns upon realization on him of his coming lonesome days. “I see.” “I see”. We too used the same expression whenever faced with I-see moments.

Nirad had always held that same skeletal frame that never knew obesity. So in turning old over the years, he just slowed down in his movements, got a little more forgetful than he always was and, much like myself, lost a front tooth, which he never bothered to replace with a fake.

And then suddenly he was gone. I learnt of it from a vague Facebook posting of his daughter. She kept referring to him as “Baba”, which I searched and found was how his children called him. For a long while the information remained within the family members. Then came a post by one of his students with pictures of his body at the cremation. He had died in a Mumbai hospital after a longish illness that most of us knew nothing about.

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Here are some of Nirad’s memorable one-liners that have somehow remained burnt in memory. Not all of them might be suitable at this juncture but equally without these this account would remain incomplete. Nirad was against all kinds of censorship. (1.) Referring to a famously promiscuous acting course girl in our student days he once joked, “Arre yaar, she has already begun collecting grand prix!” The famed award being one of the most commonly mispronounced and actors in those days not required to be strong on schooling, they were always the most prone to such ridicule. (2.) “Who is this phallic symbol going yaar?” said he on another occasion sometime in 1973-74. This was an evening when we were just heading out from the hostel to the Main Theatre for General Screening, when down the slope ahead of us was going a bare-topped man with freshly-shaven shining blue head and sloping muscular shoulders: Naseeruddin Shah. True, Sigmund Freud being our new fascination we saw symbols everywhere but considering Naseer’s swagger that day, even if the great psychoanalyst hadn’t been there, he would have to be invented. (3.) And after cricket’s lbw, Institute’s SPW! This was much more recent, perhaps in late 80s. That such and such student got out SPW was probably Nirad’s expression for a perfectly lawful but suspicious elimination from the rolls at the hands of the strict Screenplay Writing professor, Saghir Ahmed.

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So you are no more, my friend? Without warning? And again first?

Sohoka… Sohoka…

“Parlez-vous!”

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