Upendra Trivedi : lone Shining Star of the Gujarati Cinema

Tushar Bhatt

His face averted from the rest of the workers,an old man was digging earth at the drought relief work.The general deportment indicated he must have been a man from a well-placed rural family that had fallen on bad days because of the failure of the monsoon,but that did not prevent him from working like a fury.

As his pick hit the land with gusto,he sang in Gujarati: "Khandaniya Ma Mathan Ram, Zinko Ram Zinko Ram, Dukale Pidhan Lohida Ram" ( We are like the grains being pounded in the mortar.O God, go on pounding us with as much force as you like in this famine which is sucking our blood.)

A visitor who was at the site to distribute buttermilk among the workers was overhearing it,as if petrified by the sorrow and pain the old man,as alsothousands and thousands like him,were suffering,uncomplaining and yet with dignity facing miseries inflicted by the vagaries of the rain God.

"It sort of sent a flashlight through my head",said Upendra Trivedi,noted Gujarati thespian,whose depiction on the celluloid of the terrible famine in Gujarat nearly a hundred years ago,done on paper with great mastery by the late author Pannalal Patel,Manvini Bhavai,had bagged a silver lotus award for a regional film at the 41st national film festival.

Basically, Upendra is a show man in the genre of  Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar. After a life time in films, he had a stint in politics and found out that the real life is far more complicated than the reel life. For some time now he has been in wilderness and was almost in the oblivion. Politicians, cricketers and denizens of the filmdom cannot afford to remain out of public limelight.Perhaps , Upendra Trivedi had perceived it to be a clear danger. His friends and well-wishers rallied round with a volume containing the actor’s own life statement and writings by others and released it on July 9, 2009 at Gandhinagar. Among those who were present was Morari Bapu, a noted Ramayan preacher.  An exhibition of cartoons  and caricatures on Upendra by Nirmish Thaker, whose cartoons appear in a number of publications, including Opinion was another hightlight of the programme. Nirmish said later his was the first solo exhibition of cartoons on a single actor.

Rahul Gandhi notwithstanding, aged people rule the political arena, but perpetual youth is expected of sport persons and show people.So it is difficult to make whether Upendra’s political career blooms once more or  his screen life, his real life or his reel life! Whichever it is, it remains true that had he not done anything else but the film on Pannalal’s novel, Upendra Trivedi’s name would always deserve respect.

The novel,on which the film is based,itself had won laurels for Pannalal, eversince he wrote it in 1947,capping it with a Jnanpith award for 1985,given in 1986.The late poet Umashankar Joshi had hailed Pannalal as a writer no less than Shakespeare.Upendra Trivedi would compare him with Chekhov;others have drawn parallel between Pannalal and Maxim Gorky.Like Gorky,Pannalal had graduated from the university of life,portraying life around him powerfully, graphically and beautifully.Man was at the centre of the best produced by Pannalal,and yet it was no fanciful flight of imagination in individualism totally delinked from the society around him.In the struggles of ordinary people he portrayed,Pannnalal never came out as an escapist." Man ," he once said," is not evil as such.Hunger is.And a worse evil than poverty is begging."

Upendra Trivedi,who has been a leading light of the Gujarati silver screen and stage for years,had acquired film rights of Manvini Bhavai even before it got the Jnanpith award to Pannalal.The story,its social relevance,its pathos,its immediacy all appealed to him as something that would lend for a powerful movie.But,said Upendra Trivedi later," I could not clarify in my own mind as to what I wanted to do with the story. That day when I saw the old man on the drought relief work,heard his song,and later spoke to him to find out details of his life,it all clarified in an instant-- as if like a flash."

He said that almost every Gujarati who can read has either heard of or read Pannalal's Manvini Bhavai.What kind of treatment should be given to it in  picturising it was the million rupee question that had been exercising his thought-process. "When I saw the old man and his dignified struggle,learnt of the fact that although he had a rich son in law,he was loathe asking for help,that during lunch time,he would go running home to look up his cattle,all touched my heart,and gave me a cinema idiom,so to say."

He could as if fathom the suffering of the old man at the relief work,and strove to transform that suffering in filming Manvini Bhavai."It was not a story of Kalu and Raju,or of any of the characters portrayed in the novel only. It was during a famine that most of the established demarcations of behaviour disappear.Famliy ties became strenuous; man and animal both would be compelled to drink dirty water from the same source.It was a timeless tale of the rural folks pitted against hard times, the story of a drought, a famine,whether it is is in Bhiloda,my constituency,north Gujarat,Saurashtra or Kutch,or entire Gujarat.It transcended boundaries; it could be the tale of farmers in Somalia or Ethiopia."

"Time is the hero,the nature its leading lady,and the famine the villain. Man's battle against the drought,the shortage of food and water,the miseries all around are enough to defeat him,crush his spirit.But man,fights on,often on the strength of fragile threads of non-existent hope.I made the film on this concept",Upendra Trivedi said."I realised how magnificent this epic struggle of human beings against the vagaries of nature has been.I have tried to celebrate it,eulogise his fighting spirit,pay tribute to his ingenuity. Look at Kalu,one shower of rain and he revives as if Shiv has returned with the Ganga in his hairlock." He also felt that a paucity of water -- for drinking,for farming, for animals-- was at the root of most of his miseries. "Water is life."

In filming the novel, Upendra made a few changes ; " I have dropped a few charaacters,added some,added some descriptive scenes to make it all the more focused. For instance, to drive home the real face of the famine of the 1890,which Pannalal wrote about in the book,I have added a pre-drought scene of charming rural scenery.But I have remained faithful to the basic purpose of Manvini Bhavai."

In a way,this is the graduation of Upendra Trivedi,successful actor,from the days he used to play varied roles such as Veer Mangdawalo,Malavpati Munj,to Kalu,the famine-ravaged rustic from rural Gujarat.If he began with Veer Mangdawalo, a beautiful story of history,in which a newly-married man goes out from the marriage pandal to save cows. He remembered,with visible signs of pain,how the literati in Gujarat used to scoff at his such roles in historical movies made on low budget in Gujarati in the 1970s and early 80s.They made him a household name in the villages,but did not earn him respect among the elite. "The literati",he recalled as if to comfort himseflf, " had found fault even with Zaverchand Meghani half a century ago,when the poet and writer had roamed all over Saurashtra,collecting folk tales and songs.These had been the rich heritage of our people but the elite pooh-poohed it all.The same happened to me too."

But,this has been an education for Upendra Trivedi and has helped him in transformation from a popular screen figure into a producer ith some social insight and politician with some commitment. Born at Indore ,Madhya Pradesh,on July 14,1937,Upendra has seen many ups and downs. "For some time,we used to live at Ujjain and I did not even know much of Gujarati",he recalled.Then,he went to college in Mumbai,got a diploma in dramatics,studied Hindi,even as he pursued a career of acting on the stage. The exposure to the theatre gave him an abundant love for literature,an ability to put his finger on the popular pulse and courage to strive on and on. He remembered he had done an earlier picture in Gujarati just for a fat fee of Rs.500. Those were the days when one could be happy earning as little as Rs.125 a month.He got a break when he got a job as a producer on the All India Radio,but his first love,acting,made him gave it up."I was told I could not act at will if I was in the service.I chose not to be in service."

His search for the self had begun. One of Upendra's early works was a highly-successful play called Abhinay Samrat, a title that  was soometimes applied to him in sniggering and derogatory reference.He played seven roles in the play,and yet the real identity of the heor was a mystery till the end; he was Radheshyam Maharaj,Haiderali Habib,Captain Rajesh Thakur,Rev.Johnny Walker,a tobacco trader from Talod,Pashabhai Patel. The story was that of a conman par excellence who could assume a different idenitity everytime he needed to cheat someone,and get away by pleading that "Hun te nathi (he was not that person)."

From "Hun te nathi",Upendra progressed to the silver screen,becoming the archetypal of Mangdawalo.But ,he has also made films like Zer To Pidhan Jani Jani,based on the literary work of the same name by Manubhai Pancholi,Darshak.He has some 125 films,and many plays,to his credit by now.He speaks almost regrtfully of the stunted growth of the Gujarati film industry; "It was beginning to blosom into its own after the inception of Gujarat as a separate state in 1960 and the formulation of a film policy later. But the video invasion,quickly followed by the satellite TV,aggression,dashed its hopes."

He said that despite this,it was his ambition to make a film version of Manvni Bhavai.He has directed the film,in addition to playing the main role,written the script,the dialogue and chosen the locations himself.While Upendra plays the role of Kalu,whose struggle against the drought and pining for his lost love for Raju are at the centre of the theme,Anuradha Patel plays the female lead role.Among others in the supporting cast are Chandrakant Pandya,Bhairavi Vyas,Anang Desai ,Kalpana Deewan and Ramesh Mehta.

The only fault some people have found in the film is a reference to the Narmada project at the end of the movie.While it is true that water is very important,and so is the Narmada project,the mention of the Narmada super-imposed thus,lends a touch of propaganda to the effort.

For a person who is a household name in countless village homes,Upendra is a very low profile person.He has an easy amiability, a presence and a good voice,but lacks the showbiz fizz.He had represented Bhiloda constituency in the backward Sabarkantha district for two terms,is very popular."I am not in politics for politicking", said Upendra,as if defending his place in it."I want to help the people; I am a people's artist and thought I could help them by working as their representative."He has an asset that may come handy in months ahead; he has a face that gets recognised by the crowds.

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Sketches