‘Once I have a role, I cannot leave it for a second’: Ravindra Sahu

In 1988, the legendary theater director Barry John was preparing to stage Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni’s classic, A Servant of Two Mastersas Baghdad Ka Ghulam. A number of actors from Delhi attended his workshop for the film at Barakhamba Road, among them an amateur actor called Ravindra Sahu. John’s style was to let performers improvise on the script. Sahu put a lot of thought into his presentation, yet was surprised when John selected him to play Khurram, one of the leads. The other cast members included Raghubir Yadav.

“This was a miracle for me. I told myself, ‘Ravindra Sahu tu jo kar raha hai, tu karta raeh. (Ravindra Sahu, keep doing what you are doing.)”” For the next three-four years, Sahu came to be known as Khurram in Mandi House, the cultural district of Delhi. Two decades later, during the making of Anamika Haksar’s film Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon, Sahu and Yadav met again. “He greeted me by the name Khurram,” says Sahu.

To audiences who have turned Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon into a recent success on the big screen, Sahu is now known as Patru, a pickpocket-cum-beggar-cum-musician in a wedding band who lives in the dirty lanes of Shahjahanabad or Old Delhi. In a critical part of the script, Patru decides to turn into a heritage walk leader and show foreign tourists and the intellectual elite the underprivileged side of old Delhi. Released earlier this month in Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Lucknow and Jaipurthe film has entered its second week and added halls in Ahmedabad and Bengaluru.

The cast is packed with thespians such as Yadav, Lokesh Jain and K Gopalan, as well as hundreds of locals who live the film’s narrative everyday. The bold and unconventional work captures the melange of influences that Haksar and Jain, who is also the researcher with Chhavi Jain, a theater practitioner from old Delhi, are intimately familiar with. Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon fluidly meshes dreams and realities, fiction and magic and genres ranging from history and myth to poetry and visual art. Patru is the one of the main strands that holds the disparate fragments together — a role that could be played only by a seasoned and committed actor. Sahu has turned in a stellar performance of the complexities of Patru’s life experiences, traumasrejections, resilience and dreams.

Born in a haveli in Nawabganj in old Delhi, Sahu has been on stage since the age of eight, when he was attracted to the theater workshops conducted on Wednesdays at the Delhi Public Library. On Fridays, the venue hosted concerts and Sahu graduated from an audience member to bongo player with the groups that performed there. All this while the landscape of old Delhi was changing around him. “In the 1970s, options of transport were so limited that we used to walk everywhere. Today, crowds are so thick that you can barely walk and the nights,” he says.

Ravindra Sahu talks about his journey

Much of the crowd is made up of migrant laborers and workers, a demographic Sahu first noticed when his father, Prem Nath Sahu, who set up the first factory to manufacture electric irons in Delhi, decided to build a separate home for his family at Gali Mahaveer, near Mahaveer Bazar-Sadar Bazar. “The construction and factory workers used to come by cycle from Yamuna paar to Kashmere Gate, which was considered the main city to work. They had migrated from their villages and towns and built their juggis on unauthorized land,” he says.

Sahu started his journey as an actor with Pankaj Saxena, an NSD graduate from 1982, who cast him as one of the four leads in Ras Gandharva. “For the first time in my life, I realised that if I moved or spoke in a certain way on stage, I could hold people’s attention,” he says. His next shift happened with Alibaba aur Chalis Chor in which Saxena told him that, after learning of the secret cave of treasure, “Alibaba ke pair zameen pe nahin padte”. Sahu created a movement in which he springs to the air every time his feet touched the ground. “It clicked and resulted in a different kind of comedy,” he says.

In the years that followed, Sahu became a Mandi House regular and worked with a number of groups. In 1988, he was performing with DR Ankur’s Sambhav theater group, when a friend told Sahu that “a girl called Anamika Haksar, who had passed out of National School of Drama (NSD) and returned after further training of six years in Russia” was working on a play, titled Viy, based on a novella by Nikolai Gogol, at Lalit Kala Akademi. For an hour, Sahu watched Haksar at work and then told her that he wanted to try out for the play. “Anamika’s approach was shorn of melodrama and encouraged an expression of a character’s inner life. She also left actors free to interpret a role and, 70 per cent of the time, approved what we did. This was the kind of theater I wanted to do,” says Sahu.

He has been a part of Haksar’s plays Grahon ki Kahani, Grahon ki Zubaani (1989-90) and Bawla (2003). “When an understanding develops between a director and an actor, you don’t have to work hard at a role,” says Sahu. In 1990-92, he was at NSD where one of his teachers was Khalid Tyabji, whom he had worked with previously in Viy. “It is to his credit that I developed a better understanding of body movements. I can express myself with my entire body without dialogues,” he says. Sahu dropped out of NSD and went to France, to work with Walter Prass on a play called Life is a Dream (1992).

After a lifetime in theater, Sahu finds himself embodying roles in his personal life. He began to see people, stories and surroundings in a new light after he was finalized as Patru. His characters are created over long periods of time. “Once I have a role, I cannot leave it for a second. Patru comprises personalities of many pickpockets I have seen, including one who returned the money after coming to know that his victim was going to buy medicine, as well as conversations I have been a part of,” he says. His family has got used to his processes.

“I tried looking for work but found that, until you are well-known, you are taken for granted. I never got a suitable role,” says Sahu. He has been cast in a few short films, including one by Haksar, titled Pagdandi, in which he plays a theater artiste. “During my younger days, I used to believe that, if I did good work, I would be able to capture the audience’s attention. I still believe that,” he says.

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