Satyadev Dubey’s death in 2011 robbed Indian theatre of one of its most highly regarded figures. More than a decade later, Dubey is still remembered for his immeasurable contributions as a writer and director of 90-odd plays in four languages, the rigorous manner in which he moulded three generations of actors, his incandescence and his eccentricities.

But between his work in the theatre, which started in the 1950s and continued five decades, Dubey also made a foray into cinema. In addition to writing screenplays and dialogue for productions by Shyam Benegal and others, Dubey directed two short films of his own and the full-length feature Shantata! Court Chale Aahe. Months before his death, Dubey was working on a film but was unable to complete it.

The early films suggest that had Dubey paid as much attention to cinema as he had to theatre, he would perhaps have featured in the ranks of India’s significant arthouse filmmakers.

“He wrote some of the best films made in this country, but he was immersed in theatre,” said actor Shishir Sharma, who was involved with Dubey’s unfinished film, Raam Naam Satya Hai. “He didn’t have the time or backing to make more films.”

Satyadev Dubey with Sunil Shanbag. Courtesy Sunil Shanbag.

In some ways, film was entangled with Dubey’s roots. His father owned a cinema hall in Bilaspur, the town in Madhya Pradesh where Dubey was born on July 13, 1936, author Shanta Gokhale notes in the commemorative volume Satyadev Dubey – A Life in Theatre.

When Dubey came to Mumbai in 1952 to study English and Hindi at St Xavier’s College, his friends included Vijay Anand, the future Hindi film director who was also involved in the city’s theatre scene.

Anand had joined Theatre Unit, a theatre company that had been established by renowned director Ebrahim Alkazi. Dubey followed suit. He cut his teeth in Alkazi’s productions before going on to stage his own adaptations and original scripts.

As it turns out, one of his first paid jobs was as an assistant director in a Hindi film, the director said in an interview included in Satyadev Dubey. But after watching Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, Dubey quit the film, with which he didn’t identify. “I savoured the triumph of values over commerce when I resigned,” he said. “Pather Panchali in this case was the concrete value one fought for. I owe Ray for that.”

Even as Dubey channelled his talents through the stage, he had an occasional involvement with film. He made his filmmaking debut in 1965 when both theatre and independent cinema were breaking new ground, bolstered by the support of government institutions.

(L-R) Amrish Puri, Govind Nihalani, Satyadev Dubey and Vijay Tendulkar at the premiere of Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe. Courtesy Sunil Shanbag.

The years between the 1950s and 1970s were seething with adventure. Radical plays were being staged. Formula-busting films were being made. The people involved with each sphere were keenly watching – and borrowing freely – from the other. The air was thick with crossovers between the stage and the movie set.

Contributing to this hothouse atmosphere were several initiatives by the government of the newly independent nation. The first International Film Festival of India in 1952 brought global arthouse cinema to local shores. In 1960, the Film Finance Corporation (which later became the National Film Development Corporation) started providing seed capital to directors who wanted to work outside the commercial studio system.

At the same time, the National School of Drama, set up in 1959, began to roll out batches of trained actors. The Film and Television Institute of India set up the next year was producing camerapeople, editors, sound recordists, actors and directors.

Already, starting from 1948, the Films Division had been nurturing directors with distinctively individual approaches to potentially dry subjects deemed to be of national importance.

In 1965, the year that Dubey’s buddy Vijay Anand produced his masterpiece Guide and Ray directed his diptych Kapurush-Mahapurush, Dubey tried his hand at filmmaking. His first effort was Aparichay Ka Vindhyachal, starring himself, Alakananda Samarth and mime artist Irshad Panjatan.

Aparichay Ka Vindhyachal (Insurmountable Unfamiliarity) is filled with French New Wave cinema flourishes. In the mould of Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962), Dubey’s playful film follows a woman and two men over a single day.

Aparichay Ka Vindhyachal (1965).

Made mostly in English, the 22-minute short finds Samarth and Dubey travelling around 1960s Mumbai. A car ride transports Samarth from her posh digs to the more sobering reality of the city’s slums. Dubey and Samarth flirt and argue in various open-air locations. On a train ride, they are joined by Panjatan, whose rapport with Samarth begins to rattle Dubey.

Shot on 35mm by Sudarshan Nag and a person listed as La Khosa and edited by Baabu Sheikh, the film bears no traces of theatricality. Aparichay Ka Vindhyachal has a charming free-wheeling quality, jumps from one idea to another, melds different acting styles (naturalistic, farce, mime) and pokes fun at Hindi film conventions.

That year, Alakananda Samarth had already acted in Dubey’s theatrical production Band Darwaza, his celebrated adaptation of Jean-Paul Sarter’s No Exit. While Samarth’s essay in Satyadev Dubey is mostly about her theatre roles, she recalls Aparichay Ka Vindhyachal as a “make it up as you go along” production.

“Dubey’s work is primarily about language.” Samarth writes. “It [the film] has prescient scenes with slum, children, texture. Its subversions of Hindi film conventions are layered and sophisticated, including a torrid dance-duet in a forest clearing. It is a mock melodrama, far ahead of its time. It was unselfconscious, witty, utterly fun to be in. There was no tension: it was physically freeing, innocent.”

Dubey followed up Aparichay Ka Vindhyachal with Tongue in Cheek in 1968. For years, the negatives of these short films were stored in the kitchen of Dubey’s home in Mumbai, recalled Sunil Shanbag, the theatre director who was one of Dubey’s closest associates. While no prints of Tongue in Cheek seem to have survived, a print of Aparichay Ka Vindhyachal is still available.

Alakananda Samarth in Aparichay Ka Vindhyachal.

In 1971, Dubey embarked on a full-length production that the Encyclopaedia of India Cinema describes as “Marathi cinema’s first explicitly avant-garde film”. Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe (Silence! The Court is in Session), although based on Vijay Tendulkar’s play of the same name, is intensely cinematic.

With a loan from the Film Finance Corporation, Dubey produced Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe along with Govind Nihalani, who also shot the movie. The cast includes Sulabha Deshpande, Arvind Deshpande and Amol Palekar in one of his earliest roles. Tendulkar wrote the screenplay.

The film is available on YouTube. It opens with a sensuous image of Sulabha Deshpande in a train, her hair swirling in the wind and a dreamy smile on her face.

Deshpande’s Leela Benare is part of a theatre group travelling from Mumbai to a small town in Maharashtra to perform in a play. The group stages a rehearsal for the benefit of a newly recruited actor, which revolves around a mock trial in which Benare is accused of having an abortion after an affair with an elderly professor.

Sulabha Deshpande in Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe.

The rehearsal exposes the dynamic between the actors as well as the performative quality of courtroom proceedings. Arvind Deshpande, playing the prosecutor Sukhatme with an Adolf Hitler moustache and vampiric zeal, lights into Benare. Sukhatme’s fervour to punish Benare infects the other members of the cast. They line up to denounce Benare, revealing their misogyny and prejudices in the process.

Benare initially plays along. When told by Sukhatme that “motherhood is sacred”, she replies, “How would you know?” But she soon crumbles under the weight of the calumny heaped on her.

Nihalani’s bravura camerawork, with dramatic close-ups and lighting changes, transforms the rehearsal space into a viper pit. Editor Baabu Sheikh’s disruptive cutting gives Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe an unsettling rhythm that delinks the film from its stage origins.

There are single-shot cameos of Amrish Puri and Girish Karnad, both of whom would feature in the screenplays Dubey wrote in the coming years. The mesmerising performances and Dubey’s command over cinematic language makes contemporary viewers wonder why he did not make any more films.

Arvind Deshpande in Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe (1971).

It wasn’t as if he was completely removed from the universe of film. In his stage productions, Dubey used Hindi film songs. He is also remember for the “sophisticated” interjection of films in his plays, Sunil Shanbag noted in The Scenes We Made – An Oral History of Experimental Theatre in Mumbai (edited by Shanta Gokhale).

Dubey’s productions of Baby and Sofa-Cum-Bed indicated that he was “one of the early pioneers of the use of video, or rather film”, Shanbag writes. For Baby, written by Vijay Tendulkar, Dubey ran a 16-mm silent fantasy sequence featuring lead actor Bhakti Barve in the background, Shanbag recalled.

In 1974, Dubey turned screenwriter with Shyam Benegal’s debut feature Ankur. His film work, Dubey once wrote, subsidised his pursuit of theatre.

After Ankur, Dubey wrote the dialogue or screenplay (or both) of Benegal’s Nishant (1975), Bhumika (1977), Junoon (1978), Kalyug (1980) and Mandi (1983). Dubey also wrote the dialogue for Govind Nihalani’s debut Aakrosh (1980) and Vijeta (1982) and Mahesh Bhatt’s Manzilein Air Bhi Hain (1974).

“He brought to the films the effectiveness of speech in the visual scheme of things,” Shyam Benegal told The collaboration wasn’t exactly smooth, punctuated by Dubey’s notorious temper and penchant for endless debate.

Bhumika (1977).

“Satyadev Dubey was an extremely argumentative fellow,” Benegal recalled. “There used to be a lot of arguments where he would advance his pet theory that verbalisation was most important and the visuals should follow. When he wrote dialogue, he would think mostly in terms of advancing the story via speech, which is what you do in theatre. But film is a visual medium. We would argue about this forever.”

Still, it was important to have a contrarian around, Benegal noted. “I liked him on the sets because he didn’t allow automatic movement. He would often create hurdles, and that made you think. In creative work, you always need someone who will keep you alive and constantly question your choices even though it makes you angry.”

Dubey did a few acting roles too. In Yash Chopra’s Deewar (1975), Dubey had a walk-on part as a dock worker who loses his life while arguing with the hoodlums who control the payroll. The death inspires the film’s hero Vijay, played by Amitabh Bachchan, to stage his own rebellion.

Satyadev Dubey in Deewar. Courtesy Trimurti Films.

One possible reason Dubey stuck to theatre was his tendency to relentlessly drive his actors and himself – which is difficult on a film set. The spontaneity of theatre may have suited Dubey’s temperament better.

In an interview for Debonair magazine, he told theatre director Pearl Padamsee, “I am always trying something fresh, something new; dead habits dull any source of energy. In the theatre I train new actors, this freshness must be preserved with every new production.”

Sunil Shanbag observed, “Film, because of the high stakes involved, is a very different game. Dubey had control over the medium of theatre as a director and creator. It’s difficult to give up control in cinema, which demands much more collaboration. Also, Dubey had a great fear of being dominated by technology. The industrial aspect of cinema didn’t appeal to him.”

Benegal notes that even in Dubey’s acclaimed Shantata! Court Chale Aahe, Govind Nihalani’s role cannot be overstated: the cinematographer supplied the film’s visual grammar, he said. “Not all of Dubey’s ideas worked or had clarity from beginning to end – he was shambolic in many ways,” Benegal said.

Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe (1971).

Even Nihalani was not spared Dubey’s truculence. “They used to have huge arguments – I remember this preview screening where Dubey berated Govind and Govind retorted all through the evening,” Benegal said. “I told them, do what the hell you want, I’m going home.”

Another reason Dubey did not make more films was the difficultly involving in funding them. Throughout his career, Dubey juggled multiple projects and ploughed much of his earnings back into the stage. “We are not obsessed with money,” he declared in an interview with Rajinder Paul that is reproduced in Satyadev Dubey. “We do not think of the future. We think of the present.”

However, Dubey did embark on a second feature in the 2000s. “It was based on Dr Chandrashekhar Phansalkar’s play Kheli Meli, which was translated and directed by Chetan Datar as Raam Naam Satya Hai,” Shanta Gokhale said. The play, about terminally ill people dealing with the prospect of death, was staged in 2007.

“Dubey decided on the spot that he was going to make a film on the play,” Gokhale recalled. “I had left the auditorium when he collared me and told me this. ‘I want you to put a line at the end of your columns,’ he said, asking for a crore to help me make the film.’ As always he started using his friend’s free services and shot some parts of it. I wrote a column on the play but couldn’t bring myself to add that line in brackets at the end.”

The film, also titled Raam Naam Satya Hai was largely shot at Dubey’s home in Bandra East in Mumbai. Dubey had been afflicted by epileptic seizures at the time, which affected his movements and his speech. He died of a seizure in 2011, at the age of 75.

Sonali Kulkarni during the shoot of Raam Naam Satya Hai. Courtesy Sunil Shanbag.

Raam Naam Satya Hai expands on the play. Dubey plays a rapacious builder named Narendra Seth who wants to seize an old-age home.

Raam Naam Satya Hai started with a budget of Rs two or three crore – it was meant to be on that scale,” Sunil Shanbag recalled. “Dubey wasn’t getting anywhere with the funding, and that typically made him even more stubborn. He made the film on digital video. He converted his house into a shooting lot. He called upon all his theatre actors.”

The cast includes Vijay Kenkre, Utkarsh Mazumdar, Sandeep Kulkarni, Arun Kakade and Makarand Deshpande. Akash Khurana plays a godman, while Sonali Kulkarni plays a figment of a doctor’s imagination.

Govind Nihalani shot the film. Death looms over the chaotic script. Dubey’s character exults when the old age home residents die one by one. “All of us have to die someday,” Narendra declares. “I want mercy killing! Somebody kill me!” At the end of the film, Narendra dies off-camera from a self-inflicted gunshot.

It seems like Dubey was once again making it up as he was going along, just like he did in his first short film, Aparichay Ka Vindhyachal. “It was all makeshift – we didn’t know where the film was going,” recalled Shishir Sharma, who had a small part as an architect. “Dubey had absolutely no clue. Perhaps he wanted to prove a point to himself or somebody else.” All that survives of Dubey’s final fling with filmmaking is an 87-minute rough cut.

But there is another way in which Dubey’s legacy survives – in the legions of actors he put through the wringer. Dubey transformed Indian theatre. Along his journey, he sprinkled his fairy dust on cinema too.

Sharma, whose credits include Talvaar and Raazi, says he owed his acting career to Dubey. “He told me, I will make you an actor, come what may,” Sharma said. “Every time I face the camera, I hear those words coming back to me.”

Satyadev Dubey directing Raam Naam Satya Hai. Courtesy Sunil Shanbag.