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November 15, 1999


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Staying alive

Syed Firdaus Ashraf

Sayaji Shinde An ordinary-looking man comes to Bombay from a small town to become an actor. He has no money, no godfather and certainly no influence. Today, Sayaji Shinde is a name to reckon with, thanks to his superlative performance in Shool.

Of course, fame and recognition has not come easy. It is the result of a mammoth struggle, spanning 18 long years.

Ever since he came to Bombay in 1981, Sayaji has seen all kinds of ups and downs. "I never really expected to get a big break in Bollywood," he says modestly. "I am very happy with Shool's success."

Circumstances, recalls the actor, were very different when he took to the stage for the first time. He had no dialogue and was part of a crowd scene in a play staged in his hometown, Satara. Very, very different from the glamour and glitter of Bollywood.

"It was in 1978," says Sayaji of his first role. "The play was called Ghot Bhar Pani. As I stood among the crowd on stage, I wondered if I'd ever play the main character. I did not even get a chance to mouth dialogues on stage."

With no real exposure to acting, no guidance and a family background that was basically agricultural, he knew there was only one way of achieving his dream. "I've always believed that where there is a will, there is a way. Any person struggling to find his feet in any field has to be determined and should have the will power to succeed."

Shool And will power was something Sayaji had in ample supply. He bought books and read voraciously. "I decided to give acting a serious shot," he explains. "Rehearsing became a key thing for me, something I did regularly."

Unfortunately for him, his lack of felicity with the English language proved a serious setback. But Sayaji soon learnt to use this drawback to his advantage. "I consciously put in more effort because of my Marathi background. And that, in fact, helped me," he says.

In between, he completed his graduation, got married and even started farming in Satara. He was clear, though, that his life at least would not be restricted to farming and driving tractors. And one fine day decided that it would be acting or nothing! He packed his bags, came to Bombay, stayed in Bhandup in his father-in-law's flat and joined Jaidev and Rohini Hattangadi's acting group, Avishkar.

Sayaji Shinde To keep the body and soul together, he joined the Nagrik Sahakari Bank branch at Kurla as a clerk. "I took up this job to look after my family and, till date, I am continuing with it. I could follow my dream as an actor only because my colleagues and the bank management supported me. They were always understanding when it came to granting me leave."

His first play in Bombay was Maha Bhojan Tervachi (1984). It was a dream debut. The Marathi theatre recognised him as an actor of immense talent. And the Maharashtra government honoured him as the Best Marathi Stage Actor of the year.

Sayaji was stunned, he could not believe it. "It was a shock. I had never expected to win an award for my first theatre role."

But the euphoria evaporated soon. Three long years passed before he got his second break in the Marathi play, Zulva. Again, his portrayal of a eunuch in the play -- which revolved around an extramarital affair in the Devdasi setup -- was highly appreciated by eminent theatre personalities like P L Deshpande and Jabbar Patel.

But films -- Hindi or Marathi -- were still a far cry. He did several more plays, including the well-known Ek Zunz Varyashi and Amchaya Ya Gharath.

Finally, in 1995, Sayaji landed Amol Shettege's Marathi film, Aboli. His portrayal of an Adivasi painter therein brought him the Filmfare Award for Best Actor (in Marathi cinema) that year.

Then came Darmiyaan, his first offer from Bollywood -- an offer that he initially rejected. "I was sick of playing a eunuch. Believe me, people used to think I was best in this kind of role. And I had decided never to play a eunuch again."

It took much persuasion from Darmiyaan director Kalpana Lajmi -- who was much impressed by his brilliant performance in Zulva -- to change his mind. The result? He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at both the Screen and Sansui Awards.

By now, he had set his eyes on his own play -- one that he had written and wanted to act in and direct. In search of the rest of the cast, he advertised his play, along with his photograph, in a leading English daily. Actor Manoj Bajpai noticed the ad and bought it to the attention of director-producer Ramgopal Varma.

Shool "Varmaji told me he needed a new villain for his film, someone who would be different from the usual Hindi film villains. I auditioned, he approved and that's how I landed the role of Bachhu Yadav, the Bihari villain in E Niwas's Shool."

Was it difficult to play a Bihari? "Yes, it was," he is candid in his reply, "because of my Marathi background. But I practised the language every day. And I can proudly say that, when you see the film, you will believe I am a Bihari."

According to theatre personality Jaydev Hattangadi, Sayaji does his homework well. "He has always been a dedicated actor. He concentrates on his work and that is an actor's biggest asset. He has a quiet intensity which sets him apart. And I feel very happy for him."

How has his life changed after Shool? "Oh," he smiles, "people have started recognising me on the roads. But I am still the same Sayaji. I still travel by local trains and meet my old friends regularly."

Adds Hattangadi, "I always told him not to leave his job. I believe that an actor can be happy only if he has financial stability. I'm happy to see that Sayaji has maintained that balance in his life."

He is now acting in Lajmi's Daman, a film centred around a husband who dominates his wife. The latter role is played by Raveena Tandon.

Shool Says Lajmi, "He is one of the greatest actors of our time. Even if I compare him with Naseeruddin Shah, I will give him 10 out of 10. Sayaji's greatness is that he can give a different performance in every take and he trusts his director wholly."

She cites an instance. "One of the best scenes in Darmiyaan is when he cracks down towards the end. He was just superb," she declares. "I think he is a gifted actor who has a strong connection with his roots. He can outclass all the new yuppie actors."

Sayaji Shinde's pictures by Jewella C Miranda

The Shool review

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