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A voice of the voiceless, actor-singer Vira Sathidar dies of Covid

Sathidar died of complications arising out of Covid at a Nagpur hospital on Tuesday. He was 61.

Written by Ektaa Malik | New Delhi |
Updated: April 14, 2021 6:02:44 am
Court actor Vira Sathidar passed away on Tuesday morning following COVID-19 related complications. (Photo: Court/Zoo Entertainment Pvt Ltd)

IT WOULD seem that Vira Sathidar’s role in Court could well be a case of reel imitating real. Like Narayan Kamble, the character he portrayed in the 2014 critically acclaimed film, Sathidar was a poet, folk singer and an activist – all rolled into one.

Sathidar died of complications arising out of Covid at a Nagpur hospital on Tuesday. He was 61.

“I am still reeling from the news. It’s still strange to talk about him as ‘was’. One of the nicest people I have ever worked with,” says Chaitanya Tamhane, the director of Court.

Born in Nagpur, Sathidar developed a keen interest in folk music, poetry and art from an early age. As a child, he was deeply influenced by the Ambedkarite movement led by the Republican Party of India, which was unravelling in Maharashtra. Growing up, he worked as a labourer and cowherd. His early experiences with casteism are said to have shaped his strong anti-caste stance and fuelled his journey of resistance and protest. He was a strong believer in art being a catalyst of social change.

He became a folk activist who performed for the voiceless – much like Narayan Kamble, the character that brought him international recognition as an actor years later.

Sathidar landed the role just weeks ahead of Court going on the floors. “We auditioned a lot of people for that casting – lot of Lok Shayars, cultural activists etc. We wanted someone who had screen presence, who could sing and act, and was also interested in doing a film, and added to the mix was the ease of speaking in Marathi,” says Tamhane. “And the character needed to be of a certain age as well. We had hit a major wall.”

Sathidar sent across some pictures of himself, with a hair dye job, and clean-shaven. He didn’t really register on Tamhane’s radar. “It’s only when this lawyer, Susan Abraham, made us look at his other pictures – they were closer to the look you see in the film,” he says, recalling how he found Kamble in Sathidar.

“We did a lot of workshops with him. Although he came from the folk tradition of theatre and was well-versed with it, he was not a singer. He worked very hard to perform those two songs that he performed in the film. He was always hooked on the headphones. The attitude of performance was not a problem, the playback was. There were long continuous takes. But he did most of them in a single take,” Tamhane adds.

Court is a legal drama that looks at the Indian justice system through the trial of the progressive folk singer, who is accused of abetting suicide, at a sessions court in Mumbai. The film won multiple international awards such as the Orizzonti Award and the Luigi De Laurentiis at the 71st Venice International Film Festival. It also adjudged the Best Feature Film at the 62nd National Film Awards.

“Although I had only a couple of scenes with him, we would have lots of discussions. He really lived his life on the political ideals he preached. He was a true revolutionary. He truly believed that art and culture could bring about an effective change,” says Sathidar’s co-star in the film, Geetanjali Kulkarni. “He taught me a lot. He helped me to unlearn a lot of things.”

Apart from being an actor, Sathidar was the president and convenor of the Nagpur Unit of the Indian People’s Theatre Association that was formed in 2017. He was also the editor of ‘Vidrohi’, a bi-monthly Marathi magazine.

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