Op-Ed: Amiya Patnaik Had So Much Left To Do

My first meeting with the man (it was more of an ‘encounter’ than a meeting, actually) was of the kind that remains etched in the mind for a lifetime.

I had just joined as a trainee journalist in Eastern Media Limited (EML), which brought out ‘Sambad’, the first ‘morning’ daily in Odia. Since the house that the company was committed to provide three of us trainees wasn’t ready yet, I had been temporarily put up at the company’s old office at 364, Sahid Nagar, Bhubaneswar.

One evening, as I was climbing the steps to go to my room on the first floor, I could hear some loud talk emanating from the room facing mine. The tone and tenor of the conversation suggested a jam session was on. Since I was new to the organization and had no idea who these people could be, I played it safe and headed straight for my room without even having a cursory glance at the room in front to see who were inside. Just as I was about to open the lock, I heard a booming voice from inside the opposite room. “Tike Sunibe” (“Listen”). I turned and went up to the door of the room in front. And there he was, glass in hand, comfortably settled on a sofa. I immediately realized it was Amiya Ranjan Patnaik who had asked the question. “Yes, Sir,” I ventured rather hesitatingly. “May I know who you are?” he asked, his voice surprisingly polite for a man who in all likelihood had already downed a few pegs by then. “I am Sandeep Sahu, Sir. I have just joined as a trainee in Sambad. Since the house I am supposed to move into isn’t ready, I have been lodged here for a few days,” I said, taking care to be as polite as possible since I knew he was the younger brother of my Editor, Soumya Ranjan Patnaik, apart from being the Managing Director (MD) of Utkal Sambad Prakashan Private Limited (USPPL), EML’s sister company which published and printed the newspaper.

By now, I desperately wanted the meeting to end, but was completely startled by what followed. “Come, join us. Have a drink,” Amiya Babu said. “No, Sir. Thank you. I would rather excuse myself,” I said apologetically, having had a look at the others in the room all of whom were strangers. But he was obviously in no mood to give up in a hurry. “Why? Don’t you drink?” “I do, Sir but only very occasionally.” “Don’t you think it is a good enough occasion? After all, we have met for the first time. Isn’t that a worthy occasion to drink?” After this, there was no way I could say ‘No’ and had no choice but to join in.

That was Amiya Babu for you; never officious in his dealings nor the kind who believe in keeping people, especially those below them in the social ladder, at bay. As the incident narrated above shows, he could be informal – and generous – to a fault. He wore no masks and had no airs despite his considerable accomplishments.

I, however, knew Amiya Patnaik, the theatre person, long before I got to meet him late on a cold November evening in 1986. As an avid theatre buff during my student days, I never missed a play staged by ‘Techno Arts’, the Rourkela based theatre group he founded, mostly at Rabindra Mandap in Bhubaneswar. Since my father was posted in Rourkela at the time, I watched some of his plays staged in the Steel City too. True to its name, ‘Tecnho Arts’ always stood out for its stagecraft. I don’t know if it had something to do with his engineering background. But he sure was a pioneer in stagecraft, widely credited with introducing ‘slow motion’ technology in Odia theatre.

My initiation into journalism almost coincided with Amiya Babu’s entry into the world of cinema. It was a natural, organic progression for a man, who had cut his teeth in theatre. For nearly a decade since he entered the fray with ‘Hakim Babu’, directed by Pranab Das, in 1985, he reigned supreme in the commercial Odia cinema circuit. The producer-director duo of Amiya Patnaik-Raju Mishra – churned out hit after superhit, many of them revolving around the most famous pair of eyes in Odisha – those of Lord Jagannath!

As a producer, he would spend lavishly. Cutting corners was anathema to him. Money – and, of course, liquor – flowed generously. The sets were opulent. The best choreographers and fight directors down south were hired to lend some class and glitz to the film. But it was his creative inputs that made his films special. He was not the usual moneybag producer, who didn’t know a thing about cinema. As a theatre personality of impeccable credentials, his inputs certainly added value to the product. But he never allowed these inputs to become something that would amount to interference. He always gave his directors considerable space and freedom. Soon after ‘Hakim Babu’, he had briefly turned director with ‘Mamata Mage Mula’ and showed in the process that he could have directed any or all of his subsequent films. But he chose not to. When television took India by storm, he was among the first to enter the small screen in Odisha and produced ‘Gotie Manara Kotie Swapna’, one of the longest running TV serials in Odia.

Because of his informal disposition, a few of us seniors at ‘Sambad’ had a relationship that bordered on the ‘friendly’ though technically, he was part of the ‘management’. And this informal relationship was to stand Sambad in good stead at a time of upheaval in the organization. Early in December, 1991, the staff in ‘Sambad’, which included staff belonging to both EML and USPPL, launched what was to be the first strike in the organization. Circumstances conspired to put me in position as one of those who led the strike. The company’s plans to get the newspaper printed in Rourkela and Berhampur, the two editions launched the previous one year, came to naught as the staff at both these places stood behind us like a rock. Talks with the management on the third day of the strike had broken down in acrimony. By Day 5, the company was at its wit’s end. Things had gone too far for Soumya Babu to approach us directly. He sent an emissary, C Dev Swain, our News Editor, to talk to us but he had to beat a hasty retreat after being humiliated by some of the hot-blooded youngsters among the agitators.

A few hours after this, someone whispered into my ears that Amiya Babu wants to meet me. Given the kind of relationship we had since Day One, I just could not refuse to meet him. So, I went to the place where he was waiting for me, away from the gaze of the strikers. “It’s been five days, Sandeep. I think you have made your point – and quite emphatically at that. It obviously can’t go on indefinitely. A solution has to be found,” he said. “Agree, Sir. But how can there be a solution when the management is not prepared to concede even one of our demands?” I said, politely but firmly. “Well, the management has conceded your major demand. You will all be paid one month’s salary right away and another month’s salary in a week’s time.” “That’s fine. But I am afraid a verbal commitment won’t do. The management has to give it in writing that we will be paid the second month’s salary in a week.” “That’s absolutely fine. I will make sure they do.”

I rushed back to my fellow strikers to consult them about Amiya Babu’s proposal. By then, most of us had realized that the strike could not go on endlessly and the proposal appeared an ‘honourable’ enough exit route to call it off. And thus ended what, to the best of my knowledge, remains the only strike in Sambad that disrupted publication of the newspaper.

Like the first meeting with the many-splendoured man, the last one also turned out to be a memorable one. He had invited me and Sampadbhai (Sampad Mahapatra) to his IRC Village residence to watch his soon-to-be-released film ‘Tulasi Apa’, a biopic on the life and work of eminent social worker Padmashree Tulasi Munda. I was to do the English sub-titles of the film before it was sent to some competition. After the film screening was over, he treated us to the most sumptuous lunch I had in a long, long time. Shortly after I finished the sub titles, he called me one day to thank me profusely for the job. He also sent the payment with a Thank You note.

His restless artistic spirit meant he was forever toying with fresh ideas, venturing into uncharted territory and experimenting with new techniques. The end, unfortunately, came when he had just launched the first horror show on Odia television.

He had so much left to do.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)