Circa 1976. Sesha Srabana was on the floor. Mahasweta Roy, enacting a village lass, had to take bath in a pond and the local bad man was supposed to attempt rape. The camera cranked. The fiendishness with which the character, Nidhi Mishra, went about the scene — the evil stare and rolling eyeballs — caused Mahasweta to faint. The rest is history. The film among all its glory will forever be remembered for Nidhi Mishra’s villainy essayed by Dukhiram Swain.
Thirty-three years have passed after Sesha Srabana became a big hit, and Swain is no more today. Ollywood has since seen many brutes on the screen, but he still remains the ultimate in the industry.
Evil zamindars have been the villains of the cinema since its beginning. The concept, naturally, found its source from Hindi films. But it was Mrinal Sen’s Matira Manisha (1966) that gave Oriya film viewers the first peek into sheer villainy on celluloid. Swain shone like fire in his role as a village tout who tries to wedge a divide between two brothers.
The cinema in the state did see many other villains later. Krushna Chandra Pandey, Pira, Netrananda Mishra, Asit Pati, Niranjan Satpathy, Raimohan, Mihir Das, Minaketan, Hara Patnaik…. Each one had a unique style and gave the art of villainy varied shades. But none could leap above the bar Swain set. Be it the avaricious moneylender or the capricious henchman plotting and scheming, people just loved to hate his presence.
It then took the onset of the late 1970s for Ollywood to find a turning point of negative roles. Nagaphasa (’77) and Danda Balunga (’78) brought stylised urban villains into picture. It revolutionised the way the baddies walked, talked or smoked. The rugged rustic moneylender was replaced by the suave, sophisticated presence of pipe-smoking baddies.
And the harbinger was none other than veteran Bijay Mohanty. An NSD graduate, Mohanty debuted simultaneously as a hero and a villain in Chilika Tire (’77) and Naga­phasa respectively but the latter released first and Mohanty was noticed appreciably in the negative role. He has successfully acted in 40 films only in the role of a bad man.
“In a way, it was Oriya screen’s Sholay. Henceforth villains were glorified, it only helped make heroes look stronger,” notes Prashant Nanda, actor-filmmaker who has turned to politics. Nanda’s Sesha Srabana has been a milestone for the industry, and he
believes Swain is still the paragon of Oriya cinema’s villainy though many like Raimohan, Biren Routray and Mihir Das have established themselves. “None in the new generation is anywhere close to him.”
Film critic Ashok Palit agrees. “Hara Patnaik showed tremendous capacity in negative roles, but his projection was not as successful. For that, more than the actor, the filmmakers need to be blamed. And at a time when he was doing well, he fell ill.” Patnaik has been fighting cancer for the past three years.
Lately, there were also those like Siddhant who succeeded in negative roles in Dhauli Express and Nari Akhire Nia (both 2007) after being the numero uno hero in Ollywood
for long. This trend started much ahead of Siddh­ant, but it too tracks its origin to Bollywood after Shah Rukh Khan in Darr (1993). That experiment continues even today with mainstream heroes trying their skills at essaying negative roles, the latest being young heartthrobs Sabyasachi and Budhaditya in Sapanara Saudagara and Nandini I Love You (both 2008) respectively.
Sabyasachi feels since an actor keeps looking for versatility, they do not stick to one particular way of presenting their talents and hence the trial-and-error method. “But Sapan­ara Saudagara, which released right after my romantic hit Pagala Premi (2007) wherein I played a negative role, worked very well.’’
That Ollywood never had branded villains barring one or two can be attributed to a variety of reasons. First, the number of films churned out averaged hardly 10 a year, making actors fussy about taking up villainous roles. Second, most villains were actors “fit for nothing else”. Third, no villain got the right projection for long. Like, Sabyasachi says, “My success in a negative character encourages me to do more negative roles, but I would certainly want to be remembered as a hero.’’
Filmmaker Bapu Lenka feels it was passion for the art that attracted eminent theatre
artistes like Swain to choose characters that tested their skills. It was sheer luck that Hara Pattnaik, who is doing so well also, got into doing negative roles. Says Hara: “I was working as associate director for a film when the person supposed to play the role of villain didn’t turn up. I, though, enjoy doing such characters till date.’’
Another name that deserves a mention is Mihir Das. “A villain’s reactions, behaviour and dialogue delivery are things the audiences judge more finely than that of the hero or heroine. Gone are Swain’s days; today no actor has a permanent slot for villain or hero. The audience expects versatility. ”
Not surprisingly, the audience looks forward to versatility from an actor, that regular excellence in a role — even of that of a villain. Notes editor-director Susant Mani: “It’s good to watch young actors like Manoj Mishra, Bobby Mishra and Sabyasachi performing all shades of a character.” But even he doesn’t seem to believe that their villainous roles matched Swain’s.