Hemant Das left Cuttack 16 years ago for his native countryside near Banki in the same west-central Orissa belt. Khamaranga village was where the iconic actor breathed his last, twelve days ago, aged 76. Even during his prolonged illness, which led to his death on April 27, Das’ eyes gleamed at the slight mention of anything related to cinema. For, he cherished intense memories about his long stay in Cuttack, Ollywood’s hub, where he began his career as a young man and lived till 1994. The glory notwithstanding, his career was che­quered and his personal life tragic.
In the autumn of his life, when Das knew he was dying, the actor used to try to remember the names of many people he was associated with as a cine personality. “He wanted to live more and do more,” recollects his sister Sebati, who looked after him till his death. A diabetic, Das was admitted to hospital last month. It was in the ICU that Das was conferred with the lifetime achievement award. Temperamental, he went back to his village as soon as he was discharged, decided to stop taking insulin doses and instructed his sister not to inform anyone about his failing health. Apparently he felt he was wronged.
All this, despite his evident success in both commercial and parallel cinema — Das won numerous awards in both streams. The plaudits apart, he never returned to acting since the mid-1990s, though he always had the urge to make a comeback. “Can you offer me a role in any of your films,” he is said to have asked actor-politician Prashant Nanda in the hospital, when his health was critical. When Nanda said “yes”, Das remarked, “Ah! Now I have reasons to be alive.”
Das, who made his characters of brothers and fathers look absolute for the Oriya film and theatre audience, had a career spanning 50 movies and quite a number of stage and radio productions. He belonged to the genre of realistic artistes who believed that acting must convey the depth, subtlety and complexity of characters in detail.
It was in 1956, with Bhai Bhai, that Das began his film career. Soon, he stirred the emotions of his audiences with performances in movies like Sesha Srabana, Balidan, Maa O Mamata, Hisab Nikas, Hakim Babu, Kichi Smruti Kichi Anubhuti, Sapana Banika, Swapna Sagara and Agni Veena. He also acted in the award-winning Hindi film Shodh (1981) by Biplab Roy Chowdhury.
His stint in drama made him a household name. Theatre personality Ananta Mohapatra trails back to Das’ days as Abdoot Rao, the character the late actor played in his group Srujani’s first production, Sagar Manthan. The 1964 play, which Mohapatra directed, created a stir and brought Das into limelight. “We shared the same passion for creativity in stage, film, radio and television,” notes Mohapatra. “As an actor, Das was devoted; he understood the character so well. He was open about his physical limitations, but was determined to overcome them.”
Das was conferred the Jayadev Puraskar, the state’s highest honour for contribution
to cinema. But the same authority gave him a raw deal when he wanted to realise his dream project, Sulochana. It was a film he was making, based on well-known writer
Fakir Mohan Senapati’s popular Patent Medicine with funds from the Orissa Film Development Corporation. Das was dragged to court for failing to repay the loan. This shatte­red him, so much so that he preferred solit­ude after that. The movie remains incomplete till date for lack of finance.
Mahasweta Ray, who was slotted the female lead in Sulochana, recalls how the veteran actor made newcomers like her feel comfortable in the industry. “His humility made fellow arti­stes feel at home on the sets,” recalls Ray, who co-starred with Das in Tarun Mazumdar’s Bengali film Katha Chhilo, which was also made in Oriya as Akuha Katha (1993-94).
On screen, Das excelled in various aspects of acting, but critic Ashok Palit feels he was stereotyped, donning only brotherly and fath­erly roles. “True, Das was compared to Ashok Kumar of Bollywood, but I don’t think his talent was not exploited as much.”
Nanda chooses to disagree. “I cast him in all my films and offered him a different role in Swapna Sagar. He was always chosen for characters that suited his personality, face and structure,” asserts Nanda, who mentored Das during his hard days.
Das’ family life proved turbulent. For many years after marriage, he did not have a child. And when he did become a father, the baby boy was diagnosed as disabled. His wife and son predeceased him years ago. Recalls Nanda: “Das was also frustrated during the making of Jajabara (1974). It was here I got emotionally attached to him.”
Nanda helped Das with his dream project Sulochana till the music recording was completed. “Then he receded to the background.” And that was not just from the film world.