He looked familiar, despite the sagging skin on his face. He was tall, well-built and alert, despite his old age. Though pensive, he looked livelier than the forlorn residents of the government-aided old-age home.
It was when it struck me that I had seen him on television!
The caretaker then told me his name. He is Satish Kaul, a once popular face on TV and perhaps the most popular Punjabi hero till date.
Satish Kaul is regarded as one of the most successful regional film actors of all time. Some people still refer him as the ‘Amitabh Bachchan of Punjabi cinema’.
It was certainly awkward to spot Kaul, dressed in a track suit, crouched on a worn-out sofa and watching television alone in the dark, gloomy, utterly silent common room of the old age home. On his lap was a box of cookies that contained no cookies, but medicine of varying shapes and sizes – tablets, syrups and capsules.
He sensed my surprise and said, “You seem to recognise me. Though I am not sure if you were born when I was a famous name in Punjab.”
“Yes,” I said, and cruelly asked him, “What are you doing here?”
“It’s destiny. It is the cruel nature of the film industry. We actors top the list of tax-payers but we get no pension. There’s no security.”
He asked about me, and gave a smile when I told him that I am a newspaper correspondent.
“Oh, you can write about me. I make for a good story,” he said with cynicism and sarcasm.
But he was certainly eager to tell me the story of his “fall from grace”.
Kaul blames terrorism for bringing his career down
He began the conversation by lamenting about the days of terrorism in Punjab that brought his soaring career in Punjabi cinema to an abrupt halt.
Born on September 8, 1954 in Kashmir, Kaul began his career in Bollywood and acted in a couple of films that starred stalwarts like Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar and Dharmendra.
Kaul is a graduate from the famous Film and Television Institute of India (He graduated in 1969). He claims that his batch mates were Jaya Bachan, Danny Denzongpa, Shatrugan Sinha, Zarina Wahab, Asha Sachdeva and Om Puri. He also claimed that he could not become a Bollywood superstar because he “never knew how to market myself like the others.”
Thwarted from Bollywood, he shifted his focus towards Punjabi cinema and soon made his debut with a film called Morni (1972).
Kaul went on to act in over 300 Punjabi films in just a decade, with 85 films as the lead actor.
After terrorism sounded the death knell of the Punjabi film industry (towards the end of the 1980s), Kaul began associating himself with television to survive the onslaught. He played the role of Lord Indra in BR Chopra’s iconic Mahabharat and also acted in the Shahrukh Khan-starrer television serial Circus.
How Satish went into a downward spiral
The yesteryear star blames the government for “lack of support” to his acting school in Ludhiana, an ambitious project that ultimately brought him down to his knees.
The school, much publicised in the Punjab media during mid- 2011, was an ambitious project. In numerous newspaper advertisements, Kaul claimed at that time that the school would be of international standards and would boast of a stellar faculty consisting of actors Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Raza Murad and Kiran Kumar. Kaul revealed that he sold off his flat in Mumbai to chase his dream of opening an acting school in Ludhiana.
I did not live in Ludhiana in 2011 and hence I was clueless about the acting school. I excused myself for a minute and called up a fellow journalist.
She told me she had covered the press conference announcing the institute’s launch two years ago but had no idea whether the acting school still existed. I asked her why the Punjabi press was so indifferent to him. “He is a frivolous man,” was her curt and short answer.
I found out much later that the institute was a flop from the word go and shut shop within a few months. Kaul had wrongly anticipated a huge response from those wishing to enter Punjabi cinema. The acting school never took off.
The scene of Punjabi was certainly not big at that time. In fact, even after the hugely successful ‘Jatt and Juliet’ (June 2012) that is said to be a game-changer for the modern Punjabi cinema, not many think that there’s space for an acting school in Punjab. It is the singer-turned-actors who still rule the roost in Punjabi regional cinema.
Meanwhile, Kaul told me how the Punjab government betrayed him, offering him no monetary support. Kaul claims that the institute reduced him to a pauper, but in reality he was living in penury even from 2003-08 at an orphanage, which I found out later. Kaul is also divorced.
I finally did a story on him in a prominent newspaper but soon realized he had no sympathisers. “He squandered all his money”, “He is an alcoholic”, “He can’t manage himself” and “He is a constant complainer” are some of the responses I got after the article got published.
But Kaul, in a later conversation, denied all this and lamented about the public forgetting ‘the fallen hero’.
Into oblivion and beyond
But the man was always into something. Months later, Kaul shifted to another old age home in Ludhiana. From there, he started another project, but this time to sensitise people about the elderly and appealed to the public that they should ‘not pack them off to old age homes’.
“I have been neglected by my loved ones, so I know how it feels to be ill-treated,” he told the media during a month-long campaign for the cause in Punjab that covered cities like Ludhiana, Bathinda, Chandigarh and Faridkot.
This campaign too proved to be a damp squib, neither inviting media attention nor public sympathy.
Next we heard that he had shifted to Patiala. It was a move, he told a reporter friend later prompted by requests from his friends. One of these friends was National Theatre Arts Society (NTAS) chief Pran Sabharwal.
Kaul won the ‘lifetime achievement’ award for his contribution to Punjabi cinema at PTC Punjabi Film Awards 2011 (PTC is a hugely popular entertainment channel in Punjab). Today, he is surviving on a fellowship given by the Punjab University that has also given him a job and accommodation.
A fellow journalist and a friend met him in Patiala recently. She said Kaul was thankful to the university but was still complaining that so many Punjabi actors had went back on their promise to bring him back into Punjabi cinema.
It is certain that Kaul has numerous complaints but haven’t we played a willing part in dismissing every complaint of a man to hide our own apathy?
Haven’t we turned a blind eye to the man who once ruled the hearts of his audience? Should he take all the blame of what has happened to him?
Just look around and you will find plenty of examples like Satish Kaul. The only difference: they don’t complain as much.
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Categories: Bollywood Nostalgia