One morning in 1991, the phone in our house in Mumbai rang. The caller asked for my father. My sister, who had answered the phone, asked who was calling. “This is Nana speaking,” came the answer, in Marathi. It was a familiar voice.
A man named ‘Nana’ with that voice could only have meant one person: Nana Patekar. We were all college kids then and naïve enough to be impressed by celebrities. My sister was thrilled. Like Florence Griffith Joyner, she dashed from the dining room into the bedroom, where my father was sitting. “Nana Patekar is on the phone,” she announced breathlessly.
My father, Vasant Sawai, was a professor at Sir JJ School of Art. He taught there from the late 60s till the mid-80s, arguably the last of that institution’s glorious years. Many students of that time came to be recognised for accomplishments not just in art and advertising, but also cinema and theatre. Sometimes they would invite us for a play or perform in our colony. Satish Pulekar, who found some fame in Marathi theatre and television, took us to a play in which he was acting called Sakhkhe Shejari. Some years before that, JJ students had enacted the popular play Tour Tour in our residential colony. The play went on to become phenomenally successful later on. We knew our father had taught Nana as well, but we hadn’t yet met him.
Nana had started his career with Marathi films and theatre and parallel cinema. But Parinda (1989) had made him a popular star. In 1991, there was to be a function at JJ that he was going to helm or participate in. It was in this connection that he phoned my father.
The function was held one evening a few days later at the college. Late at night, the doorbell rang. My father had returned. With him was a tall, lean man with a neat moustache and close-cropped hair. It was Nana. I vaguely remember his striped shirt and jeans. I clearly remember his loud camel-coloured leather boots. I also recall his first words, “Hello, I’m Nana Patekar.”
There were mattresses and beds everywhere. Nana wasn’t going to take his shoes off and he couldn’t step on the bed linen either. So he sat in one corner of the sofa with his legs swung over its wooden arm.
Nana was self-deprecating and polite most of the time. He said the right things that a famous student says about the people and life he has long left behind. “They were my gurus,” Nana said of my father and some other teachers. “I was very violent. I once hit someone so badly that I banged his head against a wall. Bhintaadavar aaptun maarla. But they gave me direction.” In Marathi, ‘bhinta’ means ‘wall’. Nana’s ‘bhintaada’ was a more rustic, aggressive version. This stuck in my head.
I had just turned 18 and been gifted a Kinetic Honda bike by my father. “Don’t drive above 40 kmph,” Nana told me, “I will tell you other ways of impressing girls.”
He too had recently bought a new vehicle—a beige Mahindra jeep. That night, he said, he had driven it from South Bombay to our house in Vile Parle East, a distance of about 30 km, in 23 minutes. I believe him, give or take.
My mother, who believes any visitor should be offered snacks or drinks irrespective of the time or the guest’s taste, brought lemonade for Nana. He insisted he did not want to have anything. “Mi daaru piyun aalo aahe (I have had a hard drink). I won’t be able to taste anything.” When told it was just lemonade, he gulped down the contents of the glass.
The conversation turned to his favourite actresses. And the devil got into Nana’s words. He said he admired a yesteryear heroine known for her chaste beauty. “With her, you don’t think how her chest or ass is. Just her face is enough.” He was speaking in Marathi all through. And Marathi colloquialisms of sexual anatomy sound cruder than those in English. Then he took the name of a contemporary actress, a sex symbol of the 80s. With her, he said, the opposite was true. The audience—me, my two sisters and my parents— watched speechless, if with some nervous laughter.
Of his two leading Parinda co-stars, Nana said one was a cool guy, the other a “buffoon”. (Guess who was what, it’s not that difficult.) He spoke about the film Prahaar, which he had almost completed by then. This film was Nana’s all the way. He had directed it. He had also acted in it, playing the lead as an army major. He had undergone army training for the role, which explained his no- nonsense haircut.
After a while, he left, driving off in his new jeep, a valedictory right arm extended out of the window.