Shivkumar Subrahmanyam passed away in Mumbai on Sunday night. It wouldn't be inaccurate to say that the veteran artist – widely known as a classy supporting actor in a career spanning more than three decades – has been an unsung hero of Hindi cinema. Characterized by a deep voice and an uncanny ability to do more with less, Shiv Subrahmanyam's legacy has defined the language of our movies without us quite realizing it. His work – on screen, but mainly off it – has long shaped the evolution of a film industry in constant flux. As an actor who stood out and blended into a cast at once, but more importantly as the mind behind some of the most seminal titles in Indian film, Shiv Subrahmanyam typified the multifaceted voice of the old guard.
Keeping with his penchant for different identities, Mr. Subrahmanyam's face has always been more familiar than his name. The newer generation of Bollywood enthusiasts knows him better as Alia Bhatt's chaste Tam-Brahm father in Two States. One of his final roles, too, was cut from the same cultural cloth – the traditional "thatha" of the Tamilian protagonist (Sanya Malhotra) in last year's Meenakshi Sundareshwar. He extended this prototype of male authority beyond token South Indian patriarchs: as a terse school principal in both Laakhon Mein Ek and Hichki, a maths teacher in Amole Gupte's Stanley Ka Dabba, a powerful bureaucrat in The Girl In Yellow Boots, a cop in Ungli, Rocky Handsome, Risk and, more memorably, Vishal Bhardwaj's Kaminey.
It's a testament to his talent and longevity, though, that perhaps his most poignant turn was in fact a portrait of withered masculinity. As a dementia-afflicted parent in Milind Dhaimade's Tu Hai Mera Sunday (2017), Shiv Subrahmanyam's frightfully authentic performance brought to mind the dying moments of The Father, where Anthony Hopkins' character is reduced to an infant in an adult's body. Mr. Subrahmanyam's role was fleeting in comparison – an unwitting medium of love for his stressed daughter – but his condition seeped into the slice-of-life movie about Mumbai and its happy tragedies. He managed to evoke both sympathy and hope at once, a rare balance for a story rooted in young living. At no point did the film appear to be devoid of the man's crumbling sanity, irrespective of whether the actor was in the frame.
But it's the older generations of Bollywood cinephiles, and the film fraternity itself, that might know of Shiv Subrahmanyam's true influence and primary identity – and as someone more than just an underused film and TV actor. He was an early film-making collaborator of the game-changing late-80s crop of Film and Television Institute-trained directors such as Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Sudhir Mishra. Even though he starred in Sriram Raghavan's FTII graduation short, The Eight Column Affair, it was as a screenplay writer that he altered the landscape of commercial Hindi cinema. Among the handful of movies for which Mr. Subrahmaniam has been credited for the script, at least three of them are bonafide classics: Parinda (on which he also assisted), Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin and Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi. Some might add 1942: A Love Story to that list as well.
Despite straddling both movie generations, I, too, knew of Shivkumar Subrahmanyam as only a "side actor". My first glimpse of him was in a Hindi film that haunted me throughout my childhood: Nana Patekar's Prahaar (1991). Again, it was a role relegated to the background – one of the young protagonist's colleagues in commando training. But his presence stayed with me, because the film did. I'd often recognize him in subsequent years on screen as "the soldier". It wasn't until I watched Tu Hai Mera Sunday (2017) – and recognized the actor as a resident in the building I had just moved into – that I looked him up on the internet. I was strangely thrilled to see his name next to those iconic titles. I also felt a bit sheepish: How could I be professionally writing about Hindi film without knowing of its pathbreakers? I remember texting at least three friends, proudly rolling off his achievements (Parinda, can you imagine?) as though I were breaking a top-secret investigative story. But the excitement was hard to contain. Shiv Subrahmanyam was not just any writer; he was the writer.
The few times I found myself sharing an elevator with him, I tried to act nonchalant. But I was mostly starstruck. I didn't know where to begin. By the time I'd rehearse a greeting in my head, the doors would open. Four floors were hardly enough. At one point, I even considered telling him that I wrote about his Tu Hai Mera Sunday performance in our 50 Memorable Characters series; maybe he'd read it. But I also thought it would be silly of me to do that, because I'd only be flaunting my millennial ignorance about his distinguished but unheralded writing career. Every now and then, I would hear him warmly conversing with a security guard, and then I'd wonder how that voice – so rich, so booming – could ever be contained on paper. I would also wonder why more filmmakers weren't creative enough to harness his everyman genius. (His last writing credit: Teen Patti in 2010). And today, I wonder if we would be celebrating the great Shivkumar Subrahmanyam – a stranger, storyteller, performer, neighbour – if not for his passing. Eventually, I never ended up speaking to him. The reverence was too strong. Being tongue tied felt right. After all, no words were enough for someone who had quietly renovated the history of words.