We talk to the acclaimed actor on a range of topics, from his life in the hills to his being a ‘converted Assamese’, and the homogenization of cultures by Bollywood
You have very close connections to Assam, and, in fact, you call yourself a ‘converted Assamese’. Your thoughts on this unique connection you share with the State. We would also want to know more about your blind school in Moran, Assam.
I am an actual son of the soil of Assam. I have rolled around in its mud, swum in its rivers, hunted in its forests, planted trees in its earth with my bare hands, participated in the capture of wild elephants and watched their taming in amazement and wonder, and my heart misses several beats every time I hear the sound of aero engines shudder as they pull their throttle back to descend into the Brahmaputra valley.
This land and I have a spiritual connection. The Blind School my father began and I now run is a very small commitment I fulfill to serve the tea garden labourers’ and poor farmers’ children. Their grandparents and I had hunted together with bows and arrows as a child, and later played district level football and hockey in their country fields. I don’t expect anyone to really comprehend how I feel. It’s too personal.
How was your experience of working with Xoixobote Dhemalire? Tell us a little about the experience and share what you are taking back with you from the shoot.
I find acting a drain on my nerves. I remember a difficult shot I gave on a particular night; everyone clapped after I had finished, only to discover they were applauding a village dog that had perfectly timed its entry, participation and exit in the background. That’s when I decided that if I ever penned my memoirs, I would call it ‘Upstaged by a Dog’. Working for Bidyut is a delightful privilege because he treats me with the indulgence that an old fool like me has earned and deserves. Bidyut’s almost unflappable personality makes it comfortable for every actor, and, in ‘Dhemalirey’, his handling of child actors will amaze audiences just as much as it charmed and fascinated me. The location on the Arunachal border too was breathtakingly beautiful and serene.
Through your work with Mr Satyajit Ray, and your role as Dr Aziz in David Lean’s screen adaptation of EM Forster’s Passage to India, you have a presence outside India as well. Despite this, you have been often thought of as a ‘recluse’. Why this need of getting away from the ‘spotlight’?
The spotlight hurts the eyes, blinds one’s vision and burns into one’s soul. Take a country bus in the mountains of Garhwal and share it with villagers taking produce from their farms to little town markets and jostle for space and a place amongst women who have lives you wouldn’t envy with cows and wild children and crazy husbands to cater to at home—while we all fight chickens and goats and sheep for space on the rattling bus and look for a foothold as we are thrown from side to side in never ending bends—you will find every allegory you need in filmdom, to understand why I prefer to withdraw into my shell and little abode in the hills. At the journey’s end, there are no spotlights in graveyards where the greatest lie interred.
You have also been vocal about the rights of ‘extras’ in films and formed a union to articulate their rights. How did it span out? Please tell us a little about the impact.
Film ‘extras’ are still humiliated every day and not given the respect they deserve as co-actors and fellow human beings. I started the union, had it recognized by the Film Federation of India and also had it affiliated to the Extras Union of Bombay and then after a few years handed it over to the extras to run themselves. They fought and created factions and lost the respect we had earned while the industry let scruple-less ‘suppliers’ creep in again. ‘Service to Man, is Service to God’ is what a little card inside a bottle of the Sulekha fountain pen ink used to say. I remember that from my school days. The irony is that it was the great and most successful directors of the time, like Satyajit Ray and Anjan Chaudhury to give you two examples, who always chose their ‘extras’ from our officially recognized union. I had called them ‘Cine Co-Artists’, as they surely are. In the final analysis, we make victims of ourselves because we are either too indifferent or frightened to fight and stand up for our rights or the rights of the less fortunate amongst us.
Your opinion on cinema from NE India and the way ahead for regional cinema?
I think regional cinema has a very important role to play in our country’s cultural evolution. Today, most traditional cultures of the world are bombarded by the imperialism of occidental values and beliefs. In an attempt (that is working very successfully) to homogenise the cultures of the world, we are fast becoming a society with confused ideas of what we should value, respect and proudly inherit as our own. ‘Bollywood’ is responsible for the complete degradation of our moral standards and aesthetics. In my opinion, therefore, it has overtly become the responsibility of Regional Cinema to preserve our diverse cultural heritage which forms our Vanamaala, our garland of races and heritages of lore, dance and song, which represents the wealth of India and are our richest assets.
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By Nasreen Habib
Follow the writer on twitter @NasreenAssam