‘FILM-MAKERS HAVE FORGOTTEN THE REAL INDIA’
Raghubir Yadav is a phenomenal actor, who embraces every role with the wide-eyed excitement of a child.
That’s the way he lives his life too.
At an age when his contemporaries are content to enjoy a quiet retired life, he is immersing himself in roles that appeal to his sensibilities, finding innovative ways of making music and thinking of new ways in which he can improve as an actor.
Nationally and internationally acclaimed for his performance in the titular role of his 1985 debut film, Massey Sahib, Mr Yadav is now accumulating raves for playing Pradhanji in Amazon Prime Video’s Panchayat.
On your birthday this year, you made a lauki saxophone which you named Low-key. That’s one innovative idea.
(Laughs) I have a small workshop where I keep making things, aise hi, for timepass.
I’ve made musical instruments from gajar (carrot) and muli (radish) earlier. On my birthday, we brought home a lauki (bottle gourd) and there was a lot of discussion around it.
Back in my village, I had seen people making musical instruments from dried laukis, so I decided to see if I could make music with this one even though it was fresh and tender.
Some Punjabi friends had come home. I brought out my Low-key at midnight and started playing it for them.
They loved it and called the producer and director of Panchayat who came over at around 1.30 am and the music continued...
One can see you playing many such musical performances on your Instagram handle. When did this interest develop?
Bachpan se hi shauk tha (Since childhood).
I remember when I was around three years old, a papadwala would come selling his wares.
His ‘Moong ka papad lo... Urad ka papad lo...’ so melodious, still resonates with me.
Music is a blessing which stays with you through both joys and sorrows and keeps you from feeling lonely.
‘The real India lives in the villages where everyone is trying to
improve the other.’
It has taught me so much about theatre, films, even life, ussi ke sahare main zindagi jeeta hoon (Music helps me live life).
You worked with the Parsi Theatre, right?
Yes, for six years. That’s where I learnt not just acting, but also how to dig holes and set up tents.
I wrote the publicity signboards every morning and even worked in the props and costume department.
When we went on tour, I would travel in the truck with the carpenters and other technicians.
Even today, I hate taking a flight, wearing a suit and glares, three to four assistants hovering around me, handling all the work.
Zindagi mazdoori mein hi nazar aati hai, ussi men mazaa hai (You live life through your work, that’s what makes it fun).
How did you land up there?
Ghar se bhaga tha. () at the age of 15, and while wandering around, I stopped to watch a show.
The boy I was with ran off, I stayed back and joined the Parsi Theatre.
That’s where I spent some of the best years of my life even though I got paid only Rs 2.50 daily, which dwindled to a rupee or even 50 paisa when it rained and shows were cancelled.
Those were difficult days.
Members of the cast and crew grew thin and pale from lack of food, but I stayed energetic and happy because I was learning something new everyday.
When your stomach is full, bas bistar aur araam hi dikhai deti hai (you can only see a bed and comfort). But when you are hungry, your mind is clear and you are able to grasp things easily.
Even today, I get restless if life goes on too smoothly for a fortnight or more, thakleef hoti rehni chahiye taki hum jaagte rahe (You need to grapple with hardships, they keep you alert and alive).
Why did you run away from home?
The elders in my family forced me to take up science, believing it would get me a good job and maybe even a good match.
But I was a simple farmer who drove bullock carts, so the intricacies of science went above my head, and as expected, I flunked my exams.
I was so ashamed, I couldn’t face my family and ran away.
Did you ever go back?
Yes, after six months. But on the way home, while standing by a paan shop, I was spotted by a cousin, who was passing by.
He quipped, ‘Oh you are back, I thought I would see you on the screen in Lakshmi Talkies the next time.’
Embarrassed by the sarcastic jibe, I ran off again and returned after 20 years, after bagging an international award (the FIPRESCI Critics Prize for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival in 1986) for my first film Massey Sahib.
(Laughs) This time, those who had ridiculed me, telling my father that I would return as a chor, were saying, ‘See, we told you, he would come back after making a name for himself.’
I still visit my brothers in the village twice a year, and rejuvenated, return to the city to immerse myself in work.
How did the transition from Parsi Theatre to the National School Of Drama happen?
After the slow demise of the Parsi Theatre, I went to Lucknow and started working with the Rangoli Puppet Theatre.
I would tour UP, go to Bihar and sing with an orchestra party for two months.
The money I earned in these two months was enough to sustain me for the rest of the year.
When in Lucknow, I heard that they taught you acting at NSD and applied there for a scholarship, along with the post of a teacher in the song and drama division.
I got a call from both, the scholarship was for Rs 200 while the job would earn me Rs 450 a month.
I wanted to learn so I accepted the NSD scholarship.
Today, thanks to Panchayat even children in cities know about the sarpanch, the pradhan...
Not just the panch (the five members of the Panchayat), they are beginning to understand how this head body is linked with every single person in the village.
In the village you learn a lot... Imaan (honesty), the ability to work hard, to get up at 5 am, wash buffaloes and take them out to graze.
Even today, if I return from a 3 am shoot, I am up by 5-6 am and pottering around the house.
If you start working before sunrise, pura din mein farak aa jaati hai (the day turns out good).
What was your first reaction to Panchayat?
I loved the script, it’s simple and honest, written in the language of the soil.
Back home in the village, I was familiar with the sarpanch, pradhan and other members of the panchayat so the connection was instant.
During my days with the Parsi Theatre, we travelled across the country, set up tents every month in villages in UP, Bihar, Rajasthan and several other states.
The real India lives in the villages where everyone is trying to improve the other.
We used to see this world in blackand-white films, like Kabuliwala and Do Bigha Zameen, but of late, our film-makers seem to have forgotten the real India.
I was missing that and today, I’m happy to see families sitting together and enjoying Panchayat.
How is your equation with your costars, Neena Gupta and Jitendra Kumar?
Neenaji is a trained actor from NSD, who has done a lot of good work.
Ditto Jitendra. In their company, hum bhi thodi bahut kar lete hain (I also do a bit of acting).
In Panchayat, even the actors doing small roles are very good and that sets the benchmark high.
‘So let’s have fun with it. Let’s do something that nobody is expecting.’
Huma Qureshi wants to sleep.
But her resurgent career just won’t let her.
The actor, who will be seen in the second season of the Web series Maharani , which streams f rom August 25, has just spent the day giving back-to-back interviews, but her smile does not waver and her make-up stays immaculate.
Still, she craves for sleep, something she just doesn’t get to do as much as she would like to.
“I have to look good for a project, shoot for another and promote the third, so it’s exhausting. But I really enjoy being on a film set, and act. So if I have to do a few other things that I don’t entirely love it, but if it’s allowing me to be an actor on a film set, I’ll take that any day,”
The first of a multi-part lively conversation:
How exciting is it to step into the shoes of Maharani’s Rani Bharti once again?
It’s exciting because it’s been loved.
That’s why we are making season two, right? So clearly something has worked.
But it’s also like, I’ve done this and there’s nothing new I can do.
I think the magic lies in how I create the essence of that character and still build on it enough to make it exciting for people.
Is there any pressure when you are the face of a Web series? Because it’s different when you are part of an ensemble cast and when you are carrying it on your shoulders.
I started my career with Gangs Of Wasseypur, you can’t get a bigger ensemble film than that. It had some 500 actors in it, all debuting (laughs).
Ensemble films have never scared me.
But I don’t take the pressure (of being the face of a show) because pressure leke kuch hota nahin hai.
It is the most futile thing.
But I am acutely aware of the responsibility on my shoulders.
I’m acutely aware that I have to deliver, that there are a lot of expectations.
But that responsibility gives me a lot of joy and freedom, surprisingly.
When I’m doing a role or choosing my projects, I’m not operating f rom fear, ki arrey, agar nahin chala toh?
Instead, I’m operating from, maza ayega, na? Kuch naya karte.
Now, I’ve got the opportunity that I’ve been waiting for my whole life, so let’s have fun with it. Let’s do something that nobody is expecting.
That will open new doors as well.
Well, that only time will tell. As actors, we have dream paths or dream roles or dream situations to be in...
My mindset is not, oh f*** what if I don’t get it?
My mindset is, this is my moment and I’m going to show them what I can do.
What’s the one thing you would do if you became chief minister, of say Maharashtra?
Focus more on the environment. Reduce plastic.
Do more on child education, child rights and women’s safety.
Women’s safety in this state, actually, is quite remarkable.
You were among the first to take up an OTT project, Deepa Mehta’s Leila, in 2019. How much did OTT change your career?
A lot of people advised me against it.
They said, don’t do OTT because people will think ‘picture nahin hain’, that it’s a step down.
But I was like, I’m watching so much international content and they’re all doing so well.
Plus, it’s a great story. It’s a great maker.
I really resonate with it, so let’s go ahead with it.
I’m so grateful that I did it because the love that Leila has got over the years has been phenomenal.
It has empowered me as an actor because that was the first time I was leading a whole show -- not a film, but a whole show.
The camera was literally on my face -- on my eyeball! -throughout the duration.
It gives me the confidence that I can carry off a show.
I can lead it.
Deepa Mehta really empowered me as an actor, and she’s really close to me. I look up to her.
And I’m so happy today when I see other women leading shows, and they’re all doing so well.
I was the first girl in this country to be leading a female-centric show, and now they all are doing it, and it’s so cool.
We should be allowed to tell our stories.
We should be leading more projects.
That space should be allowed to us.
Humko bhi opportunity do, hum bhi kar sakte hain.
But how much did it help your career?
Well, (Director) Zack Snyder saw that show and I was cast for (the Hollywood film) Army Of The Dead. Sometimes these opportunities happen very differently from how we think.