Ajay Singh | June 26, 2015
There are few actors in India who have personified historical figures. For a generation born after 1948, Mahatma Gandhi’s imagery fits into the role played by great actor Ben Kingsley who perfectly slipped into the character of the great soul. But Kingsley has an Indian parallel in Paresh Rawal who played the role of India’s first home minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in the biopic ‘Sardar’. The ease with which he essayed the role was quite remarkable for an actor who was born five years after Patel’s death and belonged to a generation whose memory of Patel was overpowered by the imposition of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty on the country’s collective psyche.
Rawal is a gifted actor who is equally at home on stage and screen. In his early days in Bollywood he played side characters, but in Gujarati theatre he was – and remains – the unrivalled superstar, and his play ‘Maharathi’ from the late 1980s has been wildly successful with Gujarati theatre-goers in India and abroad. In his career in Hindi cinema, he has covered a wide spectrum of acting that includes comedies too. But he found a largely credulous audience appreciating him no end for his iconoclastic role in ‘OMG - Oh My God’. I was more keen to know about Rawal’s new role as Lok Sabha representative from Ahmedabad. I requested him through a friend for an interaction to know more about his multifaceted personality and his politics. Rawal agreed to meet at the friend’s place.
I reached the venue at the appointed time and waited for Rawal with my camera ready to click his photographs. But it did not go as per script as Rawal arrived in shorts and stubble on his face. He was playing Lord Krishna in ‘Krishna versus Kanhaiya’, a play then being staged in parliament’s auditorium, and the role required him to have that stubble. I gave up the idea of clicking his photographs and instead began the conversation.
“How and why did you get attracted to politics?” was my first query to which Rawal seemed adequately prepared. “You see, I have a faint memory of Lal Bahadur Shastri and the 1965 war with Pakistan. The rice was forbidden for common people in order to maintain adequate supply for the army. We were collecting aluminium bottles as patriotic duty to supplement resources in the war,” he said turning a bit nostalgic. “Though I was a kid, I remember Shastri-ji’s exhortations were taken very seriously by people. Even my mother had stopped serving us rice,” he said while talking about his inadvertent brush with politics.
Politics in Rawal’s world view then was quite akin to idealism. In his formative years of youth, he had another moment of idealism, in the movement led by the redoubtable Jayaprakash Narayan. “I was quite impressed by the JP movement and almost ready to join it when I got initiated to the stage and drama,” he said. However, his utopia came crashing down as the Janata Party experiment degenerated into an internecine and petty battle of certain egoistic individuals. Though Rawal and his family lived in Mumbai, his connection with Gujarat brought him in contact with the RSS. “I used to admire their (the RSS) selfless dedication in rescue operations during the Morbi dam burst tragedy (of 1979),” he said recalling his association with the RSS.
Though Rawal got busy in acting and soon earned a name for himself in Bollywood, in the aftermath of the 2001 Bhuj earthquake he once again found the RSS doing exemplary rescue and rehabilitation operation in the entire Kutch region.
It was during the 2012 assembly elections in Gujarat that he finally took the plunge, and canvassed for Narendra Modi, addressing rallies with him in Ahmedabad. “Frankly, I have been meeting politicians who appeared to me as dealers and not leaders. I was never influenced by anyone till I met Narendra Modi. To me he looked like JP or Sardar Patel, a selfless leader dedicated to the nation and society. He has a child-like curiosity,” Rawal said, explaining his decision to join politics as Modi’s acolyte.
But was he not wary of the image of the BJP and Modi given the background of the Gujarat riots? I asked. “I do not believe in hero worship but I have found that he is a victim of the most malicious campaign,” Rawal said, adding that there was not an iota of evidence to prove Modi’s culpability in the riots. “In acting classes it is said that the character is not what he says but what he does,” Rawal said, drawing a parallel to emphasise that Modi must be judged by his action, not by others’ perception of him.
We were in the midst of deep conversation when we suddenly felt tremors. Rawal did not panic. Soon we realised that the tremors were not ordinary. We rushed out from the fifth floor, taking stairs to reach outside the ground floor where more residents had assembled. This was the second earthquake after the one that caused great damage in Nepal. After a brief while, Rawal said, “Let’s go upstairs and finish our conversation.” We resumed our tête-à-tête without letting thoughts of the earthquake bother us.
Wouldn’t his association with the BJP alienate a section of his followers, particularly among minorities, I persisted with another query. Rawal said that his acting and his politics are two different and independent domains. “I do not see any reason why my acting should be linked to my political life,” he said, adding that though the BJP has a pro-Hindu leaning, it does not have a communal agenda. “I know I cannot keep everyone happy. Kuchh to log kahenge (People will wag tongues). So let them say what they want,” he said, parodying a famous Hindi song to buttress his point.
When the talk turned to the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Rawal said, “I could see the groundswell of support in Modi’s favour and I was pretty sure that he would become the PM. This was the time to support him. Agar is baar nahi hua to kabhi nahi hoga (if it did not happen this time, it will never happen).”
So many film stars cash in on their popularity to enter parliament, but then become disillusioned or ineffective, like Govinda, for example. When I mentioned that, Rawal retorted, “Why should we pick wrong examples? Sunil Dutt, Raj Babbar and Jaya Bachchan are examples of those who have created their distinct image in politics.” He is determined to stay put in his new vocation. “I still have 175 days for doing films while devoting the rest of the time for politics,” he said when asked if politics would not consume his maximum time.
Was there any resistance from Harin Pathak, the previous MP who was denied the BJP ticket from Ahmedabad East to make way for him? Rawal said he successfully persuaded everyone, including Pathak, to come on board for his candidature. “I was asked to contest from Ahmedabad East and I was doing that,” he clarified.
“Do you think the BJP has been losing ground after the Delhi debacle?” I asked to probe further. “Arvind Kejriwal’s victory was based on false promises and populism. Muft do to log bin Laden ko bhi vote de denge (If freebies are promised, people will vote even bin Laden),” Rawal said in his characteristic humorist manner.
Asked if his movies like ‘OMG’ or ‘Dharam Sankat Mein’ do not conflict with the views of the hardliners in the Hindutva fold, Rawal pointed out that his movies are aimed at entertaining people with certain social messages. “They are not meant to hurt anyone,” he said. Referring to dialogues in ‘Krishna versus Kanhaiya’, he said the play was aimed at inculcating scientific attitude among people through entertainment. Describing Naseeruddin Shah as his role model or “ideal”, Rawal said, “Nasserbhai is an unadulterated human being, very passionate and transparent.”
What did he think about the conviction of Sanjay Dutt and Salman Khan in criminal cases, and its impact on the film industry? “These are aberrations and not a trend. In the film industry, you have to have a very high set of moral values to keep your feet on the ground”, given the unfettered adulation and money showered on stars. “We have role models like Amit-ji (Amitabh Bachchan) who not only have a very high set of values but also strengthened them,” he said. Rawal however expressed his optimism about the future of film industry where work ethics have been changing, purging it of ills. “Though corporate finance has improved the situation, the status of industry is still tentative,” he pointed out.
We were so engrossed in the talk that we forgot the delicious Gujarati lunch laid out on the table till our mutual friend reminded us about it. The best part of the lunch was two full bowls of aamras which I gulped down to finish off our conversation.
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