Breaking Bread: MK Raina, actor, theatre personality and cultural activist
Aasha Khosa | June 24, 2016 | New Delhi
The very thought of meeting the genial father-figure of many a Bollywood flick and one of the better known theatre personalities of India, MK Raina, was exciting. We met over lunch in Delhi’s Le Meridien on a hot summer afternoon. “I have no idea of what you are going to speak to me about,” Raina said, as he kick-started the conversation bypassing all formalities of a first-time meeting.a
His warm and friendly tone made him look like one of the characters he has played in the films. Next, I was amused to see the 66-year-old celebrity getting hassled with the menu as he was trying to read the names of various dishes aloud. “The names [of dishes] are so complicated that I find it frustrating to decide what to eat on the basis of this [menu card]; at least abroad they explain the ingredients,” he said with a childlike expression. He admitted that during family outings, his children – a son and a daughter – take over the responsibility of deciding what he should eat.
“So, what are we going to talk about?” he asked as a waiter came with fresh fruit juice. “I would generally want to know what you think is going on in India these days,” I replied, trying to give a casual start to our conversation over a meal.
“Things are not fine with our nation,” he said raising his brows and bowing to drink the fruit juice while also creating an impression that he was going to share a secret. “Confusing signals are coming from all sides – be it cultural, political or economic. Parliament presents a depressing scene where nobody is listening to the other. These are things that allude to a possible anarchy.”
He elaborated: This all started about three to four years ago. Over the years we have seen a rising trend – suddenly some stray voice would rise to overpower the weaker ones. This could be for banning a book, banishing a writer or someone saying ‘we’ will not tolerate this or that.
His monologue continued, somewhat like the narrator of his plays. “This all makes the polity look like a weak-kneed entity, giving an impression that it is probably feeling threatened by something or is confused. Little side things are being brought to the centre-stage and key issues are getting marginalised. Take for example, the case of [JNU students’ union leader] Kanhaiya.”
But aren’t we often told that India is emerging as an economic superpower? “I wish it was true. But the masses are not ready for this since they still have no water, no jobs and are not fed properly. There is no sense of security for them.”
The waiter brought chicken tikka with naan as Raina’s mind was meandering through the streets of Srinagar’s Sheetalnag locality on the banks of the Dal lake, where he was born a year after India’s partition and independence. He played in those narrow alleys and graduated from college. He left the valley in 1969 to embark on a journey through a bigger world of creativity – music, drama, direction, films, culture and writing. An alumnus of the National School of Drama (NSD), Raina shot to fame with his performances on stage and in parallel cinema of the 1980s.
He travelled across the world using art to transform lives and challenging dogmas; his art also sought to bring people closer to one another. Little did he know that one day his journey will take him back to the streets of his childhood, albeit amidst tragedy and mayhem.
It was on a cold morning in January 1990 when Raina took a flight from Delhi to Srinagar. For a few weeks his telephonic conversations with his parents, who were adamant on staying in Kashmir even if terrorists were roaming around in streets, had left him worried. That day, finally, Raina sensed that something was amiss and he boarded the plane to Srinagar. From the airport, he had to rush to the SMHS hospital, where his mother was admitted. “I would call them almost daily and coax them to leave the troubled valley,” Raina said. Those were the troubled days when Srinagar looked like a battlefield with army trucks menacingly racing on roads while separatists’ slogans rent the air in their strongholds – gullies of downtown Srinagar.
One day, it seems, his father’s blood pressure had shot up and a nervous mother suffered brain haemorrhage. The old man took his unconscious wife to the hospital all by himself.
“I cremated my mother’s body on January 26, 1990, when Srinagar was under shoot-at-sight orders,” he says. “She had died due to the doctor’s neglect. She lay in hospital for 17 days and no doctor attended to her. I could see a doctor occasionally appearing with a group of gun-toting youth and attending to an injured person who they had brought to the hospital and then the entire team would simply vanish. Outside, streets were bereft of people – only military personnel could be seen. In the night, guns would be booming from all sides,” Raina recalled.
Raina said this painful experience got him thinking – he felt guilty of not being able to understand why his fellow Kashmiris had taken recourse to violence and anti-India stance. “I needed to enlighten myself about the causes of this. My journey took me to discover many things of the past – history, culture, and literature. I even studied the Quran Sharif to understand what propelled people [in Kashmir] to do such things as I had experienced during those terrible 17 days in hospital.”
Amidst this, one day Raina’s grieving father Janki Nath Raina, a dentist who by then had shifted to Delhi to live with his son’s family, told him, “I feel, I have lost my way.” His father’s painful expression made him sense the urgency to act in Kashmir. Raina made a choice – he would not perpetually wail in self-pity and bitterness, and instead ‘be the change’. In 2000, he went to Kashmir and spoke to writers and theatre artists who had braced for obscurity after being targeted by the pro-Pakistan insurgents. For Raina it was a painful experience to see a Sahitya Akademi award winner having dumped his awards into a store room lest it should bring trouble from militants, who frequented the area, if they ever spotted it. “Culture is a good starting point to open a conversation with anyone stuck in a conflict situation,” said Raina. He spoke to people as he knew that nobody would oppose him. “Even [JKLF militant leader] Yasin Malik or [hard-core separatist Syed Ali Shah] Geelani would have to accept our rich and common cultural heritage.”
Raina’s ground work for several months led to the reopening of the Tagore Hall, the only drama theatre in Srinagar, with his play. Raina had already produced 150 stage shows, made documentaries, and won fellowships in prestigious universities abroad for his work on theatre, culture and media. But this show with fellow Kashmiri artists was special. “The show broke new ground; it was greeted by a packed house.”
After this he embarked on another bold project. He picked 50 children – 35 Muslims and 15 Hindus – who had lost their fathers to terrorism in Kashmir, for an art workshop in Jammu. Many people told him that it was a crazy idea to work on at a time when the religious schism in Kashmir was at the peak.
The first day, all the children, as Raina put it, “looked like frightened pigeons”. “Their behaviour was strange. They didn’t know how to react to a stranger’s smile and friendly gesture; the idea of a normal life was alien to them. When I tried speaking to them some of them fainted and others started crying. I realised what living in disturbed situation means for the children – they lose their self-expression and it is a colossal tragedy.”
To break the ice, Raina invited their mothers to the camp. He continued to engage the young minds so that they would dream, speak, laugh and play. Soon children were writing poems, making drawings and more importantly they had turned chirpy.
“At the end of the 15-day workshop, there was immense bonding among the children. They were crying while hugging each other before departing to their homes.”
In the coming years Raina was to work on the revival of Kashmir’s traditional street theatre – Bhand Pather. “It was there. I just became a catalyst in the revival of culture which eventually helped Kashmiris get back their self-expression. Now many local Bhand Pather groups have cropped up on the scene and they are doing pretty well.”
Raina’s story made me think about another Kashmiri who has almost the same credentials as him and yet has chosen a different path. I asked him, “What do you think of your fellow Kashmiri actor Anupam Kher taking up cudgels on behalf of the displaced Hindus and propagating politics of BJP on Kashmir?”
“I know about his stance only through media reports. But frankly I don’t know if even Kashmiri Pandits take him as their leader,” Raina replied.
“What pained me most about Anupam’s behaviour was his bad-mouthing of the winner of Sahitya Akademi and other national awards [who had returned their awards in protest against rising intolerance]. Does he have any idea what a national award means to an artist? Does he have any right to ridicule the 90-plus-year-old author Krishna Sobti, who has spent a lifetime in writing? Of course, Anupam has become silent after he was denied a Rajya Sabha ticket,” he chuckled.
We were drinking coffee as our conversation reverted to the state of the nation. Raina felt that the government was not living up to the expectations of people who had given it a huge majority. “Pygmies are taking over, some are raising the slogan of ghar wapsi and the saddest part is that there is no immediate check on them from those in power.”
Raina teaches in the University of Hyderabad, where dalit student Rohith Vemula committed suicide, and is privy to goings on there. “I wonder why they [leaders] cannot keep students at the centre of their politics instead of leaders becoming the centre of students. A university is a place where alternative ideas crop up. It makes students contest the old ideas and concepts. Don’t stifle their capacity to contest ideas,” he said.
Raina’s rich global experience in academics and media has taught him that all conflicts are eventually linked to the thought process of humans. For example, in Kashmir, he said, four lakh Kashmiri Pandits had the capacity to contest ideas and that is why they were the first to be thrown out by separatists. “I don’t think it was ethnic cleansing [of Kashmiri Pandits]. They [terrorists] wanted to have a single thought and monopolise the space for thinking so they chose to banish those who could contest this.”
He said it was sad to see the government pitting students against students, for example, in JNU. The government, he believes, had tried to frame the students in sedition cases wherever its brand of nationalism did not sell. “The government was not moved even when 40 top writers returned their dearest awards in protest,” he said. “To even suggest that writers had a political agenda [in this] is preposterous.”
Raina made it clear that he is not a leftist and his only link with the left is his long-time association with the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT). “I am not driven by the ideas of others.” He was critical of the government’s silence on the killings of rationalists like Kalburgi. He said the current regime suffers from short-sightedness on many counts and this is bound to backfire. The rulers, he added, should remember that people did not approve of the emergency and it had backfired.
“Instead of performing they [the government] continue to do the wrong things. They first took Nehru and then a chapter of RTI out of the textbooks in Rajasthan. They are breaking institutions and don’t realise that the world in watching them. You can’t control the idea of inquiry. This way this government is making people brain-dead,” he said.
What about cinema? I asked him. Here, he accused the government of being star-struck. He alleged that the jury of the national film awards 2015 had ignored a brilliant performance by a Bengali actor and given the honour to Amitabh Bachchan for Piku. In the similar vein, he added, “The decision to have an illiterate person [read Gajendra Chouhan] as head of the film institute was a disaster. The institute is a place for scholars and academicians and not small time actors.”
Without mincing his words, Raina predicted that the Modi government will soon face its nemesis from within. “There are enough Subramanians [Subramanian Swamy] within the BJP to pull it down.”
Raina, a frequent traveller to Pakistan as a fellow of the India chapter of the South Asia Foundation, was also unhappy with the government’s Pakistan policy. “It has no Pakistan policy,” he declared. In an obvious reference to prime minister Narendra Modi’s impromptu decision to make a stopover in Pakistan to have tea with Nawaz Sharif, he said that one should not mix personal friendship with national policy issues. “You have to rise and behave like a statesman as did Atal Bihari Vajpayee – more so when there is a history of public mistrust between the two nations.”
I asked him what the solution for Kashmir is. A proponent for forging cultural ties and cultivating a strong south Asian identity for the people of this turbulent region, Raina said turning the Indo-Pak border into a soft border was the only way out.
Lunch was long over and I realised that neither of us had paid much attention to food itself, as the conversation turned out to be far richer.
(The interview appears in the June 16-30, 2016 issue)
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