There are no butterflies in Nigel Akkara’s washboard stomach before the release of Muktodhara. He does a double act of being both the lead and the USP of the Bengali movie—Akkara, who had been in jail for eight years, plays himself. Handsome, bearded and six feet tall, he coolly announces that the pre-release hype and hoopla hardly excites him. “In fact, I’m hassled. Promotional media interviews and TV appearances are a big drain on my time and energy. My first priority is Calcutta Facilities Management, the manpower-supplying company I and 38 other ex-prisoners make an honest living out of.”
Directors Nandita Roy and Shiboprasad Mukherjee clearly cast Nigel, 34, for his sex appeal as well as his personal history. Jailed in 2001 on a murder charge after years in crime, Nigel was given a life sentence in 2006 by a sessions court before he was acquitted in 2009 by the Calcutta High Court due to lack of evidence. While he was doing time, then IG of Prisons, B.D. Sharma, unleashed a novel experiment to tap creativity in jailbirds; he sent dancers, painters, musicians and directors inside Bengal’s jails. That’s how Alokananda Ray, a renowned Odissi dancer, cast a spell on Nigel. She broke through his defences—the Malayali Christian born and brought up in Calcutta started calling her Ma; in his own words, “she took complete charge” of him. After training, she cast Nigel—who underwent a profound, cathartic transformation while acting—and other convicts in dance dramas (notably, in Tagore’s Balmiki Protibha), which were staged, to wide acclaim, inside and outside jail. Media coverage of Alokananda’s extraordinary mission and the performances by convicts in auditoriums in Calcutta and New Delhi inspired Nandita Roy to make a film. When Roy called on the danseuse, she saw Nigel for the first time and offered him the lead in a film based on his prison days.
Nigel Akkara with Rituparna in a still from Muktodhara
Nigel, who shed 17 kg in three months for the role, is bound to satiate the female gaze and Rituparna Sengupta, an Odissi dancer herself, plays a glamourised, much younger Alokananda in the film. Roy says Muktodhara’s fact-fiction ratio is 60:40. “The film is a thriller. Yusuf Mohammed Khan, the character loosely based on Nigel, is initially antagonistic towards Niharika, the character Rituparna plays. But he gives in because he has his own plans to escape from the jail.” Nigel himself has no actorly affectation. He reveals his acting fee—Rs 2.5 lakh—with little hesitation. And he has been regularly filing his income tax returns since 2010. “I am totally above board—now”, says the first-time actor who studied in
St Xavier’s school and college. He was in the second year of B. Com when he was arrested. After his acquittal three years ago, Nigel worked for Alokananda’s NGO, Touch World, for a monthly salary of Rs 5,000 before borrowing money from his younger brother to set up a company which supplies security guards, housekeeping staff and professional cleaners. “I have 80 employees. I have PF, ESI registration and group insurance for all of them,” he says.
Muktodhara was shot in 43 days. Before the cameras started rolling, Nigel attended a 40-day-long workshop to hone his histrionic skills. “Rituparna was helpful. Although she attended the workshop for just four or five days, she taught me how to look at the camera in order to make the most of it.”
Will he do more films? He replies nonchalantly that he just might, to plough the earning from acting into his business. Does he have a girlfriend? No. “My mother, whom I call Mummy, and Alokananda, whom I call Ma, have given me two years to find a wife—otherwise they will find one.” Time, he laments, is his biggest constraint. “The biggest gift one can give another person is time—which I don’t have. I have wasted nine years already. So there is a lot of catching up to do.”
Redemption stories are always a pleasure. Well done to all those who helped: B.D. Sharma, Alokananda Ray, and the others.
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