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I’ve been travelling all over the US for about a month now—naturally, that includes a happy pilgrimage to Hollywood, LA, all those meccas and medinas of cinema! Just letting my hair down and being with family. It’s been well-earned, this break—an honest, hard-working actor too needs to get away from office once in a while. Count 400-plus movies, in almost all major languages except Malayalam and Bengali, over 25 years or so. Any HR honcho would have given me a productivity award! One of the first awards I got, by the way, was a royal belt-thrashing from my father. It’s so fresh, the memory of that day. He was in a fit of rage, having come to know that his son, whom he wanted to see as a priest in real life, had been doing Sita’s role in Ramlila in his village (Barai in Jaunpur district, UP). As the head of a traditional Brahmin family, he was scandalised, thinking of his son all dolled up and in a sari. As fate would have it, my panic-stricken mother slipped Rs 500 into my hands later. “Go away, son, live the life you want,” she whispered into my ears. “He will kill you.”
My initial years in ‘Bambai’, in the early 1990s, were rather terrifyingly like a film with no plot. It was going nowhere. I somehow got a lucky break in Udhaar ki Zindagi, one of Kajol’s first big films (she was already a star after Baazigar). A few other bit roles followed, including in Shahrukh Khan’s Army. However, the one that helped me get some recognition was Salman Khan’s Tere Naam in which I was playing—hold your breath—a Brahmin priest! Wasn’t exactly flooded with offers even after that. I was surviving on a pretty lean diet—a few Doordrashan serials—when I got this unusual offer. To play the lead in a Bhojpuri film, Saiyan Hamaar. Now, Bhojpuri cinema was clinically dead at that time. No movie had been made in the language for 12 years. Well-wishers cautioned me against it, saying it would be nothing short of professional harakiri. I didn’t listen, and the revival of the regional cinema of Bihar-eastern UP owes directly to my mulishness! I’ve myself done about 350 Bhojpuri films (and am still doing one for a producer who goes by the name of Priyanka Chopra).
Then came Bigg Boss. My one-liner, “Zindagi jhannd baa phir bhi ghamand baa”, became pretty much the mood-setter of the first season. That’s my attitude anyway: have the attitude of a millionaire even if you’re dead broke. I would have won hands down too had the rules not been tweaked at the last minute. My fans voted en masse for me, little realising that the contestant getting the most votes was supposed to lose out! Rahul Roy won that one. But the show opened several other doors for me. Shyam Benegal signed me on, Mani Ratnam signed me on. So did many other filmmakers from Hindi and the south. Yes, south. For those who didn’t know, my villain’s character in Race Gurram was like a second naamkaran—I’m still known as Shiva Reddy in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana! (And yes, I’m one of the highest paid actors in Telugu.)
Bhojpuri cinema is often criticised for being vulgar. I feel it’s easy for people to typecast regional films (just like they typecast actors). Bhojpuri is a soft target. Why single it out when Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam are hardly driven snow either? I’m proud of my association with Bhojpuri cinema. I’ve taken my language right up to Cannes, and I see a great future for it. All Bhojpuri needs now is a movie like Bahubali, which has underlined the power of regional cinema. Hopefully I’ll be a part of it.
I contested the Lok Sabha elections on a Congress ticket in 2014 but have since joined the BJP because of PM Modi’s development vision. Some people are sceptical about film stars getting into politics, and wonder why it happens. There really is no mystery. This is a profession with a direct people connect. That’s oxygen for politics: the love and support of people. And it’s not just some make-believe bond. Actors are real people, connected to a language and culture and region. I stay connected to my roots in my village, where of course I’m almost hero-worshipped. Deep down inside, I’m still that boy who used to sneak out of his house at night, with his mother’s sari clutched in his hand, to act in a Ramlila. I can’t forget the day when Amitabh Bachchan called me the ‘Superstar of Bhojpuri’ (I worked with him in Ganga). But the best compliment of my life? My father calling me “Ghar ka bhagwan”. You can’t even begin to imagine how humbling that is.
The writer is an actor who has done about 400 films in Bhojpuri, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada