Raghubir Yadav, as is his wont, wears multiple hats. A movie actor, a theatre artiste, a singer and a musician—he has had few parallels in the film industry when it comes to versatility. This has been attested yet again with the nomination of his latest release, Newton, as the official Indian entry for the Oscars this year.
In a career spanning more than three decades, the 60-year-old happens to be the only Bollywood actor whose oeuvre consists of as many as eight films which have represented the country to vie for the honours in the best foreign film category at the prestigious Academy awards so far. None of them, of course, has won the award but two of them—Salaam Bombay and Lagaan—came within sniffing distance of winning it by making it to the elite list of the final five films in the nominations.
As the titular Massey Sahib
Prior to Newton, which was picked up unanimously by the Film Federation of India from among the 26 movies in the race, including the blockbuster Baahubali 2, seven films of Yadav—Salaam Bombay (1988), Rudaali (1993), Bandit Queen (1994), 1947 Earth (1998), Lagaan (2001), Water (2005) and Peepli Live (2010) have had similar honours in the past, making him a veritable Indian mascot at the Oscars.
Doubtless, it is quite an achievement for someone who ran away from his village home in the Jabalpur district of Madhya Pradesh 50 years ago owing to jitters over an impending school examination result. He was barely ten years old then. But the diminutive actor apparently considers such a distinction to be no great shakes—something unusual in an industry crammed with trumpet-blowing Johnnies-come-lately. “I have never paid attention to awards, to be honest,” Yadav tells Outlook when reminded of his remarkable feat. “Awards and honours are never on my mind when I am working on a film. I only concentrate on my work, my role and how I am supposed to do it. Nothing else matters.”
Salaam Bombay’s ‘addict’
Of Yadav’s eight roles, some were substantial, others not so substantial but he did them all with utmost honesty and dedication regardless of their length. While Salaam Bombay and Lagaan are still fresh in his mind, he has to jog his memory a bit to recall his other roles. “I remember I had played a drug addict in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay and even attended a workshop, prior to the shooting, which was organised for its artistes in Mumbai,” he recalls.
Yadav found that character rather tough to play. “I had to play an addict but I was a non- smoker. I, therefore, decided to observe the rag-pickers who were addicted to cannabis and other stuff in order to get into the skin of the character. I could often see the restlessness in their eyes whenever they did not have money to buy their daily dose,” he says. “I somehow learnt how to puff later but I still find it difficult to smoke a bidi and a cigarette if a role demands it.”
As Madho the dacoit in Bandit Queen
Yadav remembers his other roles, some distinctly, others faintly. “Rudaali was about professional mourners in Rajasthan while Bandit Queen was about dacoits. Since I had done a lot of theatre in the Bhind-Morena districts, notorious for dacoit gangs at the time, I had run into many such people. Water was shot in Sri Lanka. Since its story was set in Varanasi, we had to create the Ganga ghats there. ”
But it is his role in Aamir Khan’s blockbuster Lagaan that turns him rather wistful. “We spent five-and-a-half months in Bhuj, Gujarat, shooting for the film and never realised how quickly the time passed. By the time the shooting ended, we felt as though we all belonged to that place,” he adds.
Now, Yadav is all gung-ho about Newton, a black comedy directed by Amit Masurkar on the Indian electoral system, in the wake of its widespread critical and commercial success. “Its success underlines the fact what I had been saying all along—that the audience cannot be fooled all the way all the time,” he states. “Big movies are flopping while content-driven small cinema is flourishing now. The audience is intelligent enough to distinguish a bad film from a good one.”
One of the playing eleven in Lagaan
Nonetheless, the actor who debuted in director Pradip Krishen’s Massey Sahib (1985) regrets that commercial cinema is still ruling the roost despite a perceptible change in audience tastes. “I am afraid commercial cinema is still crushing the small and meaningful films,” he says. “Had Newton got more screens on its release and afterwards, its business would have been better many times over. But due to release of a big-budget movie like Judwaa 2, it could not get adequate screens at the multiplexes.”
Yadav, whose next release is a film called Love by Square Foot, says he had a lot of fun while shooting for Newton inside the faraway forests of Chhatisgarh. “Rajkummar Rao and most of the other actors were from the theatre like me. The location and the environment were great and, above all, we got an opportunity to stay with local tribals, many of whom also acted in the film. They seemed better (actors) than us, and were so natural in front of the camera,” he says. “But at no point did anyone think that the film would be chosen for the Oscars or win any award..”
As the eunuch pimp Gulabi in Deepa Mehta’s Water
The actor, who also happens to be a qualified singer, says it is not as though he does not give importance to the awards. “There must be some recognition for good work but that should not be the be-all-end-all for any artiste or a film-maker,” he avers. “Many people tell me that they want to make a film to win awards but I always turn down such offers,” he says. “Instead, I advise them to make a good film. I tell them, ‘Aap dil se banaiye, imaan se banaiye (You make movies with heart and sincerity.)’ Awards will automatically follow.”
It was probably this belief that got him many awards, including the Silver Peacock at the International Film Festival of India, for Massey Sahib, which he had done for a lark. “I had no intention to do films, as I was happy doing theatre with the National School of Drama’s Repertory Company. Besides, I was about to leave for a world trip for two months when the offer came,” he says.
As Budhia the farmer in Peepli Live
Incidentally, that role was originally offered to Sidhartha Basu (of Kaun Banega Crorepati fame) but he later opted out, forcing the film-maker to approach Yadav. Subsequently, faced with numerous problems, Massey Sahib took five years to complete. “It was a sarkari project funded by NFDC. It dragged on and on,” he says with a chuckle. “We did shooting in the first year, dubbing in the second, patchwork in the third, it was censored in the fourth year and finally released in the fifth year. Any other team would have got tired and given it up midway but we stuck to our guns.”
Massey Sahib eventually turned out to be a great beginning for Yadav and earned him critical acclaim. But more than the appreciation, it is his memories of shooting at Pachmarhi, a small hill station in Madhya Pradesh, that brings smiles on his face. No film had ever been shot at the picturesque town before Massey Sahib, which also starred noted writer Arundhati Roy. “We used to roam around the town like tribals,” Yadav reminisces. “The locals would come to see the shooting but did not know for days who the hero was. Whenever they would ask about the hero we would point towards the clapper boy who was the handsomest man around.”
This continued for a fortnight until they got suspicious after having noticed that the “hero” did nothing except sounding the clapper board every day. “When they finally knew that I was the hero, they were terribly disappointed. They said a hero like me can be had in their town for chaar annas only.” Yadav, however, says that when he returned to the town after the film became popular, they all gave him a hero’s welcome.
As the ageing election officer Loknath in Newton
Yadav subsequently did some films but rejected a majority of offers because he did not want to be typecast as a comedian. The next opportunity to showcase his versatility came on Doordarshan where he did two serials that people still remember, Mungerilal Ke Haseen Sapne and Mulla Nasruddin. “We did only 13 episodes of Mungerilal but it became extremely popular. Even today, Mungerilal remains a popular colloquial term.” Later, Yadav also played the titular role of Chacha Choudhary, a comic character created by Pran, on television. “Chacha Choudhary was my childhood idol. I used to go to book stalls to read his comics because I did not have money to buy them.”
Citing the reasons behind the enduring popularity of such serials, he says that Doordarshan was the only channel at the time and people used to make serials carefully because of stiff competition. “Today, channels are akin to factories manufacturing serials like fast-moving consumer goods,” he rues.
“Recognition, yes. But to tell you the truth, I have not yet got the kind of satisfaction in cinema that I have had in theatre.”
But Yadav, who has worked with the best of directors, from Shyam Benegal to Mani Ratnam, says that neither cinema nor television serials gave him the kind of creative satisfaction that theatre provided. “After leaving my home, I joined a Parsi theatre on a daily allowance of Rs 2.50 and later went to NSD in 1977. To tell you the truth, I have not yet got the kind of satisfaction in cinema that I have had in theatre, though films have given me recognition,” he says. “Theatre has been like a genuine friend through thick and thin. It had fallen on bad times after the advent of 24-hour TV channels but things are looking up again now. But whether I do films, television or theatre, I do it with single-minded focus and sincerity without bothering about any award.”