RAMNATH N PAI RAIKAR | NT BUZZ
Q: Your debut film, ‘Bhuvan Shome’ has completed 50 years since its first release and achieved a milestone status in the film world. How do you assess this film today?
I think, unfortunately, nothing has changed around us, as shown in ‘Bhuvan Shome’ 50 years ago. The story of the film as you know is about an upright bureaucrat working in railways, and a corrupt ticket collector. Now how has the situation changed? It has not changed; in fact, it may have become worse during the past 50 years. It is a very charming film, regardless of my being there or not being there. It’s a sweet little story, very well told and it has not solved the problem of corruption because corruption is still there. In that sense, I think that it is still relevant and a milestone film, and would continue to be one until it becomes redundant. I don’t think that the human emotion in the film that is humanising of the bureaucrat is ever going to change. I would also like to mention here that I was fortunate to see the film after 50 years, when recently Hyderabad Film Club organised its screening.
Q: You worked as an assistant to Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, and subsequently made many documentaries. Did you at any point of time feel an urge to direct a feature film?
I have just finished writing a script. Now I have to go and pitch it before the producer, and find an actor. I’ve been told that unless I find a big actor who says yes, no one will finance the film. Therefore, I am exactly where all first-time filmmakers are, even though my hair has turned grey. I intend to make it in Hindi.
Q: There is a decade-long gap between ‘Bhuvan Shome’ and ‘Bhavni Bhavai’. Was this a conscious decision to stay away from acting in films during this period?
I did ‘Bhuvan Shome’ and then went to Canada for seven to eight years, to study agriculture. When I came back, I did a lot of documentary films. During that time a lot of my friends, who were aspiring filmmakers were hanging around the Adlabs, in Mumbai, and it was through them that I got Kantilal Rathod’s ‘Ramnagari’ with Amol Palekar, which was based on the autobiography of the stand-up comedian, Ram Nagarkar. Then I did a small role in Ketan Mehta’s ‘Bhavni Bhavai’. Around the same time, another friend of mine, Assamese director, Jahnu Barua, who was then an aspiring filmmaker had signed up Biju Phukan, a big Assamese actor for his film ‘Aparoopa’, produced by the National Films Development Corporation. The film got delayed due to red tapism and by then the heroine of his film was six-months into her pregnancy. And that’s when I stepped into the film on his request. The film was bilingual and its Hindi version had Kulbhushan Kharbanda. Farooq Sheikh was also in the film. After this film, I decided to stop acting as I was not interested anymore.
Around 1995, I met Gulzar saab in connection with the Pak-India Peace Group, a political group, which is not a ‘happening thing’ anymore, and of which I am a part. I requested him to accompany us to Lahore and recite his poetry, as the group had a joint convention in Pakistan. At this time, he told me that he was launching a film and even asked me if I would act in it. And to think of it, I would have even stood in the background in Gulzar saab’s film, if asked to. The film was ‘Hu Tu Tu’, my comeback film. It was a political film. I think Gulzar saab has a talent to pick up the right actors. When this film was being released, they had promotional ads on television, and Ashutosh Gowarikar, who was casting for ‘Lagaan’ saw me. He then got information about me through his mother and I was in ‘Lagaan’. Soon I started getting more roles, and ‘Dil Chahta Hai’ and other films happened.
Q: You have enacted countless roles of mother and grandmother in films. Do these roles satisfy the performer in you or is it that author-backed roles are seldom written for female film actors in India?
It’s interesting to note that when an actor does a character role, such a role is normally smaller and hence the number of days spent shooting for the film by the actor are naturally less. Yet, in spite of the length of the role, it could be important. I, for one, had not gone into acting as a career after ‘Bhuvan Shome’ because I really could not see myself singing and dancing, which heroines in Hindi films are supposed to do, and my position hasn’t changed. However, luckily they don’t expect mothers and grandmothers in films to dance. So I am safe.
Q: You have done a lot of work in television? Are you interested in this medium?
If an actor does a television serial or a soap (opera), then it’s like bonded labour. As for me, it was not that I was doing that many days of shooting. The serial producers say that you will have to do 10 days or 15 days of work in a month, but an actor does not know which 10 or 15 days because the producers themselves have no knowledge about it. This situation exists as the channel has to clear the script, and it is only at 10:30 in the night that an actor knows whether he or she is shooting the next day or not. The net result is the actor does not do anything but keep waiting. However, doing television is like going to a job. There is a certain guaranteed income that is if the producer decides to pay. This is a totally different ballgame. When I was 40, my bank account was `4,683, and I decided that I needed to make money. I was also not married then, so I thought who would look after me and I needed to earn money.
Q: You have done specialisation in agriculture, which is very relevant in an agrarian country like India. Are you active in the agricultural field now?
I went to do soil chemistry and microbiology in agricultural technology. These were my areas of specialisation as I had this romantic notion that the field of agriculture requires a lot of input. Then I went to Canada to study, where the minimum size of the farm is 3,500 acres. The Land Ceiling Act in India does not permit that. Therefore, the people owning 3,500 acres of land, is all illegal. And it’s not one patch of land, mind you. Some land belongs to somebody else, some land is Benami property. Therefore, the technology I studied does not work here. The second part of the problem was my mother had been a government servant and having seen the kind of problems she went through being in the government service, all her three daughters knew that they were not going to be government servants. I seriously believe, the system is so set up in the government that if you do nothing, nobody questions you, while if you do something, you are in deep trouble. That was not the life I wanted, and since I did not have any other specialisation, having worked in ‘Bhuvan Shome’ I switched to film, television and radio productions.
Q: You are seen as one of the few actresses in the film industry, who stick to their conviction and are bold enough to make no compromises. Does this approach have its disadvantages?
I was based in Delhi, I was making documentaries and I was trying to make my living. At that time there was only Doordarshan in the name of television, and various government organisations. So what happened was I kept applying for serials in Doordarshan and never got an approval. Ultimately I was called by a very friendly government official, who told me that since I had won three National Awards it was becoming very difficult for them to deny me any work. He also said that I won’t get any clearance since I would never give a bribe. So my uncompromising attitude has its disadvantages. However, if a person buckles under, if he admits that he does not have any conviction then the tide runs near the way. It’s just not the government. The problem in this country is if we break a red light, all of us will happily give `50, but not pay a fine of `200. This mindset has unfortunately completely seeped into our sensibilities.