Like most adept actors in India, Raghubir Yadav has to make a ‘comeback’ every other year. It can be deflating to note how quickly Yadav’s previous works are forgotten, and only his latest performance remains. Whether in the role of Chillum in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay!, Bhura in Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan, or Budhia in Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli Live, Yadav has proved to be a capable actor to shoulder a film. And yet, it’s the bit-roles in Dil Se, Firaaq, and Newton that seem to have dominated Yadav’s career of three decades. Two weeks ago, Yadav registered yet another ‘comeback’ with his first web series, TVF’s Panchayat.
The show has won near-unanimous acclaim, with most reviews singling Yadav out for praise as the faux Pradhan (head) of Phulera village. Unlike the upper-caste villains that we’ve been subjected to in those Prakash Jha knockoff films, Yadav’s ‘Pradhanpati’ is a warm, tactful father-figure to the village’s newly-appointed secretary (played by Jitendra Kumar). That becomes most apparent in the show’s fifth episode, when he doesn’t hesitate before reprimanding the secretary in front of his subordinate. And later, makes amends by offering to have a drink with the young man on a Saturday evening. He’s both the domineering parent, and the ‘friend’. Basking in the glory of his latest success, Yadav spoke to us about his first love (music), his process as an actor and more.
Were you offered any web shows before Panchayat?
I was, but things never seemed to work out. Most shows didn’t seem too different from the serials on TV. There might have also been time constraints, considering how I work on these small films… but I always strive to do quality work.
By ‘quality work’ I mean, it should at least be original. I dislike stories being lifted from the West. At least looking at our commercial cinema space, it all looks terribly contrived. I rarely see any real life in it, everything looks so artificial. I was tired of this artificiality. Just look at the films of the 60s, where the concepts were so full of life. Even the TV shows on Doordarshan, there was so much visible craft in them. Right now, it seems like the sole purpose of ‘culture’ is profiteering. So the shows/films reflect this attitude. And it’s sad because Indian literature is so exhaustive, that if you really sat down to read… you’d need a few lifetimes to finish all of it.
Was there any particular scene or episode that convinced you have to do Panchayat?
I don’t usually take anything that comes my way. The storyline, the characterisation… were so beautifully done. The language was full of flavour, and I think I was hung up on it, because I’m really in touch with my rural roots. I’m aware of how Panchayats work in real life, and I figured that they’ve managed to write a very grounded version of the truth.
You’ve played so many characters based in rural India. Do you have to be mindful about distinguishing one from the other?
There are so many personality-types in rural India, I think I wouldn’t be able to do justice to all of them in just one lifetime. Go to Madhya Pradesh or Bihar or Rajasthan, you’ll find such peculiar tics because they’ve lived an unadulterated life. Life in rural India, through all the quarrels and celebrations, has a rooh (soul) of its own. City life has only reminded me to fend for a livelihood.
You’ve been living the city life for nearly four decades now. How have you preserved your ‘rural connect’?
I pack my bags and return to my village in Adhartal, near Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, at least twice a year. It’s only after I’ve set foot on that soil, breathed its air and drank its water, that I feel relaxed. The 15 days I spend in my village… I recharge my batteries, something I spend after coming back to the city.
Did you consider giving a tic to ‘Pradhanpati’?
Nahi ji… I didn’t think much about distinguishing the character of Pradhanpati from my earlier characters. I’m not that kind of an actor, who comes up with mannerisms. I find that very insincere. The script and the character was already well-written, anything else I would do would only make things worse. I think if you’re fully immersed in the ‘truth’ of your character, you don’t really need to pay attention to how you’re going to raise your hand or how you’re going to stand while delivering the dialogue. That’s all very superficial. And I know this because I spent about six years in Parsi theatre at the beginning of my career. Do you know about Parsi theatre?
I’ve only heard and read about it.
I ask because they don’t exist anymore. Even before film was a mass medium, there were Parsi theatre companies doing plays like Laila Majnu, Shirin Farhad, Aag Ka Nasha, and Samaaj Ke Mool. I think I joined them at an interesting time, when they seemed to be on a permanent decline. The kind of actors I’ve seen over there… I don’t think there’s a single actor in the country (even today) who could match up. They probably didn’t know the bookish techniques that contemporary actors might be well-versed in, but all they knew was to immerse themselves. Mannerisms baaki khud se ho jaayega. I stayed in the midst of such actors for six years. I might not have earned a lot of money during that time, but what I learned from them was even more valuable. They used to tell me that agar actor banna hai, toh doobna sikhiye.
I saw your Guftgoo episode (on Rajya Sabha TV), where you say your first love was music. What’s your earliest memory of listening to music?
My village home used to be on a mound, right next to a pond. This is where I heard the first ever notes of music. There was this papadwala who used to cross our fields every day, he used to sing to sell papads in the village. *sings the papadwala’s jingle* I used to listen to him throughout the day, and try and sing like him. That’s how I got bitten by music ka keeda, after which I took part in Ramleela, which were big functions at my Nanaji‘s place. I would stay up all night to listen to music, something that also says a lot about the music of the 50s and 60s. It still sounds so good, no?
You’ve worked with such stalwarts from theatre and film. Was there a particular moment you fell in love with acting?
When I joined the Parsi theatre company, I was being paid Rs 2.50 per day. I would sing in the midst of a scene-change. In those days, songs like Ram Kare Aisa Ho Jaaye (from 1967’s Milan) and Tum Ek Paisa Doge, Woh Dus Laakh Dega (from 1966’s Dus Lakh) used to be popular, and I sang many of those Mohammed Rafi and Manna Dey songs. The director of that company was of the opinion that I had it easy. So he told me that I would also have to act in the play, he forced me to play a sipahi (soldier). In a play called Anarkali, I had to stand through the entire duration with my head bowed and a danda in my hand. I didn’t even have a line, I felt so humiliated. So I spoke to the director and said that I won’t do this ever again. He explained to me that it’s a skill I should definitely take up, considering how all the lead actors in Parsi theatre were also expected to sing. Since I was already a singer, he asked me to learn a few other tricks too. My talaffuz (diction) was terrible, so that was an added incentive of doing it. Within six-seven months, I had already played a main role in a stage-adaptation of Nagin, where I played the role that Pradeep Kumar played in the original (1954) film. I learned the importance of physical fitness through these akhaare waali exercises. I learned that there was something called riaz for a musician. I also learned to read and write Urdu in those six years. Only after this stint did I focus on acting.
A few months later, I applied to NSD (National School of Drama) in 1974 where I not only got admission, but also won a scholarship. It’s at NSD that I learned about a character’s arc and the need to stick to it. At the Parsi theatre, we would improvise if it meant getting an extra laugh from the audience. We would break into a caricature, mimicry… whatever was needed to show a good time to the audience. At NSD, we realised the importance of being disciplined. Over there I met (Ebrahim) Alkazi sahab, and I specialised in Stage Craft. In that course, I understood the importance of designing costumes, erecting sets on stage, and learned a bit of carpentry too. I think all these experiences added to my heft as an actor. All actors should have the aptitude to recreate anything in a manner that doesn’t get caught as ‘acting’. Like ‘playing an instrument’ on screen, something most of our actors can’t seem to do right. Gaana kahi chal raha hai, ungliyaan kahi aur chal rahi hai. That’s one of the major reasons why I didn’t let go of music.
Didn’t you also briefly go to FTII (Film & Television Institute Of India) after NSD?
Yes, Alkazi sahab sent us there for a six-month course. We learned the basics of filmmaking there: how a set is organised, how a film is shot, then how it is edited.
Is there one lesson from FTII that you remember till date?
Yes, (pauses)… I quickly learned that it was impossible to lie to the camera. It’s something that is drilled into us even during theatre workshops. But during plays, the audience is sitting at a distance, so you need to amplify whatever you’re doing to ‘show’ them what you’re doing. If you try something like that in front of a camera, you’ll get caught. The camera’s eye can be unsparing like that.
One of your most famous roles that few have seen was Raman Raghav, directed by FTII’s Sriram Raghavan. What are your memories of shooting that film?
Where I can’t even seem to hurt an ant, my character was accused and convicted for 42 murders. But you’re also an ‘actor’ by now, so it’s your job to absorb the traits of your character. So what I used to do was… I wouldn’t shower before going on that set. I’m usually on edge when I haven’t showered first thing in the morning, and that seemed to help that character. Also, Sriram had already given me Raman Raghav’s entire confession in front of a judge, and I think that helped me understand his motivations and pick up his zubaan. So much of that film was improvised. The cameraperson on that film, Hari Nair, struck a deal with me. I told him to give me the ‘marks’ where his camera would be… and then I told him to keep rolling without interruption. Even Sriram probably understood that my improvisations were coming from the place of ‘truth’ so he gave me a free hand.
What did you think of Anurag Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0? Did you watch it?
I saw bits and pieces of it, but I have to be honest that I also tried to steer clear of it. I didn’t want to be disappointed after watching their ‘interpretation’ of the story. After all, it was a film that I did with a lot of conviction in my heart.
This is a time when the likes of Irrfan, Nawazuddin, Pankaj Tripathi and Sanjay Mishra have become stars. Theatre actors, like Kulbhushan Kharbanda, and Om Puri, made it big. Do you sometimes find yourself wishing you that you were a part of the current crop?
Nahi, nahi sahab. There are two things I’ve stayed away from, celebrity status and film awards. Today, so much of it depends on how you handle your PR. I really don’t see any merit in that. Also, I don’t see the point in doing similar characters, most of these films would be difficult to tell from one another. If there’s a type of a film or a role that I’ve already done, then I won’t be overjoyed repeating myself. If I’m not happy doing the role, then how will the audience enjoy it while watching it? I really have no regrets. The kind of work I came to do, I’ve done it. Being able to lift the burden of a half-decent actor is enough for me, I couldn’t bother with burdening myself further by seeking fame.
You hold the distinction of acting in eight films that have been Oscar entries…
That’s something I learned when Newton got selected as an Oscar entry. I was told that it was my eighth film to be submitted to the Oscars. I have a tendency to forget a film after finishing a shoot. I try my best in each and every film, and leave the rest to God. If the audience likes it, and I win an award for it, then well and good. If the audience doesn’t like it at all… but it ends up winning an award, then what good is that award? Like most other actors, I’m very self-absorbed. I’ll find things to nitpick about even in my most acclaimed performances.
Can we talk about (arguably) one of your least loved films, Gandhi to Hitler. Critics didn’t like it, the audience wasn’t fond of it either?
I feel the same way (as the critics and the audience). I watched the film with my head hanging in shame. The producer force-fitted some songs into the film. I think we achieved only about 20% of the script’s potential, the rest was barbaadi. The language of the film was dreadful… someone was speaking with a Bihari accent, someone was doing something else. It looked like an unintentional spoof in many places. I never tell anyone to watch it. If you hadn’t reminded me about the film, I might have even denied that I had worked in it. (laughs)
Is there a recent Hindi film that you might have seen that you wished to be a part of?
No, I have to be honest I have barely watched anything in the past year. I was working throughout… doing about 3-4 films. There were a few films that I regretted having watched. One of them was Zero (2018). I didn’t feel like watching a film for a long time after that.