Thursday, May 20, 2010

An emperor Dons New clothes


A BUSTLING FILM set in Chhatarpur. A winding staircase leads to the inner sanctum where Bhojpuri superstar Ravi Kishan has just returned on a chopper from a Congress rally in Lucknow. The dailies are full of his upcoming projects — Mani Ratnam’s Raavan (where he will play Abhishek Bachchan’s elder brother) and US-based Pun Films’ The Man From Benaras, where he plays an ashcovered naked aghori. When Columbia Pictures wanted to dub Spiderman 3 into Bhojpuri, they insisted that only Ravi Kishan could be the voice of Spiderman.

Yet when a star-struck chauffeur, Lallan Singh, asks meekly for a photograph with him, Kishan is every bit the friendly and rakish UP bhaiyya — the one who kept us glued to our television sets during Bigg Boss 2. On the reality series, a profoundly kitschy line had become Kishan’s trademark — ‘zindagi hai jhandwa, phir bhi ghamandwa’ (loosely translated as: ‘life sucks, but I strut like a million bucks’). It had instantly catapulted him into an elite space occupied by few regional superstars who manage to capture national fancy; ‘a la Rajnikant.

Clad now in a black kurta and jeans, Kishan leans back on his bed as his fan leaves — Bhojpuri bonhomie replaced with a studied sophistication, he offers a cigarette before lighting one himself. The most intriguing thing about him — undoubtedly the reason directors like Rajkumar Hirani and Mani Ratnam woke up to his presence post-Bigg Boss 2 — is that the man never stops performing. “Even when I’m at home, I like to have this stage-like lighting,” the 39- year-old says, pointing at the fluorescent yellow bulbs that surround us.

Ravi Kishan made his debut playing Sita at the local Ramlila in Jaunpur, his hometown in Uttar Pradesh. “When my father, a deputy collector, found out about the nautanki, he thrashed me within inches of my life,” he winces dramatically. Kishan’s mother, in spite of having lent him saris for the role, handed her son Rs 500 and told him to be on his way. “When a bird is ready to fly, the mother must push it out of the nest so it can learn to use its wings,” he sighs, doling the philosophical gyaan that won him reality shows like Rakhi Ka Swayamwar (where he grilled prospective grooms as Rakhi’s NDTV-Imagine-appointed brother) and Raaz Pichhle Janam Ka (a show on past-life regression in which Kishan discovered his pastlife identity as a Naga sadhu. He recalls, “I knew my past would be centred on either of my two greatest loves — sex and Shiva.”). He spent his youth broke in a one-room flat in Lokhandwala, dreaming of becoming the next Amitabh Bachchan. But even after 20 Hindi films and serials like Jai Hanuman, Kishan continued to be that familiar face you couldn’t quite place. In 2001 a friend suggested Bhojpuri films — “I asked him, ‘Who the hell watches Bhojpuri cinema? Do you want to end my career?” he raises his voice, before adding, “It was becoming hard to earn a living. I had a family to support. Finally, my mother said ‘do it for our people’. I couldn’t refuse her. I never can.”

Bhojpuri cinema was an abandoned terrain. Kishan finally found a kingdom to conquer — he had returned to his infra-dig roots. He took UP and Bihar by storm from his very first film, Sainya Hamaar. The outpouring of love was overwhelming: “When I was shooting in Bihar they would lock me in by seven every evening because people would mob our hotel. Women showed up with garlands and sindoor. A young boy in Jaunpur came to me brandishing a knife above his wrist, saying ‘Ravi bhaiya, bas aapko ek teeka lagaana hai...’ It was terrifying and beautiful.”

With a turnover of Rs 100 crore, the Bhojpuri film industry provides employment to over 40,000 people — a fact that Kishan’s assistant Sagar attributes almost entirely to his beloved ‘godfather’. His make-up man Hitesh Limbachiya, responsible for Kishan's somewhat similar looks through the 130-odd Bhojpuri films, as well as the highly stylised looks for Raavan and Man From Benaras, swears that he won’t leave “sir’s” side till his dying day. Perhaps it is the melodrama of the genre that evokes such confessions of undying loyalty, but as Shyam Benegal confirms, “Initially I chose Kishan (for Sajjanpur) because he has mastered every lilt and twang of the Bhojpuri-belt. But I discovered he is an exceptional ac - tor with great comic timing, in addition to being a very good-looking young man.”

Vijay Krishna Acharya, writer of Raavan, adds, “Kishan has an undeniable chemistry with the camera which allows him to be a star and yet play characters.” His success even convinced Amitabh Bachchan to star in the Bhojpuri hit Gangaa — memorable for its impressive cast, as also the fact that in the film Kishan peddles the traditional Bihari dish, litthichokha, at Leicester Square .

UPON EVICTION from the Bigg Boss house (Kishan was the third finalist to leave), as the congratulatory calls poured in, Kishan realised that Englishspeaking urban youth were associating him with the kind of heartland-coolness that they loved Akshay Kumar for. But at the heart of his kingdom, Kishan still longed for acceptance from that fickle love, Bollywood. “The contestants on Bigg Boss 2 would call me a ‘Bhojpuri actor’. I speak fluent Bengali, Maithili, and Marathi. I have done years of Urdu theatre. Yet they would isolate me as someone who lacked class,” he gazes into the distance moodily.

The danger — that he was too used to being a superstar to play character roles in Bollywood — was belied by the fact that Shyam Benegal chose him for both Welcome to Sajjanpur and Well Done Abba. Benegal believes Kishan has the most important element of a good actor — longevity. “He has lived the Bollywood dream and seen the nightmare of failure. He has a steady head and a freshness that will see him a long way.” Does the delayed recognition come with a sense of vindication? “It’s a matter of destiny. I have been a Shiv-bhakt all my life, I knew I would not have to wait for ever — my time has come,” the superstar concludes as he walks on to the waiting set.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 20, Dated May 22, 2010