Raghubir Yadav Interview – The performer of the soil
There are only a few actors who make acting look as effortless as Raghubir Yadav like it sprung out of thin air. Just like how Kailash Kher is referred to as the voice of the soil often, it’s only fitting that the veteran actor is hailed as a performer of the soil. There’s a reason we say he was a man born to be an artiste. His art, be it the visual, written or the musical form, is replete with a lot of worldly wisdom. It reflects the many years of toil that have made him what he is today. Yet, there’s no bitterness about it but just gratitude. There are still a lot of firsts in the life of this 62-old-year old actor – Amazon Prime Video’s series Panchayat marks his digital debut. LetsOTT.com tries to be a fly on the wall hearing him speak…
How has your four-decade experience helped in choosing a project? What convinces you to accept/reject an offer?
The script helps me take a call. You understand a lot of aspects in a story when you have a bound document for a reference. It helps you know if it is properly structured, the way the characters speak, behave and tells you a lot about a storyteller’s sensibility. The mistakes are sometimes glaringly obvious and prove how well-coordinated the director and the writers are. I never accept a project until I get to read the script.
Say, even if a project is well-written at the scripting stage, how do you know if the director has the ability to execute it to its fullest potential?
There are only a handful of directors/writers who approach me for a project and also have witnessed the vagaries of life. If they aren’t well versed with the ways of the world, there’s no way they’re going to tell a great story. Some directors merely have bookish knowledge or come to me after watching classics. A few don’t even understand the positioning of a camera or the technicalities in filmmaking. However, the technicalities can still be managed because the filmmaking process is ultimately teamwork. What’s more important is if the director truly believes in his story, has studied many lives and is capable of infusing soul into the storytelling beyond the script.
Additionally, I see how aware is the director about my style (as an actor) and the value I could bring to the script. I make sure I find a person with who can collectively work on improvising with the role. Many directors tend to be poor listeners. One needs to find a meeting ground. He/she should understand that emotions can’t be created but need to be felt by the actor. Filmmaking has become an academic process in recent years, but I belong to an era when people came with better practical knowledge. During my Parsi theatre stint, I was accompanied by actors who never went to school or a degree but had learnt, spoken Urdu lines merely by listening to their counterparts – they were enriched by diverse life experiences (which the current generation lacks) and not a degree.
While Panchayat is your first web series, you’ve had a versatile career across many mediums including theatre, television and films. How difficult has it been to adapt in these storytelling formats?
The technique needs to change – I have worked on it for many years now. It all boils down to observation and the perspective that you want to lend a character. With theatre, the audience watches you from a certain distance whereas, in films, the frame captures your personality on a closer level. Theatre demands some exaggeration, while in films, there’s no scope for a false note and you need to stay true to the character’s identity no matter what. This is because you need to make your presence felt in theatre. After all, someone in the audience sitting afar must be able to understand what you say. Television feels like a middle ground between films and theatre. On film sets, you tend to get the script in the last minute, the only thing you can do about it is to make the most of the situation and give it a good shot. It’s one reason why I’m not always satisfied with my performances in films. I wish there’s a day I feel really proud of what I’ve done.
What was it like to shoot in a village for Panchayat? Did it trigger a lot of nostalgia?
We shot the series in a village near Madhya Pradesh (the same state that I was born in). My career has literally blossomed in the villages and I’m very aware of the life by the countryside. The backdrop of Panchayat wasn’t much different – however, I needed to adapt myself to the Hindi slang prevalent in Uttar Pradesh with Bhojpuri influences. You need to make that effort to reflect the soul of the character. That’s the beauty of India – our culture is so diverse that it changes every 100 kms.
The (Panchayat) experience was nostalgic in many ways. In my early years, we (our group) used to live in a tent, which would later be converted into a stage where we used to perform shows every day. We shifted from one village to the other over six years - be it Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan or the South Indian states, we had travelled to every nook and corner in the country. I enjoyed this process and made sure I gave it everything to understand the craft to the fullest. Talking to people, relating to their emotions were an integral element of the many trips – it was like riyaaz for us. If you don’t drown yourself into something you love, there won’t be honesty in it.
How did you view your character in Panchayat (as the unofficial sarpanch working on behalf of his illiterate wife)? You made it look very easy and funny at the same time…
The character has an innocence to him – he may be in a powerful position, but he isn’t dishonest to his duties. Even at his house, he gives respect to his better half and even commands respect from her. He is someone who moves on with the times. The good thing about Panchayat is that no character is an antagonist here and everyone lives their life with an element of dignity. Be it my character or that of Manju, Prahlad, Abhishek or Vikas – no one wants to harm one another. They try to deal with a particular situation in their way, which is naturally funny.
These are characters you come across every village in India. Films often view sarpanch as a character who misuses his authority and loots money from the poor. The reality, however, isn’t often as dark. My grandfather has been a zamindar himself – he helped build a school for the village and in even organising a marriage. My father too continued that legacy. Panchayat may not have the amount of drama in any of its situations but its atmosphere is so quirky and witty that makes it very watchable.
Panchayat tackled an important theme of the disconnect that urban-bred youngsters experience while working in villages…
Yes, and youngsters need to be aware of life in the villages. City life may offer them work opportunities but they need to understand that the majority of India lives in its villages. The honesty in their lives is still intact – it’s a place where you experience love in its truest form. City life is merely a rat race for the lure of money where relationships and integrity are largely non-existent. Even Abhishek (the protagonist) in this series wonders what would he do as a Panchayat secretary! It’s his friend who pushes him to view the opportunity in a different light (in strengthening the grassroots of the company). This story compels the protagonist to do his job with love and give it a shot before flatly dismissing it. All it takes for us to usher in change is to believe in ourselves, perform our duties sincerely without harming anyone.
You and Neena Gupta had begun your career at the same time and learnt the ropes of acting across your theatre stints. Uniting with her for a project must have been special…
It was good to relive those memories but it didn’t somehow feel that so many years had passed by since we had started our careers. Having known each other for long, doing theatre and experiencing life in the entertainment industry for many decades made our job (on set) relatively easier. The on-screen equation between us was cute and innocent at the same time. She was my junior in NSD and acted in several plays with us and we also worked in Shyam Benegal’s Suraj Ka Saatvan Ghoda. Though we were part of many projects, Panchayat is the first time that we had shot for so many sequences together.
Besides a terrific acting career, you have a refined understanding of life, an eclectic taste for poetry and are a natural at singing. It’s rather surprising that you haven’t directed a film all these years…
It’s not that I’m leaving the industry today (laughs). I have been working on a dream project for a very long time. I am waiting for the right time to tell the story the way I imagine it in my head. My life is a bank of stories. I have never viewed any experience like a difficulty in my life. I have only tried to deal with them to the best of my ability without getting overly emotional about it.
My life experiences are my treasure, it will stay forever with me. We had no money to eat a meal during our theatre days, but it was my urge to learn that got me past them. Aap galichon mein hi seekh sakte hai, mehel mein nahi. Money may come and go but you need difficulties to scale ahead in life – I pray to God that I face many problems so that I emerge stronger after them. Even a metal needs to be burnt and broken into various pieces for it to be moulded. I wouldn’t have been the same person without my difficulties. Acting is to let those experiences mature you. It’s not mere mimicry or imitation, it’s the ability to slip into the skin of the character you play.
Are you content with what the industry has offered you?
If someone is liking my work and deems me fit to play a role in their stories, I go ahead and do it. There’s nothing in it to feel sad or be happy about. I still feel I haven’t achieved much. My journey has just begun. There are so many miles to go. I only think I have found a path now.
It’s this humility and child-like enthusiasm that distinguishes you from the rest…
The moment you think about age, you cease to progress. There’s no point setting targets and worrying if you haven’t achieved them by your 30s or 40s. Set a path for yourself and enjoy the journey. Don’t limit yourself to a destination or a goal. You may accomplish your targets but life begins much after that. Only then you realise your path. I feel I’ve just begun learning at 62. I may need many more births to excel in my profession.
How do you think will life be after this lockdown?
Change is inevitable. No one is sitting idle during this lockdown. It has given people time for self-reflection and an opportunity to dive into their souls. Everyone is definitely thinking about what they’ve done to date and what needs to be done later. Even as I do that and take stock of my life, I see something positive coming out of this phase. Jab jab kuch toottha hai, Kuch zaroor ban jata hai (something needs to break to create something fruitful). You never know what all needed to have been broken to get your house constructed. I am hopeful of a better future.