Raghubir Yadav's mellow dramatic journey from theatre to web series

Raghubir Yadav and Neena Gupta in Panchayat
The way Raghubir Yadav describes it, the camera could be a polygraph device. “You can never lie in front of it.” Until he faced one for the first time, the actor had been an incurable thespian. Film was a less unforgiving witness to accidents, which the stage used to hide. “The camera’s eye is so sharp even a slightly fake expression becomes magnified.” In all roles beginning with that screen debut in 1985’s Massey Sahib, Yadav says he has sought to achieve the honesty the medium demands.

The 62-year-old’s language today is a mix of equal parts Urdu and Hindi. His pinched voice sounds sincere and smiling but Yadav is the type of expressive artist you want to interview in person. Over the phone — he still prefers landlines — it is not possible to discern that characteristic twinkle in his deep-set eyes. Nor the peculiar way his brows furrow over them to transform his face, into either an exclamation point or a question mark.

 
When Ramayan and Mahabharat returned to Doordarshan in March, “on public demand”, one wondered why people had not also demanded reruns of more diverse gems from the broadcaster’s golden era. Yadav had shot to fame during the creative boom in nineties television, playing a wandering, wisecracking thinker in Amal Allana’s Mullah Nasruddin, and a low-ranking government employee who has vivid daydreams about a better life in Mungerilal Ke Haseen Sapne, directed by Prakash Jha.

As if to rekindle those memories, the first season (eight episodes) of a new series, Panchayat, released on Amazon Prime Video early in April. It depicts the goings-on in a remote village of Uttar Pradesh as viewed by an engineering graduate who arrives from the city to work with the local government. Yadav essays a rural patriarch, the power hungry but good natured “Pradhan ji” (technically Pradhan Pati, the sarpanch’s husband), in the venture that contains the simple and wholesome spirit of a Doordarshan classic.

Even if Yadav detests the term, he is counted among those gifted performers the industry likes to call ‘character actors’

 
“Only someone who really understands villages and villagers can write about them with such authenticity and etiquette,” the actor says, praising creators Chandan Kumar and Deepak Kumar Mishra. The show’s making was a throwback to his time working with Allana and Jha who would put the script through months of readings, rehearsals and rewrites. “People are already asking when the next season will release,” he says.

Yadav’s own early years were spent in the villages of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan. Born in a humble agricultural family, he grew up herding cows and riding bullock carts in Jabalpur. Singing, which helped pass the time, interested him more than studies. When it was clear he would fail higher secondary in the late 1960s, he decided to run away from home with help from a friend nicknamed “professional bhagoda” (fugitive). A train took them to Lalitpur in Uttar Pradesh, where his friend abandoned him after they had breakfast and watched a local Parsi theatre performance by Gopal Theatre Company.

With nowhere to go, he asked the performers if he could join them. Madan Lal Kapoor, actor Annu Kapoor’s father, who helmed the group back then hired him and thus began a six-year stint of the khanabadosh (gypsy) life. They pitched tents for 45 days in each village, performing for long hours and fighting hunger in the rainy months. There were no scripts, the man who knew stories by heart was made director. Going from the boy who sang between acts to assuming lead parts, he soon picked up Urdu and took lessons from veterans like “Moti Baba”, a 6-foot-tall singer-actor who Yadav says lived past 100 years.

 
He was selected to study stagecraft in Delhi’s National School of Drama (NSD) next, with a scholarship and a six-month spell in the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. To anyone who performed the same way twice, then NSD director Ebrahim Alkazi would say: “You are very easily pleased.” So the actor still finds flaws in his celebrated turn as an overzealous colonial clerk in Pradip Krishen’s Massey Sahib, or as a drug addict Chillum in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988). At least half a dozen of the films he worked in became India’s Oscar entries.

Behind his effortless style is a foundation of method. Yoga at 4 am, talking into a mirror, and studying each feeling until its anatomy begins to show itself like a photograph slowly developing in a bath. The acting choices are second nature now. The time he played Majnun for Parsi theatre, and the chance to play poet John Clare from youth to his last years in a 1979 production of The Fool by Barry John stand out as favourite roles.

Even if Yadav detests the term, he is counted among those unconventional, gifted performers the industry likes to call “character actors”. In playing men of mostly small town, middle class and mischievous inclinations, he has been careful to inject humour from a sincere place rather than a mocking one. Sui Dhaaga (2018) was made memorable by his portrayal of a passive aggressive father, Parasram, who is so disappointed in his son for not accepting a steady job that he rarely makes eye contact. It is difficult to imagine anyone else playing Loknath, an election officer in Newton (2017), who has an MA in Hindi and a love for American slasher films, with matching fluency.

Music remains Yadav’s true love. It has been a refuge from the uncertainty of lockdown too. “There is no better way to communicate the emotions of a moment to an actor — the shock, or elation — than by song. It is most immediate to sentiment.” Before shooting, it is habitual for Yadav to hum a tune befitting the scene’s mood. Madhya Pradesh’s 2010 tourism advertisement, the folksy “MP Ajab Hai”, owed much of its popularity to Yadav’s catchy vocals in the jingle. His rough and robust performance of “Mehngai Dayain Khaye Jaat Hai” in Peepli Live the same year had impact enough for the National Democratic Alliance to ask if it could use the song in campaigns for elections in Bihar and UP, a request the film’s producer Aamir Khan turned down. 

With shoots in Rajasthan, Varanasi and Lucknow interrupted, he is toying with instruments at home. He is also revisiting old writing projects, finishing a memoir of his years in travelling theatre. He is satisfied with taking on less work now because in his view most “art and culture” today has become about “dhandha (trade)”. He will appear in Sikhya Entertainment’s Pagglait and Drishyam Films’ Aadhaar next. 

Even in projects where he is approached for minor parts, Yadav asks for the whole script. He likes to evaluate “what a story wants to say” and if it does so with “honesty”. Because if it doesn’t, he knows the camera will know.


Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel