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Actors without borders

Naseeruddin Shah, Anjali Patil and Jaya Ahsan on working with neighbours and creating crossover art in the film industries of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India

Jaya Ahsan in Kolkata.
Jaya Ahsan in Kolkata.

In the Pakistani drama Khuda Kay Liye (2007), Naseeruddin Shah plays Maulana Wali, a respected, progressive Muslim religious scholar. In the Sinhalese film With You, Without You (2012), Anjali Patil is cast in the role of a civil war survivor, an upper-class Tamil who discovers that the man she has married was part of the Sri Lankan army that ravaged her village. In the recent Bengali film Bishorjon (2017), Bangladeshi actor Jaya Ahsan plays a young Hindu widow living on the Bangladesh side of the border who gives shelter to a Muslim stranger from West Bengal.

There is an interesting subtext in the casting of these actors: the swapping of, or commentary on, religious, national and linguistic identities. For these are actors working in films in countries with whom their countries have had, or still have, disputes over land or river water, or a history of ethnic conflict.

Working in other countries has opened up fresh perspectives for these actors. Patil, who will be seen next in Amit Masurkar’s Newton, releasing next month, was pleasantly surprised when she found out that Sri Lanka’s biggest movie stars are women. Shah talks empathetically about the “pathetic" state of studios in Pakistan, and how its film industry never recovered from the blow of Partition—Lahore was one of the pillars of the Hindi film industry, apart from Mumbai and Kolkata. Ahsan, who has made Kolkata her second home, offers up the possibility of a market that has films from both sides of the Bengal border—Bangladeshi films don’t release in theatres in India.

They all echo one sentiment—the matter-of-factness of working in another country, even one that India shares a complicated relationship with—and insist that art does not recognize geographical and linguistic boundaries. “For me, these films were another job I wished to do, and it was immaterial where they were being made," Shah says on email, when asked whether acting in a Pakistani film was a statement in itself. “I certainly wouldn’t have done one of those blood-drenched revenge dramas they make there, just as I wouldn’t have done one here!"

Naseeruddin Shah in a still from the Pakistani film ‘Zinda Bhaag’.

Shah’s explosive 10-minute cameo in Khuda Kay Liye, a film conceived in the aftermath of 9/11, seems designed as a response to both radical Islamists and the prejudices of the Western world. In the film’s decisive courtroom scene, Shah’s Wali, who wears a shalwar and keeps a beard as long as the other maulvis he fundamentally disagrees with, takes on each “misinterpretation" of Islam—Islam vs Western clothes, Islam vs music—and slays it in evocative Urdu, as though extracting music from every syllable. At one point in this memorable monologue, he says, “Varna yahi hoga ki log haraam ki kamai jeb mein daal, halal gosht ki dukaan dhoondte honge."

Shah’s job in Khuda Kay Liye was to communicate the ideas of the writer and director with as much clarity as possible. “The fact that I too share those beliefs probably explains the conviction I could bring to the speech," he says.

In contrast to Shah’s dialogue-heavy turn, Patil’s role in With You, Without You is full of silences. For the few lines she has in the film, she learnt Sinhalese. Language has never been a barrier for the actor, who has done several films in languages other than her mother tongue, Marathi. She went into the film knowing little about the Sri Lankan civil war. “For me, the reason to choose a film is always the basics: good script, character, sensible director, and co-actors. Like most average Indians, my knowledge about the conflict was limited to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi," she says on the phone, on the sets of Rajinikanth’s next film, Kaala Karikalan.

She remembers visiting Jaffna, the Tamil part of Sri Lanka, and seeing abandoned houses with bullet marks. “We form an image, an opinion, of a country and its culture. But we won’t know the truth unless we go there. As an artist, it was incredibly important for me to feel and synthesize it for myself," she says. After the film’s premiere in Colombo, she remembers meeting a group of war survivors who stood there silently. “Their silence was enough for me," she says.

Anjali Patil in a still from the Sinhalese film‘With You, Without You’.

Ahsan has grown up hearing stories of Bangladesh’s liberation war of 1971 as though they were “fairy tales and fantasies". Her father was a muktijoddha (freedom fighter) who made a thrilling escape from the hands of the Pakistani army. His comrades and he had been lined up on a bridge over the Turag river, to be shot by the army. Luckily, his hands were tied loosely and he was a good swimmer. When the person standing next to him was targeted, he jumped into the river, narrowly escaping a bullet.

It was the start of a new life. “I am the daughter of that father. There was a consciousness while growing up, and we didn’t care who was Muslim or Hindu in school," says Ahsan. “But that was Robi Thakur’s (Rabindranath Tagore’s) Bangladesh. In the last five years or so, I see more burqas on the streets. In India, you can’t eat beef. I think we are going backwards."

We form an image, an opinion, of a country and its culture. But we won’t know the truth unless we go there. As an artist, it was incredibly important for me to feel and synthesize it for myself.- Anjali Patil

Bishorjon begins with Ahsan’s Padma finding Nasir Ali, a wounded stranger from the other side of the Ichamati lying unconscious on its banks. It is the morning after the immersion of Durga, that day of the year when the two Bengals meet at the river. Ali is played by Bengali actor Abir Chatterjee—which makes director Kaushik Ganguly’s casting-against-religion look even more deliberate. In the scenes where Chatterjee’s character had to perform the dua and Ahsan the shondhya aroti, they would help each other out to get the nuances right. “Actors have no religion, no country. We are free birds," Ahsan tells me at her apartment in Kolkata.

In Srijit Mukherjee’s Rajkahini (2015), Ahsan played a prostitute from a brothel in undivided Bengal that is threatened by the partition. A 2-minute clip from the film featuring a cleavage-bearing Ahsan went viral for all the wrong reasons. It didn’t go down well back home. “There were reports of a fatwa being issued. I was slut-shamed, the fact that I am a single, independent woman in showbiz made it easier for them," she says. So it isn’t surprising that she mentions she is a fan of Golshifteh Farahani—the Iranian actor whose bold turns in films from around the world have ensured that she lives in exile.

Whatever the political climate between India and Pakistan, a good offer won’t hold Shah back (he has acted in another Pakistani film, Zinda Bhaag, the country’s first submission for the Foreign Language Oscar in 50 years). “I’ve always received great regard every time I’ve visited there. My series Mirza Ghalib is much loved in Pakistan," he says. “I feel no apprehension at all—if a worthwhile script were to come my way, I’ll not hesitate to do it."

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