'The real India lives in the villages where everyone is trying to improve the other.'
Raghubir Yadav is a phenomenal actor, who embraces every role with the wide-eyed excitement of a child.
That's the way he lives his life too.
At an age when his contemporaries are content to enjoy a quiet retired life, he is immersing himself in roles that appeal to his sensibilities, finding innovative ways of making music and thinking of new ways in which he can improve as an actor.
Nationally and internationally acclaimed for his performance in the titular role of his 1985 debut film, Massey Sahib, Mr Yadav is now accumulating raves for playing Pradhanji in Amazon Prime Video's Panchayat.
When Rediff.com Senior Contributor Roshmila Bhattacharya quizzes him about his award-winning act and what kind of prep it required, he chuckles, "Prep? What prep? I don't know how to swim, mujhe bas doobna aata hai (I only know how to drown)."
On your birthday this year, you made a lauki saxophone which you named Low-key. That's one innovative idea.
(Laughs) I have a small workshop where I keep making things, aise hi, for timepass.
I've made musical instruments from gajar (carrot) and muli (radish) earlier. On my birthday, we brought home a lauki (bottle gourd) and there was a lot of discussion around it.
Back in my village, I had seen people making musical instruments from dried laukis, so I decided to see if I could make music with this one even though it was fresh and tender.
Some Punjabi friends had come home. I brought out my Low-key at midnight and started playing it for them.
They loved it and called the producer and director of Panchayat who came over at around 1.30 am and the music continued...
One can see you playing many such musical performances on your Instagram handle. When did this interest develop?
Bachpan se hi shauk tha (Since childhood).
I remember when I was around three years old, a papadwala would come selling his wares.
His 'Moong ka papad lo... Urad ka papad lo...' so melodious, still resonates with me.
Music is a blessing which stays with you through both joys and sorrows and keeps you from feeling lonely.
It has taught me so much about theatre, films, even life, ussi ke sahare main zindagi jeeta hoon (Music helps me live life).
You worked with the Parsi Theatre, right?
Yes, for six years. That's where I learnt not just acting, but also how to dig holes and set up tents.
I wrote the publicity signboards every morning and even worked in the props and costume department.
When we went on tour, I would travel in the truck with the carpenters and other technicians.
Even today, I hate taking a flight, wearing a suit and glares, three to four assistants hovering around me, handling all the work.
Zindagi mazdoori mein hi nazar aati hai, ussi men mazaa hai (You live life through your work, that's what makes it fun).
How did you land up there?
Ghar se bhaga tha (I ran away from home) at the age of 15, and while wandering around, I stopped to watch a show.
The boy I was with ran off, I stayed back and joined the Parsi Theatre.
That's where I spent some of the best years of my life even though I got paid only Rs 2.50 daily, which dwindled to a rupee or even 50 paisa when it rained and shows were cancelled.
Those were difficult days.
Members of the cast and crew grew thin and pale from lack of food, but I stayed energetic and happy because I was learning something new ever yday.
When your stomach is full, bas bistar aur araam hi dikhai deti hai (you can only see a bed and comfort). But when you are hungry, your mind is clear and you are able to grasp things easily.
Even today, I get restless if life goes on too smoothly for a fortnight or more, thakleef hoti rehni chahiye taki hum jaagte rahe (You need to grapple with hardships, they keep you alert and alive).
Why did you run away from home?
The elders in my family forced me to take up science, believing it would get me a good job and maybe even a good match.
But I was a simple farmer who drove bullock carts, so the intricacies of science went above my head, and as expected, I flunked my exams.
I was so ashamed, I couldn't face my family and ran away.
Did you ever go back?
Yes, after six months. But on the way home, while standing by a paan shop, I was spotted by a cousin, who was passing by.
He quipped, 'Oh you are back, I thought I would see you on the screen in Lakshmi Talkies the next time.'
Embarrassed by the sarcastic jibe, I ran off again and returned after 20 years, after bagging an international award (the FIPRESCI Critics Prize for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival in 1986) for my first film Massey Sahib.
(Laughs) This time, those who had ridiculed me, telling my father that I would return as a chor, were saying, 'See, we told you, he would come back after making a name for himself.'
I still visit my brothers in the village twice a year, and rejuvenated, return to the city to immerse myself in work.
How did the transition from Parsi Theatre to the National School Of Drama happen?
After the slow demise of the Parsi Theatre, I went to Lucknow and started working with the Rangoli Puppet Theatre.
I would tour UP, go to Bihar and sing with an orchestra party for two months.
The money I earned in these two months was enough to sustain me for the rest of the year.
When in Lucknow, I heard that they taught you acting at NSD and applied there for a scholarship, along with the post of a teacher in the song and drama division.
I got a call from both, the scholarship was for Rs 200 while the job would earn me Rs 450 a month.
I wanted to learn so I accepted the NSD scholarship.
Today, thanks to Panchayat even children in cities know about the sarpanch, the pradhan...
Not just the panch (the five members of the Panchayat), they are beginning to understand how this head body is linked with every single person in the village.
In the village you learn a lot... Imaan (honesty), the ability to work hard, to get up at 5 am, wash buffaloes and take them out to graze.
Even today, if I return from a 3 am shoot, I am up by 5-6 am and pottering around the house.
If you start working before sunrise, pura din mein farak aa jaati hai (the day turns out good).
What was your first reaction to Panchayat?
I loved the script, it's simple and honest, written in the language of the soil.
Back home in the village, I was familiar with the sarpanch, pradhan and other members of the panchayat so the connection was instant.
During my days with the Parsi Theatre, we travelled across the country, set up tents every month in villages in UP, Bihar, Rajasthan and several other states.
The real India lives in the villages where everyone is trying to improve the other.
We used to see this world in black-and-white films, like Kabuliwala and Do Bigha Zameen, but of late, our film-makers seem to have forgotten the real India.
I was missing that and today, I'm happy to see families sitting together and enjoying Panchayat.
How is your equation with your co-stars, Neena Gupta and Jitendra Kumar?
Neenaji is a trained actor from NSD, who has done a lot of good work.
Ditto Jitendra. In their company, hum bhi thodi bahut kar lete hain (I also do a bit of acting).
In Panchayat, even the actors doing small roles are very good and that sets the benchmark high.
- MUST READ: The Panchayat Actor Who Won Our Hearts
What kind of prep did the character of the Pradhan require?
Prep? What prep? I don't know how to swim, mujhe bas doobna aata hai (I only know how to drown).
At NSD, we were taught how to immerse ourselves completely in the character.
We even went into details of his background, and the music, to grasp the spirit of the character.
- Part 2: 'When do dreams come true?'