More than three decades after he made his mark in the Hindi film industry, actor Shekhar Suman continues his love affair with theatre. He tells Sonia Sarkar that he ‘got away with blue murder’, poking fun at politicians in television talk shows without worrying about a backlash — something he believes he can’t do now.

The audience was ecstatic. And many in the Delhi auditorium were surprised as well. Shekhar Suman – largely known for his comic acts – had enacted the role of the lyricist-poet, Sahir Ludhianvi, with such sensitivity that it had brought the spectators to their feet.

Actors need to reinvent themselves occasionally, but Suman seems to have turned it into an art. More than three decades after he made his mark in the Hindi film industry with Girish Karnad’s Utsav, his performance in Saif Hyder Hasan’s play Ek Mulaqaat – the story of Sahir’s love affair with the Punjabi writer, Amrita Pritam – turned the arc lights back on the man who started his career with theatre.

“This is my best work in the career span of 35 years,” Suman, 53, says. “I strongly feel that I was destined to play Sahir. Every time I heard his shayari, I thought he had written it for me, expressing my emotions.”

He put his heart into the role, carefully studying the life of the poet. He went to the Satish Chander Dhawan Government College for Boys in Ludhiana, where Sahir studied. He pored over photographs of Sahir, trying to pick up gestures from the old snapshots. He heard a rare recording, and sought to master his way of speaking.

“I walked down the corridors of his college with some books in my hand and imagined that I was Sahir,” Suman says, and then starts to recite one of his most famous lines – ” Zindagi sirf mohabbat nahin, kuchh aur bhi hai (life is not just about love; there is something more).”

Suman has been concentrating on theatre for a while now. Eight years ago, he acted in actor-director Makarand Deshpande’s Detective Maurya, and, in 2000, he worked with director Om Katare in Woh Tum Hi Ho.

But then theatre has been his passion for long. The history graduate from Delhi’s Ramjas College took to the stage soon after he’d earned a diploma in acting from Delhi’s Shri Ram Centre for Art and Culture in 1979. He has acted in more than 20 plays with well-known theatre directors such as Badal Sircar, Bansi Kaul and Rajinder Nath.

“Theatre is my umbilical cord. The bond is always there,” he stresses. On his table right now, he adds, are the scripts of some 10 plays.

It has also given him back his place in the sun as a serious actor, a trait that was first noticed nationally with the period film Utsav in 1984.

Getting a break in Bollywood wasn’t very difficult, he recalls. The yesteryear character actress Shammi had offered him a role in a film while he was still doing theatre. The film was never released, but through her he met Shashi Kapoor, who was then producing Utsav. Suman was selected for the role of Charudutt, a married Brahmin merchant in love with the courtesan, Vasantasena.

Since he was a newcomer, Suman says that he had to be vetted by almost everybody associated with the film, including Rekha, who played Vasantasena.

“The day Rekha came to check me out, I felt like a newlywed bride waiting for the bridegroom to come and approve of her,” he laughs.

But while Suman was applauded for his performance, he could never create the same magic on the silver screen again. He acted in 16 films – including the steamy Anubhav (1986) and the Madhuri Dixit hit Tridev (1989) – but remained largely unnoticed.

“I was not happy with the way my career was moving,” he reveals. But, he adds, he could not be choosy about the roles he was being offered. He was married (to Delhi girl Alka) and had two sons – Ayush, who had a heart ailment, and Adhyayan, who is now an actor. “I needed a lot of money for Ayush’s treatment. I didn’t have the luxury to choose my roles,” he says.

That was when he reinvented himself again – and this time by moving to television. Suman’s luck turned with the 1993 series Reporter, where he played an investigative journalist, and became an instant hit with the comedy series Dekh Bhai Dekh.

“The two roles were diametrically opposite to each other but were equally popular. I realised that I could play different characters at the same time.”

He made people laugh, but there was tragedy unfurling at home. Ayush died in 1997 when his career in television was scaling new heights. With the advent of satellite television, there were soaps galore – and he acted in several series including Amar Prem, Hera Pheri and Andaz.

But Suman is remembered most for anchoring Movers and Shakers, the first talk show of its kind on Indian television, in 1997. Some said then that he had copied American comedian Jay Leno, but Suman shrugs off the criticism. “I didn’t even know who Jay Leno was then,” he says.

The satirical show gathered eyeballs as Suman took potshots at prominent newsmakers, from actors and musicians to politicians. “I discovered that I had this ability to talk incessantly,” says Suman, who grabbed a Rs 35-crore contract for three years for the show.

He amassed fans with his flawless mimicry of former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad and of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. “I got away with blue murder,” says Suman, who later starred in several other similar talk shows such as Simply Shekhar, Still Moving Still Shaking and Tedhi Baat Shekhar Ke Saath.

The actor believes that there is no place today for programmes such as Movers and Shakers, where he could poke fun at leaders without worrying about a backlash. “I wonder how long I would have survived if I was doing a show like Movers and Shakers today,” he says.

Suman adds that he feels “suffocated” when he sees acts of violence around him. “In the last year and a half, the country has become unlivable. It is asphyxiating. You are being told what to wear, what to eat, what to say. I can see that Hindu terrorism is rearing its head,” he says.

He is critical of those who have been questioning writers, artistes, scientists, academics and others who have been returning state awards to protest against what they call a climate of intolerance.

“It is important to understand that these intellectuals are trying to convey that the atrocities have reached a horrifying level. Instead of listening to their voice, it is strange that the government is asking them why they didn’t return awards earlier.”

His remarks come as a surprise because in 2014, before Narendra Modi came to power, Suman was willing to campaign for him. “I admired Modi till all these things happened,” he clarifies. “As a leader, he has to take the flak. He cannot absolve himself of all this by saying that he’s not doing it. He has to handle his men.”

There are rumours that he is angry with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) because it didn’t allow him to campaign for it before the Bihar Assembly polls. “These talks happen casually,” he replies.

His relationship with political players in his home state seems a bit ambiguous. He doesn’t think that Bihar has seen development in the last many decades. “Four flyovers and a revolving restaurant in Patna’s Gandhi Maidan cannot define Bihar’s development,” says Suman, whose mother, Usha, was a homemaker, and father, Phani Bhushan Prasad, a surgeon who retired as director-general of health services in Bihar.

But he is quick to add that the outgoing and would-be chief minister, Nitish Kumar, improved standards of education and roads in the state. “But his biggest mistake is that he has joined hands with Lalu,” Suman feels.

In 2009, when Suman was contemplating a career in politics, Nitish Kumar had urged him to join his Janata Dal (United) party. “I liked Nitish and knew that I would win if I had joined him. But the Congress had approached me earlier. I had grown up with Congress ideology, so couldn’t say no to them,” he says.

He contested from the Patna Sahib parliamentary seat and lost miserably to fellow actor and BJP leader Shatrughan Sinha.

Relations between the two Bihari babus soured as a result of the contest. “It was the biggest mistake of my life – first to contest the elections and, second, to fight against Shatrughan Sinha.”

Suman talks about the past and present candidly, sitting comfortably in his 20th floor apartment in Oberoi Sky Gardens in Mumbai’s Lokhandwala area. Dressed in a body-hugging yellow tee and a pair of black trousers, he looks a lot younger than his age. I spot his gym, and ask him about his six-pack abs and image makeover. There were rumours that he’d undergone a hair transplant and had botox injected into his skin to do away with wrinkles when he appeared in a self-produced music video with the 20-year-old model, Bruna Abdullah, in 2008.

“Why should I go for cosmetic surgery? Eventually, nothing will last. I have a 27-year-old son. Why should I be worried about looking old,” he retorts.

“This is not what you should ask. As a journalist, you should ask other questions,” he says, giving me a few instant tips on good journalism.

Clearly, the man who made his name poking fun at others is not open to answering uncomfortable questions about himself.

But, then, he did say these were intolerant times.

Are Lalu Prasad’s two sons and daughter jostling to succeed him as a leader of the Rashtriya Janata Dal? Sonia Sarkar weighs the matter

A picture speaks a thousand words. A poster right outside the residence of Lalu Prasad says it all. Bihar’s present – and would-be – chief minister Nitish Kumar stands next to Prasad’s son, Tejashwi, almost hand in hand, while two of his other children – daughter Misa Bharti and son Tej Pratap – are on the other end of the poster.

Political pundits in Patna believe that’s the way the wind blows. Tejashwi could end up as Prasad’s heir apparent – and eventually be handed over the reins of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).

“Lalu ji sees the future of the party in Tejashwi. He wants him to walk along with Nitish Kumar and learn the tricks of politics and governance,” says an RJD leader.

Prasad’s RJD won 80 seats in the just-concluded Assembly elections in Bihar. Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), which led a grand alliance of which the RJD was a part, won 71 seats and the Congress, 27.

Prasad, who had almost been written off before the polls, however, may have to handle another war – at home. A battle for supremacy could be looming in his own family.

The three have all taken a plunge into politics. The sons are now elected legislators – from Mahua and Raghopur constituencies, respectively. Misa fought and lost from Pataliputra in the 2014 parliamentary elections.

Misa is the eldest of his nine children. Tej Pratap is the older son, born after six sisters. Tejashwi is the younger son – and seemingly the favourite of his father. Mother, ex-chief minister Rabri Devi, is said to favour Tej Pratap.

The two sons – so named because they were born during memorable thunderstorms – do not get along. They may have grown up playing volleyball and cricket together, but are now seen as adversaries with different teams of people working for them. “The two hardly interact with each other,” claims a party insider.

Misa, who is 39, has been away from the brothers for long. The Patna Medical College graduate and her IT engineer husband Shailesh lived in Bangalore for a few years before she moved to Delhi to join her father who was then railway minister.

Born during the Emergency, she was named after the infamous Maintenance of Internal Security Act (Misa), imposed on political opponents of Indira Gandhi. She often introduces herself as ” andolan ki beti” – daughter of the revolution.

She seems to have inherited her father’s penchant for drama. When she was given a ticket for Pataliputra, which Prasad’s then close aide Ram Kripal Yadav had earlier won, Yadav took umbrage. Misa then barged into his house, with the media, refusing to leave till she had a chance to make up with her “uncle”.

Earlier, at a huge rally in Patna in 2013, where Prasad’s sons were officially launched, she made a sudden entry, taking party leaders by surprise.

“Misa wants to be at the centre of politics,” Delhi-based political scientist Manisha Priyam says.

Misa believes that like her father she can connect with people. “That’s one of the qualities I have inherited from Papa,” she asserts.

Like her father, she is known to be driven. Pataliputra was won by Yadav who joined the BJP in 2014. But Misa has not given up on it.

“I will work for the people of Pataliputra and concentrate on the parliamentary polls,” she says.

Misa claims that she was the “crisis manager” when Prasad was in jail for 135 days in 1997 on charges related to the Rs 950-crore fodder scam, in which he was convicted for siphoning off money earmarked for cattle fodder.

“I have seen the functioning of the party very closely during those years. Since then, I have acquired political maturity. I also have a great connect with senior party leaders,” she says. “But the leaders have always treated my brothers as kids.”

But, clearly, they are kids no more. At a party national executive meet in April, Prasad told a core group of leaders that “only a son could succeed a father”. But he didn’t name either Tej Pratap, 29, or Tejashwi, 27.

Sources say that the two sons – who refused to speak to The Telegraph despite repeated efforts – want Cabinet berths in the new alliance government. There is also speculation that Tejashwi would be made the leader of the RJD Legislature Party.

Senior party leaders contend that neither has the ability to hold a responsible job. Tej Pratap, they point out, wanted to contest student union elections in Patna’s Bihar National College, hoping to follow in the footsteps of his father, who was the union president in Patna University in 1970. But he failed his exams and couldn’t contest the polls.

“He cannot speak like his father, nor does he have his charm,” an RJD youth leader says. “Except Lalu ji’s arrogance, he has inherited nothing from him.”

Influenced by the teachings of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, he is mostly engaged in religious activities. The insiders say that he dresses up as Lord Krishna or Lord Shiva and plays the flute or the dumroo. A close associate says that he posed as Sai Baba at a family function in Delhi a few years ago.

Prasad, it is said, initially did not want him to join politics. A motorcycle showroom was opened for him in Aurangabad. But Tej Pratap took little interest in it. Rabri Devi, the whisper goes, persuaded her husband to allow him to contest from Mahua, denying a ticket to party old timer Jageshwar Rai.

Party members believe that Tejashwi, a former student of Delhi Public School, R.K. Puram, is more grounded. He connects with people, is a good listener and speaks well. “He has observed how party leaders conduct themselves politically and picked up the skills,” a senior RJD leader says. “Also, he speaks the language of the younger generation of Biharis, who want jobs.”

Prasad introduced him to politics in the 2010 state Assembly polls, after Tejashwi failed to make a mark as a cricketer. He addressed several election rallies, but the RJD won only 22 of the state’s 243 Assembly seats. The RJD head, however, continues to back him.

“One of the indications of that is that Lalu made him contest from Raghopur, which he had won in 1995 and 2000, and Rabri Devi in 2005,” Priyam points out.

Prasad’s aides, however, believe that he is in no hurry to hand over any major responsibility to Tejashwi yet. He knows the havoc that inexperience can play. When he was in jail in 1997, there was a statewide outcry against Rabri Devi’s misrule.

Indeed, today’s Lalu Prasad is vastly different from the man who lorded over Bihar in the Nineties. Then he was the tallest leader of the state and a power at the Centre. But he has been out of power for over 10 years in Bihar and has no role to play at the Centre. Now that he has been given another chance, he is unlikely to fritter it away.

“His body language has changed and he is less arrogant now. He would want his children to be like that,” an aide says. “He wants long-term politics for his sons, so would want them to learn.”

Political observers agree. “Lalu would want them to be politically trained before they take up important responsibilities,” says Shaibal Gupta, who heads the Patna-based Asian Development Research Institute. “And he would want Nitish Kumar to train them in governance because they have good family bonding.”

Misa too believes that winning an election doesn’t mean either of her brothers would become Prasad’s successor. “Now it is no longer Lalu ji’s prerogative. The electorate would choose the successor depending upon our work.”

She dismisses rumours that she may be named deputy chief minister, though she did not contest the elections. “Let someone who won an Assembly seat take up the post. Why should I be dragged into it,” she says.

Senior party members, who are watching the developments within, are concerned. None of the three, they believe, is capable right now of handling a post. But they are demanding, and Prasad is known to be a fond father. “Lalu ji is extremely emotional when it comes to his children. They always get what they ask for,” a party leader says.

But who’ll get the lantern – the RJD’s election symbol – and become the torchbearer for the party? The question hovers in the air.

Myanmar goes to the polls today – and change is in the air. A flowering of art, music and films is underway, writes Sonia Sarkar

The painting is stark. Military men – dressed in olive green – stand in a row. Their heads are covered with bird cages. The work by Aung Kyi Soe, in the Blind in Knowledge series, is called Cages and is on display at an art gallery in Yangon, once called Rangoon.

Young musicians strum their guitars and sing at a club. The lyrics are simple – “We hate the system,” they chant.

A local news website displays a cartoon called “Religion and Elections”. Two sumo wrestlers are fighting each other.

As Myanmar goes to the polls today to elect a new government after five decades of military dictatorship, there is talk of change in the air. Changes are taking place not just in the political milieu but in the country’s art and culture field, too. Liberal voices once muzzled by the junta are slowly regaining their pitch. And painters, musicians, cartoonists, filmmakers are all a part of the transition.

“We are taking baby steps to democracy through art,” says artist and curator Pyay Way, whose Nawaday Tharlar Art Gallery is displaying the Blind Knowledge painting.

Way, who opened the art gallery in Yangon’s busy Dagon Township in 2012, says that he always wanted to create a liberal space for artists. “My artist friends felt suffocated not being able to express themselves,” he says.

Now there are at least 10 new art galleries in Yangon. Way’s gallery is also open to poets, singers and dancers. He organises an “open mic” evening once or twice a month where people express their concerns.

“There is a vibrant art community producing strong work in a variety of styles and formats, despite years of isolation and a limited domestic market for art,” points out historian and curator Melissa Carlson, who displayed the works of Myanmar’s artists at two exhibitions – Burma by Proxy: Art at the Dawn of Democracy (2015) and Banned in Burma: Painting under Censorship (2014) in Hong Kong.

Myanmar has been witnessing significant changes since 2010, when National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released after two decades of house arrest. The military government headed by President Thein Sein released more than 200 political prisoners. Regressive laws which prevented assembly of more than five people were repealed.

The spurt in art and culture followed changes in censorship laws and as the government allowed access to the Internet. Till 2012, all videos, both feature and documentary, had to go through the video Censor Board of the Television and Video Act, 1996, before distribution and screening. Failure to comply could result in fines, imprisonment of up to three years and confiscation of property. The rules of censorship have now been relaxed.

Cinema critical of the junta is no longer rare. An 18-minute short film Ban That Scene by Htun Zaw Win, for instance, criticises censorship. Kaung Sint’s 12-minute documentary film Enter on the life of a political prisoner in Myanmar exposes political abuse. “It shows how the government tortured political prisoners in jail,” Phyo says.

Since 2013, the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival has been organised in Myanmar in a bid to prod young filmmakers into making meaningful cinema. “This film festival is an effort to create a democratic space,” says the festival organiser Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, who won the best documentary award at a 2010 film festival in Hanoi for his film The Floating Tomatoes.

It’s not just motion pictures – cartoons are coming alive, too. Satirical lines touch upon a vast spectrum of subjects once considered taboo, from child soldiers and military politics to Buddhist militancy.

Cartoonist Beruma put up a sketch that showed General Than Shwe, Myanmar’s former dictator, controlling Thein Sein. A cartoon by artist Aw Pi Kyeh makes a telling comment about the political situation in the southeast Asian country, where military men are seeking to join the electoral process. A footballer has been substituted on the field – but instead of a new player coming in, he returns in another uniform.

“There is a space for political cartoons in local news journals,” says cartoonist Kyaw Thu Yein, who does political cartoons for a satirical website, Cartoon Movement. “I started cartoons in 2000. But my cartoons then were not published in newspapers except for a local humour magazine.”

For many artists, the whiffs of freedom are heady. They remember the time when few artistes could raise their voice against the rulers of Myanmar. Celebrated painter Aye Ko was arrested for speaking out against military repression. After a year in jail, he joined a shoe business. And it was only much later that he returned to art.

Artists were not allowed to display their work against the government in the galleries. Political art was banned, as was nudity. Even excessive use of black, white and red was censored.

Music came under restrictions, too. Punk bands were not allowed to perform in concerts without taking prior permission from the government’s Censor Board. Rock bands had to submit their lyrics to the government before they could even be cleared for performance or recording. Many performed secretly in warehouses and railroad yards. Rock bands such as Side Effect, Broken Order, No U Turn, and Rebel Riot performed in underground clubs, and sang of abuse of power by the military.

“We were expected to sing only good songs, about the natural beauty of the country and about love. They wanted us to shut our eyes to reality,” says Darko C., vocalist and guitarist of Side Effect.

The band was set up in 2004 but couldn’t release an album till 2012, when censorship rules were relaxed. Even then, there were restrictions. He had to drop a song on prostitution from their first album, Rainy Night Dreams.

Darko is now all set to release a new album called Voice of the Youth, where he urges the young to be agents of change.

Artistes, however, rue that they are still censored. The pro-government Myanmar Music Association has replaced the Censor Board to exercise control over rock bands. Laws such as the Electronics Transaction Law, with a jail term of 15 years for anyone using “electronic technology that threatens the security of the State”, still exist.

Last year, several paintings featuring nudes by artist Sandar Khine were removed from Yangon’s Lokanat Galleries. Even now, art galleries have to take permission from the government before displaying their work.

Increasingly, though, artistes are violating the rules. “I have been threatened by security forces a couple of times for not taking permission,” Way says. “Intelligence officials always keep a tab on our work,” adds Ole Chavannes, a media trainer who works with the anti-government news website Democratic Voice of Burma.

But many are hopeful that today’s elections will usher in a new climate. “What is the point of having an election if no change takes place on the ground,” Way asks. “Suu Kyi should come to power to bring about that change.”

‘If I was not an actor, I would have committed suicide or become a Naxalite’
Tete a TeteTete a Tete
Actor Nana Patekar talks to Sonia Sarkar about his foundation to help farmers in distress, his special relationship with the late Sena leader Bal Thackeray and his belief that he will die a sudden death

Nana Patekar has a new role. And it’s not for a film to be screened in a theatre near you; it’s for farmers in rural India. In September, the actor set up a foundation called Naam to help farmers in distress.

It’s not an issue that you generally hear Hindi film actors voice their concern over. But this year alone, in Bollywood’s backyard, around 1,400 debt-ridden farmers killed themselves. And like many others, Patekar says he followed the crisis but just took it in his stride.

“For years, I watched the plight of farmers and their families on television and then forgot about them,” Patekar, 65, says. “But one day I felt that I had lost my sensitivity because I was no longer reacting to the farmers’ deaths. That’s when I thought of helping them.”

Patekar, who has acted in some 60 films, had tucked away Rs 1.5 crore for a luxury car. He thought he would distribute the money among the families of the farmers instead. That was when his friend, Marathi actor Makarand Anaspure, advised him to visit the drought-affected regions before giving any financial help.

“I went to Beed and saw young widows and their children. I realised that I could not fulfill their requirements in my lifetime,” he says.

Patekar donated Rs 25 lakh to the families. The media blitzkrieg that followed led to donations pouring in, prompting him to set up the foundation. In less than a month, it had received Rs 9.5 crore. “Even a beggar contributed Rs 300,” he says.

Naam, which will soon have branches in several cities in Maharashtra, seeks to create alternative employment opportunities for farmers. It will, for instance, teach families how to weave. Efforts will be made to convince farmers not to take loans for lavish weddings but to have simple weddings.

“We have also told them that we will work for them if they promise not to open any liquor shops in their villages. Also, they should not harbour communal feelings,” he says.

Patekar believes that deprivation forces people to take “extreme” steps. “The farmers feel helpless, so they kill themselves. But one day they can pick up guns and target people in power.”

That’s how, he adds, Naxalites were born in Bengal. “I feel frustrated when I see the huge disparity in our society. If I was not an actor, I would have committed suicide or become a Naxalite,” he says.

It is the poor who are affected by every crisis, whether it’s a flood or drought or communal riot, he stresses. I ask him about the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaque, a Muslim resident of Bisada in UP’s Dadri, by a Hindu mob. “Shame on those who killed the man,” he says with scorn.

Patekar rues the changing times. When he was growing up, his family lived in a house where the landlord was a Muslim. “As a child, I never saw any difference between Hindus and Muslims.”

He grew up in poverty, he reveals. His father, Gajanand, ran a textile printing firm in Mumbai but an aide sold it illegally. When he was 13, Nana painted posters to earn money. “I had to walk eight kilometres from Matunga to Chunnabhatti for painting posters,” he recalls as he fiddles with a gold chain twined with rudraksh beads circling his neck.

“There was a time when I used to visit friends hoping they’d offer me food. Often they didn’t,” he recalls.

In his interactions with the media, the actor seldom fails to mention the hardships that he and his family faced. Perhaps it helps him to stay grounded. And he would know that the press loves a rags-to-riches story.

Poverty, he adds, made him aggressive. “I often picked up fights with people. I always thought people were letting me down.”

It’s because of his temper – he wears a yellow sapphire and pearl in a bid to control it – that he says he has stayed out of politics. He has turned down offers from all leading political parties – the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena. “I always speak my mind but politicians don’t want that. I will be thrown out of any party if I join one.”

There’s a general perception that he’s close to the Shiv Sena. Patekar explains that he had an “extremely special” relationship with the late Sena leader Bal Thackeray. He became a fan of Thackeray’s political cartoons when he was studying commercial art in the JJ School of Art. “He was like a father figure to me,” he says.

Thackeray stepped in when actor Tanushree Dutta accused Patekar of misbehaving with her during the shooting of the 2008 release, Horn ‘OK’ Pleassss. Thackeray had apparently then asked film producers to blacklist Dutta. “He was always very protective of me,” Patekar says.

But he doesn’t have much patience with Sena antics – such as its recent move to stop a concert by the Pakistani singer Ghulam Ali in Mumbai. “If I meet Uddhav (Shiv Sena chief), I will tell him that I didn’t like this,” he says.

Ghulam Ali holds a special place in Patekar’s heart. The actor had an accident during a shoot and was laid up in his Pune house for a while. One day, Ali paid him a surprise visit. “He asked me, what do you want me to sing. I said, anything. Then he took the harmonium and started singing one of my favourite ghazals, Kal chaudvi ki raat thhi. His voice healed my pain.”

We are sitting in the same flat in Pune’s Ashok Path. Patekar is dressed in a white kopri (a sleeveless shirt with a pocket at the centre) and a pair of yellow shorts. The room is as casual as the actor – it’s sparsely furnished with four wooden chairs, a couch and a dressing table. The man who has seen poverty from close quarters is now the proud owner of five houses in Mumbai, Pune and Goa. He guides me to the first floor of the house and the terrace, and points to a huge bathroom – as big as a room. He wanted it big because he felt claustrophobic in their tiny bathroom when he was a child, he says.

Patekar has not just made money; he has earned recognition as well. Fond of theatre, he was working with an advertising agency as a commercial artist and visualist when actor Smita Patil persuaded him to try his luck in films. His first film was Muzaffar Ali’s Gaman (1978). He has acted in a great many hits such as Parinda (1989), Tirangaa (1993) and Krantiveer (1994).

Critics hail him as a natural actor, for he is known to make reel life character appear real. In fact, for Prahaar, a 1991 film that he directed as well acted in, he trained with the Maratha Light Infantry for over two years. “That’s my favourite movie,” says Patekar, who has a firing range in his house.

Another of his favourites is Agni Sakshi (1996), where he played Manisha Koirala’s possessive and abusive husband. I take the liberty to ask him about his off-screen romantic relationship with Koirala. “It was an amazing time of my life. But now she is happy somewhere. So that’s fine,” he says.

He has a good rapport with many of the industry’s leading lights. With Amitabh Bachchan, in particular, he shares a warm relationship. He recalls how, when they were both shooting for Kohram (1999), Bachchan one day announced that his daughter had given birth to a baby boy. “I have become a nana (grandfather),” he said. “To this, I replied: Aapko itne din lag gaye Nana banne mein? Main toh bachpan se hi Nana hoon (It took you this long? I’ve been Nana since the beginning).”

Nana, however, is not his original name. He was named Vishwanath but one of his mother’s friends used to fondly call him “Nana” when he was a child. “So I became Nana,” he laughs.

In the middle of the conversation, he suddenly leans over and asks me to tie a red thread that’s come loose on his wrist. ” Tera miya kya karta hai (what does your husband do),” he asks casually. When I tell him that I am not married, he wants to know how old I am. Why didn’t you get married, he asks.

His own marriage came apart seven years after he and Neelkanti, a Marathi writer and actor, were married in 1978. “We live separately but we meet often,” says Patekar, who lives with his 95-year-old mother, Anusuya.

His relationship with his wife, he reveals, became strained after their first child was born physically challenged. “I couldn’t believe that my son could be born with such physical deformities. I blamed my wife for that,” he reflects.

His son died when he was two-and-a-half years old. Five years later, Malhar was born. Malhar has just graduated from New York University and is likely to take over Patekar’s production company, Gajanand Chitra.

Patekar would then spend more time with his foundation. A voracious reader, he also writes poetry. He recites a poem as I prepare to leave: ” Ghar me bas hai chhey hi log. Chaar deeware, chhat aur main – There are just six of us at home: the four walls, the terrace and I.”

A loner, he believes that he will die a sudden death. “And my intuition is very strong,” he says.

Not yet, I tell him. The farmers need him.

– Not many patients know that a code of ethics binds doctors. But the problem, medical experts tell Sonia Sarkar, is that errant doctors are seldom hauled up

Autumn is not always a time for celebration. In many parts of India, the rains and their aftermath leave behind a deadly trail. Ailments are rampant — and death from diseases such as dengue is common.

Still, the tragic death last month of a seven-year-old boy made news. The boy, who was suffering from dengue, died after he was denied admission by five hospitals in Delhi. Unable to cope with the loss of the child, his parents committed suicide.

The incident highlighted the apathy shown by hospital administrations. But it also underlined another fact — that hospitals and doctors violated Medical Council of India (MCI) guidelines when they turned the boy away.

The Indian Medical Council (Professional Conduct, Etiquette and Ethics) Regulations, 2002, states that no hospital can deny admission to critically ill patients. It says: “In case of emergency, a physician must treat the patient. No physician shall arbitrarily refuse treatment to a patient. A physician is free to choose whom he will serve. He should, however, respond to any request for his assistance in an emergency.”

Despite the guidelines, turning away patients is a common practice. “Doctors and hospitals have repeatedly failed to follow the code of ethics,” stresses Dr Ravindra Ghooi, a crusader of patient rights in India, and director, Scientia Clinical Services, which gives advice on clinical research and training.

According to the World Health Organization, the right of a patient is the same as the right of a human being. In the US, the right to medical records and right to privacy are considered basic rights but that’s not the case in India, where many hospitals deny patients access to their medical reports.

The code of ethics defines the obligations of physicians to their patients in India. But how does a patient know about his or her rights? The MCI rules state that every hospital should put up the list of rights at the front desk but that is not always done.

Not many patients, for instance, know that they have the right to know about a doctor’s qualifications. “If patients cannot evaluate [the qualification] by themselves, they should not hesitate to ask the doctors. Doctors are supposed to provide this information without being asked,” says another patient rights activist, Dr Shailesh R. Deshpande, who heads education and training at the Chellaram Diabetes Institute, Pune.

The MCI is supposed to take action when doctors violate the rules. There have been occasions when it has deregistered doctors for negligence. In 2013, for instance, the MCI said a Bangalore doctor had violated Indian Medical Council Regulations, especially Clause 7.16, which states that a physician should obtain written consent from a patient or kin before performing surgery. This was violated by the doctor, and the case came up after the patient died following the surgery.

But action is seldom taken against errant doctors, activists rue. And that, they say, is because the MCI itself consists of doctors.

In 2013, a report submitted by a parliamentary committee said: “All members of the MCI are medical professionals… There are reports that the medical professionals probing into allegations of medical negligence are very lenient towards their colleagues guilty of negligence and none of them is willing to testify (against) another doctor as negligent.”
Because of this, complaints of medical negligence are often taken to the Consumer Guidance Society of India (CGSI).

‘‘We step in to assist people to fight cases in consumer courts as our experience with MCI is very poor. Patients come to consumer courts for their rights because in the MCI doctors are setting laws for themselves,” says M.S. Kamath, honorary secretary, CGSI. “Patients have very many rights — but in reality, they are almost unenforceable.”

The MCI code of ethics, in any case, is not all encompassing, says Dr Ghooi. He explains that it doesn’t address the issue of what rights patients have when it comes to knowledge about their illness or medical records or about the risks and side effects of a treatment. “It just says that all physicians should give factual information to patients and their relatives. The rights mentioned in this document stem from the duties of the physician. But the guidelines issued by the CGSI are more patient-centric as they specify what all patients can ask their doctors,” he adds.

Most hospitals, he points out, are seldom keen to transfer their patients to another hospital. On the other hand, they are reluctant to take in serious or medico-legal cases and refer to them to government hospitals.

“Worse, private hospitals sometimes experiment with treatments, causing a lot of unnecessary expenditure to patients and then refer them to other hospitals, claiming inability to manage the condition,” he says.

The CGSI guidelines state that if patients are “discharged or moved to another hospital”, they have the right to be informed in advance so that they can choose their own hospital or nursing home, in consultation with their doctor.
The MCI guidelines also say that patients — or their relatives — have the right to be told in advance what an operation is for and the possible risks involved.

Often, patients are not told if there is an alternative to surgery that they can opt for. Doctors cite the case of hysterectomies — removal of the uterus — which can often be avoided. “Many hysterectomies are fraudulent, carried out by unscrupulous doctors to provide comfort to women and also as a means of family planning,” points out Dr Ghooi in a chapter in the book, Patient Rights, Ethical Perspectives, Emerging Development and Global Challenges, that he has authored with Deshpande. “The details of the line of treatment are not given to patients.”

But hospital administrations argue that there are not enough doctors to handle the burgeoning number of patients in the country. “We work under a lot of pressure as we cater to a large number of patients. It is not always possible to explain everything to every patient,” an official at a Delhi private hospital says.

A senior MCI official says that the council is now planning to induct non-doctors such as patients and social workers to resolve the issue of punishing negligent doctors. A new framework of ethical code is also being worked out, he says.
But as the situation stands today, most patients do not know about their rights. And if they do and believe that their rights are being violated there is little scope for redress. The situation will change only when — and if — the MCI wants change.

– The refugee influx into Europe has once again turned the spotlight on India. Sonia Sarkar wonders if it’s time for New Delhi to sign an international convention on refugees

Three-year-old Aylan Kurdi is a symbol of the horrors of displacement. The Syrian boy’s death – his small body was found on a Turkish beach earlier this month – underlined the plight of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war in Asia to enter Europe.

The displaced people have often been referred to as migrants. But the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) states that those who are compelled to flee their countries because of well-founded fears of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion are refugees. Migrants, by contrast, are people who seek better economic opportunities in other countries.

“Syrians who are looking for shelter in other countries such as Greece, France, Ireland and UK are refugees,” says Shuchita Mehta, UNHCR’s spokesperson in Delhi. “They have no choice but to run for their lives and still cannot return home.”

Why then are they often referred to as migrants? “The use of the term ‘migrant’ is often a means of seeking to avoid duties towards refugees,” says James C. Hathaway, director, programme in refugee and asylum law in the University of Michigan.

The tragedy in Europe has once again reopened a debate on refugees and migrants in India. India is home to 4.5 lakh refugees from countries such as Tibet, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Congo, Iran, Iraq and Sudan. But it doesn’t have a legal framework to deal with refugees.

Yet India is not new to refugee influx. In 1959, the Dalai Lama and some 80,000 Tibetans fleeing Chinese oppression were given refuge in India. Over time, they were given basic facilities such as education and healthcare. Refugees also came to India following the Partition of India and later the liberation of Bangladesh.

Over the years, people from countries such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan have also taken refuge in India because of oppression or insurgency in their own countries.

With India’s porous borders, hundreds of thousands of people have also come to India in search of jobs. The government holds that many of the foreign nationals living in India are not refugees but “economic migrants”. But the line between migrants and refugees is a thin one.

One reason there is little clarity on this issue is that India is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, 1951, which was later amended to the 1967 Refugee Protocol. Human rights experts have for long been urging India to become a signatory.

India has taken recourse to its own laws – the registration of Foreigners Act of 1939, the Foreigners Act of 1946, and the Foreigners Order of 1948.

But the acts and the order, under which foreign nationals can be denied entry into India, have not been successful. Another law, the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950, was implemented to check illegal immigration into Assam, but there was a problem there too. The act allowed minority communities of Bangladesh to migrate to Assam on account of “civil disturbances”. But the state did not have an effective mechanism to ascertain who could be exempted.

Human rights experts rue that refugees are not treated equally in India. The UNHCR issues refugee identity cards to people coming in from non-neighbouring countries and also Myanmar. After receiving these cards, they can apply for stay and long-term visas. But people from neighbouring countries are handled directly by the ministry of external affairs.

“Buddhists from Myanmar, who came in large numbers 20 years ago, did not face the problems that Rohingya Muslims from the same country are facing now. The refugee identity cards of the latter have not been accepted by many government authorities. Plus, only a few have got long-term visas so far,” a UNHCR official says.

Tamils from Sri Lanka feel discriminated against too. “Many Sri Lankan refugees languish in prison-like conditions in camps,” states Priyanca Mathur Velath, a professor of political science in Bangalore who has been working on refugee issues.

“While India has accepted several refugees from countries in the region, there are concerns about the access that some refugees have to government services such as education and healthcare,” says Himanshi Matta, media officer, Amnesty International.

The government’s approach to refugees is also political, some activists point out. Recently, for instance, India said it would allow minority refugees from Bangladesh and Pakistan who entered India on or before December 31, 2014, to stay back. Muslims from Bangladesh, however, are referred to as illegal immigrants. “These are all political decisions,” a Supreme Court lawyer stresses.

A 1999 paper titled India’s Failure to Adequately Protect Refugees by H. Knox Thames at the American University Washington College of Law and the School of International Service states that the provisions in the Foreigners Order are ruthless. “Article 11 of the order allows India to control an individual’s place of residence, movement, ‘association with any persons or classes of persons’, and possession of any specified articles.”

The signatories of the UN Convention are barred from expelling refugees under Article 33, but India has also on many occasions expelled refugees, forcing the Supreme Court of India to intervene.

In 1992, the court stopped the deportation of 21 Burmese from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. In 1996, on the intervention of the National Human Rights Commission, the apex court prevented the repatriation of Bangladesh Chakma tribals because they had lived in India for three decades and “to uproot them… would be both impractical and inhuman”.

Refugees in India cannot be refouled – or repatriated – because India is signatory to other international human rights treaties such as International Conventions on Civil and Political Rights, 1966, (especially Article 13), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

“The principle of non-refoulement is part of customary international law, which means it is an obligation on all countries, even those that have not signed the convention,” explains refugee expert Jane McAdam, director of the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, University of New South Wales, Australia.

New Delhi, however, doesn’t believe that it needs to fall in step with international law. “We are doing more than enough for refugees without having signed a convention. What else can we do,” an external affairs ministry official says.

Often, people ask me how I became a Bollywood addict. I tell them, “Blame it on my uncle. He made me one.”

Yes, it was Babai (my paternal uncle) who made me a Bollywood addict. It was Babai who turned our living room into a mini theatre twice a day, once in the afternoon and again, in the evening. Those days, video cassettes were available on rent. We watched almost every release (barring the third grade ones, of course). It didn’t matter to us if it was a hit or a flop.

At home, he had a collection of his own too. I remember watching some of the Bollywood flicks like Mother India, Sagar, Mr Natwarlal, Do Anjane and Silsila umpteen number of times. But as a kid, I enjoyed watching Lehren (the Bollywood video magazine), the most. It gave us a sneak peek into the high profile Bollywood parties. I vividly remember, one of the Lehren videos brought us exclusive images of a Bollywood party hosted by the underworld don Dawood Ibrahim. That was the first time, I heard the name, Dawood Ibrahim. Bollywood actors, Mehmood and Govinda were spotted in that party, I remember.

Slowly, Bollywood became an integral part of our life. We grew up in Dhanbad and it was a ritual for us to visit Calcutta once in four months. When everyone else at home would eagerly enquire about our studies, Babai would ask us about the new releases that we would like to watch during our stay in the city.

My father introduced us to Geeta Dutt, Manna De, Salil Chowdhury and Shyamal Mitra but it was Babai who introduced us to the romantic R.D.Burman and Bappi Lahiri. Thanks to Babai, at a very young age, I was convinced that Bollywood music is a must for a colourful and musical life. But listening to Bollywood songs was not enough.He would also encourage us to copy Bollywood dance steps, flawlessly. He loved dancing. And he loved the company of people, who had a good sense of rhythm and beat.

In various house parties, the floor would be open for the kids to dance till they dropped. The evenings would start with performances to melodious Rabindra Sangeet and would conclude with foot- tapping Bappi da numbers like ‘jawani jaane man’ and ‘Koi yahan…’ He used to be the first one to hit the floor, always. And I was the last one to leave it!

Besides Bollywood, he also introduced us to the world of cinema. We spent many evenings watching classics like Ben-Hur, The Birds, The Great Dictator and many more at our north Calcutta home. It was a retreat for us.

But that’s not all. He was our guide to Calcutta, the City of Joy. Because of him, Calcutta appeared to be a dreamland for us.

It was Babai, who introduced us to Calcutta’s China Town, Fancy market, Burrabazar! A foodie himself, he loved taking the entire family (17 of us, then) out for dinner. It was also Babai, who introduced us to the exotic snacks of Calcutta such as Mochar chop, Kankroler Chop, Kobiraaji and Fish Orly.

When others in the family would put “rules” in place for the kids, he would give us full liberty to do whatever we wanted. But he knew how to control us when we crossed the line. If he called out to us sternly in his deep baritone, it was enough for us to rush for cover.

But he would never let us mix work and play. A very hardworking person himself, he always wanted the kids to work hard because he knew nothing comes easy in life. I remember, when I showed him my first bylined story in The Hindustan Times, way back in 2003, he shot back, “Show me your name in the paper. I am more interested in seeing your name than your story.” He was extremely happy to know that I got a job in Delhi. It was a sense of accomplishment for him to see me taking baby steps to self-reliance. Besides that, Delhi was very close to his heart (unlike my father, who has never liked Delhi). He loved Delhi and the various getaways it offered.

He strongly believed in the philosophy of trial and error and never gave in to any crisis in life. It was his sheepish smile, child-like laughter and teenager-like enthusiasm to live life to the fullest that made him so unique and adorable.

He was a die-hard dog lover. Every dog, my brother brought home invariably got attached to Babai. There was an inherent connect that every pet enjoyed with him. In fact, I had often caught him striking a conversation with Buzo, the black Labrador, we had at home. Whenever Babai spoke with him, Buzo responded by wagging his tail incessantly.

Babai was gregarious. He had a good sense of humour. He was a live wire. Also, he was the only one in the family, who had the capacity to bind everyone together.

He celebrated life every day. He loved to have people around and people immensely enjoyed loved his company too. He was the ever-enthusiastic Shyamal-da for his friends. He was the farsighted Mej-da for his younger siblings. He was the indulgent Maamu, Olu and Bhu-mamai for his nephews and nieces.

He passed away on this day ten years back but I strongly feel, he is around, watching us learning from our trials and errors in life.

Some people never go away…IMG_8786 (1)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 29 other followers