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‘I wonder how long I would have survived if I was doing Movers and Shakers today’ :Shekhar Suman

Posted on: November 16, 2015

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.

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