Nigel Akkara and Alokananda Roy at the danseuse’s Lake Gardens residence. Picture by Rashbehari Das
She is “Ma” for him; he is her dacoit Ratnakar-turned-poet Balmiki. Even as Muktodhara — based on Alokananda Roy and Nigel Akkara’s experiences — hit screens, the duo shared their journey with t2.
Alokananda: My association with jail inmates and Nigel began long before we did Balmiki Pratibha.... I have seen Nigel very closely. I became his Ma and Nigel was the most reluctant and most difficult to handle initially [Nigel was serving a nine-year sentence for kidnapping and murder]. But then he changed all of a sudden...
Nigel: Ma, you are supposed to ask me questions.
A: He had a lot conviction in whatever he did.
N: I had and I still have.
A: Yes, conviction and will power... and what’s remarkable about him is his honesty... sometimes I feel he is brutally honest.
N: Achha, instead of describing me, ask me questions Ma and I will answer!
A: Hmm... that’s the most difficult part. It’s easier for me to speak about you than ask you questions. But there are a few things... Everybody is talking about your past. I want to ask you, how do you feel about it and how comfortable are you talking about your past?
N: I never hid my past and that’s the reason I didn’t go away from Calcutta even though my mother wanted me to settle down in some other city. I stayed back because I had committed a wrong here and I want to right it here. I spoke about my past during job interviews and they didn’t give me an opportunity because I had been a prisoner.
Then I decided to work with Touch World, an NGO that reforms and rehabilitates inmates and their families. But they couldn’t offer me a salary, so I again went around looking for a job with the same results. Then I decided to start my company, Kolkata Facilities Management. I took a loan from my elder brother who lives in the UK. Just imagine, I am educated yet I don’t get an opportunity, what about those who are uneducated? Most of them in prison are uneducated. Nobody goes into prison deliberately. It happens, you know....
The problem is when I started talking about my past it was with a mission, but now it has become publicity material (for Muktodhara). Everybody wants to talk about my past. Who knows? Maybe I got to do this film because of my past. I have talked about my past because I wanted the world to know that I was wrong and today I am right. Accept me as I am. I feel this film is an eye-opener for two sections of society. One is the people outside the prison walls. They should get it into their head that a person coming out of jail can be trusted. He has been punished for his deeds inside jail. Society cannot punish him again.
It’s also an eye-opener for people who are in prison, where I spent nine years of my life. You know, these people think their life is finished. They know nobody would accept them. I came out of prison three years ago and slowly but surely I’m getting accepted by the mainstream.
Talking about my past is like stripping myself in front of people. The more I talk, it all comes back to me at night. I have already given enough press interviews. Now that the film has released, I don’t want to talk about it anymore because I don’t want people to think I am selling my past.
A: He has other things to talk about too, like teaching meditation at Jadavpur University.
N: I also visit schools and show them documentaries on jail. I go to them because I don’t want any of them to slip up, like I did.... Okay, next question please! I want to ask you (Alokananda) a few questions, but what should I ask you? You are one crazy woman!
A: Yes, why else would I do therapy with jail inmates?! You know, before Balmiki Pratibha, we had put up a small show called Brotherhood Beyond Boundaries. After the curtain call, the whole auditorium gave them a standing ovation! I was almost in tears. I couldn’t believe they would get this kind of a response, with their kind of background. It was a strange feeling of contentment for me and maybe that was a turning point for them too. They realised that they were wrong and so they were being punished, but when they did something good, people appreciated that. And I could see the tremendous change in them, specially Nigel.... I didn’t see him as the scary, deadly type... the IG (B.D. Sharma) was very sceptical about giving him permission. They thought he might escape. I knew he would not let me down.
N: How did you know that?
A: I am a mother, it was a gut feeling and also because you told me, and I knew you are a man of your word. His eyes have changed. His eyes were not what you see now. They were penetrating, trying to figure things out, a little harsh.... But now all that’s gone. Now he says he can’t be aggressive.
N: But if somebody slaps me, I cannot turn my other cheek. I will slap him back because I am not doing anything wrong. Nine years ago, when I was taken into custody, I went through third-degree torture for 87 days. My fingers and my left leg were fractured, my nails were plucked out... I lost 20kg. But all that happened because I was wrong.
A: What’s your strongest emotion?
N: Focusing on work. It’s my biggest advantage.
A: What are your future plans, Nigel?
N: I want companies to visit jails and do interviews and offer jobs to the convicts, so that they live with dignity. See, everyone who comes out of jail isn’t transformed. Not everyone is lucky to get Ma Alokananda Roy in his life! (Laughs)
A: Like I say, reform without rehabilitation is useless.
N: I also feel that rehabilitation is needed at the government level. The government has done nothing for jail inmates. I also want to look after the legal side of prisoners. An ex-convict who is out of custody told me that because he has no money to take care of his legal proceedings, a local gangster has offered to bear the expenses but he has to work for him in return. I told him not to do that. I have promised to help him.
A: What if you get offers to do more films?
N: I will do films because the money will be used in my business. I have a lot of plans and I need a lot of money for that. After I came out of prison, I went door to door cleaning toilets. No work is small as long as I am earning my bread with pride.... You know, when I was on the run, I had sent a big cake and some money to my mother on Christmas. She gave it back. She said, ‘Even if you drive a rickshaw and get me a tiffin cake I will accept it, but I don’t know what you are doing.’ After I came out of jail, I bought a cake and said, Mummy I drove a rickshaw and bought you this cake. (Laughs)
A: Nigel, I have never asked you about your past...
N: But I have told you everything.
A: Yes, it’s like catharsis for them. It’s not important anymore. The biggest reward for me would be when I see your mother being proud of you and she would be known as Nigel Akkara’s mother.
N: That’s okay. My family is by my side now.
A: I accepted them as human beings. I never thought they were any less. Today we share a very strong bond. I tell his mother that he is a completely reformed person.
A: Nigel, If you were given those 10 years back, would you have lived your life differently?
N: Add another few years to it, because I slipped up from the age of 16! I am 32 now. But today when I look back, I feel those 12-13 years were very important for me. It wasn’t a punishment, it was more like a journey for me. I have realised that I too am capable of many things. I wouldn’t have had the confidence I have today if I didn’t spend those nine years in prison. If I hadn’t met this crazy woman.... Today there’s no problem making eye contact with anyone.
A: Now all we want is for him to settle down with someone who can understand him. We will look for a girl for him now!
N: The first thing I will do is go and tell her father that I was in jail for nine years! (Laughs out loud)