'Why are they talking about day before yesterday?'
Actor Vinay Pathak tells Paromita Kar that mindless cinema exists in India for a reason. It is a conscious effort to dumb down our youth
There are actors and there are actors. Some are brilliant performers on screen or stage, some excel in articulation outside of it too. I meet Vinay Pathak in a posh Calcutta hotel little knowing that my evening in the staid coffee-room would turn out to be most engaging. Will there be a photographer too, he asks. Err... no, I tell him, this conversation is not specifically about his latest film or forthcoming films, or his plays. "Ah. I don't like to talk about my work either,"he says.
In an effort to manoeuvre the talk, I tell him about The Telegraph's Sunday features pages. It triggers a stream of childhood memories, and we regurgitate our favourite pages and sections. "I used to collect the comics pages," he declares. "I was also fascinated by the fine sketches of heritage buildings [by Rathin Mitra]..."
As a young boy growing up in Dhanbad, then in neighbouring Bihar, he would look to the "art and culture axis" of Calcutta. "Kolkata," as he pronounces it, "was so full of cinema, theatre, books and libraries..." He thanks his father - "a police officer and voracious reader" - for the bookworm in him, and his "wonderful teachers" for his interest in literature, language and, eventually, theatre.
Learning, orientation and evolution - these are issues he keeps coming back to. Perhaps also because he is a father - of two girls, aged 13 and 15. "Not just of my kids, this whole generation's understanding of Hindi is dismal," he agonises. "I must tell you about my Hindi teacher, Sri Buddhiram Mishra. He taught us not only how to write good, lyrical prose, but also how to pitch a sentence, the difference between hai and hain, and so on... He opened my eyes to the nuances of language. There was so much joy in being able to speak eloquently."
That pleasure is obvious right now, as the actor holds forth, uninterrupted. "Say, Mishra ji had to teach a poem by Harivansh Rai Bachchan. For an entire period, he would regale us with trivia - the life he led, his struggles... Did you know he was the second Indian to get a PhD in English literature from Cambridge University? He then returned to Allahabad University to teach English literature... and still was the nation's favourite Hindi poet! Then there were Sumitranandan Pant and Suryakant Tripathi Nirala, two poets who wouldn't see eye-to-eye. Lekin un mein woh rivalry kya thi? Nirala, the voice of dissent, had supposedly told Pant, 'You are a chamcha of the government!' And guess what? Nirala was also a bodybuilder. It is said while they were arguing, he would say after a point, 'Let's wrestle it out in the field!'"
Fascinating stuff for students in a classroom. A crucial age, he emphasises, an age when you form an opinion, you start to become a personality. "It's an age when you fall in love with a song, you fall in love with (Tagore's) Homecoming. You want to be like Phatik Chakravarty..."
It was around this time that Pathak visited Jawaharlal Nehru University. Even at 11 or 12, he was overwhelmed by the freedoms the place seemed to offer. "I imagined myself performing at the open-air theatre, surrounded by wilderness." However, his great love for theatre was a closely guarded secret; in those days wanting to pursue acting could "land you a tight slap" from any quarter.
"I don't want to boast, but by the time I was in Class VIII, I was king of stage," he grins. "Elocution, debate, antakshari... All in Hindi though; I wouldn't even consider English." However, as the principal script unfolded, Pathak opted to study English literature at Allahabad University. "One of the reasons I went to Allahabad was that the city was about these people - Mahadevi Verma, Pant, Tripathi, Bachchan."
Pathak isn't telling these stories for nothing. He strongly feels that our education system is not helping the younger generations move forward. "Who are these people who are making the decisions? What are their credentials?" he asks. "We need to ask these questions - where are we going?"
There's so much noise these days, I lament, of omissions and commissions, and proclamations that history ought to be rewritten. "Pardon my French," he says, "You aren't recording, I hope?" We have a good laugh, but then he raises his pitch, "Do they even know what research is? I don't care about the nationality of our historians. If they have done a good job, they need to be retained. We have such a rich cultural heritage. Are there are no progressive thinkers who will show us the way forward?"
At a time when the academic environment of the country is increasingly under assault, and openness to "other" ideas no longer the norm, his words ring out loud and clear. However, he is opposed to labelling scholars as "Right-wing" or "Left-wing". And also to the tendency to rake up non-issues from the past - as is being done with the Nehru-Patel relationship. "Maybe they had a great relationship, despite the dissent. How does it matter," he asks. "Why isn't anyone thinking about tomorrow or even today; why are they talking about day before yesterday?"
There is a pause. And then he quotes a line from King Lear, "Tis the times' plague, when madmen lead the blind."
Pathak's latest film, Khajoor Pe Atke, released recently. Some of his more memorable films are Khosla Ka Ghosla, Bheja Fry, Dasvidaniya. I have seen only Khosla Ka Ghosla, I tell him, a bit sheepishly. "It has some good storytelling," he says.
What does he think about mainstream Bollywood? With a blank expression, he asks, "What are we making today? We are still making Race 3. I have nothing against those people; some of them are my friends. But who watches that kind of cinema?" He himself answers: "Only those people who still get tickled by such intelligence. It's not that the director doesn't have the entertainment IQ to make something more interesting." This is a deliberate mechanism to breed generations that will keep their eyes closed, so they can be steered in any direction, he insists.
This brings us again to literature and good writing, and its importance to cinematic integrity. "Bollywood needs better scripts," he insists. "We invest so much in actors, directors and sets but rarely the scriptwriter." He invokes the concept of " vishwa manch" and believes that writers are the pillars of society. Cinema is the most popular form of storytelling, even more so than literature, he feels. "You may not seek a Premchand or a Tagore, but how is it that we go to Chetan Bhagat for a story?"
I want to ask him about his forthcoming Tashkent Files. It is directed by Vivek Agnihotri, who is known for his often bigoted statements on social media. Pathak chuckles, "I can guess what you are arriving at." But quickly adds, "The film also stars Naseeruddin Shah and Mithunda (Chakravarty)." It is a thriller, set in Tashkent in Russia, where Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri had gone to sign an agreement and died suddenly, allegedly of a heart attack. "I read both the scripts, draft and final," he says.
We exchange notes about recent films and he even recommends a couple. I ask him about the films his daughters like to watch. "All kinds," says the obviously doting father, "I'm happy the way they look at things is not clovered. But then I may be among the few fortunate parents."