In an informal conversation, noted Kannada theatre director and playwright Prasanna, who has championed a campaign against GST on handicrafts and handlooms, talks to actor Irrfan Khan about how acting can shape an actor’s activism. Interview transcript (sic):
Prasanna: This problem of actor and activism is more a problem of the actor getting connected with the society. Because the more you become a star, the more isolated you are from society. So activism...
Irrfan: If you choose to...
Prasanna: Yes if you choose to, but then you can’t really choose to become absolutely natural. That’s not possible. One is too famous to do that.
Irrfan: Oh yes. We don’t want that drama. And that’s why I.. it’s a cynical approach.. I’ve stopped watching TV. I don’t have a TV in my house. There was a section.. because I have just constructed my house... there was a section where I was supposed to put the TV and I never put it and I don’t think I will ever put it in my house. Because it’s noise. It is such a big noise and it is not just noise, its noise with an agenda.
Prasanna: So if you want to become an activist, what sort of sector would you want to be in? I mean, how do you want to relate to the society?
Irrfan: A kind of awareness where people will be able to understand that they are a part of a... I don’t know what will I choose... but to be in sync with nature. Because we have come to a point of no-return. Now a word, which Gandhiji has coined (I don’t know who has coined it) self sustenance. I think self sustenance is a situation where you maintain status quo. Whatever you are consuming, you are giving it back. But we have crossed that point long back. We are in a situation where if even the whole planet stops producing carbon dioxide, it will take centuries to come back. So we are at a point where we should understand that you are part of nature, you are not separate from it. Unless and until you change the way you are consuming things, unless there is conscious consumption -- there is a consciousness in your consumption or a consciousness in your living -- as a specie you will be eliminated, you will be finished. And this has happened long back. It has been happening. But the kind of education we are given, these things are not told to you that the human species can vanish. It has been happening, and it has happened before. So I would like to choose something where people could connect and they could understand their position in this planet. They are connected with everything. And use-and-throw is not a way of living.
Prasanna: I remember as a student of acting, you would make the effort to draw the resources from the people. For eg: if you are doing the role of a poor person or the role of a tribal person, you would try and get that energy from them. Are you still able to do that?
Irrfan: Oh yes.
Prasanna: How do you do that? You are stuck in Bombay...
Irrfan: I am stuck in Bombay. I feel stuck in Bombay. But that is my given circumstance. Now the situation is if I live in Bombay, I can do acting, or if I don’t live in Bombay, I won’t be able to continue doing it. So I am stuck in this thing. But there is a constant effort to bring out yourself. I choose my stories in a way that they give me a chance to explore things. Where there is no reputation... I don’t choose stories where I can rely on myself and produce the stuff. It has to challenge me, it has to make me look for something that I don’t know. So that’s my only way. That’s the way of me making sense of this life.
Prasanna: There is a certain pattern in India where politicians and actors... actor becoming a politician, initially they would become political leaders, now I think it’s a very positive shift, lot of actors are taking interest in social life, in social sectors, and not necessarily direct political sectors. Do you like that? Do you want to place yourself in that situation?
Irrfan: See, there are two aspects to this. We are adapting everything from the West. Nothing is indigenous. Whether its the way of living, the fashion, the way we live, this is a pattern in Western world, in Hollywood. That actors become activists, but there is a kind of genuineness there. Here, it becomes... sometimes it is more of a news. Most of the actors. If it is genuine, definitely it is a great thing. Because you see a kind of a meaning, some kind of sense in your life. And there are people who are genuine, but there’s a kind of... it all overlaps, whether it’s for news or it’s for the real reason.
Prasanna: You can’t help it.
Irrfan: But if it is genuine concern, it is great. Because an actor has power, it has a way of connecting to people which could be used. But if it is genuine it is great.
Prasanna: Are you genuinely feeling like getting into the social sector, on a long-term basis, as a passion...?
Irrfan: The way I think my life, things happen organically. I cannot stand up and one say okay today I am doing this. It is a concern. It’s a concern about my life. And this concern is.. sometimes it is painful. The way things are going all around the world, it’s very painful. So you want to do things, and you also know that... there are saints, there are also. They say you cannot... human specie, where they have to go, they have to go. You cannot help it. But you cannot just look at things and just be in you cocoon. What is your cocoon? There is no comfort in that. There is nothing in it that you are not looking for a life which is out of this, which is isolated in a kind of cocoon, which you can enjoy. You have to react to what is happening. So automatically it will.. organically it will happen. And I would want to do something where I get more involved, the whole struggle of life is to get engaged. My struggle in drama school was that whatever I used to do, whenever I used to do a role, I was not engaged internally, until you came. And you did some exercises, some improvisations and you did it according to the role which we were playing. So there was a kind of organic relation to the role. That’s the first time I experienced what acting could do to you. How you could feel it. Otherwise I was struggling to, for half a year I was struggling how to feel. Then I would try going to Lal Quila and Bada Quila and whatever to get inspiration. Purana Quila, I would go to Purana Quila to get inspiration. Nothing was happening, I was doing Oedipus, so I was struggling to feel. So that happened organically. So it has to happen organically. So what I was saying, is you need to feel engaged. And only acting and your life cannot, is not enough to get you engaged. I used to claustrophobic when people used to direct me. And they used to tell me do this, do that, and I used to never feel creative about it. I never used to feel like exploring myself. It started later. And then I realised that acting is there to serve me. I should be evolved through acting. Acting itself is nothing. It should add to me as a human being. It should enrich my experience of living my life. So I don’t see myself as an actor and given a choice, I don’t know whether I’d like to again become an actor. I am trying to make it more and more fruitful for me.
Prasanna: I am asking this question, because for someone like me, it’s easier. I had the same problem and I had to choose. So I chose to get into sectors like hand-making, sectors like handloom, which I could do. I am not an actor, I am a director, I am a writer, so I could. For an actor as you said, it is much more difficult. You are either stuck in Bombay or stuck somewhere else to manage the two it’s not that easy.
Irrfan: The challenge is not just that. The challenge is also that the system doesn’t want you to voice your opinion. But you have to find other ways, there is another way I think by which you don’t need to voice your opinion, you do something.
Prasanna: You are talking about the system quite often. Are you talking about the intolerance that is getting into the system?
Irrfan: Whoever is governing you, wants the status quo. It could be any party. Some parties are more aggressive about it. Some parties are more lenient about it. And unless and until you push the main nerve, they don’t react. But in our country, we don’t have, we welcome any voice which has dissent.
Prasanna: Did you know that 80 per cent of the Muslims in this country are of artisanal class? It is the artisans who went in a large exodus to Islam. Do you want to do something with the artisanal class, because they are so integrated. It is not just Muslims.
Irrfan: As I was reading up about the subject and I just came to know that after agriculture, the second-largest community is of artisans. So there’s a huge number of people. And the income of world-over income is some $400bn, but India consists only 2 per cent. Not even 2 per cent. Though we have such a large number of artisans, why, because they are in a bad condition.
Prasanna: They are not getting the value, getting the price
Irrfan: I think this is the way our society was before the British came, before they introduced industry. We were living on this, on our hand-made things. And they were not interested in industries, they were forced to come and work with the industry. And I think this is the time you have to go back and you have to depend on... I have a very cynical approach towards this word ‘development’. And to what. Development has to be according to the condition of your own society, your country or state. It cannot just, the formula cannot just be imposed randomly. You have to see the condition, what suits you and what doesn’t suit you. There are things that just don’t suit us. Like Google is coming up with cars, which is no-drivers, you don’t need a driver for that. It could be great for other nations, but it cannot be good for us. Where will all these people go? Because our society is dependent there is so much of manpower so we have to come up with things where the manpower is used. Otherwise that manpower will be useless. And it’ll do damage to the whole rhythm.