Parikshat-SahniWhen I went for my morning jog today, I was apprehensive. I have grown a huge white handlebar moustache and sideburns for a film, and they have completely changed my persona. I was worried this would have a disastrous effect on my acting career. Like most actors, I try to look younger than I am.

What happened on the beach, however, was utterly unexpected. A well-dressed, stout gentleman stopped me and said: “I say, you look handsome. Who are you? I like your moustache. What is your name?”

I thought I was fairly well-known. I was taken aback at not being recognised. “Afzal Khan”, I replied, tongue in cheek. “Afzalbhai. Ah, yes, of course. Afzal Khan. How could I forget? I have seen you in bit roles here and there. You are a fine junior artiste. Would you like to act in an ad film for a change? Have you ever acted in an ad film before?”

“No, I am afraid not,” I replied meekly.

“Don’t worry. We will coach you. Acting is a bum’s job anyway. It is simple. Get in touch with me.”

Saying this, he handed me his card and went on his way. I should have felt down in the dumps after this conversation. On the contrary, for some unknown reason, I felt elated.

There is a tendency most adults have to hang on to their youth. Some of the actors I have known refuse to change and try their utmost to maintain their youthful image till the end. Some get facelifts done, some dye their hair regularly, some get their teeth polished and realigned, wear youthful clothes, get hair transplants or have jet-black hairpieces made. They continue to do the same youthful, romantic roles and stick to the mannerisms that made them popular in their heyday. And, I must say, sometimes they are supremely successful. Devsaheb was an example.

I, an actor with neither a large fan following nor an extraordinary body of work, a fairly mediocre character actor trying to eke out a living, have tried to hang on to youth for as long as I can. And, I am beginning to realise this might be a mistake.

The wise ones accept the onset of age with grace and profit by it. Naseeruddin Shah is an example. So is my friend Om Puri. They were, and are, immensely versatile character actors. MrBachchan, however, was always a leading man and a romantic hero. He was in the top echelons when, after his near fatal accident, he grew a snow-white goatee. Everyone, including me, thought he was making a blunder and doing irreparable damage to his image.

We were all mistaken. He came out stronger and has become a legend. Just how popular he has become over the years was made evident to me one day when we were on a film shoot together on a dry and dusty tract of land outside Bikaner. A young lady standing among the spectators a furlong away suddenly became hysterical, broke the security cordon, fought ten hefty armed guards and numerous members of the film unit and made her way to MrBachchan, falling and getting up again on her way, paying no heed to her torn clothes and scratched knees and elbows. She finally collapsed at MrBachchan’s feet, bleeding and bruised.

When his bodyguards and members of the crew tried to push the woman away, MrBachchansignalled to them not to touch her. Empathy is the hallmark of a true artist. MrBachchan gently picked the woman up and hugged her as a father would a child. The woman began to sob uncontrollably. God knows what ailed her tortured soul. She cried for a while and, as he held her and patted her back, she calmed down. A hush fell over the spectators. They were touched by his solicitude, his warmth, his kindness. They began to chant “Amitabh Bachchanzindabad” at the top of their lungs. It was a moving scene.

For his role, MrBachchan was sporting a huge white beard that made him look much older than he really is. And, yet, audiences adore him more and more with each passing year.

The gentleman on the beach made me realise that change is the law of the universe. That growth is endemic to life. That in the final analysis only stones do not grow. Clinging on to one’s old image, like I was doing, is foolish. It ossifies a person and, more often than not, makes an actor stale.

This was brought home to me forcefully this morning. I must thank the rotund gentleman on the beach. I think I will cultivate this huge, silvery white moustache and sideburns from now on.

The author is a well-known film actor.