He is a villain, please note. Or you’ll never get past the fact that he’s a really nice man.

 

I’m running a little late for a meeting with actor Ashish Vidyarthi. The bus is dawdling along and I am forced to jump off and take a cab urging the driver to speed up. “Bhago bhago,” I yell and realize that this resembles a chase sequence right out of Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin, which was Vidyarthi’s breakout film.

Ashish Vidyarthi is quietly resting in his flat, a bit worn out by a family marriage he has come to attend in Kolkata. Related to the city by marriage, he is of mixed parentage himself. “My father is a Malayali who wrote under the pen name Vidyarthi, my mother, a Bengali. I grew up in Delhi and now live and work in Mumbai,” he says by way of introduction. Despite his darkly intense villain image, the guy is niceness personified. Forget about being swallowed up live, he likes to chat and what emerges is a conversation in the abstract. Not so much about things like why he chose acting as a career, about not possessing the classical looks to be a hero but of life in general, of which acting is a very small part according to him.

“I am enriched by life’s many experiences. I just keep my passion for acting on simmer. I don’t get consumed by it. I enjoy life, celebrating each moment to its optimum. There are good moments in acting which provide the temporary highs but I am not the sort of person to have it all neatly planned out,” he says. And maybe for life’s many varied acting experiences, he agreed to play the villain in a Bengali jatra called Koborsthaner Kosai (the butcher of the graveyard). “It didn’t work out last season (that is between September-March),” he says, but if it happens he will be able to display a much rawer energy in acting in front of a semi-urban crowd. Vidyarthi did a stint at National School of Drama from 1987-90, and much before that, while at nursery school, he made his first public appearance in a play directed by Habib Tanvir. He played Lav, one of the twin sons of Lord Ram.

“I went to NSD to get equipped, to hone my craft but I have always had this arrogance of being a fine actor inside,” he confesses. So it came as no surprise when Saeed Mirza offered him a role in a film titled Kutte Ki Maut which never got made. He did some good roles on television but this is something he has put behind him—“No more serials.”

Many good film roles have happened. Whoever can forget the terrorist in Govind Nihalini’s Drohkaal, or the bhai in Is Raat… directed by Sudhir Mishra. Like he says, acting is just another job so there are all kinds of roles including the mainstream ones. “There is a maniacal streak in all actors I guess,” he says, “in playing all kinds of roles—the murderer, the murdered; the robber, the robbed… I am here to create a certain belief which I communicate to the audiences, whoever they are.” So from Kaho Na Pyar Hai, to Jodi No. 1, and other films in between. The two Tamil films he enjoyed doing are Pugal and Dhil directed by Purna Chandra Rao, and two other films in Telugu. He has just played the lead in Mukhavinaya, a Hindi film directed by theatre director-actor, Shyamanand Jalan. “It is about a Malayali gentleman who is settled in Bengal and who runs a mime company.”

“I don’t differentiate between roles, whether these are in mainstream or otherwise. It is a niche market in which both silk and cotton shirts provide a different kind of satisfaction.” It is for this reason he does not believe that there is just one kind of cinema—that is, good cinema. He is still one of those actors who believe that there is a parallel cinema which can be kept alive. “Have an exclusive hall showing strictly art films; let these have their own audiences,” he says, “why bridge the gap?” In other words, “there are always some fast moving items in a menu but that does not mean that the restaurant does not offer a choice”. Cinema should continue to offer this choice, he strongly feels.

He has not deserted the stage. His recent Dayashankar Ki Diary received rave reactions. So slipping easily between roles and the medium, he treats life like one big onion. “You keep peeling to find out what’s inside”. He quotes from Irfan Zabu’s Mephisto: after all “I am just an actor.”

 

This article was first published in the June 2001 issue

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