Thought Box

Welcome to Ashok Mishra

Welcome to Ashok Mishra

by Aparajita Krishna September 30 2020, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 39 mins, 0 secs

The two Hindi films that writer Ashok Mishra is popularly associated with in the cine-goers’ mind are Shyam Benegal’s Welcome to Sajjanpur and Well Done Abba, writes Aparajita Krishna

I could have also named this article - Well done Ashok.

Herein, we talk of his backstory and of his theatre, television and film-work that merit not just mention, but attention. The talk is garnished with wonderful anecdotes of his work and making. Ashok Mishra’s personality reflects in this written communication. I have giggled and also laughed at some of his replies that quietly carry a delicious bite of very subtle humor. Ashok Mishra appears to be a sober man, but anyone who has interacted with him would note that beyond the pleasantness of a quiet demeanor lies a delicately playful strand of rooted humor that he carries in him. A worthy interview-article is one from which the writer of the article too learns. This has been a very pleasant and informative tour of Ashok Mishra’s grounded work.

Though this article is being carried in English I must invoke Ashok Mishra’s rhyme-poem. “Hindi prem ki bhasha hai/Har nirdhan ki aasha hai/Hindi ka thoda swaad chakhein/Hindi doodh-batasha hai.”  

Bilaspur born Ashok Mishra was a child of the 1950s. Bilaspur was then in the state of Madhya Pradesh and in the present is in Chhattisgarh. His father Shri Ramswaroop Mishra was an education officer. Till class 3, Ashok studied in Bilaspur. In 1960, his father got transferred to Satna where the family settled. Till BSC second year studies they were at Satna. Thereafter he completed his graduation and MA from Raipur. The very knowledgeable adult recalls, “I was a phisaddi, a good for nothing in studies. Mathematics would run to bite me. That is why even today I am weak in the mathematics of life. Hindi and sociology were my favourite subjects.”

Ashok’s father had interest in literature. His mother Amba Devi was class 4 pass, but would read the Ramayan. His elder sister Pushpa would narrate bed time stories to him at night. Elder brothers Rajendra Mishra  and Krishna Kumar Mishra were interested in writing poetry. Any reputed poet and writer who would visit Bilaspur would get invited home for a meal. Harivansh Rai Bachchan and also Gopaldas Neeraj, visited home and aroused curiosity in child Ashok. Later a brother of his became professor of Hindi in Satna University and Mahadevi Verma, Balkavi Bairagi and Kaka Hathrasi got invited home. During the Raipur stay, the family played host to people of such literary and cultural eminence like Agey, Nirmal Verma, Habib Tanvir, BV Karanth, Shyam Benegal, Basu Chatterjee and M K Raina.

Ashok’s flashback recalls, “In those days there was this craze to become a doctor. I too tried to get high marks but got caught in the act of cheating. I lost a year. This effected me a lot. I then chose to leave science and got myself admitted into Raipur’s Durga Arts College. I now started to enjoy my studies. Our Hindi professor and playwright, Shri Vibhu Khare, became more a friend than a guru. We would, in the class, discuss stories published in the Hindi magazine Sarika. The other students would gape at us.”    

In your childhood and youth, would you watch films?  

I saw my first film in life, ‘Kala Chor’, at the age of six. I felt I am experiencing some kind of a magic. While studying in class eight, I saw the film ‘Shri Ganesh’ six times. I would enjoy watching the films of Dara Singh. The films that lived to stay in memory were, Mughal-e-Azam, Mother India, Sujata, Bandini, Milan, Aradhana, Koshish, Guide and Anand. But, till the age of fifteen-sixteen I was very petrified of villians/vamps like Jeevan, K N Singh, Lalita Pawar and Pran. When they would appear on the screen I would close my eyes and ears. In my school days I don’t know why but Dev Anand seemed to me like a brother, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor seemed like chacha/paternal uncle, Johny Walker seemed like mama/maternal uncle, Nutan and Meena Kumari appeared like sisters. It was in college when one’s understanding grew that the films of Satyajit, Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwick Ghatak and Shyam Benegal started to attract me. I watched ‘Nishant’ eight times. And I also held a seminar on this film at Ravishankar University.

In school-college would you participate in plays and cultural activities?

In college, professor Shri Vibhu Khare and our professor for economics together directed Badal Sircar’s play ‘Pagla Ghodha’. They assigned me the task of prompting the dialogues. That was my first entry in a play. The play got invited for the Madhya Pradesh Theatre Festival at Indore. It flopped miserably and got so much hooted that the effect spilled over onto the streets. Next day when we went on a tour of Indore we were met with catcalls from many people calling us ‘Pagla Ghoda’ (Mad Horse).

Your link with Chhattisgarh would be strong.

My parents and we brothers were all born in Chattisgarh.

My childhood memory carries deep imprints of Bilaspur’s Company Bagh and river Arpa. My elder brother Shiv and I would leave home to go to school and reach Company Bagh. There used to be big, big tanks containing colourful fishes. We would keep sitting there the whole day long and admire the fishes, the plants and the butterflies. When my father got transferred to Ambikapur I accompanied him. I was then studying in class 7. Every full moon night my father would organise a celebration, a feast. Kheer would be cooked. The adivasis would be invited.  The adivasi girls and boys would drink country liquor in their leaf-vessel and break into their ‘Karma Dance’. That scene appeared to me as if out of a fairy-tale. Once along with my father I spent a whole night navigating across Mahanadi. Two boats were tied together and as we kept plying a singing-troupe sang Chattisgarhi folk songs. The space was lit with petromax. In those days it was customary for a question to keep popping up in our Hindi exam paper - Write an essay on ‘Chandani Raat Mein Nauka Vihar’ (Boat Ride on a Moonlit Night). I would be ecstatic just reading the question. And once I got down to writing the essay there would be no full-stop. I would keep writing and writing. Chattisgarhi lifestyle, folk music and festivals became a part of my life.

Habib Tanvir (playwright, director, actor) is so symbiotically connected to Raipur, Bhopal and Chhattisgarh. His name is synonymous to the region. Do share your experience.

Habib Tanvir was my first guru in theatre. He was once doing a ten day theatre workshop with us at Raipur. We noticed that he went on conducting the rehearsal of his play with his Chattisgarhi actors. One day passed, second day passed. Then on the suggestion of the other participants I asked him, “Sir, what is happening? You are not teaching us anything.” Bas, upon hearing this he got furious. He was very fair complexioned and now his face turned very red. “Idiot, Stupid! Get-out of here!” I left in a huff and took my place under a tree. My feelings were a mix of sadness and anger. Tea break came. Habib Saab came up to me. In a quiet tone he said, “Look, till now you do not know the ABC of theatre. The actors working in my theatre company are great actors. What you can learn by just watching my actors like Feeta Bai, Mala Bai, Govind Nimalkar and Bhulva Ram is way beyond what I can teach you. Just look how spontaneous are these illiterate actors from the villages! How easily they get into their characters! How wonderful is their improvisation! From tomorrow you sit next to me.” Thereafter I kept sitting next to him and he kept teaching me the rudiments, the magical tricks of theatre: blocking, the colors of theatre, etc. And I became his student. I watched many of his plays. Mitti Ki Gaadi, Gaon Ke Naam Sasural Mor Naam Damaad, Bahdur Kalaarin and Charandas Chor were plays I saw many times. Then along with a few friends I created my own theatre group ‘Rachna’, and staged ‘Andher Nagri’. Habib Saab came to watch. Whenever he would come visiting Raipur I would meet him. Passion, craze, surrender to theatre were emotions I learnt from him.

Later while studying at the NSD I would on a Sunday go watch his rehearsal. During the rehearsal his actors would also cook food. Many of the female actors would participate and speak their dialogues on stage while breast-feeding their children. Sometimes there would ensue a fight between Habib Saab and his team. There would be an open exchange of abuses. And then they would come back to normalcy and re-start their rehearsals.

Ashok tells the backstory of his entry into the National School of Drama, Delhi, and the learning. “Actually I was not  keen to go to the NSD. It was my friend Somesh who wanted to and he filled my form as well. I accompanied him to Delhi just to roam around the capital. The added attraction was to meet some known poets residing there. I had made no preparation for the visit, but I addressed with confidence and logic the NSD interview conducted by a panel that included B. V. Karanthji. He had said, ‘Show us your acting, dance, singing.’ In my mind I recalled Habib Tanvir Saab and his great actors and performed. I don’t know what the panel saw in me, but I got admission. This was in 1979. Right from the outset I was interested in learning direction, but Karanthji wanted us to learn all the disciplines of theatre: acting, direction, stagecraft, lightening; also makeup. The idea was that once we go back to doing theatre in our towns and villages we would not find people there who would know these aspects of theatre. We ourselves would have to address it all. So one learnt it all but my interest was only and only in direction and in studies. I made full use of the libraries at the NSD and at the Sahitya Academy. Acting is dear to me, but I never thought of becoming an actor.”

Among his NSD batchmates were very talented students like Waman Kendre, Virendra Saxena, Himani Shivpuri, Hema Singh, Bani Sharad and students from Bangladesh and Mauritius. Among  his seniors at the NSD were Neena Gupta, and Annu Kapoor. “While acting if I was unable to address something then these people would guide me. Annu Kapoor once spent a whole day to correct my timing in acting.”

He feels fortunate to have acted under the direction of B V Karanth who was then the director of NSD. Ashok recalls, “Karanthji was very knowledgeable about theatre music and folk arts. He was a highly imaginative director. Despite being a Kannada he learnt Hindi, Urdu and Sanskrit. He stayed in Benaras to learn music. He could create colorful music from just about anything: a plate, a piece of wood, a stone, footsteps of actors, the rustle of clothes. He wanted us to recognize the strength and possibilities that lay in our folk-arts and make use of them in our urban theatre. Karanthji’s teachings left a deep impression on me. ‘Vidya Sundar’ was my first play at the NSD. Karanthji had directed it and given music. ‘Baavri Preet Na Kariyon Koi’, set to tune by him was a song sung by us students in the chorus.” 

He feels privileged for having learnt under very knowledgeable gurus like B M Shah, Kirti Jain, Devendra Raj Ankur and Anuradha Kapur. Then there were Fritz Bennewitz, an expert in Brechtian theatre, and Leon Augusta who was promoting process theatre. “These foreign directors helped open many closed doors of our mind. In those days the NSD repertory had actors like Manohar Singh, Surekha Sikri, Uttara Baokar, Pankaj Kapur, K K Raina, Raghuveer Yadav and a director like Ranjit Kapoor. I learnt a lot by watching their works.  The plays directed by Karanthji like Vidya Sundar, Baghwad Ajjukiyam, Andher Nagri and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and directed by Fritz Bennewitz in which I acted, live in my memory till today. Then plays like Mukhya Mantri and Begum Ka Takiya, directed by Ranjit Kapoor I just cannot forget.”

After graduating from the NSD, Ashok stayed at Delhi for a few years and did freelance theatre. He recounts incidents. “Bharatmuni heard my call and I got the opportunity to do theatre with the workers of Delhi Cloth Mill. I chose to do a nautanki written by me, ‘Bajje Dhindhora Urf Khoon Ka Rang’, with the workers. We did many shows in many factories and amidst thousands of workers. Shri Dushyant Chauhan, father of the famous singer Sunidhi Chauhan, had in this play fabulously performed the role of a dhindhorchi/drummer. Shri Anil Sharma, an officer at D.C.M, was so impressed by the play that he offered me a flat to stay in and a monthly salary of Rs 1600/- to do two plays in a year, Ramlila and Krishnalila. I promptly took up the offer and experimented with their ongoing Ramlila to give it a fresh energy.

Dushyant Chauhan was a strong looking young man with sharp features. I cast him as Ram. One day Shaantdev, a worker/mazdoor, came up to me and almost pleaded, ‘If you give me a role in the Ramlila then I will get allotted a kholi to stay in. My family and I have been staying with my brother, his wife and children. Everyday there is some friction. Just yesterday my brother kicked me.’ I gave Shaantdev the role of Vibhishan. In the Ramlila show Ravan kicked Vibhishan on his chest. When Vibhishan let out a cry then Pathakji, the director of DCM, sitting next to me exclaimed ‘Wah Wah!’ He then asked me, ‘Who is this actor?’ I said, ‘Shaantdev. His brother kicks him every day. Tells him to get out of his kholi.’ And the very next day Shaantdev got allotted a kholi.”

Ashok Mishra did not rest with just doing Ramlila and Krishnalila. He also did plays like Shakespeare’s ‘Comedy of Errors’ with the workers, as also Brecht’s ‘The Exception and the Rule’ and Moliere’s ‘The Bourgeois Gentleman’.

The workers would work relentlessly in the cloth mill from morning to evening and once the evening bell would sound they would rush out of the mill and come running for rehearsals.

Ashok remembers, “Once the rehearsals would begin it would appear as though these workers had forgotten their daily troubles or rather a lifetime of troubles. They would immerse themselves in this world of theatre.” 

This very theatre-driven-man Ashok also got for himself the job of a drama teacher at Modern School, Vasant Vihar, Delhi. The erstwhile Modern School teacher would recall to me with a straight face and self-deprecating humor, “At Modern School the children came from the creamy layer of society. I came from the middle class. For improvisations I would give them topics such as, ‘Go buy vegetables from the market!’ or ‘Enact a scene at the bus-stop!’ etc., but those children neither knew the going rates of the vegetables nor the experience of standing at a public bus-stop. They would improvise very badly.

Finally I gave up and instead asked them to improvise and enact scenes as per their choice. They chose to enact ‘The scene of checking in at the Heathrow Airport’ or else  ‘A fight at the Eiffel Tower’. Needless to say I had no experience of these locations. Then gradually we found a tuning and together we started enjoying our work. Among my students here were Shweta Bachchan and Abhishek Bachchan. Once years later when I met Amitabh Bachchanji, I shared this experience with him. He enjoyed the sharing. Later at a party at Boman Irani’s place, I happened to meet Aishwarya and Abhishek Bachchan. I told Abhishek that I had taught acting to him at Modern School. He was surprised and remarked, ‘that was you! You have changed so much!’ I added, ‘you too have changed. Back then you were an innocent class seven schoolboy and today you are a star and the husband of Miss World!’”

Ashok Mishra’s mornings would be spent with the children from the upper class of society and his evenings with the workers from the lower class. “Now what to do with my afternoons? So, I then organized a theatre group, Kaumudi, comprising of boys and girls from the middle class society and started working with them in the afternoons.”

When DCM closed down, the workers-repertory too got shut. “They drove a bulldozer on the stage and on the open air theatre where we would do our plays. At that place now stands a high-rise building. The principal of Modern School retired. The new one had no understanding of the arts or theatre. He would interact with me as one does with a typical teacher. I kicked away my job! I was heart-broken. I was not enjoying my stay at Delhi. One day I packed my personal stuff and my books and along with my savings of Rs. 7000, I boarded a train to Mumbai. This was in the last month of 1987.”

Mumbai, a city of dreams! Ashok Mishra hastens to add, “But, I had not come here with big dreams. I would always keep my bag ready for a return. I knew that if nothing materialised here, I would go back to my Raipur or Satna and do theatre there.”

At Mumbai his friend Somesh Agrawal had his flat. A bed had just got vacant. Ashok landed on that bed. He would also go sit at Prithvi Theatre. Ashok’s flashback recalled, “A lot many strugglers would keep sitting there, sad and downcast. Many would have run away from their native homes to come join films. But there was no work for them. Back then even the serials were being made only for Doordarshan. They had no work in theatre too. For day to day living some would sell pens in the local trains, some would work as mechanics, some as tailors. Sanjay Dutt’s duplicate would also come and sit there. Hatendar Tandon would perform acts at marriages with burning candles on his body. We got acquainted with each other and together formed our theatre group and called it Gammat. In the backyard of Sun and Sand Hotel, there would be some light. We started our play rehearsals at the sea side. We performed Mahakavi Bhasa’s Urubhangam, and started the preparation for Julius Caesar. The struggler-actors would now proudly claim at a film office, ‘I am a member of ‘Gammat Drama Group!’ ‘We are going to be doing Julius Caesar, I will be acting as  Antony!’ ‘I am acting as Casca!’ - They would also narrate a few dialogues. They started getting small, small roles. Now they started asking me for leave to go shoot for a film. ‘Sir, I have got a role in a film! There is two day shooting lined up, can I go and shoot?’ I started giving them leave. As a result in the final run-through of the play, even Antony, Casca and Caesar did not turn up. I then folded up the play.”

The teaching however did not go in vain. Ashok Mishra would in the present proudly claim, “One of my students from this group, Pramod Mishrekar, is nowadays in America and acts in Hollywood films and on television. The other day he WhatsApped to me a voice-message in which he had recorded a speech of Julius Caesar in English. His remark said ‘Sab Juhu beach mein aapse seekha hai Gurudev’ (All this I have learnt at the Juhu Beach from you Sir)! Sushil Upadhaya, who would do the role of Antony is today the director of Bhojpuri films. Hatendar Tandon’s book of poems has got published and he presents some Hindi programmes for foreign radios. His son Ayush Tandon has acted in the famous film ‘Life of Pi’ (2012) as the 11-12 year old Pi Patel.”

Back then when the struggling actors started getting roles in films, then teacher Ashok Mishra planned his next move. “I wanted to be a director. I got offered a film by a producer but I turned it down saying that a film is a technical medium about which I have no knowledge and so your money will get wasted. I also did not want to become someone’s assistant. Then I thought why not become a writer? That way I would be close to a film director and would learn direction. I landed up at Shyam Benegal’s office. My written nautanki had got published as a book. I gifted him that. They were then making the television serial Bharat Ek Khoj (based on Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India). Shama Zaidi, Sunil Shanbag and Vasant Deo were in his team of writers. Shyam Babu said that if I wanted I could join that group. I immediately said ‘yes’. He gave me a script that was in English and asked me to write down the Hindi dialogues and revert by tomorrow. I came back with that script - but at that time I did not have a good understanding of English. Nor do I have it today. So, I bought two three English-Hindi dictionaries and referred to them. The next day I managed to narrate the script to Shyam Babu. He liked it and I got inducted into the Bharat Ek Khoj team. I wrote the dialogues for many episodes of Bharat Ek Khoj: the Ram episode and the Chandragupta Maurya episode in which Satyadev Dubey played Chanakya. The one on Akbar is very dear to me. It was during Bharat Ek Khoj, that I got acquainted with Om Puri ji and this association became deeper over the years.” 

A net-search for a list of Ashok Mishra’s work and films ends up confusing one. There appears to be another Ashok Mishra too. Our man with his trademark humor says, “Mere naam ka bara golmaal hai - There is a lot of confusion around my name. There are about four Ashok Mishras on the net. One at Vardha University is an editor of a magazine. One is a jadugar/magician in Rajasthan, one is a film producer and one is a right-wing bhakt. As a result sometimes in the public space my introduction says that I also do jaadu, magic. Many believe I am a rightwing bhakt. Some ask me, ‘Will you sell the rights of your film?’”

This Ashok Mishra did happen to direct a film called Tapra Talkies, but because of a great paucity of funds it did not shape up as well as he wanted it to. He tells me, “But I have not given up on direction. The father of Indian cinema Dadasaheb Phalke will surely one day bless me and I will be able to direct a film.”

Writer Ashok Mishra’s work and struggle was progressing. He met Saeed Mirza whose films attracted him. He had really liked the serial Nukkad that had ordinary everyday characters. Saeed Mirza informed him that he was at that point not doing any work. Aziz Mirza and Kundan Shah were doing the serial Intezaar. So Ashok met them. His flashback told me, “When I met Aziz Mirza he was in the midst of scolding his writer over an episode. He instructed me with a gesture to take my seat. For about two hours I sat witness to his angry outburst. Finally he told his writer that tomorrow morning at 9am he wanted his script ready. But the writer informed him that he has a radio recording the next morning. Aziz became angrier. He said, ‘Okay then you leave’. After the writer had left Aziz gave me a look and said, ‘Did you hear what I want?’ I replied ‘Yes’. He said, ‘Okay then you write it and revert back tomorrow.’ I said, ‘Will not your writer feel bad?’ He said, ‘No no I will give him some other episode to write. You write this one.’ At seven in the evening I left his office. I was in a dilemma. Aziz seemed to be a very angry person. What will I write and how will I write? I went to the beach and kept sitting there. At about 9pm I had my dinner at Romeo’s Dhaba and returned to my flat at Borivali. As is the practice, a writer keeps postponing his writing. I switched on the TV and started to watch the news. The news got over and the late night telecast showed Tarkovsky’s film Solaris. I started watching it. The film engrossed me. It ended very late at night. Then through the rest of the night I wrote the episode for Aziz Bhai. The next day in the morning I reached his house. There Saeed Mirza, Kundan Shah and their assistants were waiting. I did not allow my inner nervousness to show on my face and narrated the episode. They liked it very much. This was how I got introduced to Aziz, Saeed and Kundan. I wrote three episodes for Aziz Bhai. He never once scolded me. He turned out to be his namesake, very Aziz, dear. Even till today he sometimes calls me up.”

After serial Intezaar, Aziz Mirza and Kundan Shah got making the serial Circus. Ashok Mishra was assigned the writing. He told the duo, “To write this I want to meet the circus people and do research.” He and team went to Adoni near Hyderabad and lived with a circus group. They listened to their stories and then returned to Bombay. Ashok would reflect back and confess, “But there was a lot of difference in the way I wanted to write it and the way Aziz was thinking of it. I left that writing.”

But writing did not leave Ashok Mishra. Saeed Mirza came to know of Ashok having left the serial. He called him and asked, ‘Will you write my film?’ Ashok agreed to do so. The director handed the writer a chart. There were notes in it that had been compiled during Saeed’s workshop with some students at the FTII. He now told his writer, ‘Read this and see if a story can emerge out of it.’

The newly assigned film writer took the chart and came home. He then wrote a draft that contained a story. Saeed Mirza liked it. Thereafter, over two and a half years, in installments, the duo kept working on the film Naseem. Once the script was ready, Saeed started to do the casting. Ashok Mishra would recall, “He asked me for suggestions for the casting of the role of Dadajaan. I suggested Amitabh Bachchan, Naseer and Raghuveer Yadav. Saeed would exclaim ‘Wah Wah!’ at every suggested name. And then at the end he asked, ‘How will Kaifi Azmi be?’ I said, ‘Very good, but then he is sick?’ Saeed spoke to Kaifi Saab who then asked for a film narration. I narrated the script to him and he agreed. Later I narrated the script to Shabanaji and Javed Akhtar Saab too. Everyone liked it. The film got made. Saeed and I jointly wrote the film’s screenplay. The dialogues were mine. The film released in 1995. It is an important work that centered around the partition of the subcontinent and the fear and worry of the Muslim community.”

Naseem, set later in years, resonates with the effects of the partition on independent India. It starred Kaifi Azmi Saheb, Mayuri Kango, Surekha Sikri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda in the lead.  Saeed Mirza and Ashok Mishra got the National Award for the screenplay. The director also got the national award for Best Director. What remained etched in Ashok’s memory was the recall of his narration of the script to Kaifi Saab. “I did not know Urdu so well. I was afraid Kaifi Saab would reject the script. But I was in for a surprise when Kafi Saab spoke the dialogues written by me more or less without any alteration and just as I had written. He gave a new writer like me respect. Not like the actors of today who ask ‘Change this word! Change that sentence!’ Kaifi Saab has been a paralytic patient. He would be on a wheel chair and still he shot and his performance is very realistic and spontaneous. When Kaifi Saab died, I too was one among the pallbearers who lent his shoulder to carry the janaza. The thought that came to my mind was that at the end of film Naseem, the Babri Masjid is shown getting demolished and it is the same day that Dada Jaan too breathes his last. Today too a Dada Jaan has left.”

Ashok Mishra said with pride and affection, “Saeed ‘Mirza’ and I ‘Mishra’! I would write Dada Jaan’s dialogues. “Sahi baat toh hai bete, factory koi nawaaz padne ki jagah thode hi hai.’ (It is only correct son; a factory is no place to offer Nawaz). Saeed would immediately remark, ‘Then why does a Hindu supervisor burn agarbati/essence stick in the factory?’ I would include this too in the dialogue. That is how we would protect Naseem the film from becoming pro-Hindu or pro-Muslim and instead maintain a balance. For these reasons I find Naseem to be an important film of mine.”

Can a film like Naseem get made in today’s environment? The film is set between June and Dec of 1992, the days preceding the demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya. 

 No! I don’t think in today’s times a film like Naseem can get made. In 1992, during the demolition of Babri Masjid, a hardline Hindu society was fast rising and one which in today’s date is very grown and risen. Now to attempt make a film like Naseem would be risk-laden. Even if it gets made who knows how many cuts the censor board would inflict upon it’s body? The film may die prematurely before its release-birth on screen.  

Ashok Mishra takes us through a talk on film ‘Samar’ that got released in 1999 - Shyam Benegal directed this NFDC film.

“One day Shyam Babu mentioned that we have to make a film on caste practice and Dalit issue. He asked me if I had a story in mind. I reminded him that he had given me to read some case studies of Harsh Mander Saab. We could develop an idea from there. Shyam Babu chose two incidents from there and asked me to write the story based on the incidents. I wanted to go and do research. Shyam Babu is a director who understands the importance of research. He immediately got all arrangements made. I reached a small village Kulal, in Sagar district of Madhya Pradesh where an incident of Dalit torture had taken place. I stayed for three days in the hut of the Dalit who had been tortured. He served me delicious food. He and his friends narrated to me shocking incidents of oppression they had undergone. When I went to meet the oppressors they started to snatch my camera away. I instead assured them that my work is in their favor. They believed me and narrated to me the incidents from their point of view. I visited many Dalit villages of Bundelkhand, met many officials and bureaucrats and gathered material. On my return I narrated all the incidents to Shyam Babu and told him that to tell this story I have thought of a form. I want to write it as a conversation between a writer and a director and conceptualize the scenes such. Shyam Babu then asked me to include the whole film unit who go to the village to shoot the real incidents into the script. I really liked his suggestion and I wrote Samar as a film within a film. The film was shot at Kulal village itself. Writing my first film for Shyam Babu was akin to diving into an ocean of knowledge. He is immensely well-read and a man of free thought. He gives a writer complete freedom. He respects a writer’s ideas and encourages a writer’s imagination. He would correct my shortcomings in such a way that I would not even come to know. His sense of humour is remarkable. So is mine. That is why we get along. I have written Samar in such a way that even a sad moment, a sad incident can be seen with humor. Otherwise who would as an audience want to watch Dalit oppression, the cries and wails? I learnt from Shyam Babu how to use in cinema our folk life, folk music and sense of modernism etc. I wrote the dialogues for Samar as was spoken by those villagers. The film was very much liked by our President Shri K R Narayanan ji. He arranged for the film’s screening at the Rashtrapati Bhavan for the politicians and parliamentarians. Shri Kanshi Ram, Sitaram Yechury, Ajit Jogi, Sonia Gandhi and others were in the audience. For me to sit among such noted national leaders and watch my film was a thrilling experience. The film won the best feature film award and I won the national award for best script. In my mind and heart I thanked Shyam Babu and those suppressed-Dalits who taught me to state the truth.”

That same year Ashok wrote a children’s film for Virendra Saini. Kabhi Paas Kabhi Fail also got the national award for Best Children’s Film.  

Jagmohan Mundhra’s film Bawandar/Sandstorm (2000) has your screenplay co-written with Sudha Arora. It was based on Bhanwari Devi’s autobiographical story. Throw light on this work.

Jagmohan Mundhra had come to India from America and wanted to make Bawander. He had seen Samar. He asked me to write the sceenplay. He had earlier got the screenplay written by Sudha Arora ji, a respected writer but was not fully satisfied. He gave me a whole lot of research material and asked me to read all of that and then write. I read it all and then told him that I would like to meet Bhanwari Devi. He refused saying ‘What if she asks for a lot of money, or refuses to give permission thinking someone may make an objectionable film on her life.’ I assured him that I would neither reveal my identity, nor the purpose. He then agreed. I took a bus from Jaipur and reached Bhanwari Devi’s village. I had carried some sweets. That day happened to be rakhi festival. Bhanwari Devi tied rakhi on me. She cooked a nice meal for me. She, her husband and children then narrated a life story that was missing in Jagmohanji’s research work. Because I was not proficient in Rajasthani so Jagmohanji got the dialogues written by a Rajasthani. That person put in such theth/stiff Rajasthani in the dialogues that I too found it difficult to follow the dialogues. The scenes that are liked in Bawander are the ones that were narrated to me by Bhanwari Devi.

In popular perception and recall you Ashok Mishra are best associated with the film Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008). This UTV production had a successful run at the box-office and on satellite channels. The story as a political-social satire had very engaging characters and was expertly directed by Shyam Benegal. The story credit goes to Shyam Benegal and the screenplay-dialogues to you who have also written the lyrics for three songs - the title song was Sitaram Sitaram… the political song was Aadmi Azaad hai… and the third one was Aayi Ab Munni Ki Baari. The music was by Shantanu Moitra. Do share the back-story.

Shyam Babu one day asked me to develop a film story about a young man who writes letters for others. He handed me 2-3 self-written pages that carried the story of a young Mahadev to whom an old woman in the village regularly comes to get letters written to her son in the city. But no reply comes to her from her son’s end. The old woman rebukes Mahadev and his degree. Mahadev then puts all his own emotions into a letter and it gets a reply from the old woman’s son. That was all that was written. I have still kept preserved that hand note from Shyam Babu. This time I said that I wanted to go to Baghelkhand for research. Shyam Babu immediately arranged. I reached Satna and while roaming from village to village reached a small village Sajjanpur, that lies between Satna and Rewa. There I met a retired soldier engaged in cleaning his rifle, a compounder, a widow-girl and Ramsakhi Pannawaali. In the nearby Katni village a kinnar/ transgender had won the mayor’s election. These characters stayed with me and started to emerge as tracks in the story. Shyam Babu and I also wove in the political angle. I wrote it as a humor-satire, because in our cinema we have a lot of comedies but satires are far less made. I reached UTV to narrate the script. There was Rucha Pathak and her young team, most of whom were Mumbai-centric. They listened very attentively and enjoyed the narration. Then someone remarked that does it not sound like a Bhojpuri film? I said according to me it is a global film. After the film released it did prove to be global. From Canada the famous director Deepa Mehta called up Shyam Babu and said, ‘I was not keeping well. The doctor suggested I must keep myself happy. I saw Welcome to Sajjanpur and I felt good.’ This film is also a favorite of Delhi’s former chief minister, Shiela Dixit. Formerly the film’s name was Mahadev Ka Sajjanpur. Later UTV’s Rucha Pathak suggested the title Welcome to Sajjanpur. The film’s unusual title also contributed into making it a hit. Film critics remarked that thanks to this film, Hindi cinema has again returned to the villages. The film was a hit at the box office. Even today, twelve years later, it keeps playing on some channel or the other. Lot of people say that they have seen this film over 100 times. This film brought me fame. I received the Star Screen Award for Best Dialogues and the Radio Mirchi Award for the song Aadmi Azaad Hai… What more does a writer want! Thank you Shyam Babu, the strong ensemble of actors, the technician team, DOP Rajan Kothari and Rucha Pathak who just after hearing the film script for the first time had given the go-ahead. 

Rucha Pathak’s would tell me, “Ashok Mishraji walked into the office and narrated Welcome to Sajjanpur. I loved the script and there was not a single note that was changed in it. But Shyam Babu lifted it to another level while filming it. For me the best scene of the film, which seemed like an innocuous scene on paper, was when we see that Ram Singh (Yashpal Sharma’s character), who cannot read or write is trying to scare people into voting for him but his political opponent Munnibai (the transgender character played by Ravi Jhankal), signs her nomination papers with her name. It was such a beautiful thought.”

In 2009 came Well Done Abba, a Reliance Big Pictures production directed by Shyam Benegal. Ashok Mishra the writer was again on the job with his director. He recapped, “Jayant Kriplaniji had given a script to Shyam Babu. It was called Still Waters. Shyam Babu had liked the idea but he was not satisfied with the script. He asked me to write the screenplay and the dialogues in my own way. I went to Hyderabad for the research. On my return I started writing the script. Once the first draft got ready we learnt that on this very subject Jilani Babu had written a story called Narsimha Ki Bawri and Hindi storywriter Sanjeev had written Phulwa Ka Pull. Shyam Babu got in touch with them all. They all got the credit and the payment. Later we got to know that on this very subject there is a story of Tenali Ram too, in which the king asks to dig for a pond. A lot of expenditure goes into the digging of the pond but there is no sight of a pond at the bottom of it all. But apart from the basic idea I took nothing from any of their stories. It was thanks to this film that one struck a friendship with Boman Irani. Till today we call each other Gaaru, which in Telegu means Shrimaan. The film received the National Award for Best Film on Social Issues.” 

Ashok Mishra has in his bag/computer more film scripts waiting to be made into feature films.  “One is written for Shyam Babu. Hope this one and the others get made fast. Recently along with my son Yashovardhan, I have co-written a web-series for OTT platform. Hope it will get made soon. Nowadays I am writing a novel.”

You have been so linked with Shyam Babu’s works. Tell us about his qualities.

In the field of direction Shyam Benegal is a towering Himalaya. He is a wise and a knowledgeable director who is on the side of an ordinary man. He is one whose political thinking is clear. One who is not only knowledgeable and informed about world history, geography, psychology and archaeology, but he also knows the history of Indian coins and cigarettes. He is for me an encyclopaedia and more reliable than even Google search.

Ashok Mishra says that when he is not doing film writing then he likes to write plays and poetry. He wrote the play Atke Bhatke Latke Sur, that was staged by Mumbai’s Ank Theatre Group and had many shows in many cities. He is also associated with Sunil Shanbag’s Theatre Arpana and with Rajit Kapur, Shernaz Patel and Rahul da Cunha’s Rage theatre group. He recently adapted Marie Jones’ play Stones in His Pockets as Mosambi Narangi in Hindi. It was very successful and had many houseful shows in many cities. Rage group recently chose for its One on One, a theatre activity related to Coronavirus, a select number of writers, directors and actors. Writers wrote and directors directed actors to render these as monologues.  Ashok’s work was also part of this.  

He confesses, “Returning to theatre invigorates me. It is akin to returning home.” 

The lockdown has seen him conduct webinars related to theatre and discuss the effect of coronavirus times on theatre and the arts. In one webinar he read his plays Raas Bihari ticket Collector and Kachre Ki Hifaazat. Subsequently many theatre groups have shown interest to stage them. Some offers have come in to make them into films.

Do you have any thoughts about the prevailing socio-political atmosphere in our country and the world at large? Challenging times can also nourish literature, art.

These times do not seem to augur well. The democratic values are declining. Freedom of expression is getting throttled. One is supposed to think ten times before speaking, even if it is the truth, be careful while writing. Media, which is supposed to be the fourth pillar of democracy is sold. The reach of law and justice is going further and further away from the common man. Judges are being questioned. The film world has got divided into the right and the left. Suicides are on the rise. News of drugs and sexual abuse keep coming. Don’t know how much truth is in this and how much media hyped but seeing and hearing all that is happening around makes one feel disgusted. As a writer, I can only hope that corona and other discouraging news end soon and the unoccupied get back to doing creative work.

I’d like to end on your positive work. It seems that the characters written by you are ones whom we have met just yesterday. This yesterday can be yesterday of today or say for someone like me, of my childhood or young days. Out of your written characters who are you closest to till today? 

I write films after doing a lot of research. I keep meeting ordinary people like the vegetable vendors, tailors and auto-rickshaw drivers.

My characters are rooted and real. That is why you feel that you know these characters; that you have met them recently. The character closest to me is the vegetable selling letter-writer Mahadev of Welcome to Sajjanpur. While writing I felt as if I am he. I also recall the film’s heroine Kamla.

Many a times I wonder where would she be now? Would she be even remembering Mahadev or not really? Or, would she be happily occupied in her marriage and absorbed and immersed in her relationship with her husband Bansi?  

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.

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