Interview Hindi

Be an artist and not a politician: Yashpal Sharma on retaining the democratic spirit in art

Actor Yashpal Sharma talks about his disillusionment with commercial cinema as he embarks on his journey as a director.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Nobody can forget the character of Lakha in Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan: Once Upon A Time In India (2001), played to perfection by Yashpal Sharma, whose roles often remain etched in memory long after the film is over.

Trained at the National School of Drama (NSD), Sharma got his break in cinema in Govind Nihalani's Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa (1998), where he worked alongside Jaya Bachchan, Nandita Das and Seema Biswas.

His first commercial film role came in Rahul Rawail’s Arjun Pandit (1999), but it was Lagaan that propelled him into the limelight. Then followed a spate of films like Gangaajal (2003), Ab Tak Chhappan (2004), Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2005), Apaharan (2005) and Singh Is Kinng (2008).

However, theatre has remained the actor's enduring love. Yashpal Sharma, who now turns director with a biopic on the Haryanvi poet Pandit Lakshmi Chand, spoke to on the sidelines of the recent Rajasthan International Film Festival (RIFF) in Jaipur about the film and the kind of roles that excite him. Excerpts:

As an actor, you began your journey with theatre and then moved towards films where you have done a variety of roles over the years. What has the journey been like?

The journey has been good but not completely satisfactory. That is the reason why I now avoid commercial films, because I am not satisfied with working in commercial films. But I do one odd [commercial] film in a year so that people do not forget me! Otherwise, I am doing Haryanvi cinema and films that are a bit different, films that are screened on the festival circuit, films in which the role is good, the content is strong, with a sensible script and a good director.

Do you think this is the best time to be an actor because of the huge demand for content of all kinds, be it short films, web-series, or even films?

Yes, you are absolutely right. Digital media has become so strong and with the coming of web-series, the possibilities have increased so much for everyone.

But the content has also increased, so till the time something is highlighted, one doesn’t get to know about it. Definitely employment has increased due to the demand, but there is a downside also, because people are unable to concentrate on things.

Take, for example, series like Katha Sagar (1986) or Tamas (1987), Ramayan (1987), people used to wait for these series and there was a certain dignity in the way things were shown. Today, people look for how much sex, vulgarity or abuses there are in a show, relationships outside of the traditional ones, double meaning, violence... these things have taken precedence. When this generation has children, that’s when they will realize the [ill] effects of all this.

Like I did Gangaajal (2003) or Rowdy Rathore (2012), I saw the effect that the violence had on my children and decided not to do such roles, no matter how much money was offered to me.

I believe that if we have rights, then we have certain duties also, and I want to request the big stars that if people follow you, then you are responsible people and you can change the world. Please clear your thinking and be an artist and not a politician and don’t get into divisions based on caste, religion and politics. These divisions are very wrong and dangerous because this eliminates democratic thought.

You have often pointed out the significance of literature in theatre and cinema. Do you feel that in the current scenario, there is too much emphasis on biopics, where we are adapting the lives of people on to the screen, but somewhere in all that our imagination and creativity is taking a back seat?

I think it’s very inspiring to look at biopics. The film that I am directing is also a biopic — of a folk artist — and it’s an inspiration for artists across the world. Every artist can connect with that story. So, whether it is films like Dangal (2016) or Sultan (2016) on sports, they are very inspiring. And films that are imaginative, like Article 15 (2019), also use facts as a base and then use that to tell a fictional story, which for me, is outstanding. Or films like A Wednesday (2008), which connect with the audience, are very important. Either you make such films, or you make a film like Baahubali (2015).

Which is at the other end of the spectrum — pure spectacle.

Yes, but this in-between state with remakes of South Indian films, where you send 50 people flying with one kick, all this is a very strange type of cinema. I do not want to say that there is a certain way in which cinema should be, but I feel that there should be an issue, or clean entertainment, like 3 Idiots (2009) or Munna Bhai MBBS (2003) and, for me, Article 15 also, such films.

Please tell us more about the film that you are directing.

I got fed up that I could not do the kind of work that I wanted to do. So now I have started doing work that is close to my heart, whether it is the films being screened at the festival here [RIFF], like the Bengali film Fagun Haway (2019) or the film that I am directing, which is absolutely the work that is close to my heart. The script is mine and I am the producer, actor and director. It has taken me four years to put it all together, even though I have a team working with me and it’s been a good journey so far.

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Rajasthan International Film Festival