The very accomplished Marathi filmmaker Nagraj Manjule has just made his full-fledged acting debut in the Marathi film The Silence. Shockingly enough, Nagraj plays a child rapist and a wife beater. He is not only shown brutally raping and beating his wife (played by the very accomplished Anjali Patil) his character also violates a little girl who happens to be his niece.
Now Nagraj is flooded with hate calls from all across Maharashtra. Says the shy reticent media-wary director, “Did I expect this kind of a backlash? I wouldn’t say I am surprised. Because ours is a predominantly emotional audience and it reacts not to the performance but to the character played by the actor.”
While accepting this heinous role Nagraj was aware he would be judged harshly. Actors like Farhan Akhtar have gone on record to say they would be loath to play rapists and serial killers, given the rise in crimes against children and women.
Argues Nagaraj, “That perception of keeping away from morally reprehensible characters is not to be judged by me. Actors who say they will stay away from negative characters are right in their own way, as they are seen as role models. Me? I have a different take on the issue of actors pre-judging their characters’ morality. Someone has to do the dirty job in order to bring out the morally correct viewpoint in a film. If I hadn’t played the evil sexually discrepant Maama (uncle) in The Silence the film’s strong statement on protecting our children and women from violence would have been diluted.”
About being seen as a villain by the audience Nagraj shrugs, “Isn’t that a compliment to my skills as an actor? The very distinguished Marathi actor Nilu Phule who was a fine human being in real life, spent most of his career playing evil characters, so much so that he was perceived as an undesirable human being. And he was proud of that.”
Nagaraj sees the sexual predator in The Silence as no ordinary villain. “He is that evil force within us lurking in so many middleclass homes. So often we hear of children being violated by trusted relatives. We all have evil and positivity within us. Which of the two sides in our personality is given predominance is determined by our own moral values. The uncle who rapes the little girl in The Silence could be anyone anywhere in any home. We need to be conscious of his presence. One way of doing so is by putting him on screen for all to see.”
Nagaraj sees a lot of reformist cinema such as The Silence and Nagaraj’s own historic Sairat happening in Marathi. “I suppose historically, West Bengal and Maharashtra were at the forefront of the reformist movement. Samaaj sudhar is an organic part of Marathi society and cinema. We need to make many more films on issues such as sexual violence and paedophilia.”
So is this the beginning of a parallel career for the National award winning filmmaker? “Not really. If you remember I’ve done bit parts and cameos earlier. I had one in my own film Fandry. But The Silence is my first full-length role. I’d love to explore more acting possibilities.”
In November Manjule Nagaraj begins shooting for his first Hindi film starring Amitabh Bachchan.
So would he have a role in that? “I will see if there is a chota-mota role for me .Who wouldn’t like to share screen space with Bachchan Saab? But when I am directing I’d rather not do a major role myself. I am not so skilled as to balance out two roles as a director and an actor in the same film. But when I am directed by someone else I’d like to be seen in bigger roles. The Marathi stalwart Dada Kondke could act and direct himself in film after film. I don’t have a multi-tasking skill.”