Raindrop in the Drought
Actor Nana Patekar is bringing hope to farmers in Maharashtra and powering a new movement
THE ARCHETYPAL Hindi film star is a creature in a bubble. His self-absorption is legendary, and social concerns occupy a negligible part of his consciousness. If he indulges in philanthropy, it is invariably accompanied by a lavish splash of publicity.
Among the very few people in Bollywood who transcend this description is Nana Patekar. The star of both offbeat films and blockbusters, who turns 65 next month, has been a silent philanthropist for decades, putting aside a part of his remuneration from every film for the needy. This August, he went personally into the drought-stricken areas of Maharashtra to help the families of farmers who had been driven to suicide by the ongoing agrarian crisis in the state. (According to the National Crime Records Bureau, over 45 percent of the 5650 farmer suicides in 2014 were in Maharashtra. See box: A Bitter Harvest.) After his gesture unexpectedly snowballed into a mass movement, he set up the Naam Foundation to enlist public help--the organization today has volunteers, expert advisors and funds to the tune of Rs12.50 crore.
Patekar himself is no stranger to poverty. Born in Murud-Janjira, a coastal village in Maharashtra's Raigad district, he did odd jobs for money as a child after his businessman father suffered a sudden reversal of fortune. Patekar moved to Mumbai in 1962, from where he subsequently pursued a degree in commercial art from the prestigious Sir J.J. School of Art. Active in Marathi theatre, he made his Hindi film debut with Muzaffar Ali's Gaman in 1978 although recognition came only eight years later with his portrayal of an unemployed Mumbai youth in N. Chandra's Ankush. In 1989, Vidhu Vinod Chopra's Parinda put the seal on his stardom--Patekar's turn as a slightly crazed underworld don brought him mass adulation and a national award. Many of his subsequent commercial films banked on his Parinda image--intense, rough and unpredictable--and bolstered his immense popularity.
In his personal life, Patekar can best be described as a bundle of contradictions. For instance, even while being self-avowedly partial to roles that expose the rot in society and politics, he counts the most controversial politicians among his friends. While his compassion towards the less fortunate is singular, he can be hot-headed and combative. Bal Thackeray was a father figure for him but so was Maharashtra's iconic social worker Baba Amte.
When I met Patekar at his modest, sparsely furnished apartment in Pune, he was down-to-earth and full of droll plainspeak. When I refused an offer of tea, he riposted, as perhaps one of his streetsmart characters on screen would have, "Take it, it's free." Insisting that he did not know English, and would speak only in Hindi and Marathi, he, however, chatted effortlessly in all three languages for this interview.
Year after year we've witnessed farmer suicides. Any particular trigger that made you reach out at this point?
Yes, they have [been committing suicide]… it's just that I was sitting quiet and sipping my drink, so to speak. But at some point things do become unbearable. I had put aside some money to buy a new car, but every day I was seeing these distressing visuals of farmers who had killed themselves for such meagre amounts. So I called my friend, actor Makarand Anaspure, who's from Beed [a drought-prone district in central Maharashtra], and requested him to distribute the money among the affected families.
That was all. I had no intention of getting deeper into it, but Makarand insisted that I go with him to hand out the money. I went a bit reluctantly, thinking I'd come home after that one trip. But after I reached Beed and met the widows of farmers who had killed themselves, I was distraught. I knew then that I had to continue this work until I died.
After the media coverage, a flood of volunteers and donors was at our doorstep. So what began initially as a plan to donate a crore and a half in my personal capacity blossomed into something else. So much money poured in that we didn't need to reach into our pockets after that. We then did the job of postmen--we collected cheques and distributed them.
The response of people has been encouraging, right?
Totally. A tea seller from Pune contributed Rs2000. A beggar gave Rs300… he told me he was from a drought-stricken village and wanted to do his bit. The drivers in my Pune building made a joint contribution of Rs6000.
Among the rich donors, Jugalkishore Tapadia, an old friend, gave us 4000 square feet for an office in Aurangabad and 20 acres on the outskirts for a counselling centre. In Pune, builder Vikas Bhalerao has given us two big offices on Fergusson Road. I, on my part, call corporates and speak to CEOs or senior people there. Most of them are people who've probably seen a Nana Patekar film or two--I tell them, beta, this is what we need, if you can legitimately contribute, please do. Everyone is supporting us--bureaucrats, workers, politicians. My stance is clear: Dawn must break… who the rooster belongs to is irrelevant. (Laughs)
Can an NGO resolve farmers' issues such as water supply, procurement price, or a lack of direct selling outlets for produce?
We're trying to tackle those too. The cheques of Rs15,000 were short-term--like a band-aid on a gaping wound. Among our long-term solutions is adopting villages, generating employment and looking after the education of bereaved children--in fact, Jawaharlal Nehru Engineering College in Aurangabad run by the Mahatma Gandhi Mission, has promised us ten engineering seats for such kids. But most importantly, we're working towards making villages self-sufficient in water. That is their biggest need.
Dr Avinash Pol, a dental surgeon who's worked on the water problem in villages for 18 years, is now a trustee with the Naam Foundation. His strength is rejuvenating depleted water sources, conserving rainfall and connecting the villagers, whom he trains, with the "hundreds of sarkari schemes" that they are unaware of. He is all praise for Patekar, whose greatest asset, he feels, is his star status that brings attention to the cause. "People in the villages have renewed hope now," he says. "I get almost 50 to 60 calls every day from people who want to help."
Apart from Dr Pol, the Naam Foundation has enlisted the services of stalwarts like Popatrao Pawar, former sarpanch of Hiware Bazar, a legendary model village in Maharashtra's Ahmednagar district, and Radheshyam Gomla, who similarly wrought amazing changes in his village Gomla in Haryana and was honoured by the then President Pratibha Patil in 2008. Candidly admitting that he's "just the face," Patekar stresses that "the real heroes are these people."
This is wonderful, but the agrarian crisis is directly connected to indifferent and corrupt governments which have got away without accountability. How will you confront this?
Yes, of every 10 rupees, only 50 paise reaches the intended beneficiaries. We can't do anything about this but we are trying to bring politicians into the loop. Many have met me, and I tell them, "I don't want to know which party you belong to. This problem is in your constituency… we'll need 85 lakhs to solve it. How much will you give?" If they say 25 lakhs, I tell them, chalo, na mera na aap ka, give me 35 lakhs! (Laughs)
Ironically, you are friends with politicians from all parties whose misgovernance is responsible for the situation you're trying to fix.
They are not my personal friends and I don't take personal favours from them. I always say that as long as you don't ask politicians for favours, they remain your friends. The moment you do, there is a price tag on you. But if I want something for the larger public good from a person who is in a position to do it, nothing wrong with it, right? And we are definitely involving the government in this issue… there are things that only the government can handle. We can't do everything ourselves.
Kishor Tiwari, a farmers' leader who heads the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti and is working with the Maharashtra government on the agrarian crisis, agrees. While he believes that Patekar's initiative is not a substitute for long-term government action, it is definitely putting pressure on the government. "They have already started implementing some of his suggestions," he says. "What he's doing and the awareness he's raising is good."
One of the beneficiaries of the Naam Foundation's charity, Jyoti Morale, is the 35-year-old widow of Mahadev, a farmer and agricultural labourer from Beed who committed suicide six months ago. Left to fend for herself and her three small children, she is in tears as she recounts her plight. "Nana and Makarand saheb gave me Rs13,200 in August, which helped me," she says. "I told them I need work more than money, so Makarand saheb is trying to find a job for me."
What drives your desire to help others? You don't publicize it either.
Well, basically I come from a poor family. At the age of 13, I was painting posters for Rs35 a month and one meal. While in college, I painted zebra crossings for Rs15. It's not a big deal, but because of this I feel an immediate connect with the deprived. Their pain becomes my pain.
As for not trumpeting it, let me put it this way. People buy firecrackers and sweets during Diwali--for me, helping those in need is my Diwali. I'm actually doing it for my own happiness. I'm not obliging anybody.
Your film career also seems rooted in your ideology… you once said you chose certain roles because they expressed your angst at the state of affairs in the real world.
Well, the anger and suffocation that you experience when you look at newspaper headlines, the rot around you… you need to let it out.
You'd mentioned Krantiveer in this connection.
Krantiveer was a film that was made after the 1992-93 Mumbai riots. I did it because I connected with it personally. During the riots, I would go around in my jeep, even during curfews, and try to reach out to people to tell them that they were being misled by politicians who were trying to provoke us unnecessarily. The question that would torment me those days was, What the hell is going on?
So here's another contradiction--you have always been very close to Bal Thackeray.
I love Balasaheb even now… he was like a father to me. As a child, I used to love his cartoons in Marmik. He was amazing, an emotional man and a great orator with a wonderful sense of humour. My love for him has nothing to do with his politics or the Shiv Sena. (Pauses) Look, I can't disclose everything we spoke about… but it's not like I never disagreed with him. If I were the kind to accept everything unquestioningly, wouldn't I have joined the Shiv Sena? For that matter, why haven't I joined any political party though they've all made me an offer? Because I can't follow any one philosophy without demur. And I'm too blunt. If I were to join a political party, I'd be kicked out the next day.
I believe Baba Amte was also like a father to you?
Baba Amte was phenomenal--I salute him. I was 23 when I first went to Anandwan, the colony he had set up for people afflicted by leprosy. From then on, we were family… whatever problems I had, I used to tell him. You know, Baba was not just Baba Amte the social worker. He was a journalist, a film critic whose reviews [yesteryear] Hollywood actresses like Norma Shearer used to wait to read. He was a trained wrestler, a lawyer… he had a really colourful life. I would love to be Baba.
You were also very close to Marathi theatre veteran Damu Kenkre?
That's another man whom I love and respect. Damu Kenkre was my professor at JJ. He funded my education… fees, art supplies, everything. It wasn't a large sum--only Rs750. But even today I tell people I have not returned the money to him--because it's beautiful to live under the shadow of obligation of a loved one.
If men like Amte and Kenkre played a part in nurturing the young Patekar's emotional make-up, many of his staunch political beliefs too stem from his childhood and have spilled over into his cinema. Growing up in the house of his parents' landlord Nazir Miyamad in Murud-Janjira, he never quite understood people who differentiated between Hindus and Muslims. This sentiment powered the famous dialogue 'Yeh Musalmaan ka khoon, yeh Hindu ka khoon' from Krantiveer, which he is said to have written. His impatience with the cowardice of the common man in the face of a rotten system led him to write other memorable dialogues in Yeshwant. He admits that he writes dialogues for scenes which he feels strongly about or improvises on written dialogues to the extent of changing them almost entirely.
Patekar is also fiercely nationalistic--a trait that possibly led him to make the protagonist of his first directorial venture, Prahaar, a soldier. This was also perhaps what triggered his declaration that he would never work with actor Sanjay Dutt because of his role in the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts. "That is my personal choice," he shrugs.
Weren't you worried about antagonizing Bollywood by taking an open stand against a star?
No. Because I don't care about surviving in the film industry. If I'm not acting tomorrow, it won't make any difference to me… I'll start doing my theatre. Above all, I want to be able to sleep peacefully… and how will that happen if Nana himself keeps punching me? I have to keep my inner Nana happy all the time.
What's your real name, by the way?
Vishwanath. My mother's friend used to call me Nana, and it stuck. Now even my passport has Nana on it.
One last question--again about nomenclature. Why 'Naam' Foundation?
'Naam' is the Marathi word for the holy sandalwood paste that the Warkaris, pilgrims of a spiritual Marathi sect, apply on their forehead. It's symbolic--it's like saying we've taken an oath that we will keep doing this work until we die.
Naam Foundation welcomes your contributions to rebuild the lives of farmers and their families. To help its cause, please visit: www.naammh.org
A BITTER HARVEST
The agricultural sector is still India's largest employer: 58% of rural households depend on it for their livelihood. And yet, since the early 1990s, India has seen a spate of headlines highlighting farmers' suicides. According to government data, 14,000 farmers killed themselves in 2011--this was 47% higher than the national average of all deaths caused by suicides. In fact, since 1995 when the government began keeping records, nearly 300,000 farmers have taken their own lives until 2014.
The situation is dire. But it may just be worse than it looks. A study published in the British medical journal The Lancet found that the suicide figures in India were being under-reported. P. Sainath, journalist and author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought agrees entirely. "Some state governments and union territories are now declaring the number of farmer suicides as zero," he says. "This was accomplished by changing the methodology of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) itself." In 2014, Sainath explains, the NCRB introduced new categories to classify data and then shifted farmer suicides to those new categories, hence lowering the 'official' tally. Take Karnataka: In 2014, it saw 321 farmer suicides--a huge drop from 1403 the previous year. But the number of suicides labelled 'Others' saw a rise of 245%. Coincidence? No, just a neat and despicable trick. -DEVEN KANAL