Prakash Jha: ‘Matto Ki Saikil’ represents half of the country’s population

Prakash Jha discusses portraying the life of a Dalit daily wager, the boycott trend in Bollywood and if the present political climate impacts films and filmmakers

Prakash Jha discusses portraying the life of a Dalit daily wager, the boycott trend in Bollywood and if the present political climate impacts films and filmmakers

One of the few products of the parallel cinema movement who continues to be relevant, Prakash Jha, is in the news again. In the mid-80s, when Hindi cinema was running away from grassroots reality, he introduced us to the world of a bonded labourer in Bihar with  Damul. Now he is playing the role of a Dalit daily wager in a Mathura village in M Gani’s  Matto Ki Saikil (Matto’s Bicycle).

When Gani, a self-taught filmmaker, approached Jha, who has acted in  Jai Gangaajal and  Saand Ki Aankh, the seasoned director thought he needed some help with production. “Somehow, he felt that I am suitable for the role, and I could not have said no to such a challenging part,” says Jha. The film was screened at the Busan International Film Festival, and Jha says that the social media response shows that the audience is waiting to watch stories from the villages of India.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

What made you agree to play the role of Matto? 

I liked the purity and honesty of Ghani’s story.  Matto represents pretty much half of the country’s population that doesn’t find reflection in Hindi cinema. We come up with a  Do Bigha Zamin or a  Damul once in a while, but largely one half of the country remains out of focus. They are the ones who build our homes, flyovers and highways, but we wake up to the existence of these lakhs and lakhs of people only when a pandemic strikes. Matto’s life revolves around an old bicycle. If it works, he would be able to get work. He has accepted socio-political discrimination and unkept promises as part of his everyday life.

How did you acquire the body language of a daily wager who rides a rickety bicycle? 

I spent three months under the sun in Mathura doing everything that Ghani wanted me to. Coming from a rural background, I have had an understanding of village life. I spent hours chatting with daily wagers and smoking beedis. As my beedis were organic, they would say  ye to dum na de rahin!  (They are not strong enough). The training was so rigorous that contractors mistook me twice to be an actual daily wager, and picked me up from the labour chowk.

Is the raging ‘Boycott Bollywood’ trend real and is it affecting business? 

I don’t think so. I feel after corporatisation, Bollywood gradually stopped investing in writing original and compelling stuff that connects with the masses. The so-called stars are relying heavily on ‘projects’ and remakes.

I don’t think  Laal Singh Chaddha suffered because of the call for boycott; it was simply not good enough. Audiences came out saying  theek hi hai (it’s just about okay).  There is another big name who keeps highlighting his punctuality and ability to finish shoots in 30 days rather than speaking about the content and craft. This is how businessmen talk; not creative people.

But targeting actors and filmmakers doesn’t seem healthy… 

Absolutely, but some opposition by groups close to power centres has always been there. Who knows it better than me? Many of my films like  Gangajal, Raajneeti and  Aarakshan faced mob censorship. We suffered some loses initially, but eventually they became hits.

How do you see the box-office success of  The Kashmir Files? Did the active promotion by those in power have a role in its success? 

I don’t think so. The film must have something that pulled the audience to theatres. If the government had a role in making a film successful at the box office,  Samrat Prithivraj, which had a much bigger star in the lead and was mounted by one of the top-most production houses in the country, would have succeeded as well.

Is the present political climate not conducive for political films that go against the government of the day? 

I don’t agree. A film like  Article 15 that openly talked about systemic caste discrimination was made during the present regime. It is up to the makers to show guts.

You were targeted by right-wing groups in Madhya Pradesh during the shoot of  Aashram

The media reported about the attack by a group that had vested interests, but not what happened after that. The government acted and I shot for 40 more days in the State. I didn’t ask the government to promote Aashram; I expected them to maintain law and order, and they did.

Has the proliferation of streaming platforms helped in improving content? 

We thought OTT would change things. But apart from a few exceptions, we see that the same corporate culture that loves to play safe has seeped in.

What’s next for you?

I am making a series based on the life of P. V. Narasimha Rao, adapted from Vinay Senapati’s book  Half Lion. The period of economic reforms and privatisation has been a huge topic of interest for me; the man didn’t get his due.

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