The multi-talented, multi-faceted MK Raina is impressive on every platform he graces and expressive over every cause he embraces, discovers Irfan Syed
With his twinkling eyes, salt-and-no-visible-pepper beard and easy demeanour, MK Raina comes across as the soft-spoken sort. But have a deeper dialogue with him or talk about causes close to his heart (there are many), and Maharaj Krishna Raina proves to be very outspoken. He doesn’t lose his cool – he seems too dignified for that – but he makes sure his viewpoint comes across resoundingly, using his theatre-cultivated voice modulation to precise effect. He is also quite individualistic and a bit of a non-conformist. After passing out of National School of Drama (NSD) in the early 70s, with an award for acting no less, he was clear about being only a freelancer – and has remained so ever since. Where does this rebellious streak come from? “My Kashmiri arrogance,” he replies, with a mix of jest and candour.
From his family, MK – as friends and acquaintances call him – also seems to get his activist genes. His father, Janki Nath Raina, was a renowned political activist of his times. MK’s thespian and creative talents though seem to be all his own. Born in a large brood of doctors and engineers, the stage called him early in life. He acted in a play in the fifth standard, and was immediately given in to the proscenium. It also helped that he had an encouraging principal, the illustrious poet Dinanath Nadim, or Nadim Sahib, as he was popularly known.
Raina joined NSD after college, clear on pursuing direction. The school and its then director, theatre doyen Ebrahim Alkazi, though had other plans for the young man. He was urged to sign up for acting instead, as the direction classes had too many takers and the acting ones too few. He agreed, but resolved that he “would join direction classes when available.” At the hallowed school, Raina handled every aspect of the stage, from lighting to set design. He eventually graduated with a best actor award, but not without a head-versus-heart tussle during his final viva. He had an opportunity to go to Paris on a scholarship, but his heart was more keen on discovering India. “I hadn’t even seen the Konark temple,” he recalls his frame of mind then. In the end, even after an intervention by Alkazi, he did neither – life again seemed to have other plans. He started his career, work and life as an independent artist.
That footstep soon brought him to then Bombay, because “Delhi will not give you all the work.” In the city of dreams, he met theatre pole-stars PL Deshpande and Vijaya Mehta and luminaries of Hindi art cinema like Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul. The latter affiliation paved the way for acting in his first film, 27 Down, in 1974. Shot in B&W, the film is about a young man caught between following the path his father foists on him and forging his own. Raina plays the protagonist and looks a bit unrecognizable with an all-black beard and a head full of hair. Starring Rakhee as his love interest, the film enjoys cult status even now among aficionados of 70s and 80s Hindi parallel cinema. Raina soon found himself being cast in other art films, including Satah Se Uthata Aadmi (1980), Aghaat (1985) and Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (1986), based on Sidney Lumet’s classic courtroom drama 12 Angry Men. The latter two also star KK Raina, and here, this Raina answers an oft-wondered question: no, they are not brothers or even related, just contemporaries, although amicable ones; MKR older to KKR by a few years.
His parallel cinema journey, however, hit a road-block soon after, during the filming of Panchvati (1986), where this theatre maven from Delhi was “made to feel like an outsider” in the Hindi film industry. He tried switching gears to commercial cinema, with a role in Amitabh Bachchan’s Main Azaad Hoon (1989), but was next seen in Bollywood only over a decade later, in Lakhsya (2004) and later as the school principal in Taare Zameen Par (2007). After that, as he says, smiling, he appears in a film whenever “they want a daddy”.
In theatre, the recently-turned septuagenarian is more of a grand-daddy – and this is neither in reference or deference to his age. He has been the architect of over 200 plays, grand and small, mainstream and experimental, in various languages and locations, including one 12,000 feet above sea-level. His plays have drawn on works of legendary playwrights and writers, such as Brecht, Gorky and Manto. Coming up, as a part of Gandhi’s sesquicentennial celebrations that commenced this October, are four plays on the Mahatma. The first, Stay Yet a While, based on communications between Gandhi and Tagore, was staged on Gandhi Jayanti. The second, Hatya Ek Aakar Ki, debuted a few days later to appreciative reviews. Yes, he is a Gandhian, Raina declares, as also “the best child of India’s socialism”. He has studied on scholarships, gone to places on fellowships and “has a home in every state.” When travelling for work or workshops, he puts up with friends, family and fraternity, you decode.
Gandhian values and principles will no doubt be invoked in a big way over the coming year. But it’s also compelling to ask Raina about Mantoiyat. Both because the writer is being celebrated presently, with the release of his biopic, and due to the attacks that artists have come under in the past few years, like Manto in his time. Raina is immensely familiar with the beleaguered writer’s work, having staged a play drawing on several of Manto’s stories, and has been his vocal self during the siege on artists. So, (how) is Manto relevant in today’s times? Raina responds with Manto’s famed aphorism: ‘Why do I write? I write on society’s blackboard with a white chalk so that the blackness of the board becomes even more evident.’
Another question about the artistic ethos, this time about Raina himself. If he loves theatre so much, having spent more than half his life here, why didn’t he set up his own theatre company – like so many theatre artists – especially as he was clear about being on his own? His response is characteristically candid, “I didn’t have any back-up.” He adds, though, that he is regularly approached especially by corporates to help set up theatre companies. He turns down these offers because he knows they are looking for “a shop or an institution”, which will need to begin showing profits soon; an actual theatre company would “only give dividends in its seventh year.”
This forthrightness and desire to do the right thing, does he get that from his father too? Or was there some other influence? There were two distinct triggers, Raina recalls, coming one on the back of the other around the early 90s.
In 1989, close friend and theatre activist, Safdar Hashmi, was attacked by political goons during the performance of a street play, succumbing to his injuries the very next day. Hashmi’s death left Raina deeply shaken. Putting his anguish aside, he decided to respond affirmatively. He spearheaded several communal harmony campaigns and marches and also became a founding member of the Safdar Hashmi Trust (SAHMAT), which works to engender creative and cultural expression.
In 1991, insurgency hit his home state Kashmir, forcing him to leave with parents and family and move to Delhi, where he has been ever since. The artist may have left his home, but home didn’t seem to leave the artist. Raina was restless. He longed to go back to Kashmir and help in some way. But how?
One day, “without thinking”, he left for the valley state. On getting there, he was witness to heartbreaking sights, among people in general but especially among the rural artists. The militants hadn’t spared even art. Folk theatre venues had been attacked and their instruments all broken. The artists were in deep mourning. But seeing Raina, a familiar face and fellow artist, they felt they had something to hold on to. Raina too saw how he could help, through the only way he knew: theatre. Returning to the city (Srinagar), he first started theatre workshops and then initiated collaborations between city actors and their rural counterparts. Eventually, he moved the theatre scene from the city back to the villages. He remembers, when he started the collaborations, a couple of actors from the villages let out painful howls. They had found their release.
Raina, in addition to other Kashmiri artists, has also helped sustain bandh pather, the local folk theatre where men enact storylines often satirical or farcical in nature, offering a comment on some aspect of social or cultural life.
But Raina is also drawn to causes beyond theatre. Better still, and perhaps due to his standing and outspokenness in the artistic sphere, the torch-bearers of various causes are drawn to him. He is often called upon to speak on issues such as the attacks on writers and other creative folk that have been a constant the past few years and the need to protect the vernacular languages.
The artist-activist is especially given in to the latter cause. He is a multi-linguist, knowing tongues as diverse as Bengali, Rajasthani, Dogri, Punjabi, Sanskrit and Urdu, apart from of course Hindi, English and Kashmiri. This aptitude also comes from the fact that he’s directed so many plays in so many different languages over the years. His love for Urdu is evinced – apart from his knowledge of Manto’s works – from his WhatsApp profile pic, which is his speaker profile for Jashn-e-Rekhta, the annual festival held in Delhi to celebrate the language. His familiarity with Bengali is evident in his voice, which bears a hint of that rosogolla-laced tongue. That, he says is because, yes, he’s done some plays in Bengali, but also because his better half is half-Bengali.
There seems to be little in the public domain about his own family – or he hasn’t been as vocal about this aspect of his life – but now that it comes up, Raina is obliging. His wife is a doctor, and they have been married for 40 years, bringing up another personal milestone this year apart from turning 70. His son has followed somewhat in his footsteps. A freelance photographer and filmmaker, he has made documentaries, among other subjects, on Sufi music and more notably Zohra Sehgal. Raina himself was acquainted with the feisty and zestful dancer, choreographer and actor, having directed her in a play and film. Raina also has a daughter, who is into public policy.
The personal milestones do not seem to mean much to him. His 70th birthday earlier in the year, he says “was like any other day”. But on the work front, he seems to have moved toward new ones.
Three and a Half / Teen aur Aadha is a bilingual (English / Hindi) film about love, longing and loss, told as an anthology of three stories across three time periods, each story filmed in one continuous shot. Due for theatrical release early next year, the story featuring Raina is perhaps the most intriguing. It’s about the relationship and reflections, not all happy, of an older couple, and includes a love-making scene or two, going by the trailer. Was filming it uncomfortable, given that we live in a country and time where dada-dadi and nana-nani are meant to be seen more in a park than in a bedroom? Raina goes behind the scenes. On coming to know the hues of his story, he had put forth the name of his co-star (Suhasini Mulay, a shining silver and artist in her own right), as he shared a very good rapport with her, having known her for the longest time. It would be easier navigating those scenes with her, you decipher. It seems to have worked. From the trailer, all you see is: Love is love. Even when it is shaded silver.
Raina will also be taking a step into the mainly millennial playground of web series, with Kabir Khan’s upcoming The Forgotten Army, based on Subash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army.
In between, he regularly features in ads, as the affable senior. Most memorable is the Visa card ad from early last year, which depicts him as a literature professor haplessly seeking change in a post-demonetization world. He is eventually helped out by a student he took to be a drifter, but not before the actor has delivered a few dozen brilliant micro-expressions aptly conveying the plight of the suddenly cashless citizen – those expressions the result no doubt of over four decades of delivering and dealing with the best in theatre. Similar themed, but more cheery, are the Amazon Fire TV Stick spots, which present him first as a quizzical grand-dad learning the use of the device from his grand-daughter and then as a savvy senior showing off the powers of the gadget to his grand-kids.
How tech-savvy then is he in real life? Well, he is on Facebook and uses an iPad to check and respond to mails. He has been learning technology and its benefits slowly but surely. “How else would we be able to have this interview with you there and me here sitting on the footsteps of this room in Bhilai?” he exults.
Plays, films, ads, web series, workshops, tours, talks, causes… How does he manage to stay fit and healthy for all this? “I lead a straight life. No late nights… Helps me have a clear day.” To add, he doesn’t smoke, but does enjoy a drink from time to time. And like the elixir of many a silver, practises yoga. Thanks to which, he was able to jump into a moving train with alacrity in a scene for Forgotten Army, he recounts.
While on matters physical, a trivial question pops up. What explains the bearded look, which he’s sported for over 40 years now and seen gradually go from pepper to salt? “Oh, that is just being too lazy to shave!” There are chuckles both sides of the line, but they don’t seem to be done. He continues, “The few times I shaved, I noticed I have dimples… so I stopped!” At the end, this silver with twinkling eyes and an easy demeanour leaves you feeling the same.
I wrote this piece for Harmony: Celebrate Age. Here’s the edited version on their site: This piece on Harmony