Raghubir Yadav has made a habit of immaculately portraying the ordinary, from Peepli Live to Panchayat
In his vast career spanning decades, Raghubir Yadav’s portrayal of a harmless tyrannised man has charmed everyone.
In the fourth episode of the Amazon web series Panchayat, Pradhan Pati, played by Raghubir Yadav is berated by his wife Manju Devi (Neena Gupta) for failing to carry out a task that may earn him some local scorn. “Naara sahi hai par phir bhi likhwaenge nahi, kyunki gaon walon ko bura lag jaaye. Itna hi darr hai toh humara naam likhwa dijiye,” she says.
Yadav is visibly embarrassed, yet not defeated. Weakly, he stares at his phone which has a photo of Sardar Patel as the wallpaper. The episode ends with Yadav taking a small, yet significant stand in favour of a divisive slogan. “Aaj humein Sardar Patel jaisa feel ho raha hai,” he says, concluding a small narrative cycle with the most innocent, maybe even naïve of claims. Yadav manages to travel this small but significant emotional journey without suggesting hidden heroism or newfound machoism. The innocence remains, so does self-doubt as it has for the good part of three decades through which Raghubir Yadav has made a habit of immaculately portraying the ordinary.
Yadav was born and raised in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh. At a very young age he joined the travelling Parsi Theatre Company, followed by an unlikely admission to the National School of Drama (NSD) in 1974. “My mother’s words have always rung true. Never think of harming anyone,” Yadav tells me from his home in Mumbai “I don’t know if people see this innocence in me but I do agree with the simplicity of the characters, people appreciate me for.”
Asked if he has ever felt desperate to experiment, as most actors claim they want to, he says “Most of my experiments have come in theatre. There is greater joy in the form and you get to do so much more in the absence of a camera. Not that I regret not doing a lot more in cinema. I’ve never wanted to rush through my career. Bas chalne ki ichaa hai, daudne ki nahi (I want to walk, not run),” he says. Yadav has had a chequered, somewhat curious cinematic journey. It all began with Pradeep Kishen’s Massey Sahib (1985) followed by another lean yet significant turn as Chillum in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988).
At 62 years old, Yadav remains wary of living in the public eye. Three of his five Instagram posts have been uploaded only this month. “Yes. I’m not one to show and tell. I like to do work, but I won’t go out hunting for it or standing in lines for it. The work should speak for itself. We are just actors anyway, not super humans. Why should we project ourselves more than required,” he says. Of the two recent posts, in one Yadav is carving his own flute and in the other, playing a melodious raag with it. “Oh yes, the practice. I practice every day in the evening. That is the only free time I have. The rest of the time I am cooking, cleaning, reading etc. I don’t think this new experience (lockdown) should intimidate us. It should help us reinvent, learn new things. Main iske khatm hone ke baad aur bhi bhukh ke saath kaam pe lautunga (after the lockdown ends, I'll return to work with even more hunger),” he says.
Following Salaam Bombay, Yadav appeared in the popular series Mungerilal Ke Haseen Sapne (1990) as Mungerilal on Doordarshan. Yadav’s portrayal of a harmless tyrannised man charmed everyone.
Besides Chillum, Yadav’s other intense roles also include essaying the serial killer Raman Raghav in Sriram Raghavan’s little-seen docu-fiction film. “I have never been averse to struggle. In fact, I think people have exaggerated life and its little challenges and call it struggle. I have lived through some pretty tough times. I have gone hungry on days, but if you don’t experience this friction, where will the magic come from. Kisi ki taqleef ko mehsus kiye bina kese uske character mein ghuss payenge (How do you charaterise without friction),” he says.
After I point to the fact that mainstream Bollywood usually interprets ‘taqleef (difficulty)’ as small-town India’s socio-political malaise that it must enact and correct, Yadav laughs. “This is the problem. The industry thinks people from towns and villages are uncultured or don’t understand anything. Also they think that without major conflict, without action, romance or literal fist-fights there is no drama. The pain I’m talking about is the small sensation you feel when the school bell rings and the students know they have to study. The beauty of film is all about extracting drama out of the ordinary,” Yadav says.
Consider Bhura from Lagaan (2001), Budhia from Peepli Live (2010), Loknath from Newton (2017), Bhaskar from Love Per Square Foot (2018) and Sudhakar from Sui Dhaaga (2018) you can sense the thread that leads to the making of Panchayat’s Pradhan Pati.
So much so you could infer that Yadav himself has been, to an extent, stereotyped as the underdog who doesn’t want a fight; a personality at peace with his commonness and the impossibility of punching above certain heights. In the last episode of Panchayat, after he is humiliated by the District Magistrate, Pradhan Pati shows little sign of being mortally crushed, his fragility having been undressed. Yadav continues in the same tenor, the same demure smile, unfazed, unalarmed. “You only learn from hardships in life. To remain humble, to remain connected to your roots every time I think I’ve had enough of the city, I go back to my village. I could never learn to blow time away. Too much happiness, is also perhaps a problem. Happiness is a poor teacher. So is praise. Tareef ko tolna bhi anaa chahiye (you can't measure praise),” he says.
Panchayat’s success means Yadav will, for the time being, live in everyone’s memory. His characteristically modest roles with a peculiar likeness for rural India, however, may remain an acquired taste. And then, another of his comebacks. “Things are changing. People now understand what a story is. That you can write and make a profitable film on a small budget as well. You don’t necessarily need heroes and villains. I think things are changing, but it will take time.” Asked if he will jump at more roles that cast him in familiar rural settings he says “Beshak. Hindustan gaon aur kasabo mein basta hai saahab. Hazaar saal bhi likhiyega toh uski puri kahani nahi likh paenge (Yes, definitely. If you write about India's rural landscape for 1000 years also, it won't be enough).”
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