I guess I was bitten by the acting bug in my mother's womb. Otherwise, how does one explain my fascination for the theater, theatrics, and the movies from my days as a toddler? Especially when I realized I would never be content with just watching plays and movies, but would have to be a part of them in front of a viewing audience! I was positively ecstatic when I was cast in my very first play Hiawatha at the age of six or seven as a kindergarten student in Holy Cross School. I recall performing in front of an audience that included my parents. Holy Cross had arranged for its annual prize giving ceremony at the British Council auditorium one evening long ago. The Council was sylvan then, so different from the steel-and-concrete fortress that it has effectively been forced to become. I would like to think that I had given a stellar performance. Never mind that I was diabolically restricted by the teacher-in-charge to wearing khaki trousers, white shirt, and a feathered headdress and, along with a few other similarly attired classmates, going around and around on the stage at intervals, bent forward, hands going steadily and rhythmically back and forth, and singing “pow wow, pow wow, pow wow…” ad infinitum. No Hiawatha for me, but I did get to go on the stage.
Then on to St. Joseph's High and getting to perform in a couple of school plays in front of large audiences at the Engineers Institute auditorium. I got to play Romeo in When Shakespeare's Gentlemen Get Together. Eat your heart out, Sister (don't recall her name), who failed to cast me as Hiawatha! Romeo, no less, the world's greatest lover, strutting about on the stage in brightly coloured silken livery! I applaud Brother William Sheehan, for his sagaciousness in so appropriately casting me in that role. Notre Dame College soon loomed, and two play readings found me showing off my stuff, one on the college premises, and the other at British Council, still then as verdant as it was way back when I was pow wowing around and around. It was then that the acting bug increased its bite in intensity, egging me on towards thinking of pursuing a professional career in the audio-visual medium. No, not in Dhaka, but in Hollywood or London. Couldn't aim for anything less now, could I?
And acted accordingly. Or, at least, began the process. I soon realized that I needed to get professional training in order to get a toe in the world of the Western cinema. And I refused to settle for anything less than a stint at London's venerable and prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) from where sprung, and continues to spring, so many great thespians of the stage and the celluloid (is this even a valid description in the digital age?). I received the routine application form and information, found the cost of a two-year degree programme to be beyond my parents' capacity to give, without doing injustice to my younger brothers, but applied anyway. Maybe I would be able to coax from them a financial aid package. They were gracious enough to assure me that my request would be given a consideration, and asked for a testimonial from my high school regarding my acting in the two plays. And, thereby hangs the curious tale of a long-haired exalted thespian wannabe.
By the time I was early into my studies at Dhaka University, I had grown shoulder-length hair, very luxuriant (looking at myself now with thinning hair, I occasionally feel deluded that I had actually once possessed a head of wavy silky long hair!). I used to put on trendy psychedelic shirts and felt rather good about myself. So I took a rickshaw to go to my old school after five years to collect my testimonial. I was nearing the good old building in Mohammadpur when a motorcycle hove into view from behind and made a half turn to stop in front of the rickshaw. A shady looking character in white pajama and punjabi got down, and signaled my rickshaw puller to stop. Even though it was high noon, I must confess to being more than a little perturbed. But I kept my nerve and asked, “Yes?”
“What do you do?”
To cut a longish story short, he declared his intention: “We would like for you to act in our film.”
And I went berserk.
“What? Do you know I am going to my old school to get a testimonial?” And proceeded to fill him in.
“Of course I'll act. That's what I want to do.” I had completely forgotten my own stricture about acting in a Dhaka (or any South Asian) film.
“It's for a small part. Wear the dress you're wearing. Keep you hair long. Come to FDC on this date.”
I did all that he asked for. I went for the first time to FDC about a month following that initial meeting. Maybe it would be a small part, but it could lead to greater things. I believe the director's name was Harunor Rashid, but the name of the movie escapes me after over forty five years. I was taken to the spacious makeup room where I recognized a couple of popular stars. So I was going to act with them! They barely acknowledged me. The makeup man observed as he was painting my face: “If you had a rounder face, you'd make it as a hero.”
That's it! This will be my first and last Dhaka (or South Asian) film. Then I was called for action. The director explained: “You will ride your bicycle and Telly Samad will call after you…. And you will answer….” Well, this is how it went. I was slowly walking my bike when Samad called from behind: “Apa, hello Apa!” I turned to look back at him, sternly said, “Nonsense”, and went back to walking my bike. Then it was pack up time for me. They did pay me on the spot. I heard later that that they had cut that scene out from the final print, and thought, “Thank God!” Seriously. I became more determined than ever to avoid Dhaka films.
I did not get any financial aid to study at RADA, but, in 1996, I did complete a summer there learning to act in Shakespeare plays from Peter Oyston, and other acting techniques from a host of instructors. These days I act, but, thank goodness, I no longer possess hair long enough to be cast in a role that would have someone mistake me for “Apa”!
The author is a thespian and Professor and Head, Media and Communication Department, IUB.