There is a famous interview of actor Mithun Chakraborty by veteran journalist Ali Peter John that I never tire of reading over and over again with undiluted fascination. I often wish it was me who had conducted that interview. The tremendously talented actor, who turns 62 on June 16, is a symbol of both defiance and hope for millions of Bengalis who have been shamed into accepting that they are a lazy lot of people who wear their ineptitude on their sleeves.
An excerpt from John's interview: "My editor who had met Mithun when he had come to office remembered him and asked me to do a small story on him. It was difficult to find him because he kept living with different families as a paying guest and even lived with some Christian aunties who took a strange liking for him, especially because he was a very good dancer and could tell very good jokes. We decided to meet in an Udipi hotel in Khar (suburban Mumbai). I was as new in my profession as he was in his as an actor.
"Even before I could wish him, he said, "Khaana khilaate ho kya, nahi toh interview nahi de sakunga. Kal raat se kuch khaaya piya nahi hain."(Can you buy me some food… I haven't eaten anything since last night. Otherwise I will be in no position to speak to you"). I was shocked at a gold medallist talking to me like that, but I could sense that he was very hungry and I ordered what was a very popular dish in Udipi hotels, the famous rice plate which was available for Rs 1.25paise. He didn't talk for the next five minutes, it was the time he took to wipe the rice plate clean of everything including the pickle and the salt."
Mithun, or Bengal's beloved 'Mithunda', is a symbol of hope for hundreds of star struck youngsters who board trains every year to head for Mumbai, hoping to work their way through to the top of Bollywood's fiercely protected ranks. Some fade into oblivion, assisting second and third directors, carrying the lunch boxes of medium rung actors, doing odd jobs around Filmistan and hiding their hopelessness from their desperate families back home.
The lazy Bengali
His Bengali identity has been questioned time and again for his projects in Mumbai and a flourishing business down South. He has never hit back at critics. But has expressed his displeasure masked with his usual charm.
Mithun, a veteran of over 350 films and three well deserved National Film Awards, said during a ceremony to felicitate him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Kolkata: "If someone asks me if I am a Bengali, what should be done? Should I present the birth certificate or school leaving papers to prove my credentials as one from Bengal? My identity makes me more attached to the well-being of this state, its people."
He is everything the Bengali wants to be - successful, admired, unstoppable, talented and most of all effortlessly hard working. Today, Mithun is a cultural icon but it has taken 35 years of back breaking work to earn the respect Mumbai usually reserves for Bengal's most loved artistes such as Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Tapan Sinha, Satyajit Ray, Biswajit Chatterjee, Kishore Kumar , Basu Chatterjee and Bimal Roy among many others.
He had taken a long and circuitous route from pure art house cinema like 'Mrigaya' to a behemoth of popular culture - Disco Dancer - never resting, never stopping to take a breath, and mostly never looking back on a career of blood and sweat to evaluate what he was contributing to cinema. He moved on to scores of forgettable, cringe-worthy B-grade films and to stunning works of art, underplayed, underrated and undervalued that balanced out his score sheet, filling out the depressing gaps in his career when he recklessly took on any project that would keep his mammoth charity projects going.
He won his first National Film Award for Best Actor for 'Mrigayaa' in 1976. He went on to deliver many hit films including 'Do Anjaane', 'Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan', 'Hamara Sansar', 'Amar Deep', and 'Surakshaa'. He has acted in 'Guru', 'Heroes', 'Veer', 'Golmaal 3' and many others. Directors know Mithun is an actor who can single-handedly pull off a side role as flawlessly as he would were he the lead actor.
It is impossible to write about Mithunda without getting emotional. The man is indefatigable. At 62, he grooved to Sajid Khan's mega successful Houseful 2, and just when you began to despair, he coolly turned around and delivered two fantastic films 'Shukno Lanka' and 'Nobel Chor' with the ease of an artiste who knows his trade inside out and plays to the only people who matter to him - his audience.
Shukno Lanka: The Mithun I see reliving his life
There are strange moments in Shukno Lanka, a film about an ordinary, supporting actor in the Bengali film industry who lands the role of a lifetime, when you can almost see Mithun desperately trying to convey to whoever is paying attention that this is his own life he is playing out on the screen. In reality, he is not the beaten down actor he played in the film, of course, but it was an uncanny approximation of the way he is perceived in the industry - an undervalued talent that will slip you by if you do not call out to him and appreciate him for all he has done in his 35 years.
"I haven't thought of what I would do next. You are an actor and you have to do everything, as an actor you should not think about genre. Whatever I do, I give more than 100 percent," he said.
He has many more years left in him. Bengali cinema is at a precarious stage now with young filmmakers re-writing the laws that govern the industry with surprisingly heartfelt and fresh scripts and well etched out characters. More than ever, Mithun is needed to give his silent support to youngsters who have come to Kolkata with a dream of whipping some life into a drowsy industry. Don't quit now, Mithunda, we need you more than ever.