Robin Das is an actor, known for Mary Kom (2014), The Curse of King Tut's Tomb (2006) and Bollywood Diaries (2016).
Based on the life of the Olympic medal-winning Indian pugilist, the eponymous film Mary Kom will hit theatres. While the very talented Priyanka Chopra is playing the role of the sportsperson from Manipur, veteran theatre artiste Robin Das, an Odia, is playing the role of her father. He talks to Pratyush Patra of The Telegraph about theatre, tryst with films, longing for Odisha and working with Priyanka Chopra.
You grew up in Odisha. Please share some childhood memories and also tell us how you got attracted to theatre.
I was born in a village named Raj-Berhampur in Balasore district in a lower middle class family. My father was a teacher while my mother had studied only till Class V. Much like other villages under princely states, art, culture and celebrations were important in my village too. Next to my house was a proscenium stage and a pala stage where rehearsals would take place every evening. When I was three years old, I saw a play on the stage that was my first encounter with what was called “theatre”.
From a very early age, my mind was obsessed with the artistic activities. When I was eight or nine, I started doodling and tracing characters from history books. When I was in fifth class, an event changed my life. My mother. who was president of village women's committee, decided to put up an anti-dowry play only with women cast on the insistence of female village workers. None of the female actors came forward to essay male characters. The gram sevikas then did the roles of the bride’s father, her husband and the father of bridegroom. While my mother agreed to do the role of the greedy father-in-law, I was made the younger sister of the bride. My mother squatted on a mat, twitching the false moustache, demanding dowry. While the village was throbbing with gossips, comments, jibes and anger at the daring act, a section of teachers lauded the effort. That event left an indelible mark on my psyche and life that was spent between jatra and pala till I was 16.
How did National School of Drama (NSD) happen?
In Class VIII, I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to watch plays by the famous Annapurna Group. I also got the chance to observe the daily lives of the lead actors as they were staying close by. Many senior artistes would come and spend time discussing and debating the art form. After my Class X exam, I got together a few classmates, seniors and a few elderly people and directed my first play at the proscenium theatre with painted curtains and petromax lights. Every summer, we enacted one or two plays for next seven years till I went to NSD. In my college, MPC College at Baripada, I enlisted myself for auditioning in the college drama but was so scared of the hooting from the gallery that I never dared to go on stage when my name was announced. I dropped out of college and took up a job due to unavoidable circumstances. On one instance, a close friend of mine was directing an hour-long skit and I was assisting him. Three days before the show, the main actor fought with the director and left. At the last moment, it was decided that I would play that role of an ageing, Calcutta-returned Odia man. After the show, professor Gauripada Tripathy came and inquired about me. Thus I met my mentor for the next three years, from whom I got approval of my multifarious attempts, and he told me to join NSD if I was really serious. I also met actor Bijay Mohanty, who was already at NSD. I managed to complete my graduation and headed to NSD in 1973 to study on a scholarship.
How were your years in and after NSD?
I forgot the heroism shown by heroes in the film and starting learning the craft of acting, directing and designing. Ebrahim Alkazi, one of the most influential Indian theatre directors and teachers, influenced my life in a great way. It was because of him that actor Pankaj Kapur, my classmate, and I vested our time in a more fruitful manner than drinking or dating. After college, I started stage designing. I assisted the likes of Habib Tanvir and Alkazi. They were the men who were giving European style theatre Indian themes. I started theatre troupes such as Hum Theatre and later, Forum for Assimilation of Modern Indian Theatre. As a professor at NSD, I trained students for decades and I am still doing so. I have directed around 28 plays for NSD, apart from my 50 other plays.
Tell us about your tryst with movies before Mary Kom?
I was in erstwhile Bombay as an art director for the immensely popular comedy film Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron where I was asked to play a part in an experimental film directed by filmmaker Mani Kaul. I just tried it. In that phase, I realised that I missed the environs of NSD more. I had no keenness for money or fame. So I came back to New Delhi. Apart from Mary Kom, you will get to see me in Nila Madhab Panda’s Kaun Kitne Pani Mein and a TV show named Mahakumbh in future. You will also have seen me in Susant Misra’s Odia film Indradhanura Chhai.
How did Mary Kom happen and how was your interaction with Priyanka Chopra?
The makers wanted someone with northeastern looks. They had heard of me and they asked me to go to the audition. After being selected, I cut down on alcohol and worked out so that I looked presentable in front of her. Mary Kom is a beautiful film and anybody who has seen Barfi! knows how superbly talented Priyanka is. It was beautiful playing her father on screen. There were many scenes where she corrected me.
Have you ever thought of coming back to Odisha?
Thought! I am dying to come back but I find no welcoming arms for me. I could not go back to Bhubaneswar after NSD, as there was no opportunity for a theatre artiste. But over the years, the drama schools there have never asked me to take classes and eminent theatre directors in Odisha are happy to tag me as a designer who remains backstage. They are not ready to accept new ideas. There is so much talent in Odisha but our sense of realism is gross.
Are you happy with your journey so far?
Well, if you ask my family members, they will tell you I could have done better if I had belonged to a well to do family. If you ask me, then there are so many students who look up to me, apart from my lousy habit of drinking. I find this satisfying.
FIRST TWO TOPPERS WILL GET CONFIRMED ACTING ASSIGNMENT IN A FILM OR TV
Duration: 3 months at Mumbai, India.
First Batch will start from 30th March
Highlights of the Course
Faculty comprises of actors of repute known for their body of work and graduates from premier institutes like NSD, FTII and others. Master Class with people having trail blazing record. Viz. Actors, Directors, Cinematographers.
Strength of the batch is 10. So individual attention is assured.
2 Days of Shoot visit to watch masters at work.
1 Day visit to Post Production facilities of repute.
Library for Books/DVDs.
Assistance with CINTAA Membership. CINTAA is the only body who's membership is essential to work in Bollywood.
Career Counseling/Guidance for 1 year from passing out.
Joining Kit includes
A Phone Cover
12 Tickets of latest releases while the course is in progress.
You will be part of Verified actor's list of Bombay Casting, once the course is completed.