“…literature is in a state of decay, poetry is in a state of decay.”

IN THE backdrop of opening of a cultural center in a school of his namesake, in a remote section of Zirakpur, Piyush Mishra a well-established actor who has begun his journey in the world of theater and subsequently gotten much acclaim for his multi-talented skill set, be it acting, composing or writing. Even he found it an odd proposition to have a cultural center named after him, he felt his name paled in comparison to the likes of Zakir Hussain who are usually people who are considered of grate cultural importance. None the less in an almost cavalier fashion, he accepts this undertaking.

In his previous interactions with media, he has often come off as a dichotomous personality, he often goes into bombastic explanations and tangents much like his eccentric performance in Gulaal. When he is asked about the state of culture in our present-day scenario, he instantly animates and says “Values, as we have proceeded from 1947, ever since we have gained independence to our current time, we have seen a progressive devolution of all literature. You can do Lakh’s of literature festivals, but literature is in a state of decay, poetry is in a state of decay. At this time in Mumbai, other than Gulzar and Javed sab, no one is there to write in Urdu. Even though I don’t know Urdu very well, regardless I try my best to contribute, with however much I’ve studied the language, because I wish to keep Urdu alive.”

Adding further “Other than that (decay of literature and poetry) value system has changed in that before when your book used to drop on the floor, you used to (mimicking picking it up and asking for forgiveness) do this to it right? If your computer falls down you just pick it up and keep moving, it has the same knowledge as a book. That’s why that value system has stopped existing anymore, of say touching your elder’s feet. Touching your elder’s feet was very much a prominent cultural tradition, if someone has come to your home, you have to touch their feet regardless of who it is. Name comes later in the conversation, relations comes later, but feet were touched on principle.”

When asked if he thinks that the cultural icons of yesteryear like B.R. Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh are slowly fadding away. He first agrees with the sentiment and then he goes off on a tangent saying “The thing called Facebook has so much hatred, nothing much can be said about it. Because with Facebook everyone has the freedom to be a revolutionary at the convenience of their home. They (Facebook revolutionaries) know that no one is going to come and harm you physically or intimidate you verbally, you are free to express any vile thing and any sort of non-sense you wish to put forward, I have seen good people getting demolished (Mainey achey khasey logo ka hannan dekha hai), these are good well-meaning public figures, they (Facebook revolutionaries) don’t stop to think about it, because they know there isn’t going to be any consequence for this.”

Moving on swiftly, when asked about his experience with short films, his eyes light up as he says “Those students are very jovial (mazeydar), my whole life is there for these students. I, from the start have said if you’re a student or a youth then I wish to connect with you. See, I have spoken at lengths about my own time, now I want to know about your generation, what kind of curse words are fashionable, which kind of girls are getting harassed (kaun si ladki chadi ja rahi hai), what kind of things you (the youngsters) are into, tell me that. Further, it’s all kind of fun working with these people.” Let’s just pause and reflect on how brazenly he goes into why he’s working with these young people, and what are the “fun” aspects of it.

Now when I ask him about his personal experience working with these “youngsters” he says that “they’re largely inexperienced but sometimes there are pocket of brilliance present among them.” Making a crude analogy with theater he states “Like there is a saying that the first show of a play is always good. In the first show of a play you don’t understand what you’re doing. In that first rush of excitement some things are greatly received and some things are spoiled. Then we try to re-enact those same things in the next show. But I have noticed that you never really succeed (in recapturing the first show). That thrill of the first show of theater, is what’s happening with these people (short film makers).” He concludes the answer with “…they’re just starting to grasp at what cinema means.”

When he’s asked if he prefers doing shorts or feature films, he instantly reply’s “Feature of course, considering I don’t take any money for these shorts…” he later explains “you don’t do it for the money, this is to fulfill one’s passion and to help them out, like alright, I can learn something from you guys and vice versa.”

After questions of culture, cultural figure and his stint in short films of late, I get a chance to ask him about his upcoming work in the form of “Palki” and “JL-50”. He is doing these films with a relatively unknown director named “Shailender Vyas”. Piyush narrates his interaction with Shailender in an autobiographical manner stating “These people just burst into my life and my room, him (Shailender) and his wife, they said there is a film called “Palki” will you do it? I said sure, explain the script to me. First, they had gone to Naseeruddin shah and then they went to Pankaj Kapur. Naseer had some scheduling issue, Pankaj Kapur was asking for more money perhaps. Then they came to me, I read the script and they said that we were scared to come to you before, I asked why? They say we had herd “things” about you. I said I definitely used to be that person, but I’m no longer that person. I read the script and I liked it. I said yes to it. As time went by I even ended up writing the story of “Palki”, even composed for it.”

From here we take a turn to discuss his movie and role in “Palki”, which is about a Punjabi farmer and his daughter. He explains his role as thus “I had a lot of fun doing that character. It was good that they didn’t quite make him a Sikh man. Otherwise I would’ve had to learn and speak Punjabi in a whole heated manner. I know a little bit of Punjabi, because my mother was from Kurukshetra. That’s why there is a little bit of knowledge of Punjabi with me. So, what little accent I could muster up I did, otherwise it would’ve been hard to perfect a heavy Punjabi accent. Not that they (the filmmakers) wanted a very heavy Punjabi accent for the character.”

Subsequently, When asked the obvious question, of what he felt about the farming community and the issues surrounding it? At first, he says that he doesn’t know much about the issue, then goes on to state “…I have a feeling inside me, when I notice that how much comfort I have in life sometimes, I mean these people at times don’t get any food, and when I hear about them committing suicide…all around. Then that really hurts me, but then I remember a time when I wasn’t doing anything, not earning anything. Then I think that it has something to do with the game of “karma”. What else can we blame other than “karma”. Before I was nothing, then I became something now. Likewise, some people were something a while back but they are nothing now. But for this there is no need to be guilty, but still I feel hurt. Me and my wife think that whatever extra money that comes to us, as I’ve already earned enough, so I can run a household without any issue. Though this idea is still in its nascent stage, and we can’t adopt any village as such, but can we not sponsor a family? me and my wife are thinking about it. If we can, we should sponsor at least one or two families, we would be duty bound to them.”

Its hard to gauge if Piyush Mishra is coming from a genuine place or not but, it certainly felt like it. Perhaps its a testament to his inner performer, you cannot really put your finger on it, but there is certainly something off about some of these claims, if the sponsorship does happen it would be great for him and the family he sponsors and perhaps the precedent that he sets in the industry he belongs to. With all that said, he did say he’s just thinking about it, or perhaps the short span of the interview left much room for prodding and poking.

(Original version was published in ‘The Indian Express’, Reformatted, re-edited and republished.)

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