Sunday, March 03, 2013

Meeting Nikhil Bhagat: a former actor remembers his brush with fame

[Did a version of this piece for the March issue of The Caravan]

On an unusually chilly Kolkata evening this January, at the inauguration of the Apeejay Literary Festival at the Victoria Memorial, I chanced to witness a little reunion. As guests gravitated towards the event's keynote speaker Shyam Benegal, the tireless festival director Maina Bhagat brought her 49-year-old son across to say hello to the filmmaker. “You haven’t changed at all, sir,” said Nikhil Bhagat, a wide, boyish smile peeling the years off his face. Trim, youthful-looking, Bhagat himself hadn't changed all that much since 1985, when he played a small but important role in Benegal’s classy ensemble film Trikaal. The year before that, aged barely 20, he was the rebellious football player Raghu, locking horns with a discipline-seeking sports coach in Prakash Jha’s Hip Hip Hurray.


20-year-old Nikhil Bhagat with co-star Neena Gupta during the Trikaal shoot in Goa

Not many actors can claim to have made their only two films (playing key roles in both) with directors of the stature of Benegal and Jha, and then to have slipped conclusively out of the movie world. Nikhil Bhagat’s star had shone briefly in the firmament of “parallel” cinema: this article by Avijit Ghosh on the Times of India website notes that he “induced nationwide hysterical squeals from pretty young things” after the Hip Hip Hurray release. He was nominated for a Filmfare Award as best supporting actor for that film, losing to the more experienced Anil Kapoor in Mashaal. And yet you will be very lucky to find a photo of him on Google Images today. (Even the official Shemaroo DVD cover of Hip Hip Hurray has pictures of others who had smaller roles in the film, but none of him.)

Having coincidentally watched both movies over the past year (I wrote about Trikaal here), and perhaps swayed by dramatic filmi narratives myself, I had wondered if a tragic tale lay behind his enigmatic disappearance. All such thoughts dissolved that evening at the Victoria Memorial. Bhagat is still handsome, well-turned-out, and apparently comfortable in his own skin. But speaking with him then, and on the phone afterwards, I could tell he was unused to being interviewed; he struggled to make sense of his movie stint, admitted to its randomness.

He was studying in St Xavier’s College in 1983 when Prakash Jha made a hurried Calcutta trip to scout for an athletic young man who could play football. The college put up a notice, 19-year-old Nikhil went with some friends to the hotel where Jha was staying (a couple of hundred students must have showed up in all) and nearly left after a while (“who’s going to wait so long?”) – but before he knew it he was in a final shortlist of three, and then Jha, who had already got permission from the college, was telling him to pack his bags for Ranchi. For Nikhil and his flummoxed parents, who hadn’t even known about the auditions, everything happened in a blur. He had just enough time to collect a pair of contact lenses from the one optician in the city who dispensed them at the time.

He spoke very little Hindi and his voice would have to be dubbed by someone else (friends would later tease him about this, his mother Maina told me), but Jha had clearly seen in him a combination of rugged insolence and vulnerability that would suit the role very well. Raghu is a posturing, cigarette-smoking teen who is confused on the inside. (“Don’t butt your head against a wall before your horns have even grown,” the coach, played by Raj Kiran, witheringly tells him; their clash is the earliest representation of what would become a recurrent theme in Jha’s cinema, the channelling of masculine energies into leadership, with positive and negative consequences.)

Later, Benegal saw him in Hip Hip Hurray and got in touch, and Trikaal happened. Nikhil would also work briefly with Benegal on his TV series Yatra, set on trains travelling the length and breadth of India. “My role got over quite fast,” he told me, “but I was on that train journey almost throughout the shoot, for two months.” (He has a small part in this episode.)


With Shyam Benegal

It would be an overstatement to say that those two films reveal a brilliant performer (and it would be unfair to expect that much from someone who only had brief experience of acting in school plays, and none at all for the camera). What they do show is a callow young man with definite screen presence, someone who might – with experience and nurturing – have gone on to big things. In Trikaal – a more sophisticated, better-directed film than Hip Hip Hurray – he already looks maturer, a little more at ease in front of the camera, even though he might have been lost in the large ensemble cast. He has a striking entrance scene too: Naseeruddin Shah’s narrator, introducing the viewer to figures from his past, says “Aur woh main, 25 saal pehle” and the camera picks out Nikhil, standing amidst a crowd at a funeral wake, the hint of a cocky smile on his face as he looks towards Anna, the girl he has a crush on.

There is something ingenuous and unrehearsed about Nikhil’s recollections of his acting stint. He couldn’t relate to Raghu, he says, but having watched movies like To Sir with Love, he knew about such character types and played it by instinct. He had never serenaded, or sung a lament for, a girl himself, but “you know, at that age one does have experience of raging hormones” – and so he lip-synched through a memorable little scene in Trikaal where Remo Fernandes strums a guitar next to him while Maqsood Ali – later famous as Lucky Ali – watches from a distance; with hindsight, this is a touching image of three young people with very different futures in the entertainment industry.


With Remo Fernandes in Trikaal

Nikhil's closest firsthand brush with his own celebrity came when Hip Hip Hurray was released in a Calcutta hall and friends spread the word that he was in the audience. “The crowd became unruly and I ended up sitting in the manager’s office until they had dispersed.” That apart, the St Xavier’s boy lived in a world far removed from the Bombay film industry, and he sounds nonchalant even when he speaks about the Filmfare nomination – “I was aware of it, but there was no real question of going to Bombay for it.” He had college to finish.

Belatedly, after graduating, he did go to Bombay for a while to try his luck, but soon realised, first, that public memory was short - "I hadn't struck when the iron was hot" - and second, that he lacked the inner drive needed for this profession. “You have to be either passionate about acting or desperate to become a star, and I was neither. I am a private person, and was unwilling to push myself beyond a point.” Besides, the divide between mainstream and non-mainstream cinema was sharper then: most serious movie buffs today know of Trikaal’s cinematic worth, but in 1985 it fell under the radar of most audiences; having it on his resume wasn’t going to get him auditions. There were missed opportunities too. Ketan Mehta called him for an interview for Holi – the film that would mark the debut of a youngster named Aamir Khan – but Nikhil couldn’t go because the floods in Kolkata that year made travel impossible for five crucial days.

For 25 years now he has worked in leather exports – he is now the director of Orbit Leathers – and says that while life has had its ups and downs, “as in any business”, he has no regrets. “How many people become film stars anyway, even if for a very short period? And those who do often end up living in golden cages, without the freedom to be normal people.” In fact, one doesn’t have to look far for cautionary tales about stardom and the dream factory: consider the sad story of Nikhil’s Hip Hip Hurray co-star Raj Kiran, who was last heard to be recuperating from a mental breakdown in the US. And then remember the rousing final scene of that film, the proud coach handing the baton of progress to the transformed Raghu.

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The photos above are courtesy Maina Bhagat. And here are two pictures of Nikhil as he is today:



 

16 comments:

  1. Omigosh! This dude's hot. Interesting story too.

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  2. Did you say he's 49? He certainly doesn't look it.

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  3. Shrabonti: yes, 50 in November this year. (Or to put it differently, just a year or two older than the three Khans!)

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  4. Thank you for sharing this. "Hip Hip Hurray" is a very special film for our family.

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  5. Aha ha Nikhil Bhagat! What a storm he caused amidst the Calcutta girls! What days they were, the Calcutta of the ‘80s - 'Arturo Ui', 'Dragon', the cool cats both front and back stage a la Ranjan Kamath, Masood ul Haq, Patchy (Joy Biswas), and later Kunal Padhi, us worshipping from afar, Xavostav and the DMET and JU fests, tapes of the Grateful Dead that were worth their weight in gold, USIS……Thanks so much for bringing all that back after so long. *sigh*

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  6. if he had held on 2 the industry for a little longer, amir khan and shahrukh khan would have been nobodies in bollywood today.... ur gr88 nikhil...won our hearts with just 2 films...god bless u!!!

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  7. Hate to use this banal, overkilled expression, but the first letout at the current pic of Nikhil was OH MY GAWWWwwwwwwwwwwD! The song, Jaao jaao Anna... Suddenly came alive with all its violin notes. Loved reading it.

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  8. Incidentally, I too saw H3 and Trikaal within the last 6 months or so- and was wondering about Nikhil. When Google didn't turn up anything about him, I thought he was gone for good from the public eye, so pleasantly surprised to see this.
    I will give him more credit for his acting, I think he has that uncommon quality of turning in a competent "non-actorly" performance,blending in nicely with the furniture.In this respect I think he is similar to Pavan Malhotra.
    As an aside, I remembered Hip Hip Hurray as a rather nice little film, but on a re-watch I found it ordinary - just ticking the tropes of the genre. On the other hand, Trikaal of which I had only a vague memory of, turned out to be a classic the second time, demanding repeat viewings.

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  9. Pankaj: I enjoyed that scene very much too - it's so moving and so funny at the same time, with those little cutaways to Lucky Ali watching morosely from the balcony.

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  10. Rahul: yes, I don't think Hip Hip Hurray has held up well, though many people I know have very fond memories of it. I found it exasperating how tacky some of the key scenes were (including that climactic football match, with all those terrible reaction shots and the little kids shouting "Raghu! Raghu!"), and the tackiness I'm talking about here can't really be excused by the film's small budget or limited shooting time.

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  11. Nikhil is a very sensitive person and was not cut out for the superficial filmi life in Bombay. He would have probably burnt out by now had he remained there.

    It was a wise decision to quit films and marry his lovely wife Kavita! :)

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  12. The man doesnt look 49 at all. Loved the photo with Benegal...

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  13. I saw him in hip hip hurray and i was a fan i was only 10n yrs then , i saw him in episode of yatra in DD and i was totally smitten.....i was searching for him in google if he has such impact even decades later that explains his charm , can not see such class now ...where have all the good n real men gone ?

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  14. Was watching Trikaal last week from my personal collection and saw Nikhil as the young Ruiz Perreira, that guy had a very easy going presence in the film, dug up IMDB to actually realize his name (wasn't aware who he was), then chanced upon him again while going through the episodes of YATRA (the TV series directed by Shyam Benegal, centered around the Great Indian Railways)in a matter of days, incidentally he finally manages to get an affirmative nod from his lost-love Anna (from Trikaal, played by Sushma Prakash)in YATRA (this time both of them met on the train, while he was playing a youngster with the surname advani going to the appear the NTPC interview in Delhi, Sushma was this docile south indian character travelling with her family to Vijaywada, they obviously had to go their own ways, but there was hope that they would meet) ...

    Thought we lost Nikhil there, but it's a pleasant surprise to discover him, well placed in life ... Nikhil All the best, would like to meet you someday (purely for my staunch admiration for Shyam Benegal Sir and of course, the memories of TRIKAAL ...)

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  15. I and my friend had a crush on him after watching hip hip hooray. In fact we had sent him a fan letter and he did reply with his pics . That was about more than 20 years back. I don't know what I did with his pics. I watched the movie on tube and brought back nostalgia. he still looks good.

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  16. Nikhil made a lasting impression when I watched the movie H3 as a kid way back in 80s...tried searching for info. on him...but did not find any for years,...till finally we get this. Good to know about him...and he will always have high admiration for the class performance ...unmatched till now !!!

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