One wonders whether a prisoner convicted to a life sentence can change his life and even act in a film that is partly based on the story of his own turbulent life. Nigel Akkara has made this possible. He is portraying the character of Yusuf Mohammed, a convict in Progressive Films Production Muktodhara directed by Shibprasad Mukherjee and Nandita Roy.
Nigelwas serving a life sentence in Kolkata’s Alipur and Presidency Correctional Homes after he was arrested and put behind bars with 18 charges of different kinds including murder leveled against him. He was a commerce graduate who fell into bad company, did drugs and stepped into the nasty world of crime and violence. Today, he is a changed man who runs a NGO to rehabilitate and reform ex-convicts when they come out of the correctional homes after having served their sentence. He also runs a business in facility management that supplies security guards to residential and office complexes in and around the city of Kolkata.
Nigel is more than six feet tall, dark and wears his hair long to reach his broad shoulders. His life changed when the famous danseuse-choreographer-teacher Alakananda Ray began conducting a series of dance workshops for prison inmates as a process of development and enrichment. “I refused to attend the workshop because I just did not like to interact in any way. But she persuaded me to just stand behind and watch. I did that. When a programme was to be staged within the walls of the correctional home for a mainstream audience invited from outside, I was roped in. I joined with some reluctance but was surprised with the cheers and the claps from the audience. My reluctance vanishes. When Maa (Alakananda Ray) planned to do Balmiki Pratibha written by Tagore, I was chosen to perform the role of Balmiki. It changed my life forever,” says Nigel. He was released in July 2009 after having served nine years behind bars in two homes – Alipore and Presidency. He founded Touch World, a NGO that works towards the rehabilitation and reform of prisoners and their families. He also did a long-distance post-graduate diploma in Human Rights soon after because “I had been locked up in police custody for 87 days at a stretch and was interrogated with the ‘normal’ manifestations linked to interrogation such as pulling of the finger nails one by one, fingers being broken and so on. I did not cry even once. It built up a strong element of resistance within me. I have been party to police cruelty on a personal basis so human rights was an obvious choice.”
Balmiki who wrote the Ramayana, was the dreaded dacoit Dosshu Ratnakar. But his life changed when Rama stepped into his life in soul, spirit and ideology. He became Maharshi Balmiki. “We have incorporated extracts from the performance of Balmiki Pratibha into our film as a refrain,” says Shiboprosad Mukherjee. “It works like a refrain as the narrative moves back and forth from the prison into the lives of Niharika, the social activist and dancer, her husband the noted advocate Arindam Chatterjee and their deaf-mute child Spriha enacted by a genuine dead-mute little girl. It draws parallels between the life of Yusuf and the mythological character of Balmiki” he adds.
“I play Niharika who runs a NGO and comes to the correctional home to conduct dance workshops. But I also live within a different prison – the prison of an unhappy marriage where my husband cannot accept that he has a physically challenged child and that his wife’s ideology is different from his own. I wear a completely different look because women who visit correctional homes are not allowed to wear revealing clothes. Radhika Singh has designed both my look and my costumes for the film. But the greatest joy is that I am able to dance in true style and spirit in Muktodhara. This is one of the most memorable films in my career” Rituparna elucidates.
Bratya Basu, minister of higher education in the new state government and a theatre personality of great repute has done the role of Arindam Chatterjee. Devshankar Haldar, an institution unto himself in the world of Bengali theatre, has done the role of IG Brij Narayan Dutta who initiates the dance workshops in the correctional home. “Many films have been made on the life of prison inmates but none of them have ever covered the reformative and culture therapy in correctional homes. The film has covered aspects of corruption that cannot be debated. I feel honoured to be put in the mould of B.D. Sharma IG of prisons who initiated this entire movement,” says Devshankar.
The directors along with the music director Surojit Chatterjee have used beautiful Tagore songs to bring out and underline the different meanings of the title of the film – Muktodhara which means “flow of freedom.” Anup Mukherjee has experimented in the sound designing of the film to capture the ambience of the inside of a correctional home. Anil Singh who is DOP says, “It is one of my best experiences in my career. There were hardly any retakes because the homework was thorough, the workshops had done the needful and the actors were brilliant.” Malay Laha has edited the film.
There is a twist in the tale that departs from Nigel’s real life experience. But wait and watch the film to unravel the mystery. It will be in the theatres on August 3.