To act or not to act? Ramlilas not-so-healthy affair with big names

Ramlilas – a theatrical adaptation of Lord Ram’s life that goes on for almost a week and concludes on the night of Vijayadashmi, are a major source of income for thousands of theatre artists during the festival season.

However, with popular actors and politicians like local MPs and MLAs being roped in to play roles, many artists who are already reeling under the ongoing pandemic-induced recession, are left with no choice but to look for other occupations.

Harshwardhan Kumar (name changed), a theatre student at the National School of Drama in Delhi said, “These popular faces are invited by big Ramlila committees, because smaller ones obviously cannot afford them. Now, I will not say that they have a huge impact on the livelihoods of theatre artists or the community at large but they do affect quite a handful of them, especially after Covid-19 when we are not getting many such opportunities to perform and get paid for it. Other than this, such acts discourage struggling artists.”

The Bharatiya Janata Party has several leaders who take to the stage to play prominent characters from Hindu mythology in Ramlilas — from famous actors-turned-politicians like Ravi Kishan and Manoj Tiwari to Leader of Opposition in the national capital Vijender Gupta, Delhi BJP General Secretary Kuljeet Chahal and former union ministers Vijay Sampala and Harsh Vardhan who essayed the role of Janak (Sita’s father) in Lav Kush Ramlila at Red Fort in 2018 and 2019.

Recently, Delhi BJP treasurer Vishnu Mittal urged politicians and popular actors who perform annually in Ramlilas not to do so as it takes away the employment opportunities from those whose livelihood is dependent on this profession.

Talking to IANS, he said, “I believe that one should stick to one’s job. Artists play smaller roles, which are then taken over by these big names. If such stars start withdrawing their names on their own, more space will be created for those who actually need the part.”

Praveen Shankar Kapoor, Delhi BJP spokesperson, who agreed with Mittal had some other concerns. “Ramlila committees invite these big names from politics and entertainment industry to please them and gain more traction in terms of audience. Usually, the artists rehearse for weeks for such a programme but when a star politician or actor steps in there is no coordination as they have hardly ever rehearsed together. These big stars with controversial pasts fail to bring depth to the godly characters as their public perception is already formed.”

Reacting to the question, BJP Secretary Kuldeep Singh Chahal jokingly said, “It all happens as per Lord Ram’s will.”

However, actor-turned-politician and BJP MP from North East Delhi Manoj Tiwari who participates in Uttar Pradesh’s biggest Ramlila in Ayodhya, says that even some politicians’ households, including his own, is sustained by these plays only. “Hamara ghar bhi toh wahin se chalta hai. Politics toh sirf samaj seva hai (We also survive through such plays and performances. Politics is nothing but public service for us).”

BJP MLA Vijender Gupta, who has been performing since his college days, said, “I have represented University of Delhi and won over two dozen prizes then. It was only after three long decades that I went on stage. It seemed like a break because an artist never dies.”

Sobha Deepak Singh, Vice President of the Bharatiya Kala Kendra in Delhi, told IANS that due to the economic slowdown, salaries of artists are being cut. “We hire them on and off as and when there is an opportunity. The community is out of money and we are not getting any kind of help from anyone.”

When the Padma Shri awardee was asked what she thought about such an act of hijacking roles, she said, “I do not think this should happen. This is not right.”