Paresh Rawal doesn’t believe in God. “Why should I expend my energies on someone I have not seen nor am I likely to?” he asks. His office occupies the third storey of a semi-residential building in Juhu, Mumbai. He is seated at his desk, which is right beneath an altar, whose presence he explains away as deference to his parents, both believers.
His agnosticism is something the actor and BJP MP has in common with Kanjilalji Mehta, the character of an atheist seller of idols he essayed in the 2012 blockbuster OMG – Oh My God! It’s also, perhaps, the only view he shares with writer Arundhati Roy, the subject of his recent outburst on Twitter.
The tweet — “Instead of tying stone pelter to army jeep tie Arundhati Roy!” — came in the middle of a debate around the army’s use of a human shield in Kashmir, a violation of the Geneva Convention. That the statement came from an MP of a ruling party came in for strong criticism. It led to the suspension of Rawal’s Twitter account, which was reactivated only after he deleted the tweet.
Despite this, Rawal stands by his call on Twitter. “I am a rational man. My statement isn’t based on one report. Please see my first tweet after my account was restored and you will know how she spreads rumours about India, about 2002,” says Rawal, flying into a rage. “People say I am first an MP, when I am first a citizen of this country. She can say anything against my country, demoralise my army and I should sit quietly? She then plays the woman card… If she is a woman, she needs to behave like one,” he says.
The actor admits his language is “harsh”, but defends himself by accusing Roy of “sitting in the lap of Pakistan and abusing India. Such people have a huge reach, they get invited to international seminars and platforms, drink vodka-martini and talk about poverty…” says Rawal, who defends the army’s use of a human shield.
The film industry, as well as theatrewallahs, have largely maintained a diplomatic silence on his intemperate utterance. While it may have to do with the fact Rawal belongs to a powerful ruling party, the 68-year-old is also widely respected as an actor in Mumbai’s theatre and film circles.
Born into a middle-class Gujarati family in the Mumbai suburb of Vile Parle, Rawal was drawn to theatre early in life. The ground next to his house was a popular venue for staging Gujarati plays and he began acting while in school. According to his friend, Gujarati playwright Naushil Mehta, Rawal was a known name in his neighbourhood by the time he finished school. He joined the Narsee Monjee College of Commerce and Economics largely because it was known to provide liberal funding to college-level dramas. His friends, also immersed in theatre, would later emerge as one of the biggest names of the Gujarati stage, such as Mehta, Uttam Gada and, most notably, the avant garde playwright, late Mahendra Joshi.
Around this time, Rawal met his wife Swaroop Sampat. Then all of 17, he spotted her at a theatre festival in 1976 and “fell in love”. “The first time he saw me, he told Mahendra Joshi that I will be his wife some day. But he didn’t do anything about it for a whole year until I walked up to him one day after watching a performance,” says Sampat, who went on to become Miss India and then an actor, known best for her role in the 1980s television show Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi. They got married in 1987, only after Rawal signed his first film in a major role. Naam’s Rana remains one of the actor’s finest on-screen performances, where he plays a villain. “He knew my father Bachu Sampat very well. He came over to celebrate signing the film with my dad over a bottle of single malt. Later, he asked for my hand,” says Sampat.
Rawal’s prolific acting career is a mixed bag. He has been part of notable films such as Rahul Rawail’s Arjun (1985, his screen debut), Damini (1993), Andaz Apna Apna (1994) and Mahesh Bhatt’s Sir (1993) and Tamanna (1998). The actor admittedly did some films he isn’t proud of but took those up “to keep the kitchen running”. “I won’t run down those films because they were my bread and butter while work satisfaction came from theatre. At that time, art cinema had its own star system, with little or no place for newcomers like me,” he says.
Sampat was then a stay-at-home mother after the birth of her two sons . She resumed her studies at the age of 40, pursuing a PhD on education, drama and learning disabilities. According to Sampat, Rawal has been supportive of her work thereafter. “He may not come across as a gentleman, but he is one. The one thing I’ll say is he doesn’t believe in democracy in the household the way I do, but I refuse to let him be PM.”
A popular name in Gujarati theatre, Rawal’s plays such as Khelaiyo, Maharathi, Tokhar and Krishan Vs Kanhaiya (adapted into OMG – Oh My God!) have been massive hits. He played the lead role in Gandhi/Godse, the Gujarati adaptation of the controversial Marathi play Me Nathuram Godse Boltoy, which presents the killer of Mahatma Gandhi in a sympathetic light. The play had a successful run in the US.
“With very few exceptions, the contemporary Gujarati theatre Rawal comes from is more about commerce than any thought-through politics or social awareness. So I am not surprised at the cynicism in his statements (about Roy). What is shocking is the violence, the hate, and the profound degree of ignorance they reflect,” says noted playwright Sunil Shanbag.
Rawal’s recent outburst was not as surprising as his decision in 2014 to enter electoral politics. “It wasn’t until he met Narendra Modi in 2006 that he began to lean towards it. He came back a fan, impressed and motivated,” says Mehta, who has been friends with Rawal for over three decades. Rawal decided to campaign for Modi ahead of the 2012 Gujarat elections, and was then handpicked for the Ahmedabad East Lok Sabha seat two years later. Rawal may never have had political aspirations but he and Sampat have always been BJP supporters. She recounts the many debates they have had with her father, a thespian and a Nehruvian from Mumbai.
Some believe that Sampat had a role in introducing him to Modi. She is fondly referred to as Gujarat’s masterji by the PM, who, as chief minister of Gujarat, approved her proposal to teach life skills through theatre to disabled children when other states had turned her away. Sampat is also on the Central Advisory Board of Education.
Sampat denies any role in her husband’s political career. “Who doesn’t know Paresh Rawal? Modiji had always admired Paresh’s portrayal of Sardar Patel in Ketan Mehta’s biopic,” she says. Many say that his role in the 1993 film resonated among a large number of Gujaratis who believe that Patel deserved to be India’s first PM. It’s an idea the actor has endorsed while campaigning.
“It was part of Modi’s plan to ‘co-opt’ the cultural figures from Gujarat,” says a thespian who did not wish to be named. “As the Gujarat CM, he roped in several prominent Gujarati icons to manage government-funded cultural organisations. Rawal later helped Modi build connections with a number of actors and filmmakers,” he says.
Rawal credits Modi for his political career and slips into the panegyric mode when talking of the PM. “He’s a leader, a visionary and the last hope for our country. He works hard and cannot be corrupted. Look at how he transformed Gujarat. He’s made me think about giving back to society,” says Rawal.
The actor agrees that certain members from the BJP and its supporters have been using religion as a political tool. “Violence in the name of religion has been going on since before 2014. But that does not mean Modiji supports it. The PM has remained silent because he doesn’t wish to give such matters any prominence,” says Rawal. Echoing many of his party leaders, he chooses to blame the media for “playing up” hate politics.
Back in Gujarat, his political career is being watched by both the party as well as the Opposition. Rawal, a Mumbaikar, replaced Harin Pathak, a veteran BJP MP and former MoS (defence) to contest the Ahmedabad East seat in 2014 and won it by an emphatic margin. But Rawal remains an “outsider” and is rarely seen in the constituency. “You won’t find even a bench installed from the MP’s funds. We have to approach senior leaders in Gandhinagar or Harinbhai to get work done,” says a resident.
Between promotions of his next film, Guest in London, Rawal is preparing for his most ambitious project, a biopic on Narendra Modi, where he plays the lead. The shooting for the film, which he is producing, is scheduled to begin this October. When pointed out that the film may come across as propaganda, he grins and says, “I don’t care.”