THE stage is set, the lights and the backdrop are in place and the actors, about a dozen of them, are busy getting their makeup and costume on. It is the eighth day of the Ram Leela show in Muzaffarnagar’s Budhana tehsil and over 250 people have gathered to watch the four-hour performance. But both actors and audience have a common complaint: their star artist, critically acclaimed actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, will not take the stage tonight.
“We were really looking forward to his performance. Over 2,000 people had come here yesterday but a few hours before the show we were told he will not perform,” says Dharmendra Goyal, 43, who plays Marich, Ravana’s uncle, in the production. Siddiqui had prepared to play the same character. “He rehearsed for two hours with the team yesterday, learnt the lines… but the plans changed in the last minute,” adds Goyal, who has a dairy business.
Siddiqui, who hails from Budhana, has been on a vacation in his hometown and had got in touch with the Ram Leela committee to be part of the production. “Ever since I was a child I wanted to be part of this, even the people in the town were very excited, but around 6 pm yesterday I was told I can’t participate. I accepted the decision,” says the actor, sitting on the roof of his ancestral home.
Says Damodar Prasad Sharma, president of the Ram Leela Committee, “ A few members of the Shiv Sena didn’t want a Muslim man to play a character in Ram Leela. Then the police told us that we should not let Nawazuddin participate and, if at all we do, and there is a problem during the show, we will have to take responsibility. We were not ready for that, there were just too many people in the audience, we couldn’t have controlled the crowds in case of a ruckus.”
Siddiqui refused to comment on Shiv Sena’s objection to his performance.
“My childhood dream could not come true, but will definitely be a part of Ramleela next year. Check the rehearsals,” he tweeted with a link of the rehearsal video.
D K Tyagi, the SHO of Budhana, however, claims that his team was willing to provide security. “All nearby villages were informed a day in advance through WhatsApp that Nawazuddin was going to perform,” he said. “We got to know about it only a few hours before the show. No one came to us for permission, which they should have done ideally, two days prior to the event. Even then, we sent 25 policemen to the venue, as opposed to the 4-5 policemen who are usually on the spot every night.”
Shiv Sena district head Mukesh Sharma claims he had approached police yesterday to ask the committee to drop Nawazuddin from the show. “For over 50 years, no Muslim has been a part of the production. Why should this be allowed now? We went to the police and our members went around town to spread the word and urge people to stop this,” he says.
The Ram Leela cast though denies this. “Over the years, many Muslims have been part of the show, though they may not have acted on stage. They have been part of background crew, sound artists, set designers, musicians etc. Of the Rs 5 lakh needed for the 12-day show, at least Rs 30,000 comes in the form of donations from Muslim families,” says the director, Rajesh Sharma.
“The Shiv Sena hardly has any presence or influence in this region. All they do is stop cattle trucks. All of us are disappointed that Nawazuddin couldn’t perform, but then we couldn’t have taken a chance. Even if one of their men threw a stone during the show or did something else, there could have been a ruckus,” says Jitendra Tyagi, BJP Vice President, Western UP.
The Budhana Ram Leela is over 100 years old. While the crew claims that in the ‘90s it was one of the biggest productions in Western UP, today it doesn’t enjoy the same popularity. Over 100 people are associated with the production now.