At any time of the year, Ashwath Bhatt is travelling to somewhere else. A play in Delhi, a film screening in Pune, a shoot in Mumbai, a workshop in Germany and, every few months, something calls him to Kashmir. The Raazi and Haider actor is straddling two big-ticket works in the first half of this year — Dharma Productions’ Kesari, which releases around Holi, and Abhishek Majumdar’s play, Djinns of Eidgah, which will open in Jaipur in February.
“I have to be honest, I enjoy this. Being an actor is a blessing, for which I remind myself how fortunate I am every day. I am doing what I wanted. It needed sacrifice, struggle, hard work, saarey khaandan mein doctor aur engineer hi hai, dur dur tak koi arts mein nahin hai,” he says. Of his life, Bhatt speaks in fragmented sentences as if his words are hurtling to catch up with his train of thought. About work, his answers come pat.
“I am playing a Pashtun Orakzai chief called Gul Badshah in Kesari, which revolves around the Battle of Saragarhi in 1897. The film shows how 21 Sikhs, who were part of the British army, fought the Afghan army for a day and how they died and how they influenced the war,” he rattles off. How does he relate to his dark character? “I see Gul Badshah not as a soldier but a looter. Soldiers have a kind of dignity and ethics even against the people they fight. They can see each other’s point of view. Gul Badshah is beyond that. He is somebody who has no ethics. He is ruthless,” says Bhatt.
Bhatt has dealt with his own share of conflict. He was a teenager in 1990 when his family fled Kashmir after threats of violence. He seldom visits Jammu, where his family sought shelter and were denied after escaping the valley. “In Kashmir, we were identified as Pandits and sympathisers of India. We landed up in Jammu and we were suddenly seen as outsiders. Dealing with this was very difficult. What was my identity?” he says, and swiftly adds, “But, you have to see their perspective. The people of Jammu were not welcoming but you have to ask, ‘Why were they not welcoming?’ You see, Jammu was a small place at that time with a fragile infrastructure and they had insecurities about jobs and such when we Kashmiris arrived.”
After the family found their moorings in Delhi, Bhatt became a part of the bustling amateur theatre circuit and graduated from National School of Drama (NSD) in 2001. The legendary BV Karanth, who was visiting NSD, called him a “lambi race ka ghoda”. Bhatt followed NSD with the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, as well as performing with clown theatre companies in the UK and Germany. He is one of the moving forces behind theatre clowning in India.
In September 2018, he took clowns from Germany to orphanages, schools and villages of Kashmir. He is also making a documentary on Kashmiri Pandits called The Other Half of Paradise. At Goodwill School in Srinagar, he mentored the performances of a play, Andher Nagari Chaupat Raja, with pupils.He has also been a part of a dialogue between the majority community and Kashmiri Pandits and is collecting stories to be turned into short films for web portals. “These are processes of bridging gaps,” he says.
Yet, when Majumdar called in October to offer him Djinns of Eidgah, a play that tackles the human cost of the violence in the valley, Bhatt bought time while he grappled with the question, “Do I want to be associated with a play about Kashmir?” “Whenever I talk about Kashmir, I get very passionate and involved. Certain things that I don’t want to remember, come back to me. Nobody wants to live their trauma every day. When you go back to this dark story, somewhere your wounds reopen. Sometimes, this becomes difficult to deal with,” he says. But, he was also itching to work with Majumdar, who is one of the most cutting-edge playwright-directors of India at present and, finally, agreed to the play. As part of prep for his role, as a psychiatrist called Dr Baig, in Djinns of Eidgah, Bhatt spent six hours at a stretch watching a psychiatrist in Srinagar treating patients.
He is also playing a psychiatrist, called Dr Ghosh, in Rakkhosh, a psychological thriller about a patient in a mental asylum. The film is travelling the festival circuit and is a part of the Pune International Film Festival on January 12 and 16. But, to truly understand the human psyche, Bhatt turns to a solo play that he has been performing for a decade and is likely to take to Iran, Ek Mulaqat Manto Se. It is about the life of the Partition-era writer. “Manto makes you understand your own shortcomings. When you do theatre in the genuine spirit, you also understand the other person’s point of view. This is the only advantage of art, that you place yourself in the other person’s shoes,” he says, “I don’t see acting as an intellectual process. Acting is a verb.”