Life's Too Short
From circus clowns to theatre actors: the man who enabled the transition for a group of assamese dwarfs, and what he’s got planned for them next.
The monsoon has arrived early, and as my car putters along the bumpy, muddy road, a cow tied to its tether gives me an uninterested glance. Three more bovines sit oblivious on the other side of the road, chewing cud as I pass. I give them about as much thought as they give me.Even the majestic scenery fails to register. I am far too preoccupied. I’m afraid I’ll be late. I’m on my way to meet the actor Akshay Kumar.
When I arrive at our appointment in Tangla, Assam, he greets me, shakes my hand, and before the interview he adjusts himself on a plastic chair, his legs dangling half a foot above the ground. He is about three feet tall, half the height of the Bollywood actor who shares his name.
Our Akshay is 55 years old, with a scruffy beard and threadlike moustache flowing over his lips. If he were that Akshay Kumar, he jokes, “I would not have given you this interview. I would have figured out ways of avoiding you.”
The Assamese dwarf may not be a movie star, but as a theatre actor he has faced his audiences live and at closer quarters than his more famous namesake. In his next performance, three days from now, Akshay’s role won’t be much of a stretch. He will be playing himself.
First staged here in Tangla in 2010, Kinu Kou (What to Say?), is based on the life of Akshay and his fellow actors in the Dapon theatre group, dramatising the trials and struggles that they, as dwarfs, face in their day-to-day lives.
Akshay is a widower with two children, and is the only person in his family with dwarfism, but he says it has never been an issue with them. “The problem came from outside, and it hurts inside,” he says, but “the same people who used to mock me now call me ‘sir’. And it hasn’t been that long.”
Until a year and a half ago, before he joined Dapon and moved to Tangla, a small town in the Udalguri region of Assam, Akshay Kumar’s acting was limited to playing a circus clown in his village, a humiliating vocation to which dwarfs often resort to make ends meet. “Even after coming here,” says Akshay, “the circus owner wanted me back. They tried a lot of tricks, but Rabha sir said ‘No’.”
The man Akshay calls “sir” is Pabitra Rabha, a 36-yearold Tangla native. After graduating from the National School of Drama in Delhi in 2003 and taking on various writing, acting and directing jobs, Rabha founded Dapon (meaning “mirror” in Assamese), an amateur theatre group based back in his native Assam. Five years later Rabha started recruiting little people into Dapon, oftentimes through a network of friends and supporters who would inform him about dwarfs being mistreated. Rabha would then go to the dwarfs’ homes and try to convince themand their families that his acting troupe was a unique opportunity and not some kind of hoax.
“At times, I needed to perform workshops right there, in front of their houses,” Rabha says. “There’s this fear attached to outsiders. Sometimes we see it in their parents’ faces, sometimes in their own. ‘Where does he want to take them? Is he going to sell them off to some circus?’ ”
Rabha held acting workshops for dwarfs from across Assam, and by the end of the multi-day process, he’d chosen 30 to join Dapon. His goal is to empower the dwarfs with real acting skills, and through their plays, he hopes to make society more aware of their plight aslittle people.
“I don’t know how it happened,” Rabha tells me. “Maybe I shared a train compartment with some dwarf and saw him being cornered … But it always simmered inside me. I wanted to do something for them.”
After many Dapon stage productions throughout Assam and one show in Delhi, the troupe has managed to pull the attention of the national media, which hasn’t hurt what Rabha has next in mind: a new village just outside Tangla, which he will populate with 70 dwarfs from across the state, including members of Dapon.