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June 26, 1997


A eunuch opportunity

N C Srirekha

Arif Zakaria
A matronly woman opens the door as you ring the bell on the third floor, Zakaria House, Hill Road, Bandra.

"You have come for the interview," his mother inquires.

"Yes," you confess and accept her invitation and make yourself comfortable in the cozy living room.

"Arif is having his bath. He will be out soon." She continues, taking nineteen to the dozen. "You know, my husband is no more. Both my daughters have married and gone. And this Arif, ufff.... he has no time for marriage..."

When he finally enters the room, refreshed after his bath, does make his entry half an hour later, you tell him about his mother's complaint regarding his matrimonial status.

"Marriage? Oh, it's still being scripted." he quips. Arif has not yet ready to be domesticated. He still walks around with butterflies in his stomach about his career. And there's still that sweeping streak of concern across his brow.

"I hope I don't get one more eunuch's role!" Fears of an actor who landed himself a part that few would like in his first film. Fears of one who has seen the best of artists being typecast after one successful performance and who desperately wants to be accepted by the Raj Kumar Satoshis and the David Dhawans of Bollywood. That's young Arif Zakaria, who replaced Shah Rukh Khan, to play the eunuch in Kalpana Lajmi's much-hyped film Darmiyan.

Arif Zakaria with co-stars in Jagir
Zakaria is excited about his debut, no doubt.

"There's lot of prestige in the role and one could say it's a dream come true," he says, "If I had been an actor doing the regular song-dance-fight kind of roles, I would have been talking about wanting to do something like this. But here I am with what can be called the role of a lifetime in my very first feature film!"

Zakaria lacks the prerequisite drop-dead looks, or even passably good looks. But he is perceptive, down-to-earth and very, very practical, with head firmly affixed on shoulders.

Zakaria's tryst with acting began with a sneeze. No kidding. His acting talents were first tested in the college dramatics circle, when his very first play involved a role where all he had to do was sneeze. However, he tasted blood when he attained overnight stardom with his role as a student leader in the tele-serial Chunauti.

That was in 1989. He was doing his second year of graduation in Bombay's Sydenham college. Acting became a career after his graduation and due to the immense success of Chunauti.

"In Chunauti, were out to impress," he says with a straight face. "One was not trained in acting then, and knew little of the techniques involved, so the skills came out naturally in our eagerness to perform well."

There was no let-up after Chunauti as one serial after another followed. Karambhoomi and Hamrahi on Doordarshan, Aarzoo on DD Metro, Jagir on Sony TV and Campus on Zee TV, made Zakaria a familiar household name.

Darmiyan director Kalpana Lajmi
Zakaria was already working with Kalpana Lajmi in her English tele-serial, Awakening when Darmiyan began.

"Kalpana had already promised to give me a bit role in Darmiyan which was still in the planning stages then," says Zakaria. Eventually, when Shah Rukh dropped out, Lajmi quickly latched onto available talent to play the lead. Zakaria's vulnerable, soft looks proved ideal for the eunuch's role.

Zakaria created quite a stir when he accepted the role. After all, even Shah Rukh Khan did not want to risk his image playing a eunuch. So it was strange that a young up-coming actor should accept such a role in his debut film.

"There were all kinds of reactions... Some were awed, some surprised, others shocked, and yet some others, skeptical...." Zakaria couldn't complain: It was break, a good one at that, considering Lajmi had already made a name for herself with the award-winning Rudaali. "In the film industry, you don't always get what you want. You just grab whatever's tossed at you -- it's one of those peculiar ball games," Arif says, laughing.

Zakaria did not do the rounds of the chakka colonies to research his character.

"Kalpana's script was complete in itself. She has done all the research, all the permutations and combinations were there. All I had to do was follow the bracketed role and use gut instinct." Not very convincing, wot?

The film is a statement about a eunuch's internal anguish, he says. "I have tried to... perform the role truthfully. I didn't want to make a caricature of the character... My effort was to move the audience, not titillate them."

Arif Zakaria in Jagir
Whew! Zakaria suddenly realises the intensity with which he has been speaking and gets up. "Heavy stuff. I need a tea break. I am sure you do too," he laughs.

We persist. Has this role changed his attitude towards eunuchs?

"I was not doing a social thing... out to change somebody's life or some such noble cause... At best I have become a little sympathetic towards these people. If earlier at a traffic signal, I spotted a eunuch, I would immediately put up the windows, now I don't, that's all."

He is worried that hype about the film may exceed substance and thus lead to his downfall. He is certain though that Indian audiences are not really ready for a subject. Besides, he points out, Darmiyan lacks the stars to draw the crowds.

Zakaria does not mind running around the trees hereafter. "Why not," he asks. "I could do such roles, given a chance." But he is aware that what he lacks is a solid backing in an industry that is full of big-time fathers producing big-time films for their sons.

"For a non-star son like me, it is very difficult to be choosy. All I can do is take what comes my way and wait my turn for a big break."