A thespian’s journey

Versatile artiste Afzal Hossain dedicated his life to promote theatre

in hill city

Charlie Chaplin takes the spotlight in Afzal Hossain’s humble bedroom. Right under the wall lamp, the great actor stands with the usual posture. He is surrounded by several other doyens of national and international film industries as well as musicians. “They are all my inspiration, my idols,” said Hossain as he introduced the great personalities like Shishir Bhaduri, Ustad Bismillah Khan and Gregory Peck whose framed photographs were hanging on the wall.
At 82, Hossain is still passionate about acting and theatre. He was introduced to theatre at the age of six by his father, Aulad Hossain, who was a renowned thespian in Shillong.
Hossain’s family migrated to Shillong from West Bengal’s Hooghly district in 1862. His forefathers were established businessmen and played crucial role in the development of the city during the British period. Some of the old photographs in the living room talk about the family’s rich heritage.
When he was only eight years old, Hossain acted in the historical play Abhiyaan in 1944. While studying in Jail Road Boys School, Hossain showed keen interest in sports, music and elocution, besides acting. In 1946, he, along with a few friends, started a cultural group. After the untimely death of one of his friends, Manju Choudhury, the cultural group was rechristened as Manju Smriti Majlish, which later introduced competitive cultural events in the hill city.
In 1952, the group decided to hold a children’s meet every year. “Although competition was to form the basis of the annual get-together of the children, there should be a festive spirit pervading the session, and so the cultural meet was given the name Ananda Sammelan, the festival of joy,” an essay on the group by Prof Shyamadas Bhattacharyya says.

Hossain, whose diminutive stature can be deceptive, talks about acting and theatre with a youthful vigour. The energy and enthusiasm of the octogenarian is quite contagious and one cannot but listen to him with rapt attention. “In 1951, Manju Smriti Majlish staged its first play (Nirjhorer Swapnobhango) written by Nirendranath Bhoumik, a member of the group. It was only the beginning and we continued to direct several plays written by our members as well as other playwrights,” he said as he showed some framed moments from the plays. His photographs on stage have also found place on the wall amid the great actors. He informed that his family was liberal and allowed even women to be part of various cultural events.
Hossain is a prolific thespian and his works and initiatives are still remembered by old residents of Shillong. He credits his father for inculcating his interest in cultural activities. “He always encouraged me. Later, I dedicated myself in directing and writing plays as well as acting.”
After Manju Smriti was taken over by another group, Hossain formed one more theatre group by the name Chhadyabeshi. It was Hossain who organised Shillong’s first theatre festival in 1972.
Hossain said in all the years, he has played several characters, including of a woman. As he was sharing his experiences, the veteran actor got up and started to deliver a few lines from a play in which he played a female character. “The audience did not even understand that it was me,” he laughed.
Narrating another incident, Hossain said on many occasions he would be requested for crisis management. “Once, a member of another theatre group came to my house. I was having lunch. He looked helpless and requested me to fill in for an actor who declined in the last moment after finding out about his board exam result. I had only a few hours to rehearse,” he recollected.
Besides theatre, Hossain was a film aficionado and wanted the residents of Shillong to experience the joy of watching classics. So in 1961, he formed the Shillong Film Society that screened several award-winning movies in different cinemas in the city.
As a sportsman too, Hossain’s contributions are laudable. In 1975, he established the Shillong Blues Cricket Club and played in league matches. He was also the joint secretary of Shillong Cricket Association from 1977 to 1980. “In this case too, my father played an important role. He was a renowned sportsman and would always encourage us to take part in different sports,” he said.
Hossain was also a social activist and was instrumental in assembling local youths during the 1971 war to bury the bodies of unidentified civilians. “It was a time of turmoil and people were dying everyday on the Indo-Bangladesh border. I felt it as my duty to help those affected by the war, at least the dead,” he noted.
There were photographs of Goddess Kali and Ramakrishna in Hossain’s room. On enquiring, he said, “I am a Muslim by birth and I follow my religion as much necessary and not beyond that. I always had an inclination to know about Hinduism. I admire the works and teachings of Ramakrishna. I have tried to follow his philosophy too. But religion to me is not above man. I am an artiste and that is my identity. I believe we are remembered for our works and religion cannot surpass mankind.”
Hossain is still associated with Bangiya Sahitya Parishad and often organises plays on special occasions. Through his works and initiatives, the thespian has become an intrinsic part of Shillong’s rich cultural history.
It is disheartening, said the thespian, to see that the culture of theatre has almost died in the hill city. “No one has time now and it is difficult to find dedicated performers. Theatre in Shillong has died. Even plays in the local languages are not staged. It is sad,” rued the veteran artiste.
In one corner of Hossain’s room, musical instruments like harmonium, tabla and sitar are kept with much care. He can play all these instruments and violin too.
A painting hangs on the wall but is almost lost among other photographs. The thespian informed that it was done by him. “What else do you know,” was the surprised question.
To this, Hossain laughed heartily and said, “I learned almost everything to become a good actor. But the saddest part is I could not become an actor.”

~ NM

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