“That's Mamunur Rashid!!!” gasped a young girl as the thespian walked into the auditorium, and quickly put a hand over her own mouth, in a vain attempt to muffle her excitement. The Pharmacy Department auditorium of the University of Asia Pacific (UAP) was already packed to capacity despite it being the late afternoon of the day on March 18, for the first installment of “Celebrity Footprints”, a new initiative of Star Arts & Entertainment to take cultural heroes of our country up close and personal to the youth, at their educational institutions.
UAP Vice Chancellor Prof. Dr. Jamilur Reza Choudhury, Pro-Vice Chancellor Prof. MR Kabir, Associate Professor of English Mr. Takad Ahmed Chowdhury, and a number of UAP administration officials were in attendance, welcoming The Daily Star delegation -- Executive Editor Syed Badrul Ahsan, Managing Editor Dr. Salehuddin Ahmed, Supplements Editor Shahnoor Wahid and Editor of Arts and Entertainment Sadya Afreen Mallick.
Jamilur Reza Chowdhury welcomed the audience and introduced the guests, citing his connection to The Daily Star's founding cornerstones SM Ali and AS Mahmud, and termed it a “memorable day” for the university to be hosting the first event of the new programme. He also hailed Mamunur Rashid as a brilliant artiste, recalling favourite dialogues from a TV play starring him.
Sadya Afreen Mallick said the initiative was conceived to better connect students to the country's culture, and theatre is one arena many youths may not know a lot about.
Syed Badrul Ahsan realised he had taken the stage to an audience that may not recognise him by face, so, in his typically humourous demeanour, opened with “No, I'm not Mamunur Rashid.” He, however, went on to formally introduce the guest of honour.
As a veteran in a form of performing arts where showmanship is vital, Mamunur Rashid took the right approach by bringing in an ensemble of musicians with him; cameras and cell phones came out of the pockets in anticipation of what was about to happen. After exchanging greetings, Mamunur Rashid's group -- from his theatre troupe Aranyak -- opened with a 'bandana sangeet' from “Sangkranti”, one of the more notable plays by the playwright. He then delved right into the inspiration behind the play, setting the background and telling the story in his matter-of-fact way.
He then went on to tell the stories behind his other works, including “Target Platoon” -- a musical based on the Liberation War, “Rarang” -- possibly the most-accomplished work of his, and “Che'r Cycle”. The songs on offer kept the demonstration interesting, and actually helped give students a flavour of theatre -- something merely dialogues couldn't probably achieve. With a co-actor, Mamunur Rashid also put his acting prowess on display, acting out a scene from “Che'r Cycle” where he plays the revolutionary. The back-story of “Rarang” -- a touching story about the land rights of the indigenous Santal community -- and how it was inspired by a real-life incident of an individual named Alfred Soren was burned to death by locals, after he won a legal battle for their land, in a way epitomised the work of Mamunur Rashid -- who have brought to life stories of marginalised people like no other.
In the question-answer round, Mamunur Rashid answered questions as specific as the background of a dialogue of a play he was a part of, to big-picture questions like the evolution of theatre from the pre-Liberation time to now; how it has moved from 4-5 hour productions focused on stage and props setting to more acting-oriented and concentrated. He also delivered a few lines from a play from the era, “Shahjahan”, to contrast the dialogue and script styles.
The artiste also shared the humourous yet inspiring anecdote of his first acting experience, where he was given such makeup by a jatra makeup-man that his younger sister did not recognise him, and the nervousness of standing in front of an audience, where he fainted after his first dialogue. He, however, did not wash the makeup stains from his shirt for weeks, just so people would ask him about it and he could brag about playing the role of a prince in a school play.
The veteran actor also shared his experience of TV plays “Suprobhat Dhaka”, “Somoy Osomoy”, “Ekhane Nongor” and “Pachar”. Despite the limitations of the only TV channel -- BTV -- television was a much sincere media, he lamented. He had himself not eaten rice for 20 days in preparation for “Suprobhat Dhaka”, a play where he plays a poor villager who comes to the city and is befuddled by its chaos. For “Ekhane Nongor”, the team had brought in tons of sand on the indoor sets to make a 'char'. Today, despite there being so many channels, TV plays are very forgettable, because sincerity is not given the importance it deserves, he observed. There used to be mandatory rehearsals for TV plays before, a practice long lost, that has attributed to the fall in quality, he added. For a new theatre play to be ready for stage, two months of rigorous rehearsal is required, Mamunur Rashid said in response to a question, outlining the effort that goes into a stage production. At the same time, he rued the fact that theatre still can't be taken as a profession, because it's virtually impossible to make a living from it. There's next to no funding, nor is the market big enough. In foreign countries, theatre is a prestigious career, and productions go on for houseful shows for decades on end, he said.
In closing, Dr. Salehuddin Ahmed stated that if there is anything Mamunur Rashid's career taught us, it was that perseverance, integrity and vision can take a person to great heights. He also said the eminent playwrights works showed empathy instead of sympathy for the marginalised populace, a rare quality.
With tight schedules of classes, not all students could attend the event end to end, but their participation was tell-tale of their excitement. As the veteran artiste walked out, after UAP authorities handed a floral reception to the guests, students crowded to him, requesting to take photos and asking him questions. Mamunur Rashid obliged with his usual big smile.
Photo: Ridwan Adid Rupon