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From being a lifer in jail to becoming a movie star: Is Nigel Akkara the face of reform?
On a sultry humid summer afternoon I went to meet the media’s blue-eyed boy- the ex-convict turned film actor Nigel Akkara for writing an article on ‘Dance therapy in Correctional Homes in West Bengal’. I had taken his contact number from the Regional Institute of Correctional Administration, Kolkata. In a stern voice I was told that it is doubtful whether a ‘star’ will speak to an academician like myself. I called him to seek an appointment with him. He agreed to speak to me at his Behala office after two days. I was quite shocked!
So after two days, I went to meet him around 12.40 p.m. thinking god knows how long I have to wait, since such ‘stars’ are seldom punctual. As I entered the room I saw a six-feet tall, wheatish complexioned man wearing a simple t-shirt and bermudas seated in his non-air conditioned office. I had seen him before at Presidency Correctional Home in early 2000s. At that time, if I correctly remember, he had short hair, a very aggressive face and was very stout. He looked like a typical ‘goonda’. I asked the then welfare officer Nandini Ghosh about him. However, the man now in front of me looked very different - he had long curls, appeared calm and poised.

As I questioned him about the cultural therapy, he spoke about his initial reluctance to participate in the cultural therapy program. For him initially this cultural therapy session was a class he was forced to attend, but later on it became something which all the inmates lived for. He owes his present ‘reformed’ nature to his mentor, therapist Alokanada Roy (the famous classical dancer) rather than the therapy itself. He spoke of how soft spoken, tolerant, caring she was to all of them.

How she showered maternal love to all the inmates and never questioned their past. Initially she would come on Sundays and teach one step at a time to them since most of them were untrained and had no idea of classical dance. All the inmates who were part of this dance therapy were lodged in one dormitory where they shared food, tales of joy, despair and sorrow. Slowly camaraderie developed among the inmates. They performed one program inside the prison which received heaps of praise.

However, when an opportunity came for performing at the Uday Shankar dance festival at Rabindra Sadan, the then Inspector-General of Correctional Services, B.D. Sharma IPS refused to give him permission for performance outside the prison. Nigel till then was famous for his criminal background, nefarious activities, and had once tried to escape from prison also. Nigel had to sign a petition and his mentor agreed to take him outside under her ‘personal surveillance’.

For his first show he travelled in a prison van where women inmate participants were accommodated along with Alokanada Roy. Since he was classified as a ‘high risk’ prisoner four guards were deployed to guard him. After the first show, when the audience had left, he saw the empty chairs and he broke down. For the first time in life he cried…he realized he has some worth, capabilities. All the inmates were happy, they felt victorious as if they had won a war. In a prison, life comes to a standstill, the loneliness haunts inmates…one feels depressed thinking about the years he/she has to spend behind the high walls. The rhythm of music and dance helped them to divert their mind and give a soothing mental effect.

Finally in 2009 he was released from prison. However the ‘real’ hard days were to begin. Even when he was outside in a mission to re-invent himself, policemen kept him under ‘close surveillance’ and often enquired his whereabouts such as whether he is reorganizing his gang or is he still associated with any deviant activities.

In India hardly there exists any infrastructure to accommodate and rehabilitate prisoners. In a country where educated people do not get economic opportunities, who would give an ex-convict a job? Learning about his ‘notorious’ past nobody agreed to give him a job. His mother advised him to settle down in some other city. But he was determined to create a positive niche in Kolkata, the city where he had earned negative reputation because of his misdeeds.

So by borrowing money from his well-educated U.K. settled brother, he set up his own private security and professional cleaning business named Kolkata Facilities Management. The office is located at the ground floor of his house where he used to stay previously. He has ‘rented’ this place from his mother, so that during old age she is not dependent upon her son. Even in his new venture he confronted innumerable obstacles.

His ‘past’ life haunted his ‘present’ life during the initial post-release period. People refused him entry inside their house. Even if few people reluctantly welcomed him, he could find work ‘outside’ their home - he was asked to clean the lawn or penthouse/outhouse. However his desperation to find work and earn a living drove him to clean toilets. He asked one of his client, ‘just lock us in your bathroom, when we finish doing our job open the latch - at best only one bottle of shampoo may be lost’.

According to him no work is big or small as long as the work is done honestly and sincerely. Once one of his private security guards as a part of routine checkup asked whereabouts of one of the guests entering a site. It ‘hurt’ the ego of the rich man and he complained the owner against the guard, who was immediately sacked. Nigel had to rush late at night at the construction site and complete the hours of duty of the ‘sacked’ employee.

Today he runs the business employing ex-convicts as well as others who receive professional training before getting deployed in the field. For looking after daily affairs of his organization he has employed managers and accountant etc. In his organization annual rewards for best work, annual increments etc are given to his employees. Apart from his business he has learnt meditation and has provided need based meditation training to the students of Physical Education, Jadavpur University as well as to the corporate managers. Earlier an atheist, now he combines the best of Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. In fact he narrated fluently verses of Koran which made me amazed.

However, he is intelligent enough to read his critiques mind. His first film ‘Mukhtodhara’ depicting partly his ‘real’ life has been a box office hit. His newly acquired popularity and fame has created a gulf between him and his once-upon-a -time prison ‘friends’, with whom he had participated in the dance therapy session. It seems he has received accolades more than he deserves.

Even though the dance drama Balmiki Pratibha is a group endeavour, time and again he has been in the limelight, while the rest of the inmates perhaps have not received their due recognition. His mentors are accused of being biased towards him. Few of the correctional officers on conditions of anonymity opined that, ‘for his mentors he is a publicity material and he has also ‘manipulated’ time, opportunity and people to serve his vested interests and purposes. In all these years only one Vicky (his pet name) have been projected as a face of reform, where are the rest?’ When the movie was premiered at Priya entertainment hall near Deshapriya park, I was passing by. I distinctly remembered a constable remarked, “What an irony of police. The police which once chased him…the police personnel with whom he used to fight around, are being deployed today to protect the rest of the celebrity and ‘him’ from the hysterical crowd.”

Few of the correctional officers during training session at RICA, Kolkata, would often mention that he speaks to the media about custodial torture in jails…but never does he speak about how he behaved with the correctional staff inside the jail before his reformed phase. One of the in-service trainees during human rights class had pointed out that human rights of prisoners are cared, but what about human rights of victims, human rights of correctional officers? Have anyone ever considered to explore how does the immediate victims feel when they see him today as a matinee-idol. What pain they have undergone?

Can any cultural therapy compensate the loss they had suffered in their personal lives by losing their near and dear ones at his hand? What do other under trials/ convicts feel when they see a fellow –prisoner roaming scot free in society for the same crime for which they are behind the prison walls? When I reminded the trainee that due to lack of evidence in any case he has been released by the court, the trainee answered, ‘…it is such a great irony that verdicts are pronounced on evidence (fabricated/ deleted) not on truth!

Nigel refused innumerable film offers after ‘Mukhtodhara’, fully aware that an unbridgeable rift has been created between him and the rest. At present he is working in a film called ‘Yodha’ opposite Tollywood superhero Dev. For enacting his character he had to learn horse ridding, is undergoing rigorous training session at a gym and is on a medically approved diet consisting of boiled chicken.

When he offered me to eat the food appeared so tasteless, but I found him eating graciously and I realized how committed he was for his role. Later this year he will be engaged in the publicity of the film ‘Yodha’. Referring to his critiques he says, “…and then there will be an atom blast.” He has in his mind innumerable projects related to prisoner’s welfare, which at the moment he refuses to divulge to the media.

At the end of the interview I looked at my watch and found three hours passed off in a blink of an eye. After that whenever I have asked of any help related to my research or anything else he has always been kind enough to help me. At the end of the day it cannot be denied that he is multi faceted genius having a very high sense of humour and intelligence. Criminals, underworld dons are not accessible to media. Nobody is aware of the ups and downs of their personal and professional life, their struggles and insecurities.

Hence dreaded criminals such as Aftab Ansari, Gabbar, are enigma. But media glare has made Nigel’s life an open book for either people to get motivated or critique him and his work. It is very difficult to come to a conclusion about him. Is he reformed is a million dollar question. Does an alumnus of St. Xavier’s school and college, Kolkata need any training on behavior changes and manners? It can also be interpreted that it is easier to ‘reform’ a city based St. Xaviers’s alumnus rather than a rustic, illiterate guy hailing from rural hinterland.

At the moment there exist a mental void between him and few of his ex-colleagues with whom he participated in the cultural therapy session. How far the tinsel town has accepted him is questionable since he has confronted ‘subtle’ discrimination in that world too. He would love to speak about his present and future activities, because each time he is questioned of his ignominious past he feels he is ‘raped’. His past has been commodified and commercialized.

He wants to erase those few years of his ‘dark’ life when he went terribly wrong and wants to move forward, though his past has perennial presence at the back of his mind. He represents thousands of inmate who struggle to rehabilitate themselves during the post-release phase…who look out for one opportunity to re-invent themselves in our society. However the difference is the rest of the inmates are unheard, invisible. But he is under constant public scrutiny- a very ‘high’ price to be paid for being under constant klieg light and for his meteoric rise to stardom.

He struggles to maintain his ordinary image which is revealed by the SMS he sent me when I called him a ‘Big Celebrity’. He replied “… I am nt (not) big maam I’m normal, n (and ) trying my best to remain ordinary’ - whether this constant ‘inner’ struggle will make him more resolute or will break him only future will reveal.

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