2021: A year of Love, Labour and Loss

Love is a mystery. Love is unitive. Love is how we connect as human beings with one another and with the whole universe together. Love is how we learn, how we become better, and make the world a better place to live, for us and others. Love needs freedom to breathe, equality to thrive, and openness to flow and grow. Love is personal, political, sexual, philosophical, social, historical, metaphysical, transcendental, et al. Sadly, we have only one word to describe such a complex emotion. The ancient Greeks had six different words, but even that’s not enough. 2021 taught me new ways to describe the complexity of love and its various hues. Love lost on many counts, but it miraculously sprang on a few occasions like a phoenix. My LOVE vocabulary was defined and redefined by people who touched my life one way or another this year.

shillpi a singh

LOVE IS STARRY-EYED: Raju Singh

Mumbai-based Raju Singh, 18, who played the titular role in writer-filmmaker Devashish Makhija’s critically acclaimed 2013 film Oonga, is happy as a clam. The reason lies being Makhija’s recently-released novel – Oonga – for young adults that is a reverse-adaptation of his first film. Singh had started his cinematic innings at 9 with Makhija’s directorial debut, and he still hopes to make it big in films to fulfil his mother’s dream. “I have been immortalised in Oonga, the novel. The cover photo of a boy sitting atop a banyan tree branch is mine, and so is the one on the back cover with a bow and arrow,” he says, grinning from ear to ear.  Oonga is the winner of the Neev Book Award 2021 in the young adult category and YathaKatha International Film and Literature Award 2021 for Best Book (Fiction).

LOVE IS STARRY-EYED: RAJU SINGH
(Picture courtesy: Devashish Makhija)

Waiting in the wings

The days spent shooting for the film in faraway Odisha are still fresh in his heart and mind. Reliving his days as the 10-11-year-old Dongria Kondh boy, Singh immediately rattles dialogues in chaste Odia – Ma baygi baygi noyile school pilamane mutti chhaari polayibe (Ma, hurry, or they’ll go for the school trip without me). The impeccable Odia accent is what he had picked up while playing the part of a tribal boy, learning the never-heard language’s nuances from a teacher on the film sets. The film got long over, but Odia is something that has stayed on with the young man of Nepali antecedents, and quite effortlessly. “I enjoyed playing the part of Oonga to the hilt, and it was a dream come true for my mother and me to bag this role,” he says with a twinkle in his eyes. 

Hailing from a modest background, he had come to Mumbai with his parents when he was barely a year old, and lives in a one-room apartment in Andheri with his family. “My father works as a supervisor, and my mother is house help. I have two younger sisters studying in a BMC-run school here in Versova,” says Singh, who is currently enrolled as an NCC cadet in the senior division because he is keen to make a career in the armed forces. 

LOVE IS STARRY-EYED: RAJU SINGH

His entry into the glamour world was serendipitous, he recounts. “My mother used to cook for one of the casting directors, Prabodh Bhajni. He had been looking hard to find a little boy, who could play Oonga in Makhija Sir’s film, and was visibly perturbed in those days. My mother asked him why and he told her how he had been looking for Oonga but in vain. She volunteered to bring a boy who could do justice to the role, but without telling him that the boy is her son, Raju. She took me to meet him the next day, and that’s how I walked my way into the film, quite literally,” he says with a smile. The audition for the role wasn’t a cakewalk, but his grit and persistence paid off. “I had spent a sleepless night thinking about nothing else, but bagging the role, sharing the screen space with famous actors, having my billboards plastered all over the city, and becoming rich and famous. The serpentine queue of children outside the casting director’s office in Aaram Nagar greeted me, and I was nervous as hell. I somehow pulled through the audition process and knocked everyone’s socks off,” says Singh, who was barely nine then.

He fondly remembers the euphoria that followed. “People in the office were thrilled at this find. They were clapping and calling me Oonga. But I kept reminding them that my name is Raju and not Oonga,” he reminisces with a childish grin. A student of Class 4 then, Singh, was ecstatic at bagging this role and getting a break into the world of entertainment, and his family was over the moon too. “Next day, my parents were called and informed about the shooting schedule. I was thrilled to bits at the prospect of all that lay ahead,” says the Class 12 student at Bhavan’s College, Mumbai. 

Raju Singh poses with author-filmmaker Devashish Makhija’s award-winning novel for young adults, Oonga.

The story of firsts 

He flew for the first time, stayed in a hotel in Odisha, and learned a little about the filmmaking process and people who work behind the scenes during the shooting schedule. “Oonga brought many firsts in my life. I had studied that A for aeroplane while learning English alphabets and used to wave at it longingly but had never thought that I would get an opportunity to board a flight, one day. Oonga gave me wings,” he says. One thing that he realised after this role was that acting is so much more than it appears. “For the first time, I witnessed the hard work that went behind canning a perfect shot. It is a lot of work and involved long hours, but I realised that what keeps one going is the thrill of seeing oneself on the big screen, getting appreciated and recognised, and winning awards,” he says with a sigh. 

Singing paeans to his director’s genius, he reminisces how Makhija took extra care of him on the film set. “I had Odia dialogues and would at times forget them, but he would be patient with me and wait for me to deliver them to perfection,” he says about Makhija. The duo shared an excellent rapport on and off-screen, and to date, he is immensely thankful to him for giving a little boy like him an opportunity to hang the moon and the stars in his directorial debut.

Raju Singh with his sisters Pooja and Komal, father Bharat and mother Meena.

Singh lives with one regret, though. The film won critical acclaim and had a successful festival run, but never hit the theatres, and the fame that he was looking forward to never came his way. “I gave that role my best. If only Oonga had been released here in India, I would have become famous and bagged many more roles. But no one saw me as Oonga, and all my work went unappreciated. I felt terrible. I managed small roles in some films, but like my first, these too failed to hit the theatres,” he says, summing up his acting career. 

The cover image on Makhija’s novel for young adults has sparked that desire to hit the limelight again, and he yearns to get one more chance to make it big in the world of entertainment. “It is my mother’s dream to see me on the television and in films. I tried my luck by auditioning for a reality show after Oonga, but nothing came of those attempts. I want to fulfil her dream,” he says, brimming with hope at the prospect of becoming an actor, once again. 

But till he makes it big, he wants people to buy the book – Oonga – and read the story of a daring little boy who took it upon himself to become Lord Rama and fix the wrongs.       

(https://en.gaonconnection.com/oonga-movie-novel-devashish-makhija-odisha-tribal-adivasi-mining/)

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