Calm, persistent and focussed is how I perceived actor Ashwath Bhatt’s character, Mehboob Syed in the spy thriller film, Raazi (2018). He portrays the role of a Pakistani army officer who eventually falls prey to Sehmat’s (Alia Bhatt’s character) ploy.
His performance in Meghna Gulzar’s directorial garnered praises from audiences and critics alike. In the recent past, Ashwath serenaded audiences with his feisty performance as Orakzai chief, Gul Badshah Khan in the Akshay Kumar-starrer, Kesari (2019).
After watching him on-screen in these two contrasting personas, I was eager to interact with the 45-year-old actor, who has a lesser-known side to him.
Originally from Kashmir, Ashwath was actively involved in helping students from across India in the aftermath of the abrogation of Article 370. Due to a complete shutdown of communication, several students from Kashmir were stranded and left with depleting finances.
An Act of Kindness
For many, paying hostel and tuition fees and buying groceries became a challenge. Travelling back home was not yet an option.
Having experienced Kashmir turmoil in the 1990s first-hand, Ashwath quickly rose to the occasion and used his social media platforms to connect with such students.
“I came back to India yesterday and I can see a lot of uncertainty and panic in Kashmiri people (living in various parts of the country), especially because of not being able to communicate with their families. Just drop me a message with your name and number. This is the time to help people in distress,” Ashwath wrote on Facebook in 2019.
Help poured in from his friends from the film fraternity like director Rahul Dholakia, actor Rajit Kapoor and Shishir Sharma; and ones in the theatre circuit such as Danish Hussain, Yuki Ellias and Mahesh Dattani. He received a flood of messages from people along with their bank accounts.
“Around 15 second year engineering boys from Noida were held hostage by an owner of the private hostel when they decided to leave mid-way in their contract,” Ashwath, an alumnus of National School of Drama (NSD), recalls. He adds, “They wanted to leave because they didn’t have money. So I got in touch with the Superintendent of Police to help solve the matter. They were rescued and shifted to another place for a few days till they got in touch with their parents.”
“I was not able to talk to my parents for nearly two months and due to the lockdown, they were unable to do the bank transfer. Ashwath sir provided financial and moral support. His encouraging and comforting words is something I will never forget. It’s not every day that actors involve themselves personally to help common people,” says Irfan, one of the boys who received help.
Aquib, an MPhil student in Himachal Pradesh also faced a similar issue. He received around Rs 8,000 with which he paid his accommodation fees.
“I was swamped with my project work and had no contact with my parents for four to five months. We were practically strangers when I asked for help and he did it without any questions. Such people are very rare to find these days,” says Aquib.
Similarly, Ashwath personally interacted with nearly 100 students to understand their plight. Some students came to him more than once. He says, “I asked only for their photo id and bank account. The money we raised through social media was directly deposited into their accounts.”
The selfless initiative that lasted for a couple of months was not free of trolls that spewed hatred and questioned his intentions. However, Ashwath refused to stop in the face of adversities and made sure every student that came to him was helped.
An Aid That Can Shape Future Generations
Having grown up in a family that gives utmost importance to education, sponsoring school children came naturally to Ashwath. His schooling was disrupted after they were forced to flee overnight.
“Children in Jammu and Kashmir are hungry for knowledge and my visits only confirm that. These young minds will shape our future and education can give them the resources to do so. But due to the turmoil, many schools are unable to sustain themselves or function at full capacity. Poverty often leads to an increase in school dropout numbers,” explains Ashwath.
With help from his friends and peers, he is presently sponsoring 20 children from Jagti Migrant Camp at Hee Maa Public School in Jammu. He also helps the school get stationery, lab equipment, shoes and so on for children.
“From a son of a widow, an orphan and child of speech impaired parents’, we have sponsored students whose parents cannot meet ends,” adds Ashwath.
His humility and kindness stem from his life trajectory. Growing in the up valley, settling in Delhi and finding his way into the movie industry without any godfathers was not easy.
So how did he make it? Here’s his exceptional and inspiring journey.
‘I had no Godfather’
Like many Kashmiris, Ashwath grew up surrounded by the cinematic fervour. His mother was a staunch believer of ‘first day, first show’ and he found solace in the virtual company of Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra as a child.
The fascination for acting was seen through his school plays and singing performances at social gatherings.
But life turned upside down when the 15-year-old Ashwath was forced to migrate to Jammu before eventually settling in Delhi with his family.
His acting dreams vanished into thin air and the family was shackled by their mounting financial woes. He joined an evening college and took a full-time job in a travelling company.
Thankfully, he had a window of two to three hours after college to explore theatre. His penchant for the craft pushed him to work backstage and on-stage.
“I had no godfather or anyone in the family with any acting background so I had to learn everything from scratch. I honed basic skill set at theatre group, ‘Natkhat’ and doing a two-year acting course from Shri Ram Centre for Performing Arts in 1996. It helped me understand the demands of the profession,” says Ashwath.
He then went to join the prestigious NSD (1998) and subsequently bagged the Inlaks Foundation scholarship to study at London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA) in 2001.
Drama & Filmography
After passing out from LAMDA, he went on to work with reputed theatre firms like Oxfordshire Theatre Company (Oxford), GYLPT (Greenwich) and Flying Fish Theatre Company (Berlin). His hunger for acting did not stop there as he also began conducting acting workshops and mentoring newbies. A few years later, he even became a visiting faculty at his alma mater.
Ashwath inked his name in the world of theatre with his one-man show Ek Mulaqat Manto Se, based on the life of Saadat Hasan Manto. He also did several plays for BBC worldwide.
His first film was Mahotsav – The Grand Festival in 2006. Although it was screened at various film festivals, it never got a theatrical release. Not the one to be dejected, Ashwath continued his stint in the theatre while tirelessly looking for opportunities in Bollywood.
Two years later he bagged a writing job from director Rahul Dholakia. He co-wrote the script of Lamhaa: The Untold Story of Kashmir, starring Sanjay Dutt and Bipasha Basu. The movie was set in the conflict-ridden Kashmir so here’s where his expertise came handy.
This marked Ashwath’s entry in the entertainment industry. He gradually worked his way up with sheer hard work and stellar performances. His notable works include Ballad of Rustom, Feast of Varanasi, Phantom, Haider, Raazi and Kesari.
‘The Joy of Doing Is Important’
From surviving on just one meal a day, juggling jobs and studies, facing rejections to establishing his identity in theatre and bagging pivotal roles in cinema, Ashwath’s journey is nothing short of a movie.
“It was an exhaustive journey,” he says, adding, “Today, when I look back, it feels surreal. No one except my family believed a boy from a Kashmir village could make a name in the field of drama. Now, those very people take pride in my achievements. I channelled all my anger and sorrow into acting, and that strategy worked. Try to focus on the journey instead of the outcome and that will unleash your potential in unimaginable ways.”
Ashwath believes that stepping out of one’s comfort zone, having discipline and curiosity to learn is the key to find success in any field. Recently, during the lockdown, he experimented with the digital theatre play, ‘The Last Poet’ and though it was challenging it meant turning a new leaf in his creative journey.
In future, he hopes to establish a film and drama school in Jammu and Kashmir for all the aspiring actors and bring them closer to their dreams.
You can follow Ashwath Bhatt here
Edited by Yoshita Rao