Cine-buffs who watched Shreyas Talpade’s marvellous performance as the kind-hearted and lovable bahurupi-turned-con man in Nagesh Kukkunoor’s Dor some years ago, were actually looking at an underplayed sub-text of the film – the decline and decay of the beherupiya of Rajsathan. Ritwik Ghatak made a detailed reference to the bahurupi in his film, Subarnarekha (1965).

The term ‘bahurupi’ which is beherupiya in Hindi, derives from the Sanskrit ‘bahu’ (many) and ‘rupa’ (form.) The beherupiya is a traditional performer of dance, drama, music and song once very popular in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. A beherupiya is generally an individual performer who portrays several hundred characters, from gods to lepers to animals and demons, doctors and engineers, children and birds, holy men, professional men and tribals, tradesmen and rogues, beggars and fools. As one who assumes several forms and playfully takes on different identities, his performance demands versatility, conviction, difference in body language and speech patterns determined by the impersonation he assumes for a given performance at a given time for a given audience. His costume is known as “vesha.”

By chance, I happened to watch a ten-minute short fiction film called The Lost Beherupiya on a movie channel and was deeply moved by how beautifully the tragic story of a fading performing art form and its performer can unfold in the language of cinema. The film, written, edited and directed by Sriram Dalton along with producer Rupesh Sahay whose concept the story is based on is a tribute to the beherupiya pushed to the dredges of poverty in the face of modern entertainment forms presented through professional theatre, music and dance performances, television, cinema and the Internet.

The film won the National Film Award for the Best Arts/Cultural Film jointly with the English-Telugu short film O Friend, This Waiting! at the 61st National Film Awards. I wonder how many have seen this film because there are no distribution outlets for short films in our country. Movie sites like YouTube offer poor competition with feature films hogging eyeballs. The film also won the Merit Award at the Indie Fest California and was nominated at the Golden Egg Film Festival, Mexico for the Best Documentary Film and the Best Hair and Makeup.

In his director’s statement about the film, Dalton says,Behrupiya is an ancient art form once practiced in major parts of the Indian sub-continent. Its literal meaning is many avatars. People performing this art are called behrupiyas, and they would dress up as various characters and enact scenes in the streets. The characters would be from history, folklore, mythology or everyday life. Travelling across the country, the artists would perform in different cities and live on alms.”

The film is so powerful in its narrative statement without dialogue but only sounds the performer emits, albeit rarely, while performing that it can and should find place as a model lesson in short-film making in film schools across the country. The film opens on the face of a single beherupiya (Ashraf-ul Haque) lovingly making up his face for a performance held in tight close-ups. He dresses himself up and clambers down a flight of stairs dressed up as Lord Shiva, the camera following him from a distance as he walks out of the dark interiors into the light outside.

in hand, he performs in a neighbourhood lane with onlookers watching but not paying him. He next transforms himself into Goddess Kali, blackened face, false hair let loose, fiercely angry eyes and red tongue sticking out held in a big close-up. The show goes on as he transforms himself into Krishna, waiting alone under a bridge with no one to watch, or, as Hanuman with his curly long tail wandering across the lanes and bylanes of the city, immersed in himself. There is a touching scene where a crowd has gathered to see some incident on the street, he joins the crowd to watch what is happening, a man shoos him away and he walks away, saddened. It reflects his forced isolation from the very mainstream that was once his audience. There are shots of the beherupiya who does not have a name in the film, performs a tiger dance, dressed and made up as a tiger. But there is no audience and he seems happy just to perform.

He then disguises himself as a female dancer/prostitute imitating the coquettish body language and gait, playing with his long plait wandering around the streets , hips swaying till he is accosted by a ‘customer’ who lures him with a hundred-rupee note but does not hand it to him. He teases the beherupiya with the note till he follows him into a dingy room and walks out, disheveled, crying and screaming away, coming to rest on the top of a water tank. The colours of his make-up – green, blue, red and yellow wash away to mix into the waters and the film ends on that note where the performing artist surrenders his art when he finds that his self-respect and dignity has been compromised forever and his art is lost to the world he lives in.

Ashraf-ul Haque passed away before the film hit the screen of a terminal spinal ailment at the relatively young age of 45 so he possibly could not see the outstanding performance he delivered in the film as the ‘lost beherupiya.’ It is perhaps the best performance in his entire career. Haque was a National School of Drama pass-out. He got brief but important cameos in big banner films. Even in those brief bits, he kept pace with the likes of Amitabh Bachchan, Amir Khan and Irrfan Khan. In The Lost Beherupiya, the anguish, the pain, the sense of social alienation and isolation, the joy coming out of each performance for its own sake, comes piercing through the heavily made-up face and body that must have taken hours for the actor to put on and remove for every disguise he stepped into. If he is remembered for his brief but striking appearances in films like Company, Black Friday, Fukrey, Gangs of Wasseypur, Red Alert – The War Within, Deewar – Lets Bring Our Heroes Back, Ravan, Talaash, Delhi Belly and Paan Singh Tomaar, his performance in The Lost Beherupiya could have immortalized him had it got a wider and more appreciative audience.

But Haque’s performance is one segment that defines the film’s excellence. The backdrop against which the film has been shot, captured against the lone figure of the behrupiya as he ambers along beside an old brick wall, or sits alone on the steps of a tank, or, walks across a bridge in his Krishna costume also spell out the director’s sense of aesthetics. Add to this the brilliant cinematography by three different cinematographers that widens the canvas at certain times to throw up the protagonist in silhouette shots alternating with tight close-ups, mid-long and long shots with the behrerupiya as the central figure, a tragic artist created and destroyed by the very environment he lives in and the audience he once performed for.

The music (Vijay Verma) evolves into a character in the film – complementing, backing, enhancing and enriching the mood of every scene following the beherupiya in his tracks in a film almost completely stripped of dialogue. Sandeep Mishra’s sarangi, almost a lost instrument in Bollywood and Vivek Mishra’s pakhawaj create a symphony that creates a symbiosis with the mood of the film. A few strains of a semi-classical raga rendered by Megha Sriram Dalton invests the narrative with the angst and the pain that forms its basis. Add to this the expertise displayed in different kinds of make-up conceived and created by four make-up artists –Anup Motilal, Veena Bihari, Ravi Shankar Singh and Kutub K. The colourful costumes are designed by Sapan and Arvind Srivastav.

“A beherupiya' is the traditional performing arts of India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. The art form is now in decline with most practitioners living in poverty. Behrupiyas are a community of impersonators who perform on the street and are known to change their costume every day. The profession is often carried down from ancestral lineage. In earlier times, when media was not so pervasive, Behrupiyas were the main entertainer,” sums up Dalton.