Eight years after Devashish Makhija's directorial debut Oonga hit the festival circuit, former child actor Raju Singh speaks of the angst of waiting in the wings, and why one should read Oonga, the book.
Raju Singh played the titular role in writer-filmmaker Devashish Makhija's critically acclaimed 2013 film Oonga. Pic: By arrangement
Raju Singh is 18, a Class 12 student at Valia College of Arts, Commerce and Science in Mumbai and an NCC (National Cadet Corps) cadet in the senior division at Bhavan’s College in Mumbai. He’s keen to make a career in the armed forces. Eight years ago, Raju had another identity — he played the titular role in writer-filmmaker Devashish Makhija’s critically acclaimed 2013 film Oonga.
Today, Singh lives in a one-room rented accommodation 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 in Versova,” said Singh.
His life under the spotlight was short lived. But, Singh is back in the news for Makhija’s novel Oonga — a reverse-adaptation of his first film — he graces both the front and back covers.
The novel, written with empathy, is about Oonga, a boy from the Dongria Kondh adivasi community, and his desire to turn into the blue-hued Lord Rama. Oonga lives in a village that is a conflict zone with Naxals and the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) and a corporation lurking in the background too. The theme of the book hits hard, especially following the April 4 clash between security forces and Naxals in Chhattisgarh that has left many dead and some missing on both sides.
“It feels like I have been immortalised in Oonga, the novel. The cover of the blue-skinned boy sitting atop the banyan tree is me. The one with a bow and arrow is also me,” a grinning Singh told Gaon Connection.
The days spent shooting for the film in faraway Odisha are still fresh in Singh’s heart and mind. Recalling his days as Oonga, Singh immediately rattles off dialogues in chaste Odia — “Maa begi begi noile school tila mane mote chadi purabe” (Ma, hurry, or they’ll go for the school trip without me). The accent is something he picked up playing the part of a tribal boy, learning the nuances of a language he’d never heard before from a teacher on the sets.
The film never released in theatres or got its deserved due, but Odia stayed on with Singh, who has Nepali ancestors. “I enjoyed playing Oonga, and bagging this role was a dream come true for my mother,” Singh said.
How Singh landed the film makes for a great screenplay by itself. He first came to Mumbai with his parents when he was barely a year old. His entry into the glamour world was serendipitous.
“My mother used to cook for casting director 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. Upon being asked, he told her they were looking for a nine-year-old to play Oonga,” Singh recalled.
Singh’s mother volunteered to bring along a boy, without telling Bhajni that it was her son Raju. I literally walked my way into the film,” smiled Singh.
Suddenly, life changed for Singh, then in class four. He cleared the audition, which was not a cakewalk, and had stiff competition. “All I dreamed of was bagging the role, sharing space with famous actors, having my face on billboards across the city and becoming rich and famous overnight,” said Singh, who was all of nine when he landed the movie.
People in the casting director’s office were thrilled. They were clapping and calling Singh Oonga. “I kept reminding them that my name is Raju,” laughed Singh.
Thanks to the film, Singh 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 shooting.
“Oonga brought many firsts in my life. I had studied ‘A for aeroplane’ while learning the English alphabet, but never thought I would ever board one. The film gave me wings,” said Singh. He also witnessed first-hand the hard work that goes on behind the magic one sees on screen.
Singh recalled to Gaon Connection how Makhija took extra care of him on the film set. “I would sometimes forget my dialogues, but he would help me deliver them with perfection,” he said.
The film did not give him the one thing he craved for, though — a theatrical release and possible stardom. “I gave that role my best. If only Oonga had released in India, I would have become famous and bagged more roles. But no one here saw me in Oonga. My work went unappreciated. I managed small roles in some films, but they too never released,” And, just like that, an actor went silently into the dusk.
However, the book cover has rekindled Singh’s interest in trying his luck again in films. “It is my mother’s dream to see me as a successful actor in films and TV. I hope I can fulfil her dream,” he said.
For now, he wishes people bought the book of his mentor and read the story of a daring little boy who took it upon himself to become Lord Rama and fix all wrongs in society.