By Rahul Desai

In March 2001, a wily young spinner, yet to prove his worth as a cricketer, came on to bowl with the old ball. An ominous Australian batting lineup was running away with it. Two minutes and a (first ever Indian test) hat-trick later, cricket – and his country – would never be the same again. Harbhajan Singh, the teenaged off-spinner, became a household name and the game’s favourite bowler overnight. He remained so, till one fateful morning, three months later. On June 15th 2001, Singh’s fame was history. Because, on the day, history had another story to tell: a little-known Indian leg-spinner snapped up a miraculous hat-trick against a professional English team. Poetically, like Singh in the final test of a victorious series, this unassuming man – Kachra was his name – was at the crease when the winning runs were hit in 1892. Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Lagaan couldn’t have chosen a better time to stage its spectacle.

And 15 years into his career, Aditya Lakhia, the actor behind this film’s most memorable character, had become an overnight sensation. “I walked into a Bandra nightclub a month later, and suddenly everyone stood up and started clapping. Like I had won a real match. It was surreal,” reminisces Lakhia, a diehard Paul McCartney fan (“it has to be mentioned!”), now back in his hometown Ahmedabad for a stint in Gujarati cinema.

The irony of showbiz isn’t lost on him. He may have waited years for the applause, but one look at his filmography before Lagaan and you wonder why: Kamal Swaroop’s cult classic Om-Dar-Ba-Dar, Mansoor Khan’s Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar and Kundan Shah’s Kabhi Haa Kabhi Naa amongst others. All of them era-defining Hindi films. Though he was just the floppy-haired (surely, Beatles-ish) friend of the ‘heroes’ in the early Khan starrers, his career began with an eponymous lead role. Little did he know, back then, of the profound influence Om-Dar-Ba-Dar would have on an entire generation of filmmakers and cinema enthusiasts. “Mr. Swaroop chose me when I was still a student at Mayo. There were extensive auditions, but it helped that I grew up watching him, Jahnu Barua, Ketan Mehta, Benjamin Gilani and others party in my living room.” Meera Lakhia, his mother, was already an established art director (Mirch Masala, Rihaee) by then. She had won the national award for her work on Bhavni Bhavai, Mehta’s debut film, a Gujarati folktale pivoting on the royal pitfalls of untouchability. That her son would go on to become the most recognizable Dalit character (‘Kachra’ translates to ‘garbage’) in mainstream Hindi cinema is somewhat lyrical.

The role didn’t happen by chance though. In the eight years between Kabhi Haa… and Lagaan, Lakhia didn’t act in a single film. One-off roles in television episodes aside, he assisted on movies like Pehla Nasha and Akele Hum Akele Tum, and ‘built plenty of contacts.’ These years of exploring the soul of the industry may have paid off. “By the time Lagaan started, I was still very much in touch with Ashutosh and Aamir, literally spending every day at their office,” he smiles, before cheekily adding that – successful auditions aside – they were almost guilted into casting him. Daya Shankar Pandey, who went on to play Goli, was adamant on Kachra’s role too. “But Ashu wanted the innocence on my face.”

The floodgates opened thereafter. The offers rolled in for Lakhia, yet none of them were solo or even full-fledged supporting roles. Often as an interviewer, one tends to probe for dramatic reasoning to romanticize certain stories. This writer wondered aloud if it was difficult for him to accept his perpetual status as a ‘character actor.’ After all, despite doing close to 45 films after Lagaan…“Look,” he cuts me off, vaguely aware of what I was hinting at, “I’m actually quite satisfied. I’ve done many popular films (he reels off a cameo list – Mission Istanbul, 3 Deewarein, Gafla, Stanley Ka Dabba, Sai Paranjype’s Chakachak, Boom). I wasn’t always Kachra, especially after landing Zee’s Agle Janam Mohe Bitiya Hi Kijo (as protagonist Laali’s father), which started the trend of village-based soaps. I’ve also earned plenty of goodwill over time.” Which is true, given that he is now an unofficial part of actor-director Deepak Tijori’s family (“I live with them because they’re my home. Everyone needs one here.”), and was perhaps the only person to help me find work as a fresher.

I would even say he went out of his way, something he eventually admits he could have done with regards to his own career. “Maybe I didn’t go that extra mile after Lagaan. I didn’t take myself seriously enough; just took everything that came my way,” he introspects, no doubt realizing that this is the moment I was looking for. I probe further, asking if he ever felt the urge to ask directors like (cousin) Apoorva Lakhia and even Tijori for significant roles. “I’m really not that guy. It’s important to respect friends as professionals when they make casting decisions,” he promptly answers, with a hint of honour in his voice.

By now I begin to believe that Aditya Lakhia is indeed that rare creature: an artiste with zero cynicism. He will soon produce a Gujarati film, before returning to Mumbai (“with a bang!”) next year with plans of writing and directing on the horizon. At the moment, maybe he is genuinely content cooking mutton korma while speaking to me. “Nobody should reach VT station wanting to be only a hero. I just came to act – anywhere. And I still do. I like doing my thing, you know?”

He does. There is perhaps nothing to probe at anymore. As we end, I can’t help but imagine a tanned Kachra animatedly assisting in crowd-control between shots on the cricket field…by crooning this part of a Beatles’ classic: ‘There will be an answer, let it be.’