(This article is the property of The Sunday Indian and part of their publication "Ratn-36".)
In 2000, my mother took me to watch “Mor Chhaiyyan Bhuiyyan”; most of the film’s cast and crew were present. Afterwards, we invited them home for tea. But the person I most wanted to meet was absent. I didn’t know his name back then. So, when I met the producers, I asked them “where is the guy, the naughty younger brother Kartik, who lit up the screen every time he was on it; the one who had the audience going gaga…” Before I could finish describing him, they proclaimed his name: Anuj.
A lot has happened during the last decade. Chhollywood, Chhattisgarh’s still-nascent film industry, has gone through a definitive cycle of Rise, Fall and Rebirth. There has however remained one constant: the ever-increasing endearment of Anuj Sharma to the people that speak and sing in his dialect, share his on-screen life, and hope someday to emulate his off-screen Rags to Riches story. I have personally borne witness to this phenomenon on countless occasions, not just when he is performing on-stage but also when we are doing simple everyday things like going for a drive, or having an ice cream or watching a movie. People, especially those one doesn’t generally take note of- the doorman, the auto-rickshaw driver, the maid, the quintessential ‘have-not’- seem to materialize out of nowhere just to shake hands with him, to touch him. And boy, does he touch them- not just physically (something his numerous heroines, no doubt, would vouch for!) but also, much more significantly, at a deeper emotional, ethereal level. This fact didn’t escape The Sunday Times of India when it recently did a one-page cover story on Anuj.
I am not a film critic. But Anuj comes across as something of a Chhattisgarhi Brando: even at his quietest moments, he simmers and sizzles; he is both Chocolaty Romantic Hero and Angry Young Man, all rolled into one. Trade-wise, he remains Chhattisgarh’s most bankable star: 9 out of the state’s 10 biggest-grossing films have Anuj as their lead and not one film has celebrated its Silver Jubilee which didn’t have him in it. To say the least, his producers are never disappointed. His foray into television led to the most-watched show ever in Chhattisgarh’s history, Folk Jhama-jham, on ETV-Chhattisgarh. I’ve seen posters of Anuj’s films not just plastered all over Chhattisgarh- more than any neta, in fact- but also in far-off corners of Bhagalpur (Bihar), where he is a household name. Professionally, he helped re-launch his bosom-friend, Prakash’s fledgling film career, when they made “Maya” (2010), the highest-grossing film in Chhattisgarh’s history. And once every year, he gives a free performance at his native town, Bhatapara, personally bearing all costs.
But the reason I’ve been asked to write this is not to narrate what everybody already knows about Anuj; it’s to tell what you don’t. For instance, he’s completely and totally devoted to his Amma, who raised him singlehandedly after his father passed away. (Amma is, by the way, the best Chhattisgarhi cook I know, and her jimikanda cooked in curd are to die for!) He loves his wife (whom he married out of love) and his newly arrived daughter, Anumita, who has brought him not only joy but also an unending string of hits! He is remarkably down-to-earth, and can keep smiling- not just with his lips, but with his eyes- for a longer time than anyone I know: at his wedding reception, his all-winning smile didn’t leave his face for 7 hours as he personally attended to several thousand guests!
I also know for a fact that he can sing better than he can act: every time Anuj sings, I can almost feel the divine. Also- and this is his big secret- he has ghostwritten tantalizing lyrics for some very titillating albeit hugely popular songs! (Bhoran debe ka, being one such number.) He also has his likes and dislikes, and in particular, one dislike: the shameless exploitation of Chhattisgarh’s immense cinematic talent by a clique of mindless cultural illiterates. (You can also listen to my podcast of Anuj's interview to know more about his views on the subject.) That is perhaps why he was unanimously elected as President of our state’s Film Artistes’ Association: to protect, and if necessary, fight for their often-trampled Rights. Not surprisingly, UNICEF has chosen him as their Goodwill Ambassador for Chhattisgarh.
From there, it’s just a hop-skip-and-jump to Politics. Realizing his immense potential in public life, I’ve often tried to shamelessly lure him into this world, but Anuj hasn’t yielded. No yet, anyway!