It would be unfair to call Prastuti Porasor an Assamese movie actor, because she is so much more than that. Calling her a TV actor doesn’t cut it either. Or a theatre actor and director. She is all these and more than the sum of the parts. She is Assam’s one-woman cultural powerhouse.
Her oldest fans are in their 60s, and the youngest are Gen Zs and she has stayed relevant in every decade since the 1990s. She is 42 and romances men much younger than her on screen, an impossible feat in Indian cinema. She fights, dances and emotes on stage and is the single-biggest crowd puller in Bhramyaman, Assam’s mobile theatre. She owns Awahan, one of the two seminal theatre companies in Assam since the 1980s.
She is an artful juggler – managing different roles, responsibilities and rows. In the past week, she got sucked into a controversy with people accusing her of a ‘distorted’ representation of Rupkonwar Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla’s ageless play Lovita. Angry members of the Indian People’s Theatre Association bitterly criticised the interpretation staged by Awahan Theatre. Memorandums were sent to Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sharma, and finally Awahan decided to stop staging the play despite being a big hit among the audience.
If this wasn’t enough, she also tackled complaints of sexual harassment of a female actor on her set – asking the complainant to slap the offender first and worry about a formal complaint later.
All this, as she acts and mounts three stage shows every day, sometimes more. And the teeming audience spills over the makeshift theatre to watch.
“I strongly believe in myself. I believe that there is nothing I cannot do that a male actor can do. I act, I dance, and fight. What is it that I cannot do?” says Prastuti. She’s flipped the common trope of women’s careers fading after marriage and children.
“In my case, I have done bigger and bolder things after marriage and the birth of my child, and even more as I have grown older.”
Carrying the box office load
Female-driven entertainment is often seen as an unprofitable venture. Over the last four years, Alia Bhatt has been proving that wrong with films like Raazi (2018), Gangubai Kathiwaadi (2022) and even Darlings (2022). But Prastuti has been thumbing her nose at naysayers long before that. Crowds come to see her, not the male actor.
“If it is a play that has Prastuti as lead, and is written by Abhijit Bhattacharya, you can be rest assured that it will be a massive hit,” says Sanjib Bora, a businessman from Hajo, who now lives in Guwahati. Bora is an avid theatre watcher, and usually buys season tickets.
Awahan is like an extension of Prastuti’s self. She knows the name of every single one of roughly 150 employees in the theatre company, which includes actors, dancers, musicians, and technicians. In turn, everyone addresses her as ‘ba’, an Assamese word for elder sister.
In Assam, mobile theatre is a powerful vehicle. Neither multiplexes, nor reality TV has been able to dislodge one of the longest surviving forms of entertainment from its pedestal. People throng theatre sites for ‘first day first shows’, oblivious to the sweltering heat or the frigid cold in the nine months that theatre season runs in Assam.
And Prastuti is its beating heart.
The 42-year-old actor is the reason many never miss a single show of Awahan’s yearly offerings. Before the start of theatre season by end August, larger-than-life cutouts of Prastuti dominate the city, town or village where her plays are staged.
As the last day of the theatre festival unfolds in Ganeshguri’s Gopal Boro field, where Awahan has temporarily set up its tent, Prastuti has too many things on her mind, and too many demands on her time. She walks around ensuring water bottles and gamusas (a white piece of cloth with red borders) are in place for welcoming the chief guest, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sharma, who is expected to arrive for the evening show.
In between, she smiles for photos for fans, and patiently answers a man who asks her questions for his blog. There’s a lot to pack into a tight day.
The crowd shuffles in, and waits with bated breath for the curtains to go up. As the last strain of music fades out, the curtains go up and the spotlight beams down on Prastuti. She performs a nritya natika on one of Jyoti Prasad Agarwala’s iconic songs, Mure Jibonore Xokha Krishna, sung by Bhupen Hazarika. The dance performance is a staple on the first day of plays staged in any city.
Dressed immaculately as Radha, she dances across two stages and the ramp created for actors, drawing closer and closer to the audience.
People are ecstatic, a thunderous round of applause follows. For the next few hours, they are glued to their seats as she enthrals them with her power-packed performance.
Soon after, the feature presentation of the play Lovita begins. Prastuti plays the titular character of a young girl who takes up arms during the tumultuous years after World War 2 when the Azad Hind Fauj was a force to reckon with. Her monologue is powerful. She speaks out against the hypocrisy of village landlords who criticise the British but do not look at their own exploitation of the poor. There is pin-drop silence. No one stirs, no one coughs.
Prastuti started her career in Bani Das’ Maharathi in 1999. Born in 1981 in Jorhat’s Malow Ali. “I always know that art was in my bones,” she says. And with every new venture, she pushed the envelope further.
A consummate artist, Prastuti has always laid down her own rules, be it choosing to act in every medium available or coming back with bigger hits, bolder career choices or riskier business choices after becoming a mother.
Six months after the delivery of her child, Prastusti starred in the Assamese film Raamdhenu in 2011. The film was a hit, ending the drought that had been plaguing the film industry for a few years. The film whose title means ‘rainbow’ is about 7 characters who come together to form the plot of the film through their individual stories. Prastuti plays a nurse Mondira, who comes to live in a house that has a lot of tenants. How her life intersects with those of her tenants and how she was betrayed in love forms the crux of the story.
It was her fitting rebuttal to those who commented on her post-delivery weight gain.
“On the sets, I overheard a few actors talking about the fact that I used to play the love interest opposite the lead, Jatin Bora and in this film, he is calling me baidow (sister),” says Prastuti.
Her peers and critics predicted that motherhood would mark the end of her ‘lead actress’ career. But Prastuti proved naysayers wrong and how.
Six months after the film, she shed 30 kg and returned as a college girl in the television series, Bindass on Rang TV. It turned out to be a massive hit. Her performance shut down all talk of the demise of her career. Almost as if she was proving a point, Prastuti took on romantic roles where she was the co-star opposite male actors who were younger than her. Her fans cheered her on.
That was just the beginning of a second, and even better innings for Prastuti’s acting career. From becoming the most popular mobile theatre star to becoming the owner of a theatre group, she has been redefining what women can or should do after marriage and childbirth.
“My family is my biggest support. I share a spiritual relationship with them,” she says. All members of her family, including her parents were present during the four day-screenings held at Guwahati.
As an actor in Assam’s mobile theatre, she plays the historical character Mula Gabharu who wielded a sword when her land needed her. She plays Mary Kom and boxes her way to medals. And is the romantic lead in another play, Moi Natok Kora Suwali. All of it in front of a live audience, sometimes three-four times a day, without missing a beat.
“For me it may be my fourth show of the day, but I have to make sure the audience feels and remembers like it’s the first one,” she says.
Such is the power of her performance that a young girl wrote a letter to the actor saying how watching Prastuti fight goons off, gave her the courage to face her own fear of coming by herself after her tuition classes in the evening.
“We come to watch Prastuti. I love her for the roles, and dance and the fact that she can do anything,” says Lakhiprobha Saikia, a woman who lives in Guwahati’s Christian Basti.
She chooses to tell the stories of women. Her play on Mula Gabharu, the story of an Ahom princess who took up the sword against the Mughals after her husband was killed in battle, is hugely popular as its part of Assamese history and folklore.
“I am a woman, and I will make female-oriented movies,” says Prastuti. “Commercial plays with songs and dances are popular and we make those. But plays like Mula Gabharu or Joymoti, I make for myself,” she adds.
She is canny enough to adapt her plays so that it appeals to a younger generation of theatre goers. She knows that they are less likely to pick up a book to read. “But they like to watch. Show history, but you have to remember that your audience is of today,” she says.
All in a day’s work
Prastuti is an artist-cum-tough-as-nails entrepreneur — managing her company, turning around revenue, drawing in the crowds and also capturing the cultural zeitgeist.
And she understands money.
“I maintain all my accounts myself. When Krishna Roy was running the theatre, I was part of the managerial process, even though I was not authorised. My commerce background helped me a lot,” says Prastuti. She took over the reins from Krishna Roy in 2019.
“She has the guts to run theatre, and for the past three years, she has been doing that without a glitch, “says Roy, who started Awahan in 1980-81.
Prastuti even took the ambitious step of taking mobile theatre outside Assam, a feat that was attempted only once on a small scale when National School of Drama invited Kohinoor theatre to perform six shows in New Delhi in April 2010.
Almost a decade later in 2019, Awahan was invited by the Assam Society of Bangalore, East Bangalore Bihu Committee and Assam Bangalore Association. The cast travelled by train, but the collapsible stage, props and lights and other equipment were loaded onto trucks that travelled through multiple states to finally arrive in Bengaluru in April.
“You have to be true to yourself, and your work,” she says.
Her name draws not just chief ministers and thespians, but film stars as well. Three actors attended the first day of the theatre festival to watch her perform. They may have traded their careers on stage for the glamour of movies, but she reminds them of the power of live performance.
The seductive allure of the Bhramyaman and the crowd pulsing with energy ahead of Prastuti’s performance was a reminder of what they had left behind. “Seeing the energy and love of the audience, I feel like coming back to the stage, maybe not this year, but next year,” says actor Jatin Bora.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)