Extraordinary Indians| Nigel Akkara: From Cell To Celluloid
Actor Nigel Akkara underwent a life-changing transformation while in prison. Here's his inspirational story
The day Nigel ‘Vicky’ Akkara, then 20, entered jail to serve his life sentence, he knew it was the end of the road for him. Confined in his cell, Vicky was consumed by rage. He ran his operations in central Kolkata as part of a gang, and by the time he realized it was a slippery slope, it was too late. Powerful people used him and cast him aside when their job was done. One such businessman tipped off the police, after calling him to his office. The strapping youngster tried to escape, but was beaten to a pulp and thrown in jail, booked for 18 different cases. “My mother had no idea I had strayed so far. In court, I could not look her in the eye,” he says.
When he was two, Vicky lost his father and his mother stepped out to work. “My brother and I were like dogs without a leash at home,” laughs Akkara. “By the time she would return, we were fast asleep.” It was in jail that he fully grasped the intensity of his craving for her. And that she did her best, giving them a good education—at St Xavier’s school and college.
It all started after his class-10 board exams, while “helping friends”. “Whenever a friend had a fight with some kid, we turned up with hockey sticks to bash him up. I had no idea where it all led,” says Akkara, now 41. Before long, the teenager—hungry for attention and thrill—found himself trapped in a web of crime. “I wanted to run away from it all, be good again, but it was not possible,” he recalls.
While in jail, Vicky faced his share of torture and abuse. He also made friends and got noticed as a smart young man. B. D. Sharma, then inspector-general of prisons, had introduced therapies for inmates. Vicky was included in a dance workshop conducted by the dancer Aloknanda Roy. At first withdrawn, he eventually got involved, and then landed the protagonist’s role in Rabindranath Tagore’s Balmiki Pratibha, in which the bandit Ratnakar transforms into the sage Valmiki.
“You can never be sad when you are dancing. Nigel and the other inmates, were stirred by the rhythm and joy of dance that had been lost from their lives. All of them were youngsters, sucked into the darkness,” says Roy. Vicky was not allowed to leave jail for the first performance, but Roy stood guarantor. “I am glad I took that chance,” she says.
By then, Akkara had served nine years, but was acquitted due to lack of evidence. “My mother wanted me to leave Kolkata, but I promised her that I would return her lost respect one day, right here,” recalls Akkara.
Nigel Akkara (Photo: Bandeep Singh)
He started applying for jobs, but unsurprisingly, no one was willing to give him that ‘start’. While waiting for an interview one day, he spotted a street cleaner, and that was his ‘aha’ moment: Akkara launched a company offering cleaning services and, as he got more work, expanded to security, housekeeping and other services. He also started employing former convicts and rehabilitating them. His company currently has 500 employees, with 80 ex-prisoners. In 2014, IIM Calcutta even did a case study on his unique effort.
Meanwhile, Akkara continued acting, which eventually led to a film offer in 2012. After a bunch of Bengali and Malayalam films, Akkara’s lead role in the Bengali hit film Gotro (2019) has won many hearts recently. Even though he’s serious about his film career, he wears his fame lightly. “I tend to attend more public functions than page-3 parties,” he laughs.
He has founded a society that uses theatre for stigmatized people—ex-prisoners, transgender people, sex-workers and drug addicts. “Theatre therapy can provide invaluable psychological inputs, and later, we also provide job placements,” Akkara says.
“I love movies and acting,” he confesses, adding how grateful he is for the access his fame has brought along. He has seen life from both sides now. Each time he faces insult or hostility, he takes it up as a challenge. While cleaning a mansion some years ago, he peeped into the living room and noticed a slick marble floor and sofa set. “I promised myself that one day I would come back and sit on that sofa, and have tea with the owner. I did exactly that after two years,” he smiles thinly.
Akkara also found love and married Moumita, a dentist and award-winning Bengali author, in 2016. Of course, he is thrilled to have kept his promise to his mother. “General Shankar Roy Chowdhury was my childhood hero, I always wanted to join the Army, but it was not to be. Today, I run a small regiment with which I work, so we can change the world a little,” he says.