mid-day joins Farhan Akhtar inside Yerawada Jail to celebrate Independence Day with 4,000 inmates

Updated: Aug 18, 2017, 09:35 IST | Mayank Shekhar

It's ironic to celebrate Independence Day, or freedom, inside a prison, which is precisely what we did. But maybe the venue was auspicious still, if you consider that Yerawada Central Jail was once very much Ground Zero for India's freedom struggle

Farhan Akhtar jams at the event
Farhan Akhtar jams at the event

It's ironic to celebrate the nation's Independence Day, or freedom, inside a prison, which is precisely what we did. But maybe the venue was auspicious still, if you consider that Yerawada Central Jail, founded in 1871, was once very much Ground Zero for India's freedom struggle.

The most famous alumnus of Pune's "reformation and rehabilitation school" — as BK Upadhyay, ADG, Prisons, liked to call it — isn't Sanjay Dutt, Ajmal Kasab, Abdul Karim Telgi or Arun Gawli (both current residents), but Mahatma Gandhi.

In fact, the first enclosure you go past on your left from the jail's main entrance is Gandhi Yard, an office now, and a memorial to commemorate Gandhi's term in the same cell. This is also possibly where the famous 1932 Poona Pact was signed. Not that we got to step inside. The entire 70 acres' prison campus is naturally kept out of bounds for visitors.

Diana Penty, Ronit Roy, Inaamulhaq, Farhan Akhtar, Deepak Dobriyal and Ranjit Tiwari at Yerawada Central Jail yesterday
Diana Penty, Ronit Roy, Inaamulhaq, Farhan Akhtar, Deepak Dobriyal and Ranjit Tiwari at Yerawada Central Jail yesterday

To the right of the entrance are egg-shaped cells, where the most hardened criminals are kept even out of sunlight. It's the gloomiest part. But as we walked straight ahead, there was only colour — freshly painted walls — and much cheer as "4,000

of the jail's 5,000 bandhis (inmates)" had gathered (as per Upadhyay's estimate) under a massive shamiana to celebrate India's 70th year of independence.

Colour plays an important role in the life of inmates here. Undertrials wear colourful/normal clothes. Those convicted walk around in white uniforms, with a Gandhi cap. A yellow band on the shoulder signifies someone serving life sentence. A red band means the person had tried escaping from the jail before (literally the red flag, as it were). Blue bands across the white Gandhi cap designate the inmate as a sort of a 'class monitor'— made to serve as a guard within the prison — minding other inmates.

One such old inmate, Nitin, took the stage to start yesterday's I-Day show, singing a Mohammed Rafi song ('Chahoonga mein tujhe'), followed by a male cop who thumped it up with Marathi pop (Ajay-Atul's 'Bring it on'), and a female one who did a desh-bhakti number ('Aye mere watan ke logon'). In line with fine, pre-independence courtly practice, the warm, matronly Swati Sathe, DIG (prisons), announced cash reward for the police personnel, and two months' sentence off ('maaf') for Nitin.

The three later jammed on stage with Farhan Akhtar, who was obviously the star of the show. Akhtar, along with the cast of his film Lucknow Central, entertained the unlikely guests — releasing an a cappella track video for them, singing old and new songs, reciting poetry on dreams and hope, making speeches on life's second chances — for over an hour-and-half. These were unlikely guests, only because they were unlikely to catch the film when it actually releases at a theatre near them on September 15. Lucknow Central is set around a music band inside a prison.

"Maybe we could consider showing the film here," Upadhyay, who's pretty much a performing shayar himself, said, eventually — to a loud, ecstatic applause. We've all witnessed the sort of pandemonium movie stars generate at public places — malls, restaurants, even press meets. To compare that with the impeccable discipline, top-notch decorum inside one of South Asia's largest prisons gave you a sense that while a film was being promoted at the venue, this was in fact the best PR exercise that Yerawada Jail itself could have asked for.

The visitors were strictly told not to interact with inmates. But one of them, the young, bearded Rohan Hazare, almost a doppelganger of Chakravarthy (Satya in the eponymous 1998 film, also supposedly set in Yerawada), got up impromptu, picked up the mic to speak in crisp English of a laudably civilised life he'd led in jail: "It's been four-and-a-half years here, and seven years since I held a mic, so I'm nervous, I'm sorry." This is the guy we wished to know more about.

Also see: Sanjay Dutt's daughter Trishala looks unrecognisable in these photosSanjay Dutt's daughter Trishala looks unrecognisable in 

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