Why you should care
Because Nigel Akkara is proof there’s life after prison.
At 16, he entered a world of crime. At 17, he led a gang of criminals. At 21, he was arrested on charges of kidnapping, extortion and murder. After nine years, the dark-skinned, heavy-built, bearded man stepped out of prison in the eastern Indian metropolis of Kolkata — and became an actor. Now he offers a new lease on life to many like him. For Nigel Akkara, there has been a rebirth in just half a lifetime.
“But the feeling of being an ex-prisoner always remains in my mind,” says the 40-year-old.
Akkara is also an entrepreneur, healer and theater therapist, but a shadow of his past still looms. In the recently released regional Bengali film Gotro, for example, he plays Tareq Ali, a Muslim caretaker who spent nine years in prison.
Like his Gotro character, whose scarred past hampered his job search, Akkara faced many hurdles when he left prison. Knowing his past, nobody offered him a job.
One day, after leaving an interview, he spotted a man sweeping the street and decided to take up similar work. He started a proprietorship company to clean up people’s homes. Now his housekeeping and hospitality services company, Kolkata Facilities Management, employs about 500 people — 80 of whom have, over the years, been formerly incarcerated.
“It isn’t easy to get back to a dignified life after spending years in jail. So I wanted to rehabilitate them,” says Akkara, running his long fingers through his thick hair to bunch it into a man bun.
Originally from Ernakulam in the southern state of Kerala, he moved to Kolkata as a child. Dressed in a yellow kurta and a pair of blue jeans while sitting at his former home in south Kolkata, now his office, Akkara recalls leaving here at age 17 when police came looking for him. “At that age, I never thought what is right and wrong,” he says.
In 2000, as he was about to earn an accounting degree from the city’s prestigious St. Xavier’s College, he was arrested. People in the neighborhood severed ties with his mother, then a garment company manager, and his younger brother, now an investment banker in Mumbai. Today people queue up to meet his mother. “I gave her back the dignity that I took away from her once,” Akkara says.
In prison, an aggressive Akkara ran into several fights with inmates and guards, and was mostly kept in solitary confinement. A failed 2004 escape attempt brought a course correction. Over the next three years, Akkara, an atheist who had been raised Catholic, started reading the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita and the Quran. He learned meditation and healing techniques too. In 2006, he cleared the exam to graduate college and also completed a diploma course on human rights via correspondence.
In 2007, celebrated Indian dancer Alokananda Roy came to the prison to work on culture therapy, and Akkara was picked to play a Bengali folk singer for a musical collage of dance forms across India titled “Brotherhood Beyond Boundaries.” Initially, Akkara refused to participate, but later, he was drawn into it — in part because Roy reminded him of his mother. When he and other inmates were taken outside the prison for the final rehearsals at Kolkata’s iconic Rabindra Sadan, he stood in front of the empty hall and asked himself: “Do I deserve this?”
Whenever I stood in front of the camera, I was aware that I was representing many more ex-prisoners and I wanted to change their tomorrow.
“I had decided that day that I would only look forward from here,” Akkara recalls.
Months later, he played the lead in Roy’s dance drama Valmiki Pratibha. By then, Roy recalls, Akkara had changed dramatically. “He showed strong leadership qualities,” Roy says. “His body language transformed. There was no rage. His self-esteem got a boost.”
In 2009, the city court acquitted Akkara due to lack of evidence — overturning the lower court conviction. He started traveling with Roy to give motivational talks about rehabilitation for ex-prisoners, but revisiting his past took a toll on his emotional wellbeing.
He focused on building his company instead. In 2012, even as his business expanded, he got an offer to act in a film, Muktodhara, based on his life story. “Whenever I stood in front of the camera, I was aware that I was representing many more ex-prisoners, and I wanted to change their tomorrow,” he says.
He has a soft spot for underdogs. Last year, he started Kolahol Theatre Workshop, where he has engaged transgender people, sex workers and drug addicts in musical plays. “During the rehearsals, many couldn’t hold back their emotions. It isn’t easy for them, just as it wasn’t easy for me initially,” he says.
But now, he “thinks like an actor” and gives his best in front of the camera as if there is no second chance.
He has acted in about 20 films in multiple Indian languages. After Gotro, Akkara says he’s been inundated with offers. He is seen as an upcoming star in the regional Bengali film industry, known as Tollywood.
But noted Kolkata-based film critic Shoma A. Chatterji thinks Akkara has not matured enough to do significant roles. “Filmmakers rope him in for his physique, and also his dramatic past. He is good in roles where he has no facial expression and has very less dialogue to deliver,” Chatterji says. “Right now, he is getting stereotyped. He needs to focus on his acting skills to be an actor.”
Akkara says more opportunities would come but he won’t do any “bad films.” A man who believes in “learning from adversaries” doesn’t really believe in giving up. “The best gift I got from prison is patience.”
OZY’s 5 Questions with Nigel Akkara
- What’s the last book you finished? My wife Moumita’s book, Kuntal Phire Ase.
- What do you worry about? If I would be able to pay my staffers on time every month.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? My personal mode of transport.
- Who’s your hero? My mother, Usha John, and Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? A return on stage.