How one of Bangladesh's most loved film-star went from being a reel life hero to an actual hero

Seldom in the context of Bangladesh do we ever get to see a larger-than-life individual whose message reaches out to the masses even after his films stopped exhibiting in theatres. When an actor retires, their movies often remain their sole legacy. But in the case of Ilias Kanchan, Bangladesh's true-blue movie megastar after Nayak Raj Razzak post-1971, his stand for a cause has had a spillover effect for his fans and critics, who supported him even more after he stopped acting in cinemas.

His rise in cinema, his stardom, the untimely death of his wife Jahanara Kanchan in a road accident and his subsequent fight to ensure road safety - were all discussed in an exclusive interview with Dhaka Courier recently.

Beginning with his humble roots in Karimganj, Kishoreganj to Abdul Ali, a farmer, and Shorufa Khatun, a homemaker, he told DC that he had always yearned for acting ever since his formative years. He affirmed his never-ending gratitude to director Subhash Dutta, who gave him his first break in "Bashundhara" and "Dumurer Phul" in 1977. Although he was skeptical how the audience would take such a rookie debutante, he was pleasantly surprised when they carried him on their backs in appreciation, and thus a new star was born. Even his harshest critics could not believe that Kanchan's effortless acting was due to his hard work and talent for acting. Many had asked him whether he was a graduate of Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy's acting courses and were often in shock when he replied in negative.

"I feel blessed that people considered me as an icon, despite competing against twelve other contemporary movie stars, including Razzak Shaheb," Ilias recollects. He worked hard to hone his acting skills, and was always in fear of losing his popularity. But after all these years, after winning the National Film Award for Best Actor and countless other awards, he seems content to have reached a full circle in cinema.

"I consider Bashundhara, Beder Meye Josna, Chorom Aghat and Bheja Chokh to be among my finest and most favourite works," Ilias said, adding that the feeling of winning his first award is just as exciting as it was like anticipating his first movie's release.

Fast forward to October 22, 1993, tragedy had struck. His wife, who Ilias considered his best critic and irreplaceable life partner, died in an unfortunate road accident. "Losing someone who wants only what is best for you is beyond all emotions," he lamented. It hit him so hard that he had soon started contemplating retirement from cinema altogether.

That was when a journalist and close confidant shared his thoughts about the tragedy. That individual also reminded him that the fans were there to pay their respect to the wife of Ilias Kanchan the superstar. So he should respect their adulation for him, and if possible, do something to prevent such deaths in future, as people die from road accidents. Pondering every possible scenario, he considered doing something to ensure road safety in Bangladesh. And so on December 1, 1993, he established Nirapad Sarak Chai ("We Demand Safe Road" or NISHCHA in short), a non-profit voluntary organisation which is working for road safety issues in Bangladesh.

Today NISHCHA is actively working regarding various road safety issues in the country. Its works are dedicated to ensure safe roads all over the country. At present, Nirapad Sharak Chai comprises nearly 15000 members. It has 70 branches across the country. The organization has affiliation with a number of national and international organizations including National Road Safety Council, Ministry of Communication, Government of Bangladesh; BRAC, Accident Research Institute (ARI) of BUET, WHO etc. It undertakes different types of social awareness building programs, provides training, arranges round table discussion programmes, etc.

Kanchan's perseverance for road safety has made him an unsung hero, as his social activities were initially not met with the same enthusiasm as his movies. "We all want safe roads, but nobody ever strategised how this could be attained, even after all these years. Lack of research in this regard is something that has astounded me till now. The concerned people have not paid heed to any of our recommendations, only until recently."

His hard work paid off when he was awarded the Ekushey Padak for his social service by the government of Bangladesh in 2018.

Citing the public transportation sector as "unplanned and indisciplined", he recommends strict measures to restore order, and "change in strategy is a must", he adds. Citing the example of drivers, he explains that despite being socially shunned lower than security guards, drivers earn more than guards on the contrary. But their rugged outlook takes away the deficiency of their lack of education, with most drivers often not properly schooled. This gives the transport owners leverage and bargaining capacity over the transport workers, capitalising on their "illiteracy" and keeping them down for all this time.

Ilias also cited a lack of coordination between relevant ministries as the cause of such degradation in the transport sector. For example, he talked about how the labour ministry could very well look after the welfare of the workers, but that has not been the case. The same going for the ministries of health, women and children, social welfare and others, all of whom could have played a pivotal role in improving the sector. "Why only Road Transport and Bridges, as well as the Home Ministry will look after this sector?" Ilias points out, demanding a strong central authority which could make a difference.

He also had scathing observations about the new Road Safety Act, alleging that none of NISHCHA's recommendations were considered to be added to the law. ""It should have been Road Transport and Road Safety Act instead of just Road Transport Act," he added. He also stated: "The act describes a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment but doesn't state any minimum penalty."

The Act says that a life sentence will take place only if murder is proven by investigation under act number 302. The general people may be deprived of justice because of this act. Also the 'driver' isn't always the guilty party. Sometimes it's the passenger, sometimes it's the passersby. So the act should change the term 'driver' into 'responsible party.'"

Despite all the hardship and pain he had to endure in his lifetime, he advised the young generation to ensure on how to achieve their goals. "Knowing is half the battle, if you do your homework and set a target, it will help you to overcome the impending challenges. Most importantly, you must respect whatever you do in life. Everything you do is done for a reason." Coming from a superstar, those are words which truly cannot be ignored.

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