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Uravu Baburaj (left) and as Ittychan in the play Bhoothangal (right)

Dubai: This World Theatre Day, observed on March 27, is special for Uravu Baburaj, a once-bedridden school bus driver in Dubai whose passion for acting never wavered.

A prominent theatre group back home in India chose him as the best expat actor, honouring his prowess in theatrical acting on the day dedicated to promote the art of theatre.

Though he was unable to fly back to the South Indian state of Kerala to receive the honour in person on Wednesday, Baburaj, who lives in a workers’ accommodation complex in Al Muhaisnah, is content with another honour that he received just a few days ago. He played the lead role in a drama by a group of expat artists from the UAE at the prestigious META festival in India.

The Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) recognises and rewards India’s best theatre productions and practitioners across regions and languages.

Playing the role of the protagonist in the Malayalam drama “Bhoothangal” (Ghosts) — a stage adaptation of the movie Appan — at META Festival in New Delhi was a like getting a lifetime achievement award, Baburaj told Gulf News. “We played well,” he recalled.

“Though we didn’t get any awards at META, getting a chance to perform on that stage itself is a very big achievement for us … For me, it is like a lifetime achievement award. I don’t know if I will ever get such a good role again. I don’t know if I will ever get to act at META Festival again,” said the 55-year-old father of two.

Sharing his long journey to a lead role on a prominent stage, Baburaj said the dream of becoming an actor had kept burning brightly despite the odds stacked against him on his life’s stage.

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Growing up with a love for the dramatic arts, Baburaj harboured a deep desire to grace the stage, but life had other plans.

“I was basically a mason back home. Yet, I was active in the cultural activities in my village, especially through street plays. Acting in a stage production was always my dream.”

The fall and rise

Due to financial difficulties, Baburaj had first left home to Maldives where he worked for about three years. After that, he worked for two years in Yemen where he met with a site accident in 1990. “I fell from a height after a plank on the scaffolding on which I was standing crashed.”

He suffered serious spinal injuries and underwent two surgeries. “I was bedridden for two years.”

During that dark period filled with uncertainty and despair, Baburaj feared that his dream of acting would remain just that — a dream.

But as fate would have it, Baburaj’s resilience proved stronger than his setbacks. With a strong determination and the support of loved ones, he embarked on a journey of recovery. “But, finally, when I recovered, I realised that I won’t be able to continue with my old job. Then I came to Dubai, looking for some other job.”

Uravu Baburaj with co-actress Kalamandalam Amalu on stage at the META Festival in New Delhi.
Uravu Baburaj with co-actress Kalamandalam Amalu on stage at the META Festival in New Delhi. Image Credit: Supplied

Turning point

Here, he first worked as a technician with a swimming pool company which later paved his way to becoming a swimming pool technician at a Dubai school. A turning point came through after three years. “The group running the school later gave me the permission to learn bus driving and take a license. Thus, I became a school bus driver.”

After a six-year-stint in that school, he moved to another school where he has been working for 10 years now. Even though navigating the streets of Dubai ferrying children to and from school has been his job, Baburaj always found time to nurture his artistic talents through some expat community groups.

He acted in some music dramas and a street play festival in Abu Dhabi, recited poetry and dressed up as Kathakali and Theyyam artists at community events, volunteered to teach Malayalam for expat children under the Malayalam Mission project. However, his dream of acting in a professional theatre setting still remained elusive.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, he faced another health crisis. He had to undergo a major surgery for cervical spondylosis and it took him six months to recover. “After all those surgeries, I still have leg pain and I am still taking medicines.”

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A hero is born

But none of his setbacks stopped him from pursuing his theatre dream. Finally, through the Overseas Resident Malayalee Association (ORMA), he got a chance to audition for “Bhoothangal” directed by OT Shajahan.

Baburaj seized it with both hands, pouring his heart and soul into every audition he gave. To his sheer delight and disbelief, Baburaj was cast as the lead character in the production, portraying a patriarch who is bedridden — a role that struck a deeply personal chord with him due to his earlier health condition. He grew a beard and shaved half of his head to replicate the bald look of Ittychan.

“I could very well relate to the role of Ittychan. But, it was a big challenge to enact it on stage. I have not watched the original character on the silver screen, for playing which actor Alencier Ley Lopez received a Special Jury Kerala State Film Award. In a movie, you can reshoot if you happen to move your legs a bit. That’s not possible in a drama. It was a big challenge to bring out the character through expressions and dialogues without moving the body from waist down. A dream sequence in which I had to climb on to the rooftop of an imaginary house set up above Ittychan’s bed was also very challenging because of my leg pain. But, director Shajahan had moulded me and all others well into the characters and brought out the best in all of us.”

Expats’ team


Shajahan, who runs an advertising firm, on the other hand, gives all credit to Baburaj’s passion and dedication. “We had only around 20 days to practise for the first performance at Bharat Murali Drama Festival in Abu Dhabi. It was after that performance that we got selected to META which also happened within weeks. We were the only expat team there, with all artists working in banks, schools and other companies.

They all had to sacrifice a lot of time at late nights and during the weekends to practise for both festivals. Baburaj specifically had more challenges because he lives in a workers’ accommodation and has to leave for work early in the morning. He is an amazing actor with a lot of potential.”

Ambujam Satheesh (centre), who played the role of Ittychan’s wife Kuttiyamma, said performing at META was a dream come true for all the expat actors. Image Credit:

Ambujam Satheesh, a service reception manager at a motor service centre in Dubai, who played the role of Kuttiyamma, the wife of Ittychan, said: “We are not professionally trained artists. But, with ORMA’s support, we managed to form a great team including men and women working at various companies. Getting to perform on a platform like META is a dream come true for all of us and we are all extremely happy for Babuvettan (Baburaj) who finally became a stage hero from a normal school driver.”