In over five decades of his career as an actor-director, Naseeruddin Shah has given us countless, stellar performances –from Massoom, Ijazzat, Sparsh, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Ardh Satya, Sarfarosh, Iqbal, Ishqiya to international films such as Monsoon Wedding, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and a host of other notable projects.
In an exclusive interview with Zee Zest, Shah talks about his ongoing (all-week till September 18) play, ‘The Father’, at the Prithvi Theatre, about 44 years of his theatre group Motley, about his great faith in the next generation of theatre workers and interestingly, also about playing to empty houses, being jeered off and more.
1. So many decades of acting, is there still any part of this profession that maybe makes you a little nervous?
Only the prospect of encountering a director with whom I am not on the same page.
2. Directing a play, or playing a part in a play and being directed by someone else - what do you love more?
My experiences with other directors in the theatre (apart from Ebrahim Alkazi and Satyadev Dubey) have not been pleasant or successful and I have not yet found a director in the theatre who recognises my strengths and my weaknesses and helps me to use the first and overcome the second, ergo I end up directing most of Motley's plays myself. Having to direct and act is a tiring and stressful job and my one prayer right now is to find a director who can help me achieve my potential. I love directing though and I hope I can continue to do it in productions which I'm not acting in. My greatest desire is that Motley should not become synonymous with my name and should outlive me.
3. During and post the pandemic, there have been quite a few new theatre groups - what do you feel about this generation of theatre?
I have great faith in the next generation of theatre workers, even though many of them at the moment consider it a stepping stone into movies, which is not wrong provided the love of theatre and its magic captures them at some point and they do not abandon it for greener pastures as countless NSD graduates have done. But there are also many committed people among these youngsters, and they will carry the torch forward both in terms of playwriting and producing, provided also they don't succumb to the lure of spectacular productions and the lucre generated.
4. French writer Florian Zeller's 2012 play, ‘The Father’ – tell us about Motley's adaptation. What really moved you the most when you first directed this play?
On first reading the play, I was fascinated by the way the back-and-forth narrative unfolds to create a disturbing picture of the dementia patient's mind. On subsequent readings, I realised it was much more than just a clever structuring, it put the viewer into the patient's shoes so to say. It also seemed a supremely doable play because of the small cast and then to make life easier I decided to dispense with the realism- I despise realism on stage anyway - and thanks to Arghya Lahiri's inspired suggestion for the set, we found the form for the production. With all the clutter removed I felt the text would come across with more purity than it otherwise would. What moved me most was the dedication of the entire team and the way everyone was pulling for each other. Doing this play, despite its grim content, was the happiest, most rewarding theatrical experience of my life.
5. It's been 44 years since Motley. Tell us about a few of the most memorable moments of triumph over the years.
I'd rather talk about the disasters! I did a production of "The Odd Couple" in the early '80s, hoping to break our image of 'serious intellectual types' (which, in actuality, none of us was or is) and it was presented as a proper commercial play to empty houses. Then there was Julius Caesar ('85) with a seventy strong cast. It was jeered off by all and sundry and schoolteachers took great offence that I had tinkered with the text. "It will confuse the students about reference to context questions in the exams!" was one teacher's complaint - which doesn't say much about her teaching skills considering she had taught the play to the students for a year. Anyway, it was over ambitious and it didn't last long. Then, we did Shaw's "Androcles and the Lion" (a 1912 play written by George Bernard Shaw), before children's plays became the in-thing and again no one turned up to see it. But we've also subsequently received our share of appreciation and good wishes for many of our efforts.
6. You have worked with many theatre personalities - is there anyone who had an impact on your outlook in a significant way, shaped your thinking at some point?
Ebrahim Alkazi and Satyadev Dubey, both in vastly different ways.
7. Motley, initially, was synonymous with high-end south Bombay and mostly English theatre. What are your thoughts about attempting translations of Malayalam, Marathi or a Bengali play?
We were never really considered SoBo types because there were no venues in town we could afford. We actually did our first performance in a hall at the Alliance Française and then several at Chhabildas High School in Dadar until Prithvi came to our rescue. We were thought of as English theatre valas and though I see nothing wrong with being that, I did feel the urge several times to perform in our own language and that's how our storytelling theatre came about. Doing translations of other Indian language plays is always tricky because Indian plays always seem to be region-specific - a Hindustani play would probably sound odd in Malayalam or Marathi I daresay.
8. ‘And Then One Day: A Memoir’, you took 12 years to write this. What is your relationship with writing now? Do you write only when inspiration strikes, or would you call yourself a method writer?
I am an occasional writer, I write if I'm deeply moved by something, not otherwise.
9. You have been in the industry for over five decades, and you are working on a book on the film industry - tell us about it.
What I'm trying to write is not a sequel by any means, but this film industry is such an unreal place that I thought of putting down some experiences I've had, some of which are hilarious, others kind of sad. I want to do it without offending anyone so the people I am writing about are thinly disguised and the narrative will be in the third person.
10. You’d said in an interview that when you used to read books you’d imagine yourself as the character - tell us about two recent books you read that you loved and imagined yourself in.
I've lived out all my fantasies, so I don't do that anymore, I now read for pleasure and relaxation.
11. What are you looking forward to the most in the near future? What is your dream project?
To continue dreaming and keep grabbing at the dreams.