Its not everyday that one gets a chance to chat about the evolution of theatre with Naseeruddin Shah.
The veteran actor who was recently in the city for the performance of the play ‘A Walk in the Woods’, also a directorial debut of his actress wife Ratna Pathak Shah, told City Express about his future projects, his critics and why will theatre always remain a marginal activity in our country.
“Theatre has had a strange innings in India. Hindi theatre died sometime around the same time when talkies started. All the talent from theatre got sucked into the talkies, not only the actors, but everyone including the writers, poets and the set designers,” says Naseeruddin.
He tells us that this is the reason why our movies have still not outgrown that early 1930’s kind of theatre. He adds, “They break into a song for no rhyme or reason at all. Everything is staged, underlined in red pencil, stated or overstated and the audience is given what is expected. In the old Parsi theatre, the audience would even complete the couplet for the actor. Theatre died that way. But, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali and Kannada did not because films weren’t being made in those languages back then. Later, theatre took a long time to re-appear in everybody’s consciousness.”
He is of the opinion that the rate of evolution in our playwriting skills is abysmal.
“Let’s not delude ourselves that there has been an evolution. Theatre has been done by a few crazy people and watched by a few crazy people. In the last 50 years or so, we have given only 2-3 plays which will stand the test of time and I really don’t know the cause.”
When Naseer was a student at the NSD (National School of Drama), playwrights would wonder whom to write for because nobody would stage their plays. And theatre workers in turn would state that how can they stage plays, when nobody is writing for them.
It’s like ‘snake chasing its own tail’, as Naseeruddin puts it. Another reason, according to Naseer, is that we don’t have a theatre going culture as in the West, where you can get a ticket for any movie, but not a play. And we can’t develop that.
He adds, “If you wish we will someday have a Broadway. Hell! we don’t need a Broadway. We already have Hindi movies.” (laughs)
Does Naseer, known to be one of the finest Indian actors, have a critic? “I am pretty harsh on myself. Ratna and my sons are my critics otherwise. I take everybody’s opinion with as much seriousness as it deserves. I don’t give too much weight to a critic’s opinion as much weight I would give to a taxi driver’s opinion. Critic matters too, but not more than a taxi driver who has watched my work.”
Of late, there are many youngsters who are drawn to theatre and have started independent theatre groups. Naseer feels it is a great thing.
“It’s amazing that so many of them are writing their own material. They are writing stuff which matters to them unlike the writers of the seventies, whom I don’t want to name because they might get offended. They were writing city-based plays in shuddh Hindi. Who speaks shuddh Hindi in the cities? Today’s kids are writing plays in the language they speak in real life. That’s a really good sign and I know a number of them in Mumbai who are doing theatre even though they are losing money because the are passionate about it. It’s too early to celebrate because I don’t think a movement will happen anytime soon. But, I can at least see a generation out there who will do great things.”
Though he doesn’t know much about the theatre scene in Bangalore, he feels that for few people theatre means enough to continue doing it, despite all odds.
“There are people like Arundathi Nag who have gone ahead and built a Ranga Shankara bravely. Jagriti was started by a youngster. There will always be few people like that. The gutsier they are, the better. We should be just grateful that theatre has survived. As far as evolution is concerned, I am afraid we can’t use that word for the theatre here,” he adds.
What is a regular day in the life of Naseeruddin Shah? He laughs and says, “I don’t have a regular day. Every day is new. I turn down most of the work that comes to me and wait for the right job to come along. And it does, sooner or later. When it doesn’t, I spend most of the time playing tennis and chilling out, spending time with my kids.”
And is it easy to balance commercial and parallel cinema, something which he does with panache? “Its very easy. I exploit the commercial industry. I do one movie a year and make tons of money! Rest of the year, I do what I please,” he concludes.