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Breaking the code

Dressed in a rust-coloured T-shirt and black jeans, Naseeruddin Shah is a picture of concentration as he watches actors Kenny Desai and Denzil Smith rehearse a scene from his play The Caine Mutiny Court Martial on a Tuesday evening. After some time, he interrupts Desai and instructs him to ask a question in a certain manner to his co-actor. Once the duo gets its act right, Shah calls for a break and settles down for the interview. Up close, he looks much younger than his 61 years, thanks to his fit physique and his newly-coloured brown hair and moustache.

Though Shah appears calm and composed, one can make out that he is quite excited about things to come as he starts talking. After all, this is the first time he will be having his Motley Theatre Festival at the Veer Savarkar Smarak, opposite Shivaji Park in Dadar today. The festival, which features eight of his best plays, including Ismat Aapa Ke Naam, Waiting For Godot and Katha Collage, will be held till April 29.

Shah says that much thought has gone behind opting for this new venue in a primarily Maharastrian-dominated area, which stages only Marathi plays. “I have always felt the lack of a performing space in central Mumbai. The Nehru Centre is too huge for us while the Prithvi Theatre and the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) are located at two different ends of the city. Prithvi is booked throughout the year, as it stages the works of new as well as reputed groups. As for NCPA, it looks like it is determined to stamp out experimental theatre with its high-ticket prices. So we decided to stage our works at Veer Savarkar Smarak hoping that there is an audience for our plays.”

The veteran artiste stumbled upon this venue by sheer coincidence. Earlier this year, he had gone there to attend a function when the manager asked him if he would be interested in using the space for his productions. Shah agreed immediately.  Apart from the new venue, theatre connoisseurs will also get an opportunity to see the actor-director perform in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial after over two decades. He says, “I will be acting in the production, as one of the actors isn’t available. There will also be fresh faces in the plays. Most of them are my students from Whistling Woods International whom I have given a chance as I believe in offering them practical experience.” 

One wonders what is the need for other veteran actors like Akash Khurana and Benjamin Gilani to rehearse since they have been acting in the plays since a long time. As if reading my mind, Shah says, “For us, rehearsal is the most enjoyable part about acting in a play. That is the only true time of creative interaction. It encourages actors to explore new things. We have been staging Waiting For Godot since three decades. But even today, we rehearse for it.”

Shah goes on to add that he doesn’t approve of those theatre groups who complete their plays quickly. “You can’t write or direct a play within a few weeks. Any piece of art takes time to unravel and understand.”

Children at play
The veteran artiste is also enthused about working with Sanjna Kapoor’s Junoon that aims to take theatre education to schools. He will conduct a festival of George Bernard Shaw’s plays in Delhi and Gurgaon schools early next year. “There shouldn’t be any special category in theatre as children’s play. I believe kids should be exposed to everything, including works of Samuel Beckett and Shaw. You can’t expect them to understand them but those works will stay with them. And after all, how many adults understand the works of these litterateurs? Also, it makes a huge difference when you go to schools and perform in their midst rather than booking an auditorium for them.”

Shah is equally excited about his new production — A Walk In The Woods — an adaptation of American writer Lee Blessing’s work by the same name, which will open in mid-July. While the original is about a conversation between an American and Russian diplomat who decide to leave a peace conference in Geneva and have a discussion of their own, Shah’s version will feature an Indian and Pakistani diplomat. Directed by Ratna Pathak Shah, it will have Rajit Kapur and Shah in lead roles.

The magic of movies
As far as films are concerned, Shah has just wrapped up filming Kabir Kaushik’s cop drama, Maximum. The movie, which revolves around two encounter specialists, also stars Sonu Sood. He has finished shooting for a Pakistani film Zinda Bhaag too. A satire on the working class in the country, it features Shah as a sleazy Punjabi agent who smuggles people to foreign countries. The veteran actor, who has acted in Pakistani movies earlier too, is upbeat about working across the border. “I conducted workshops for the young actors in Pakistan for three weeks and also had to learn Punjabi. They have defunct equipment that is fit to be kept in a museum but it’s heartening that filmmakers there want to make movies about the situation in their country. They are much more daring than us. After all, how many directors here can make Khuda Kay Liye or Bol?”

As I get ready to quiz him about the reason that propels them to do so, the actor is interrupted by a phone call. Later, he gives some thought to my question and says matter-of-factly, “They have less to lose in terms of reputation or money. Also Pakistanis have a certain innocence and naivety that we lack. On an individual level, it helps them to have a sense of bewilderment about the world while collectively it impels them to take action.”

On a parting note, I ask him if he was surprised by the runaway success of The Dirty Picture (TDP) that saw him play an ageing superstar and romancing the young Vidya Balan, to which he retorts, “I wasn’t surprised. TDP was a calculated hit. I asked Vidya not to take the film awards too seriously, but I think she does.”

The sexagenarian who has always pushed the envelope as far as roles are concerned is keen to explore newer areas. After all, he rehearsed for weeks with wife Ratna to perfect his moves as the lustful actor in TDP. But ask him, if we will see him grooving again and he smiles, “I wouldn’t mind doing something new but I don’t know how long my knees will last.”  

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