mid-day 37th anniversary: Tom Alter revives 'Motley' memories

One third of a trio of acting talent that came together to launch Mumbai theatre group Motley in 1979, Tom Alter remembers sharing the stage for the first time with allies Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani and how the enterprise was born

ONE of India’s most prolific theatre groups was conceived in a Lucknow coffee house but birthed in Mumbai the same year as this paper. The performance powerhouse team of Benjamin Gilani and Naseeruddin Shah, later joined by Tom Alter, conceived Motley, a production house that continues to successfully run with sold-out shows.

SOMETHING TO TOM TOM ABOUT: Tom Alter (l) with Naseeruddin Shah
SOMETHING TO TOM TOM ABOUT: Tom Alter (l) with Naseeruddin Shah 

But its beginnings were humble. Actors often speak of having gone among the audience with a hat to collect funds. Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot was the first play that the three friends from Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India staged on an evening in 1979 at Juhu’s Prithvi theatre. There on, their arthouse cinema careers may have flourished, but Motley continued to stage productions keeping the city’s theatre lovers in touch with sophisticated drama, including under the tutelage of legendary director, the late Satyadev Dubey.

Benjamin Gilani
Benjamin Gilani

On invitation, Tom Alter remembers that premier show night from 1979.

Sitting in the far wing of Prithvi theatre, shadows and slender lights, Ben and Naseer are already well into the show, performing with panache, and just the hint of tempered madness. Prithvi is full, much more than full, it is overflowing with friends, foes, familiar and famous, strangers and strugglers. The air, the darkness is aglow with magic, the very first show of Motley’s in early 1979, Waiting for Godot, is on and in that far wing, I sit next to Shri Roshan Taneja, our acting guru, who is playing Pozzo. How he must have felt, to be acting with three of his students, in a very difficult role in a very difficult play, with dozens of his other students in the audience.

Time both raced and leapt ahead, and yet did not move at all, as Ben and Naseer, as Vladimir and Estrogon, unraveled the mind and the art of Becket. As our entry neared, Tanejasahib grew still, and I squeezed his hand, and then, with my roar as Lucky, we drifted onto stage.

The capacity of Prithvi is, and always has been, 225. I swear that I have met at least twice that number who remember being in Prithvi that night — it was that kind of performance, both on and off stage. History was enacted. Motley is still doing Godot, almost 40 years later — and the shadows and slender lights of Prithvi still sway to its very special music.

We — Ben and Naseer and I — thought we would do one show of Godot, people would be bored, and that would be that. But by the interval of that first show, we knew we were onto something very, very special — and we had to do a special show the very next day, on public demand.

I would go onto doing 50 shows as Lucky; his speech is still part of my being. The stories are many, ranging from my forgetting to put on Lucky’s hat to rushing back from Rajpipla; from just about making it to one show to Sameer Arya, who played the character of Boy, falling asleep in the wings; from performing for Fred Wray at the Methodist Church near the Taj to trips to Woodstock and Doon School — and so, so many more. But for me, the true joy was to watch Naseer and Ben, show after wonderful show, acting with such wisdom, energy, and shared wonder. What I learnt from, and shared with these two gentleman — yes, Motley gentlemen — is beyond all words. Suffice to say that they endured me, challenged me, supported me, and inspired me in the deepest, deepest sense.

Legend has it that the dream of Motley was formed in the Hazratganj Coffee Shop in Lucknow, during the shooting of Shyam Benegal’s Junoon. There Ben and Naseer would sip coffee — and other things — and dream about starting Motley. I was blessed to be included at the next step, and act with Naseer in The Zoo Story, and selections from Julius Caesar. Then came Godot, and, oh, how the dreams danced and pranced through planning and rehearsals, right up to that first show.

To say that we were pioneers of a certain type of English theatre in Bombay would be a very pompous statement. But, yes, we did plunge into fresh and deep theatrical waters and since all three of us were in films, and Naseer already very much a star of the cinema he loved and nourished, there was a certain air and aura about Motley.

But there was a bond between the three of us, not only because we were all from the Film Institute, but because we shared a passion for life and acting, a passion which just blended together in Godot, even though each of us had our very own approach to both acting and the play. Beckett’s witty wisdom, his sardonic take on life, his beautiful use of the English language, these appealed to all three of us, the entire Motley crew.

And of course, when mid-day arrived at the traffic signals, at the same time as Motley’s arrival, we knew we had a comrade who understood us.

Naseer, Ben, I tip Lucky’s hat to you, my friends, we did it. Motley Zindabad!

Truly “in the fullness of time”, we will always be one.

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