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Naseer is my biggest critic: Ratna Pathak

If you’ve been to the Prithvi Theatre box office these past few days, there’s one play that has been proudly displaying its houseful stamp way before the festival began.

Naseerudin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah
Naseerudin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah

Everyone, from theatre veterans to budding artistes is looking forward to this one production that brings together two of India’s finest actors. So it’s a little difficult to believe when Ratna Pathak Shah tells us that her play Dear Liar with husband Naseerudin Shah wasn’t received too well when it premiered in 1994. “We had to shut it down,” she says with a smile, still proclaiming this George Bernad Shaw masterpiece to be one of the most significant plays of their lives.

What are your earliest memories of Dear Liar?
It was director Satyadev Dubey who brought the play to life. We have all been ‘Shaw bhakts’ all our lives and here was a play that revealed a side of Shaw I did not know very much at all. There was a woman who matched up to him in many, many ways and I was excited about the possibility to play it out on stage. After a year of rehearsals, we performed a few shows at the Karnatak Sangh in Matunga, but it did not have much of a life.

It’s a play about the relationship between the legendary George Bernard Shaw and an equally magnetic actress Mrs Patrick Campbell. Why then would people not be interested?
It is set in a time before the World War I, during great upheaval in Europe when Queen Victoria came on the throne. It looks at Mrs Campbell’s work and her rise and fall as an actress. Plus the language in the play was English of the most exquisite kind. There were few people whose sensibilities it then appealed to. But over the years we started to find nuances in the script that we had never explored.

How easy or difficult is it to play lovers on stage with your husband as your co-actor?
Naseer and I made the cardinal mistake of bringing our own relationship to the play. It was when our 15-year-old son pointed it out that I realised what a blunder I was making. He said to me, “Campbell was a greater star when Shaw first met her. She needs to have that presence. But the two of you are just yelling at each other. How can you call this a romance?” That’s when I realised why I hated this play as a kid. I had to rethink my performance from scratch which is when I really started to enjoy it.

How has your relationship with Naseerudin Shah changed over your very first play together Sambhog Se Sanyas Tak?
We first met at a sugarcane juice stall outside National College. I had little idea who this guy standing beside me was. But I saw him perform for the first time I could see what training had done to him. Naseer is a very giving actor. He’s an actor who knows what he’s doing whether film, theater or television. He continued to evolve with every show. He’s never satisfied and I wanted to be that good.

Is it easy to take criticism from someone so close to you?
It’s tough, but I have come to see how important it is. I have learnt that nobody cares as much about my performances as much as Naseer does. He’s my biggest critic. I have realised how essential it is to have that one person you can trust to be completely honest with you about your work.

What are you expecting from the audience this time around?
Prithvi is an extremely theatre literate audience. And then there is a bunch of very enthusiastic young theatre goers as well. Those are the people this play is speaking to and they are the ones who I am excited to perform for.

Dear Liar opens on November 18 

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