The reluctant director

Heeba Shah is directing Motley's next production. But, she insists, she's more comfortable confronting the stage as actor

When we reach the rehearsal studio at Versova, Naseeruddin Shah’s daughter, Heeba Shah, dressed in a blue sweat jacket and track pants, her unruly crop of curls tied back with a scrunchy, is waiting for her cast to arrive. Motley Theatre Group’s upcoming play, Parindon ki Mehfil, will be staged on November 28 as part of NCPA’s CentreStage. And this time, it’s Shah who is donning the director’s hat.

The play, Parindon ki Mehfil, is an adaptation of 12th century Persian Sufi poet Farid  ud-Din  Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, for which Heeba has taken on a new cast. pic/PRATIK CHORGE
The play, Parindon ki Mehfil, is an adaptation of 12th century Persian Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, for which Heeba has taken on a new cast. Pic/Pratik Chorge

“We won't have a full cast today. Even before they got to know that you guys were coming, most called in sick,” she says, throwing us a smile. “We started in April and for the last few weeks, we have been slogging. That, coupled with the weather, is taking a toll on our health.” This is her directorial debut, and Shah is being extra cautious that the play meets the standards of a Motley Production.

The play is an adaptation of 12th century Persian Sufi Farid ud-Din Attar’s poem, The Conference of the Birds. The story goes like this: Birds of the world have gathered to find a king. But for that, they have to undertake an arduous journey through seven valleys — each symbolising a state (according to Sufism) through which a person must go through to attain a clear perspective about god. When the time comes for action, most birds drag their wings. The Hoopoe, who was once King Solomon’s bird, and is the wisest of the lot, tries to unite the group with stories, convincing some to embark on the mission. Where will this quest lead them?

The 4,500-line long poem is pregnant with allusions and symbolisms, and turning it into an two-hour-long play wasn’t an easy task. “It is one of my favourite poems — a part of my childhood. I had heard it first when I was a kid while living with my mother in Iran. It is a very popular poem there and has found its way into ancient miniature paintings as well as modern-day animated films, cartoons, plays, etc. Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carrière had adapted the poem into a play. But it is a very skeletal version. I always wanted to act in the play, and I got a chance to do so in my third year at National School of Drama (NSD), albeit, in Brook’s version. It was a grand production, but, I still wanted to do my own version,” says Shah, who joined Motley as an actor in 2001.

It was her desire to act in this play that turned her director. “ I am essentially an actor. I wanted to act in this play, and took it to various directors. But, nothing worked out. So, I decided to direct it,” she says, adding, “There are so many other things that you have to do as director, one of them being people management. And I am not a people’s person to begin with. I don’t think I will get into direction. If I ever direct again, it will be because I want to act in it; else, I am not interested.”

Shah has co-scripted the play with her aunt Phulmani Varma. “We first translated the poem and then added the structure of a play to it. First we tried doing it in English, but it lacked soul. Then we tried Hindustani. Of course, we had to add some and subtract some but we have tried to remain as close to the original as possible,” she says.

A trained classical and contemporary dancer, Shah is depicting certain portions of the play through body movement and is putting her 20-member cast through rigorous training for this. “Most of them are non-dancers; some, even non actors. I am taking help from my teacher Deepak K Swami to choreograph certain parts, and some I am doing on my own.” Apart from her siblings Vivaan Shah, who is acting in the play, and Imaad Shah, who is doing the music, and another actor, none of the team members are from Motley. “It is a motley bunch I hand picked mostly through audition,” she smiles. Shah has also incorporated a few Persian songs in the play, which takes the difficulty level of the play a notch higher.

She had to come up with three drafts before Motley finally approved the script and agreed to put money into the project. But, as always, she has her father’s unconditional support and guidance.

“He pays surprise visits to rehearsals! He will sit quietly and watch. If he thinks something is not working, he will point it out. May be, sometimes, he will ask me to work on the transition or make certain bits more dramatic or say that certain portions are too over the top. But, he will leave it to me to fix the problems.”

She adds, “Even when we are acting, after each performance, he would ask us to think why it worked or why it didn’t. You can’t be complacent and say, ‘Oh I did well, it was my lucky day’. That is a very scary approach. You cannot deliver the same standard of performance if you do not know what made it good in the first place. It is like science — you break it down and figure out the structure and build it again the next time. While directing, I am trying to teach my actors a similar approach.”

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