Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani's theatre group still stands strong after 40 years

Updated: Jun 30, 2019, 09:03 IST | Ekta Mohta

Four decades after Waiting for Godot's debut at Prithvi Theatre, Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani's theatre group shows no signs of slowing down. As they get ready to revisit five of their plays at Prithvi next month, they revisit their first act

Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani's theatre group still stands strong after 40 years
The Motley family: Jairaj Patil, Akash Khurana, Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani with Ratna Pathak Shah. Pic/Shadab Khan

Naseeruddin Shah, looking like Einstein, and Benjamin Gilani, now sporting a wig, are discussing cricket and women like 40 years haven't passed. In the hippie decade, the two became college buddies at FTII, Pune; then co-actors in Shyam Benegal's Junoon, 1978; and then co-founders of the theatre group, Motley, in quick scene-changes. Gilani, who had been part of The Shakespeare Society in St Stephen's College, recalls, "He asked me, 'How come you haven't done any theatre in Bombay in the last five years?' I said I can't afford it." So, they started with a play that was easy on the pocket: Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett.

Since then, Motley has done 44 productions, including The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (1990), Dear Liar (1994), Ismat Apa Ke Naam (2000) and The Father (2017). They celebrate 40 years next month, the party for which includes reviving five of their plays at Prithvi Theatre. Along their journey, the twosome also became a family, with producer Jairaj Patil, and actors Ratna Pathak Shah and Akash Khurana onboard. When we sit with them to trace their early days, they've just gone over the same questions and memories with another journalist. But Shah says, in theatre parlance, "Once more with feeling."

Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar

'What was the cheapest classic we could do?'

In July 1979, when Motley's Waiting for Godot debuted at Prithvi Theatre, Shah played Didi and Gilani played Gogo, the two clowns. Khurana says, "That was the cheapest classic we could do. It had a huge budget by those standards: '5,000. But, that was the only play that had one dirty tree, with a leaf sometimes, and tattered costumes. I did four shows as Didi, and I wore the same costume."

Naseeruddin Shah: I'm not the only one in the world who did not understand Waiting for Godot. I wrote an essay [in NSD, Delhi] that this play is absolute nonsense. The writer is making a fool of everybody. I got thoroughly blasted for writing such a thing. But, when we started working on it, and concentrated on the words and not worry so much about the meaning, it began to make sense. Like in any great poetry, it states things in a very simple, recognisable and brief way.

The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial

Benjamin Gilani: Didi and Gogo have been together for 50 years. When you think of 50 years, that play should have been as thick as the Bible. Prithvi Theatre was being built at that time. During the shooting of Junoon, I asked Jennifer Kapoor, "What are you going to do with this theatre?" She said, "I don't know. Take it. It's yours." Three sentences. So, we started off and Godot fell into place, by chance, not so much by design. When people actually came to see the play, we hadn't hit a goldmine, but we started doing short plays: Chekhov, Pinter, Genet, Mortimer. There was something as difficult as The Lesson [by Eugène Ionesco]; and on the other hand, we had Chekhov's The Bear.

Ratna Pathak Shah: But frankly, we were just blundering. We all learnt on the job. There was nobody to tell you how to do anything. We were all lucky that we at least got Satyadev Dubey, in terms of his ideas and not letting poverty get in the way of perfection. There were times when there was nobody backstage. Everyone was either onstage or in the light booth.
Shah: Nothing lonelier than the backstage of Godot.'

Waiting for Godot
Waiting for Godot

'Naseer wanted to do Julius Caesar in jeans and T-shirts'

The group performed The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial by Herman Wouk and Julius Caesar by Shakespeare in 1990 and 1992 respectively. When asked about their favourite plays, Khurana says, "I think if you take a consensus from the older lot, you will find Godot and Caine emerging as winners." Julius Caesar was an important milestone as well, but for entirely different reasons.

Shah: I bought a copy of Caine Mutiny for '5 on the pavement at Churchgate station. It was a tattered paperback, and it lay around with me for years, like the Einstein script [by Gabriel Emanuel], like A Walk in the Woods [by Lee Blessing]. One day, I picked it up and I was electrified.

Gilani: It involved a large number of people — at least by Motley's standards — 17 people. And, there were 70 people in Julius Caesar. The youngest was 4, the oldest was 74. There were three generations [of one family]. The logistics was the biggest challenge.

Pathak Shah: How many sandwiches do I order today? Starting from there to: how do you get everyone dressed backstage in Sophia Bhabha Hall, in Roman costumes with shields, swords and banners? Where do you store that stuff?

Gilani: Originally, Naseer wanted to do it in jeans and T-shirts. But, Julius Caesar was on the course of 13 schools, and they didn't want to see Brutus in jeans.
Shah: I was muddled as a director, I have to admit. I had [NSD director Ebrahim] Alkazi on my mind. Alkazi did these grand productions with 30 people carrying flaming torches onstage. Meanwhile, I got introduced to Dubey's method. And, I was torn between the two. It didn't really work, and I had edited the play, changed a few things, which appalled a lot of the teachers. One teacher said, "What about reference to context? If you have given Cassius's speech to Brutus, students will get confused." I said, "You've been teaching this play for one year and your students will get confused with one performance? What kind of a teacher are you?"

'We had no message, no political agenda'

In the last two decades, Motley's focus has shifted to storytelling theatre, and also, plays in Hindustani. Starting with Ismat Apa Ke Naam (2000), they have interpreted the works of Ismat Chughtai and Manto extensively, and also opened up the platform for more roles for women.

Gilani: There were no Hindi plays. Even now there are very few. As Naseer had pointed out then, and I agree 100 per cent, if you're going to translate from one language to another, you need to know both languages like a grammarian.

Shah: The translator must be of the same level. How many times can you do Aadhe Adhure and Andha Yug, which are the only two worthwhile original plays in Hindi? Ghashiram Kotwal and Sakharam Binder are in Marathi. Tughlaq is in Kannada and so on. The plays we wanted to do happened to be in English. Then we started feeling limited. That's why I felt the need to perform in Hindustani. But, shortage of plays is still there.

Gilani: It's a matter of economics. Where does a writer earn money, unless you happen to be Chetan Bhagat? And, that's not really writing of any calibre, that's promotion.

Pathak Shah: The playwriting issue is a big one in our country. And now, with the invasion of your personal equipment with all kinds of information and entertainment, it's going to be very hard for live arts to stay around. [Regarding the lack of roles for women], it wasn't a deliberate attempt to keep women out. I was the only girl around, and I don't think I was much liked as an actress. And rightly so, because my skills in early Motley days were very, very basic. I have also grown since then, and fortunately, Dubey trusted me. He found plays for me. We were making do with whatever we had around us. And there were no other girls around. Maybe they got scared of me and ran away.

Shah: You can only cast in a play somebody you can trust with your life. You cannot take a chance of a person not turning up or not delivering the goods.

Gilani: That's one word that operates very strongly: 'trust'. If we didn't trust each other implicitly, we wouldn't have stuck around, and we're going back 45 years.

Shah: I think a strong reason for me [to start Motley] was to be able to spend time with people I enjoyed spending time with and produce something creative. Instead of sitting in a party or chatting, you're sharing creative juices with people you like. What greater joy can there be? And it's really because of friends that we continue, the encouragement and support we receive, the belief they had in our work, which initially was shabby and amateurish. Dubey used to say, "I do theatre for the 10-15 people I love. I don't give a damn about the rest." And, it's really true to a large extent. We had no message, no political agenda, no profound reason for doing theatre. We were not exploring or trying to understand the nature of theatre. We were content with what we knew. And, we had great fun.

Gilani: [I remember], in Godot, we had this young boy, who is a very famous cinematographer now, Sameer Arya. The boy comes twice, and in the second act, we have started and Sameer went off to sleep. And, Naseer and I are waiting. Somehow we managed to get the play together. After that, Sameer was holding on to his mother, thinking he's gonna get a mouthful from Naseer. Though I had directed the play, Naseer was the one who would give mouthfuls at the time. Naseer didn't say a word. Now, this guy (audience member) comes and says, "I particularly liked your second act's interpretation. You didn't bring the boy. It was a touch of genius."

Khurana: This other time, we were in Bengaluru, and in the middle of an intense scene, this lady in sari and perfume says, "Yeh car number kiski hai? It's been parked there. Bataiye, aisa hota hai? Sorry, but we have to stop this show." And the curtain came down. In five minutes, we resumed, and something very interesting happened. The next few lines, whatever we said, coincided in context with what had happened. So, she became a star in absentia. She became Godot in a sense. It brought the house down.

Akash Khurana

The influence of Satyadev Dubey

Akash Khurana says, "For me, he was a bridge for Motley. At that time, Dubey was in his Renaissance phase. He cast me in Abe Bewakoof, and he hated my performance, because he was supposed to cast Amrish Puri. I had my wardrobe [ready], part of my wedding stuff, so that was great for Dubey because impoverished theatre: costume ke saath aaya hai. I tried to sound like Puri sahab and screwed my vocal chords. And Chhabildas Hall, that's another legend: you could hear hawkers shouting, TVs blaring, windows open, fans creaking, and I'm in a three-piece. But Naseer liked what I did. Cut to a few years later, theatre, struggle, job, house-hunting, which is another trauma, and we were homeless. I had a kid, a suitcase and no place to go. He called us over and I lived with him for 11 months. What happened there was not just the sharan (shelter) I got, but an exclusive gurukul. You sleep, wake up, read and drink rum with Dubey. I was getting an oral history of Bombay's theatre. Talk about influences."

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