Naseeruddin Shah on his disturbingly real portrayal of an Alzheimer's stricken man
Mumbai's theatergoers are coming to grips with Naseeruddin Shah's disturbingly real portrayal of an Alzheimer's stricken man. The veteran tells us what it's like to live with Andre 58 nights in a row
Towards the end of our chat with Naseeruddin Shah at his Bandra apartment, we share hesitantly the story of a family member with a neurological condition, much like Andre, the ageing protagonist he portrays in Motley's ongoing play, The Father. "Does he display similar traits? Is he as unpredictable as Andre?" the veteran asks. Much of it is concern, but the keenness to sharpen his craft is an ongoing attempt, we can see. Less than 12 hours before, we are part of the audience that watches him portray a Frenchman as he struggles with a memory-debilitating disease. They are uncomfortable with multiple actors playing the same character, and the jerky time travel in script, all to reflect the confusion in Andre's mind. The story reaches a bittersweet crescendo, followed by a standing ovation at curtain call.
Later today, The Father wraps up its run in Mumbai after 58 back-to-back performances. It's time to reflect on its unprecedented success. "It's heartwarming, because typically, Indians are not enlightened towards the mentally ill. We are a superstitious lot who imagine such conditions to be the result of bad wishes. 'Devi chadh gayi,' we say. It's the reason why we didn't adapt the original script to India," he says about the English translation by Christopher Hampton of Florian Zeller's French story.
"People are in tears when they meet me backstage; they ask if they can hug me, that I remind them of their fathers. It was touching when a 30-year-old man told me he was glad he had taken good care of his father when he was alive. It has been gratifying," Shah says. Watching Andre's alternate universe unravel and deteriorate before him is a numbing experience for most in the audience. How did Shah prepare? "The husband of a close friend from my days back at the National School of Drama suffered full-blown dementia. When I met him 15 years ago, I thought he was her father-in-law because he was unrecognisable. It frightened the hell out of me." And, there was also an uncle, a police officer, from whom he picked up nuances. "In the original play, Andre is an engineer. I made him a police officer because of my uncle. We looked up to him, and then, Alzheimer's hit him. I borrowed from them both, and psychiatrist Dr [Harish] Shetty's case studies."
But this was before he had heard of this script. He says when he first read it, it was "as if lightning had struck". He has colleague Paresh Rawal to thank for introducing him to the story. "He was selfless to give it to me although he could have played the character himself," Shah says about the veteran actor, who was incidentally in the audience with us the previous evening. Shah says, prep aside, Andre's character has developed on stage, too. "I never hurry with a part because I have very high regard for writers. I must respect what they have written for me. It takes a long time, usually up to six months to read a script. I insist on reading it repeatedly, and understanding what is being said. I may say yes to a script but the process of understanding it occurs after I engage with it. I don't get into who will play what character or think about set design. The set for The Father, for instance, was the last thing I locked."
The cast, which includes wife Ratna, who plays Anne, discover a new dimension to their character and script each night they perform. "It's such a joy," he smiles. Which is why he decided on a long run. "Not only is it very intense and needs the continuous involvement [of the cast], we also make progress each night. We have done over 50 shows in three months, which we would have typically done over five years!" For Shah, the writer comes in for special praise. He thinks this is one of the greatest pieces of playwriting and ranks with Waiting for Godot. "The writer must have seen it from very close and felt it deeply. The disconnected form of this script puzzled me initially; I realised much later that this is the true craft of playwriting; this writer has followed the Shakespearean formulae."
The doorbell rings. A group of actors have dropped in for rehearsal. Our time is up. Is Andre's time up as well, we ask him. Shah thinks a bit and says, "He might want to die but it's not up to him."
On his wife playing his daughter
"Before Ratna stopped dyeing her hair, I'd often get asked, especially when we'd travel to London, 'is that your daughter? How pretty!' But on a serious note, I needed an actor who I could trust with my life – that's the condition for all my actors, because in theatre, you cannot take chances. But I also didn't want to ruin other opportunities for my cast, so I have double cast all roles. Heeba [his daughter] is the stand-in for Ratna, and she was wonderful at guiding her. She is such a good, dependable actor; her suggestions are invaluable. Every play that I have directed, I've given her credit as co-director."
On actors who take the part home
"I disapprove greatly of actors who cry at curtain call. I want to kick them! What are you crying for? The audience is not interested. They know you are an actor doing a role. Come out of it, smile at the audience and say, 'thank you'."