Shine on Ruby, there's a new star shooting in the sky
The passing of actress Ruby Patel (1933-2020) closes the curtain on a luminous era for Parsi and English theatre, sparkling with her powerhouse presence which was truly a class apart
"Arre, aapri Ruby can give Ingrid Bergman a run for her money!" declared a grand dame in clear, clipped tones. No one from the audience refuted or shushed her. They had seen Ruby Patel slay the stage in either Oogi Dahapan ni Daadh or Cactus Flower—respective Parsi and English adaptations of the 1969 Hollywood hit—as she brilliantly reprised Bergman's role in the romcom that included Walter Matthau and Goldie Hawn.
No actress possessed Ruby's poise, beauty and talent blazing through 70 plays in as many years of an acting career. Her actor-producer husband Burjor and she formed a devoted couple in theatredom, charming three generations. Her Gujarati theatre debut was Piroja Bhavan in 1954, introduced by writer-director Adi Marzban.
The Patels emerged as a widely adored lead pair of Marzban's comedies bannered by Cooperative Players till the mid-1960s. Joining the Parsi arm of Indian National Theatre (INT), they delivered a string of thumping successes such as Tirangi Tehmul, Gher Ghungro ne Ghotalo, Taru Maru Bakalyu, Lafra Sadan, Lagan Khel, Rang Rasiya and Hello Inspector. Finally, Burjor Patel Productions helmed popular plays touring East Africa and America, which received rave reviews.
Not as final, it proved. Theirs was a comeback to die for. When they returned to Bombay after 21 years in Dubai where Burjor headed marketing for Khaleej Times, I was elated to be assigned an interview for a weekend paper. Two years later, I started recording their theatre journey for my own research on Parsi theatre. We got to know each other better, teaming for the stage production based on that book, Laughter in the House.
In Hello Inspector, the 1973 INT thriller where she has been considered superior to Elizabeth Taylor essaying the role in Night Watch, the Hollywood hit released that year
It was Ruby I sought at each rehearsal after rounds of hi-hellos. Sitting beside her was at once calming and energising, educative and entertaining. She was great fun. As funny should be. Pure ghela-gaada. Sans malice. If backstage banter slid a bit into bitchiness, hers was the softly lilted intervention: "Umm-hmm, chaalo, let's rehearse again?"
That came from the way they were, the finesse with which stars of our growing up years conducted themselves offstage. Never mind how riotously incorrect (read sexist, classist, ageist) the scripts they followed on it. The couple's actor-producer daughter Shernaz was happiest at hide-and-seek with her siblings in corridors and greenrooms of halls like Birla, Tejpal and Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan—"We ran through men sticking on moustaches and women draping chiffon sarees. We tiptoed between sets nailed in, prop telephones getting wired. Someone pinched my cheeks while practising lines. Someone sang loudly doing a jig. Someone quickly hushed himself cracking a not too clean joke as I passed. There were non-stop laughs, chai, batata wadas… this wonderful spirit of family only those in theatre understand."
To talk theatre with Ruby was to be privy to an abiding passion that ran so deep, it was her very life. "We travelled to Gujarat by bus with plays for a month every year," she shared one evening. "Sent to live with my parents, our three children were devastated. Waving goodbye, they threw 'Come home soon' cards into our luggage." Among compensating treats, they demanded their favourite mithai from Ahmedabad. Without realising it, Ruby mentored several then aspiring actors. In a condolence message to the Patels, actor Darshan Jariwala has said, "Her superlative performances importantly taught me the discretion between truth and fallacy on stage. I rate her streets ahead in Hello Inspector to Liz Taylor in Night Watch. And thank God she walked on the stage when I began learning the craft."
Adi Marzban briefing Burjor and Ruby Patel for Mari Pachhi Kon, a bittersweet 1958 drama with the actress in one of her favourite roles. Pic courtesy/ Meher Marfatia, Laughter in the house: 20th-Century Parsi theatre
Theatrical luminosity apart, Ruby redefined grace. In another note to Shernaz, actress Karla Singh wrote: "Ruby and I worked together on my first play, Noises Off. I was scared and insecure, but Ruby was gracious and reassuring. I watched and learnt from her immense talent and impeccable comic timing."
Her nurturing instincts gently bubbled behind the scenes throughout our Laughter in the House experience. She raised quality interaction with actors across ages to another level. I caught fleeting glimpses of unforgettably warm moments. Ruby hugging nervously waiting in the wings, soprano Farah Ghadiali, tenderly encouraging, "Sweetheart, your voice is as beautiful as you are." Ruby straining on tilted toes (she the diminutive dynamo) to tighten a bow on Danesh Khambatta's dagli coat unravelling seconds before his entry. Ruby politely requesting the pianist for a change to G Minor as the note to strike for her song. Ruby worrying whether the NCPA canteen had fried enough chicken farchas as per her recipe—she was a fabulous cook—to serve as an interval snack.
Actor Danesh Irani recalls, "When we first met, Ruby Patel was sitting by the window of the NCPA Sea View Room. It was the initial reading for Laughter in the House. I had heard of her iconic performances, and was in awe. She carried herself with absolute grace, dressed in signature kurta and pants, hair perfectly brushed, a smile on her face. Over time, Danesh Khambata and I grew close to her, Danesh even more than me. He referred to her as his girlfriend and Ruby Aunty loved it."
Leading the women in a spirited riposte to the men in the mock battle-between-the-sexes qawwali finale of Laughter in the House. Pic/ Sooni Taraporevala
She enjoyed different terms of endearment: Rubs to Burjor and to Rahul da Cunha, Ruby Mummy to Rajit Kapur, Ruby Mai to Jim Vimadalal, Ruby Ben to the Gujarati drama fraternity, Aapri Ruby to the Parsi community.
Is our actress supreme really at rest? From her perch of peace, she may just be showing the heavens a starry turn, winning fresh fans in that firmament. The stage lights here have dimmed. Glow on up there, dear Ruby.
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