As Naseeruddin Shah’s Motley group celebrates its 30th anniversary, he recounts his life’s journey to find a home in theatre
FOR ME, like cinema, theatre was a love born in a climate of opposition. My father, an officer in the Provincial Civil Services, was a stern and austere man who never had a car or fridge in the house. He wanted me to be a doctor and strive for conventional respectability. My need to act was anathema for him and I was always thought of as the doomed one: the boy who would amount to no good. It certainly looked like that for many years, but I couldn’t set aside my burning desire to act and be famous. This created extreme friction in the house — anger, condemnation, humiliation — but my impulse held good. It was like being possessed. I left home fairly early and it would be many years before my father and I would speak. He lived to see my first film, Nishant and liked it. But before we were entirely reconciled he died and that remains a big vacuum in my life. When he died, I brought home an old pair of his shoes, standard Bata Naughty Boy shoes that must now be at least 50 years old. I use those shoes sometimes in my plays and wonder quietly whether he is watching from somewhere.
My love for theatre was first seeded at St Joseph’s, my boarding school in Nainital. The school used to do a number of plays, operas really, that I considered immeasurably grand. By school standards, they were, in fact, quite sensational. I suffered untold misery in that school because I was a terrible student, always ostracised, and never given a chance to act on stage. But the plays mesmerised me. We were also exposed to great movies there. So my real education — the influences that shaped who I would become — basically lay in these plays and movies, these interludes when I could enter the skin of whoever I wanted to be. We also had an annual production staged by Geoffrey Kendall’s Shakespeareana. I consider Mr Kendall the greatest actor and man I have ever seen. He remains a guiding light for me. As I wrote in an earlier piece for TEHELKA, the spirit he brought to theatre inspired an almost religious awe. He always said, “I am not an actor or director, I am a missionary, and my mission is to spread Shakespeare.” There was an aspect of Mr Kendall’s productions that always intrigued me. The plays our school put up had elaborate cardboard sets – forests and rivers and faux drawing rooms. But the Kendalls never used any sets. They had plain black backdrops and appeared on stage with the simplest props: a chair, a hat. It was years – decades – before I understood why they did this, but when I did understand, I was delighted that my aesthetic journey had brought me independently to the same conclusion as old Mr Kendall.
After school, under duress, I went to college at Aligarh Muslim University. Here again, I was rescued from despair by a couple of teachers I am eternally grateful to. They introduced me to absurd theatre. Beckett. Chekhov. Shaw. There was, in particular, Zahida Zaidi, who not only made me read Waiting for Godot and Chairs and all these abstract plays I could make neither head nor tail of, but insisted I perform them. Staging Chairs in Aligarh can only be ranked as an act of supreme bravery or supreme folly. My attempt probably fell somewhere in between.
After Aligarh, there was the National School of Drama (NSD) and the magnificent Mr Alkazi with his lavish productions. I was totally blown away by the sheer spectacle. Ten people with mashaals climbing a rampart on stage, crowds moving in waves from one part of the stage to another. Not all of Mr Alkazi’s ideas were terribly original, but he brought sophistication and meticulous detail to the idea of theatre production in India: there was attention to detail in every department, from the shoes and rings a character wore to the colour of leaves on a backdrop.
After NSD came FTII, the Film Institute in Pune, and theatre and I parted ways for about five years. Then, one day, Benjamin Gilani and I were sitting around on the sets of Junoon when he said, “I want to do a play with you, let’s try one.” Ben had studied at St Stephen’s and had been a big cat in its snobby Shakespeare Society, before going to the Film Institute dreaming of being a star. We had hit it off from the moment we met. We had similar tastes but were radically different in nature – which is probably why we are still friends decades later. That day, Ben suggested we try Waiting for Godot. I almost fell out of my chair. “Not that!” I protested, “I can’t understand a word of it.” But Ben insisted and so we launched into it. Tom Alter, Ben, Professor Taneja, our teacher from FTII, and I.
We spent a year reading it, performing it, just falling around. We watched a couple of performances for inspiration. Watching a good one in Gujarati really boosted our confidence. Godot in Gujarati: such things were possible. So, exactly 30 years ago, on July 29, 1979, we performed our first show of Godot. It was an unmitigated disaster. Wisely, we left it alone for six months, then returned to it. In those days, Om Puri had a group called Majma. We asked him to sponsor us and finally, after a year, we were invited to perform at Sophia College, Bombay. Two shows in front of 2,000 students. The reaction was amazing. For the first time, we felt we were on to a good thing. We had spent barely Rs 1,000 on our production: some hats, dirty rags, tattered shoes, a skeletal tree. What we earned was pure profit. And so out of that suspension of meaning — Godot — and christened by Ben, our group Motley was born. Over the years, Professor Taneja and Tom moved on, and Ratna [Pathak Shah], Ben, Akarsh Khurana and I came to be the core of the group.
We used to rehearse on the top of empty double decker buses or on local trains
TODAY MOTLEY productions staged abroad for NRI audiences — in Dubai, Muscat, Bonn, London, Amsterdam — sometimes earn $15,000 per show, and while none of us can still make a living from theatre, occasionally, we can afford generous cheques for the cast. But when we started out 30 years ago, NCPA had a little theatre that seated 50 and only patronised plays in Hindi. Apart from that, there was a tiny auditorium rented out by Chhabil Das High School in Dadar. All experimental theatre in Bombay – in Marathi, Gujarati or Hindi — was born here. This is where Arvind and Sulabha Deshpande started Avishkar; and actors like Nana Patekar and Rohini Hatangadi started out with them. We performed to audiences of 10 or 12 here and had nowhere to rehearse. While I was with Om’s Majma, we used to rehearse on the top of double deckers when they were empty, or on local trains in the afternoons, when no one was there. On an exceptional day, someone might put in a Rs 100 note in the hat. Most days, though, there were the ones and fives and tenners.
Today, there is a line of young people a mile long who want to join Motley. I tell them all, go away and do your own thing. Both the hardship and the passion involved in ‘getting it done’ drives one to find one’s language.
At Motley, very early, we decided we would do plays with very small casts. Apart from the difficulty in paying them, there was the difficulty of keeping a cast together. Om had attempted a play with barely eight people and he could never do two successive shows with the same cast. Inevitably, someone was ill or on a shoot or detained by an aunt in trouble! Ben wanted to do Arms and the Man. It needed only six people, but we could not afford the frills of a realistic play: a lady’s boudoir, a gentleman’s library with a grand bookcase. We weren’t Broadway, where was the money to come from. So we stuck to our little plays until the Alkazi dream lurking in me erupted and I decided to do Julius Caesar in 1992, co-directed by Vikram Kapadia. Motley’s reputation had been growing slowly and we had a cast of 70 (Kay Kay Menon was one of the extras in the crowd). We spent a lot of money, bought beautiful togas, but no one came to see it and it wrecked us financially. I had thought every school teaches the play and we would get a committed student audience. But only a bunch of teachers came on the second day and they were outraged because we had changed the play. I had ambitiously tried to turn the soliloquies into conversations, while retaining Shakespeare’s words. I had also changed the end. Blasphemous, they shouted at me, this is blasphemous!
After the shock of Julius Caesar, we did a play called Dear Liar with two actors. It’s been 20 years and that’s still alive. Godothas been alive 30 years, Ismat Aapa ke Naam for 10. Slowly, we have arrived at our own language.
Many years earlier, I had already started to weary of making commercial Hindi cinema. I found the films I was doing murderously boring. So in 1981, I spent Rs 35,000 of my hard earned money on getting to Poland to work with Jerzy Grotowski, a great theatre actor, director and teacher. I had devoured his Towards a Poor Theatre then and still think it is the most profound book on theatre I have ever read. Meeting him turned out to be a little disappointing but it set me off on a crucial path of discovery.
With dastangoi I finally feel I have found my home. I intend to do this for the rest of my life
Grotowski had extreme contempt for Broadway. Theatre can never match cinema’s illusion, so why was it competing to be the same? He asked three big questions: Is what theatre could do being done better than cinema? The answer was no. Then what was it that theatre used to do before the advent of cinema? And third, where had theatre sprung from? Theatre, he said, began with man’s need to communicate, not to dazzle. And in order to communicate, you don’t need huge castles disappearing on stage and helicopters and gondolas. The essential magic of theatre was to stimulate the imagination. Our poverty of resources should be our strength, not our weakness, he argued. If you remove everything extraneous – sets, lights, props, costumes – all you need is one actor in a black suit willing to work his butt off, and you have theatre. When you have two people who meet and talk, you have theatre. In his later life, Grotowski extended this argument so far, he began to dispense even with dialogue. He went on a different trip, searching for the primal state and sound. Theatre became synonymous with life – to a point where you couldn’t get a straight answer from him to any question, like what time of day it was.
BUT THESE THINGS gradually distilled themselves in my head and Grotowski led me to understand what Mr Kendall had been doing all those years earlier. He had never had anything extraneous on set and yet it had been the most magical theatre I had ever seen. And so we embarked on the mode of storytelling that we have been doing ever since, where the word and the person speaking the word is all, and the form is completely austere. Motley productions never have any props for mere decoration. Our attempt is to create illusion in the audience’s mind. These are the aesthetics that have shaped our series of Ismat Chugtai, Manto and Mohan Rakesh stories, and, recently, the dastangoi.
With dastangoi, I finally feel I have found my home. Artistically, there is nothing more challenging and I intend to do this for the rest of my life. The last dastango, one of the greatest actors ever, died in penury selling paan. Mahmood Farooqui’s pioneering work in reviving this great art, which had withered away with the assault of cinema, is a gift I cannot thank him enough for. My encounter with dastangoi finally leached away the pleasure I had in the Alkazi kind of theatre. I do not dream of doing it anymore, I no longer enjoy even watching it.
My only dream now is to make Motley outlive me. Unfortunately, it has become solely associated with me, but I now want to do productions in which I am not on stage. I want people to associate Motley with quality productions, not Naseeruddin Shah. My children are going to be around 50 years after I am gone. I have to create a climate for them.