Barry John wins major theatre award
Lifetime Achievement award to be given to Shah Rukh Khan’s theatre guru
Barry John has played British bureaucrat many times in his life but he will always live in public memory as the implacable boss of Massey, the eager-to-please babu, in the film, Massey Sahib (1985), set in British India. “There are exactly 26 rupees and six annas in the public works account. Do you know what that means? There is no money for the road!” he tells Massey with a bark intended to make his subordinate come up with a solution to the problem.
However, to see Barry John’s acting, or take the full measure of his contribution to the performing arts in India, you have to see him not on film but on stage. In 1993, the British-born Indian theatre director and actor was honoured with the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award. The Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards, has just announced that he is the recipient of its Lifetime Achievement Award this year. Theatre directors, Vijaya Mehta and Mahesh Elkuchwar, have been past awardees.
In the Delhi of the 1970s, Barry found his groove and his milieu. You could say he built it, not an easy thing to do in a city that since the 1960s had given itself over to the epic spectacles staged by the great Ebrahim Alkazi of the National School of Drama (NSD) in the Indian tradition. Yatrik was one of Delhi’s oldest theatre groups. Barry joined it and then left it to found the Theatre Action Group (TAG) in 1973. His emphasis: experimental Western texts rather than the canon.
For example, instead of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, TAG would do Charles Marowitz’s A Macbeth with not one but three Macbeths! Vidyun Singh, a core member, and Sunit Tandon, who has been active in the Delhi theatre scene since the 1970s, say the plays Barry put up, such as Equus, Amadeus and Jesus Christ Superstar, were stellar productions. His direction of his actors was non-interventionist. “A glance here or a glance there, when he spoke, it was almost cathartic,” says Tandon. The inside joke was that his silences spoke more than his words.
Actor Adil Hussain, who worked with Barry during his first year as a student at the NSD, says the “best part” about his teaching was that he rarely spoke. How was that helpful? “We put up Manto’s Toba Tek Singh and we would ask him a question and he would not answer it unless it was really important. He let us find our truths.”
All his ambitions are for the stage, points out Vidyun Singh. The films have been incidental and he has done his share of odd roles such as playing a hippie, happy to seduce people coming to the Himalayas for hash in M Cream (2012) or a forest ranger in Corbett of Kumaon (1986). That’s quite the opposite of Tom Alter, who, by his own admission, had gone to Bombay not to be a theatre artist but a film star as big as Rajesh Khanna. Not everybody could and Barry John understood this.
With Barry’s training, even if you didn’t get to play the romantic hero, you could still deliver a performance in a mainstream movie, says actor and theatre director, Meeta Vasisht. “‘I think the strength of Barry’s training may have been that he was one of the teachers who enabled actors who came from either too westernised a background or small towns or villages where language accents reflect the roots of the soil to find a middle ground that would allow them to work in Hindi theatre (and thereafter in Hindi films).”
His mentorship has been instrumental in building both ends of the Bollywood alternative: Bollywood’s ultimate outlier, its unconventional superstar, Shah Rukh Khan, and the powerhouse, Manoj Bajpayee.
His school, which past students have described almost as a school of life, was one of the key schools that prepared those interested in acting, for a life of performance and pressure. On the website of his acting studio, there are videos in which Barry appears, Buddha-like, giving advice: “There is no such thing as a natural actor. It’s not difficult but it isn’t easy.”
Barry John, the success story... few people in the fraternity have been surprised by this. In a nearly 50-year-long career in India, he created his niche through hard work. “Only very occasionally,” he says, “do I see myself as an angrez; I am really local maal (locally made).”
Beginnings: Born in 1946 in Coventry, UK, Barry John is, since 2012, an Indian citizen. He is the founder-director of Theatre Action Group (1973), one of the early theatre groups of Delhi. In 2007, he moved to Mumbai to open his acting school, the Barry John Acting Studio.
Students: Shah Rukh Khan, Manoj Bajpayee, Richa Chadha, Freida Pinto, Varun Dhawan, Arjun Kapoor.
Filmography: Gandhi, Miss Beatty’s Children, Tamas, Massey Sahib, Raj Se Swaraj, Corbett of Kumaon, Himalaya Darshan, Chittagong. “Many of these roles were seemingly simple single scene appearances, but for a beginner they were nerve-wracking enough. Yes, in those days, they were the only types of role on offer: white face = British Raj character,” says Barry John. “My own British accent is working-class Midlands and to speak “posh” has always been a problem. In Massey Sahib, the director, Pradip Krishan, was quite finicky about my having a clipped, upper class Brit accent, even to the point of it affecting the Hindi dialogues that I spoke. It is true that some of my discomfort with doing such roles grew out of my conviction that they were not very nice or well-behaved or ethical people at all.”
On being a natural actor, director: “I do believe that there are “natural” actors and directors. By that I don’t mean that they were “born actors and directors”, but they have an approach to the work that is easy, friendly and natural. Both are on an honest search for the truth; not about being clever, radical or sensational in any way,” says Barry John.
Theatre heroes: His favourite Indian play is Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Viraasat. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Shakespeare’s King Lear and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot are other favourites.