Guest article by Ratna Pathak Shah: What’s the point of art if you can’t ruffle feathers?
Stop viewing the theatre world through rose-tinted glasses, writes the second generation thespian
My mother used to work in popular Gujarati plays. So my early memories of theatre made me realise very early in my life what I absolutely did not want to do! There are no good old days. That’s a complete fallacy.
“There is growing excitement around theatre, but it’s not easy. why the hell should it be easier? It gives you something to aspire for!”
I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s watching melodramatic Gujarati plays, a few similar Marathi plays and a fair amount of mediocre English theatre. Even at the age of seven years, I could sense that it was all absolutely crass. There were cardboard sets that would move, not a shred of idea that you can hold on to, everything copied.My mother worked in such shitty plays that my heart really went out to her. Nothing was original. There was not a shred of an idea you could hold on to. She either played a miserable bahu or a miserable saas and I could not understand the obsession with suffering women!
Mother of all acts
I knew that my mother is capable of so much better. I had not seen her work as a younger woman, but I had heard about her performances. She would often perform bits for me and Supriya (Pathak) at home, and that quality of acting was stunning.
“In theatre, the focus needs to be on the actors and the script. You only look at the backdrop [sets, video effects] when the acting gets boring”
By the time I was 10, my mother started working with Satyadev Dubey, and he became part of our lives. He introduced me to Marathi plays with people like Dr Shiram Lagoo, Sulabha Deshpande, Vijaya Mehta, that were fresh and exciting. At the same time, people like Vijay Tendulkar and Girish Karnad were churning out new plays; new ideas. Plays like Tendulkar’s Ghashiram Kotwal (1972), and Sakharam Binder (1972) had a kind of emotional intensity that was almost difficult to take. These gave me an understanding of the kind of plays I would want to be associated with.
One particular performance that really made me fall in love with theatre acting was a small piece by my mum. I was about 12 then. She was playing Kali maata, a 10-minute one-scene role in Dubey’s production of Karnad’s Hayavardhan. And she was spectacular. This Kali maata was a very lazy, bored person and my mother was just stunning. She was funny, she was scary, she had dressed like some otherworldly creature. But she would get so involved in the play that she would always forget her lines. The one time she managed to deliver the exact lines, Sunila Pradhan, who was her co-actor on stage, was so surprised that she forgot hers!
Funny for money
Then there was the National School of Drama (NSD), helmed by Ebrahim Alkazi, which did some spectacular productions with a certain class that Mumbai was unable to produce at that point. But I didn’t like the kind of acting they did. They were enunciating as though there was a big performance happening, but half the time you would not even know what the play was about!
I realised what the problem was once I joined NSD. There were no acting teachers! So I needed to pick up those skills on the go. We did four new productions every year. But when I came back, I still knew almost nothing about acting. I took a long time to learn. It should not take that long.
“But the most serious problem that theatre is facing today is the dearth of playwrights. There is absolutely no money for writers in theatre”
The present generation of theatre actors have a lot more exposure. Also, there is better money now, you have newer venues, actors are working with different groups and there is an exchange of ideas due to that. Things are surely looking up. But I am not sure if these are sustainable. But I am not sure if all these are sustainable. I think all these changes are great to get people enthused but there has to be a time of consolidation; you need to eventually sit down and think things through.
One positive thing is that we are getting sponsorships. But there is collateral damage there. They want the plays to appeal to the masses. They want the plays to be funny, and sometimes even spectacular. But you can’t ruffle feathers. What is the point of art if you can’t ruffle feathers?
If while growing up the need was tragedy and every play was a tearjerker, now it is just the exact opposite! Everything has to be funny! It is good, but it can also be tiring. It is not so easy to be funny and when you are trying too hard it often ends up looking and sounding like a sitcom…as if you are stuck in a permanent zone of Friends where everyone has these funny lines to crack at the end of every scene.
When you have a chunk of money at your disposal, you often lose focus. Now you have great sets, video effects, battle scenes projected on a screen at the back. In theatre, the focus needs to be on the actors and the script. You only look at the backdrop when the acting gets boring.
Theatre is still not really a paying profession. Earlier, almost everyone had a day job. Dr Shriram Lagoo was a practising ENT. Amrish Puri sold insurance all his life and did theatre, until he started doing films. Early morning he would land up in Sunila Pradhan’s house to rehearse and then take his motorcycle all the way to town to his office, then come back and join the rehearsals at Dubey’s house.
But for most people these days, acting is a full-time job so they need other acting assignments. And then getting dates becomes an issue. Also, earlier, an actor would work with a particular theatre group but it has become more fluid. People are collaborating, actors are working with different theatre groups, there is an intermingling, an exchange of ideas like never before. It seems like a terrific idea, superb when you think of it. But maybe not very practical. You can’t keep a play running for long if you don’t have dedicated actors. One of the major charms of a play is that it keeps evolving with time. As actors you keep finding newer angles to approach a character, you discover newer layers and nuances. This can’t happen if you are available for just a few shows.
But the most serious problem that theatre is facing today is the dearth of playwrights. There is absolutely no money for writers in theatre, so obviously we are failing to lure new, exciting writers to write fresh, new plays.
Another thing that really bothers me is the lack of post play analysis. Any kind of art requires some discussion for it to improve. Even a few years ago, we had journalists reviewing plays, but not anymore. I think it is a major setback.
So, yes, there is growing excitement around theatre, but I don’t think things are getting any easier. But why the hell should it be easier? It gives you something to work towards and aspire for.
(Ratna Pathak Shah is an acclaimed actor who, along with her actor husband, Naseeruddin Shah, helms the Motley Theatre group)
As told to Ananya Ghosh
Read more: Theatrics of the Shahs
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From HT Brunch, April 15, 2019
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