Solemn soliloquy: Vinay Varma on playing Rahi Masoom Raza
Performing a 70-minute monologue is no minor feat. In the biographical play Main Rahi Masoom, veteran actor Vinay Varma does exactly that, enacting the late Urdu writer, Dr Rahi Masoom Raza. In an email exchange, Varma spoke about getting under the skin of the writer, and keeping his breath on stage.
Performing a 70-minute monologue is no minor feat. How do you prepare for such a performance, and how do you keep up your stamina on stage?
It is indeed exhausting, considering that I’ve to chain smoke and chew paan throughout the 75-minute monologue.
And I’m neither a smoker nor chew a paan. I’ve always believed that you don't have to carry your act off stage. Once the lights are off, an actor should get back into his own self and discard the garment of the role he or she was playing. Actors often want to show off that “Oh, it’s so difficult to get out of that role... blah, blah”. Dammit! You’re just playing a role, and be honest to it as long as you’re on stage.
You keep learning over a period of time as to how to conserve your energy during the performance. There’s no set rule, each actor evolves his own strategy. I just go out there and try to become Rahi Saab. My focus is the content and not the performance.
When the lines have weight, and you understand what he wants to say, then you convey the meaning with the same conviction. The actor’s job is to connect, and once the connect is established, the audience is hooked.
You hail from a family of academicians. How does that shape your approach, when it comes to choosing scripts - for theatre, and for movies? Were you always inclined to literature?
As far as theatre is concerned, I’ve learnt things the hard way. Of course, the initial upbringing initially had an impact, but later in life you charter your own course.
Bhaskar Shewalkar, who is my guru in theatre, inspired me too. But as you grow older and branch out, your start developing your distinct style of work.
I’ve always been a deep-rooted person, for whom the country comes first. Therefore, any script that gives me the fragrance of my Motherland, my culture, my ethos, my value system makes me feel that this has great potential to connect with the audiences.
Because a performer’s job is primarily to connect. It’s not that I’ve done only Indian plays, but with any foreign script which I feel has a universal appeal, and can be adapted to the Indian situation, I don't hesitate in choosing that. Examples being (Federico García) Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, Hugh Chesterman’s The Pie and the Tart, Moliere’s The Physician Inspite of Himself & The Miser, August Strindberg’s The Stronger, Samuel Beckett’s The Krapp's Last Tapes, just to name a few.
When it comes to movies, I’ve been more than selective. I've done very few films, and mostly roles that come my way are negative ones, for some strange reason. I try not to typecast myself, and choose roles with varying shades. In fact, I’ve rejected more roles than I’ve accepted. On the contrary, in theatre, I don't choose. I do whatever comes my way, because that’s the only medium which gives me scope to experiment, and keep learning and unlearning.
The story of Rahi Masoom Raza is little known, apart from among older fans of Bollywood films and Urdu literature. What interested you about his life story?
The fact that he was a strong nationalist, and was very unsparing of the fundamentalists on both sides of the divide. Being a communist himself, he came down heavily on them for tying up with the Muslim League in Kerala. The very fact that he belonged to such yore prompted us to realise his relevance for the present generation. Trust me, a sizeable audience across the country and abroad - we've done two shows in London - were youngsters, and some even as young as 10 year old - and I couldn’t see them yawning or taking as much a wink. What does this show, apart of course from the actor’s effort?
It is Rahi’s thought that got them glued. What more can add value to the fact that most people in the audience were left moist-eyed, and came over after the show to declare that henceforth, they will not call themselves or address others as Maharashtrians, Gujaratis, Tamilians, Bengalis, etc, but Hindustanis. That has been a great achievement for me, as a performer.
Also the fact that a Muslim wanted to be laid to rest in the lap of the River Ganga, whom he always referred to as his second mother. Added to this, his filmy journey has been highly anecdotal, the most famous being the opposition to his writing, arguably the most popular TV serial of India, Mahabharat, directed by Dr BR Chopra.
No one popularised a mythological serial like he did. Terms of address like "Pita Shri, Mata Shri, Bhrata Shri, Jija Shri, Mama Shri, etc, have thus enriched the vocabulary of our lingua franca. His academic life has been equally eventful, and has interesting stories as to how he was thrown out of the Aligarh Muslim University, after teaching there for two and a half years, apart from studying there for 7 years. He had a PhD in Urdu, but preferred to write in the Devanagari script, because he thought that was the best medium to popularise Urdu. Also, much like him, I believe in calling a spade a spade and using sarcasm as a therapy.
How did you prepare for the role, to get under the skin of a writer like Rahi Masoom Raza? How did you practice your mannerisms, and complexity of dialogue?
It was very difficult, because I never saw him - barring in a picture - leave alone meeting him. It was his thought, and the way he wrote and expressed himself, which prompted me to work on a few options.
His widow, Nayyar Aunty (Nayyar Jahan), his son Nadeem Khan and celebrated pop singer and daughter-in-law Parvati Khan provided useful insights into his lifestyle, his daily routine, the settings, the surroundings, what he wore, what he smoked and which paan he chewed. Having put these external elements in place, the real challenge now was internalising the character.
Bhaskar Shewalkar’s guidance helped me grasp a few things. Also the fact that I was to play someone much older to me enhanced the challenge. The first show, surprisingly, was a hit with old-timers and many friends and acquaintances of Rahi attending the show. Each one of them felt that Rahi was talking to them, and enquired after the show as to how closely I knew Rahi Saab!
Fortune favours the brave, as they say, and those compliments boosted my confidence. Then i slowly started adding subtle nuances to the characters. I still keep working on those, and take precautions not to get complacent, because I don't have to perform, but I have to live the role of a great soul who must be watching me from somewhere up there, and blessing me too.
How have you honed and perfected your own personal manner of dialogue delivery?
My personal style is of no consequence here. What matters, or who matters, is the character that I’m playing. Mjob is to convince the audience that I'm Rahi and not Vinay Varma.
To that extent, I worked on different mannerisms of smoking, making and chewing the pan, spitting in the silver spittoon, sitting with an arm resting on the bolster, and most importantly, the limp in his walk.
Ironically, no one in his family knows with which leg he limped! So i had to decide, in consultation with my director, as to which leg I should limp with - and one member in the audience, who knew Rahi, pointed out that I was limping with the wrong leg. So I guess I’m truly blessed to be playing this great man – the real Bharat Ratna, who had his country more than anything else in his mind, his thoughts, his writings, his speech... everything. They don't make people like him anymore.
Once, during a show in Mumbai, an elderly lady asked my director after the performance, “Is naujawan Rahi ko kahan se utha laaye, ye hubahu uske jaisa hi hai...” (Where did you get this young Rahi from, he’s an exact replica). Javed Akhtar, after the show at Prithvi said, “It (the resemblance) was uncanny”. Celebrities like Gufi Paintal, Satish Shah, Mukesh Khanna, Javed Khan were seen sobbing throughout the performance. Such was the man’s influence...
Tell us a little about the other workshops and initiatives that you're a part of - to celebrate reading, apart from your work in cinema.
I’m doing two Telugu films right now, both diametrically opposite in terms of budgets, content and star cast. Of course, I’m playing the bad man in both. I've worked alongside actors like Nayanthara, Vidya Balan, Gulshan Grover and Danny Denzongpa, to name a few.
I train actors and voices only when I can commit myself to such workshops. I don't intend turning my training sessions into money-spinning machines, because I want to retain the sanctity of the craft. Of course, I don't do social service, but I waive off my fee for those who can't afford it, but have a fire in the belly. My intake is very selective and limited, since the workshops are comprehensive yet intensive. The focus is more on realising the self, and aligning the body, mind and voice to become a better performer. The longer objective is to be a better human being.
We’ve also started an initiative called "Abhivyakti" - meaning expression - to imbibe the habit of reading books, and not in the digital medium. Towards this end, we organise a monthly story reading session, where classic stories from Hindi literature are read by yours faithfully. They could be stories that you read as a child in school or college, or have heard of. The perspective here is very different, as I draw in a lot of references from society and culture that can be related to the story, and I narrate anecdotes connected with phrases and idioms. The purpose is to involve the audience, and not only make them listen. It's a very interactive session, wherein a lot of discussion happens after the end of the reading.
How important, would you say, are aspects of body language and communication in today's age of social networking? Ultimately, how do you hope to inspire and get youngsters involved in Indian literary works?
Of course, in today's digital world, body language and oral communication has become more important than ever. The personal touch is missing, and our workshops are oriented towards reviving our glorious culture through games, stories, music and literature of yore. English - whichever way they speak it - seems to be the only language that the present generation knows, and most of them feel ashamed of their mother tongues. What a sad state. It’s a long journey, but the fact needs to be instilled among the youngsters that nothing is bigger than the country, and that we must feel proud to be Indians despite our diversity.
If we are stuck in our own worlds, and everyone wants to fly to "the US", the country will be up for sale soon. Each one of us must contribute in our own way to ensure that the rich heritage, literature and music of this beautiful country is preserved. Vinay Varma is just small fry trying to change things, but I can at least try. That is the best we all can and should do – Try. Try to be honest citizens, and not leave it to others...
Main Rahi Masoom will be staged at Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Concert Hall on April 30, 6.45 pm. Donor passes: `250. Details: 9840127103