In conversation with the Shahs, the first family of Indian theatre
It takes a fair amount of gumption to call Naseeruddin Shah a reformist. Though we can safely identify the Shahs as the first family of Indian theatre for a simple reason — no other household can claim to be as unitedly consumed by the art and the arc lamps of the stage.
Hearteningly, the man retains a familiar non-conformist manner about himself, sharp as a hawk about details, and with a rapier sense of wit. The impetus of playing a maverick in real life lends him the gravitas, and manner of authority that few others can ever hope to match up to.
The go-as-you-please bohemian we related to from his on-screen characters in the 1980s might have wizened a tad, with over four decades of an incredibly eventful acting career. But he retains the same manner of conviction we identified with, all those years back, making him the progressive crusader we can’t help but idolise. In the same breath, the spark stays alive in the family’s youngsters — with Heeba, Imaad and Vivaan.
To be sure, all three of the younger Shahs have their own moments to speak of. Heeba is expected to perform in celebrated Iranian director Majid Majidi’s upcoming film Beyond the Clouds, and also stars in Rahul Bose’s new directorial venture, Poorna. While Imaad is working on a full-length album with his electro cabaret-disco-funk outfit Madboy/Mink, along with actress and singer Saba Azad, apart from working on his directorial debut, The Threepenny Opera, a play by Bertolt Brecht. And Vivaan, the youngest of them, stars in Laali ki Shaadi Mein Laddoo Deewana, alongside Akshara Haasan, releasing later this April.
As they prepare to perform together for the first time as one unit this summer, in Riding Madly Off In All Directions, based on stories of the late humourist Stephen Leacock, an epic production by every count, we spoke with the family in a series of email exchanges about their working dynamics, awkward – and hilarious – moments onstage, and the phenomenon of English theatre in India.
We’re interested in the rise and evolution of English language theatre in India. How are things changing, bridging sensibilities between Western and Indian audiences, between the Royal Academy in London and the NCPA in Mumbai?
Naseeruddin Shah: Bridging sensibilities between NCPA and whoever is the least of my concerns.
I am interested in getting through to the audiences here. English is as Indian a language as any of the others in our country, and I think its use in our theatre is valid. Motley was initially known as an “English theatre company”, which was disconcerting, because the only English plays in Mumbai then were either bedroom farces or bad copies of West-End and Broadway stuff, and we were not interested in those.
Resultantly, our ‘experimental’ work then performed to very poor houses. It was only with the realisation that Indian prose writing offered stageable possibilities, and an opportunity to perform in our own language as well, along with the rise in the number of original plays in English by young Indian writers, and the exposure of the imitators, that our viewership began to grow.
English theatre presentation in India is only now beginning to emerge from its Victorian cocoon and sounding like an original voice.
With about 50 per cent of the younger generation being weaned on SMS language and spellings, however, what will happen to the grammar of writing and the literary use of language in the future is a matter of some concern. But what gives us hope is that these new plays in English trying to communicate immediate concerns are in a living, even if — strictly speaking — ungrammatical language. Many of them are still just esoteric, but worthy attempts nonetheless, to grapple with living issues which matter to the writer.
Has the time finally arrived for Indian English theatre to come of age?
Heeba Shah: I think we need to get over the feeling that the West is good. We had taken Ismat Aapa ke Naam to a few European countries two years ago, where I also got to watch other plays there and some of them were really faltu (useless). In India, there is a clear demarcation between brilliant plays, good and bad plays. I think we should stop pretending to be English or American, and I am glad that we aren’t doing that. In fact, rural theatre in India is fabulous, and is way above international standards.
Imaad Shah: I think the relevance of Indian theatre in any language will depend, of course, largely on the quality of the plays produced. There is however the element of ‘building a culture’. So the availability of spaces, the level of interest within the larger audience, converting or drawing newer, relatively uninitiated audiences to the art form, better funding for projects that deserve it, various forms of creative incentives to make young writers/directors develop original material, a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ between theatre companies — these are all symbiotic things. They depend on each other to some extent. Government support, like in the West, seems to me to be a distant dream as of now — though there is the National School of Drama. But I also do feel that indigenous and local theatre scenes should be supported and kept alive. English theatre seems to be the domain of the elite in our country, but English is now pretty much another Indian language.
Vivaan Shah: The time will arrive for English Theatre to come of age when people start doing classical English, and more Shakespeare, and other classic literature and playwrights. The problem with English theatre right now is that people are too preoccupied doing contemporary sitcom-type plays. It would have been fine if they were trying to replicate and reproduce the kind of English we speak in India — which would have been interesting and has a personality of its own. But unfortunately, that is not the case. A lot of the English plays I see nowadays are too inspired by American and British TV shows, which in my opinion is not a good thing. We need to expose our audiences to classical literary English. Motley is the only theatre group which does that.
Tell us a little about how you came upon Stephen Leacock’s work. Is there a personal angle to this that we’re missing?
Naseeruddin Shah: I first read Stephen Leacock at the age of 14 or so in the Reader’s Digest. Only later did I learn of his other accomplishments as an economist, not that I cared about them or understood those things, I just loved his humour; three of the pieces in the show were read in adolescence, they stayed with me and as time went on I discovered others. It was when I read his chillingly prescient 1914 story Man in Asbestos that I felt Leacock must be done on stage. I am optimistic about the way it will be received if there are enough students in the audience.
How is it to be working together as a family?
Heeba: All of us have worked with each other at some point, but this is the first time that five of us will be performing together. Stephen Leacock is dad’s favourite writer since his childhood. He selected all the pieces for the performance.
Imaad: For me, the last time I worked as an actor with my father directing was in a Bernard Shaw play called By George. As for the others, they’ve all worked together in different combinations, but for all of us together in one play, it’s a first.
Vivaan: It has been super fun, lots of fights and arguments, which are an essential part of the process, and a great journey of discovery and learning. Working with my father and mother is truly an enlightening experience, and I will cherish it for life. I cannot tell you how much I have learnt. They guided me, shaped and moulded my performance to the tee. If I have done a good job, it is all thanks to them, and to their credit.
Who cracks the whip, so to speak?
Heeba: Dad comes with an old-school background. If a play has been decided to be performed by Motley, we all follow a thorough process that’s put in place by him. We read the script individually at least for a month. He needs to be convinced that we have understood and learnt the lines well, and not mugged it up. Only then does he work on the lines with us. It took us about one-and-a-half month to start rehearsals. But we do read the script again and again every day. That’s how he (dad) works. It’s intense, but it’s also a lot of fun. Particularly for pieces like this one, which was written in the 1920s, the process is rigorous, but we make it our own. We started rehearsing in June-July last year and our show opened at the Prithvi Festival in November.
Imaad: It is definitely a comfort zone of sorts, as we’re all close friends too, and though it isn’t competitive, we all goad each other on to do better.
Vivaan: My father is sometimes almost like a strict drill sergeant, or a football coach. He yells when he has to, and loses his temper whenever he has to deal with incompetence, and indiscipline. Since I am the youngest, I usually start the rehearsals with my piece, and then we work our way up in order of our age or most of the times, in order of the stories.
So there are difficult moments during rehearsals?
Heeba: Arguments happen, and it’s healthy. You know the person better and get down to the task. But because it’s family, we also tend to be extra sensitive, and at the same time, it gets difficult to work. It’s a bit bizarre. But it’s also a lot of fun, because you learn a lot. There is solid understanding among us, so nobody feels bad. At the end of the day, we never run out of fights. It’s not that we stand there and yell at each other, instead we communicate at a deeper level.
Vivaan: Mum and dad, both are very critical, and are seldom if ever effusive. But their criticism is always constructive criticism, and I cannot tell you how valuable and eye opening their feedback has always been.
How long has it taken to bring Riding Madly Off In All Directions to the stage?
Naseeruddin Shah: It’s very gratifying for us that more than half the people who watch our
work — even ‘archaic’ stuff like Bernard Shaw and Ismat Chughtai are young — the best audience to perform to. Not long actually, compared to the time we generally take — six months or more from the first reading to the first show. The cast was available all the time!
Ratna is a natural multi-tasker so she handles a lot of things including the creative side and acting, Heeba was doing costumes and props for this one, and we have the most industrious producer Jairaj Patil, who manages all logistics and does the leg-work. I take all the credit!
Were there any improvised moments on stage — any incident that might have been embarrassing, but which you laugh about in hindsight?
Heeba: Once we were performing Manto... Ismat Hazir Hai at NCPA Experimental Theatre and everything just went wrong that day. It was just hilarious and out of control. Just as one of the actor was saying an intense piece of dialogue, his chair broke, and we were laughing backstage. Then another actor walked on stage for his piece and his rosary broke, and this man couldn’t control his amusement, so he kept looking towards me smiling, while performing (laughs). Between all of this, whoever was on stage and had a chance to laugh as a part of the performance — that person would laugh out really loud, because all of us were so amused. I remember what fun it was, and we all laugh every time we remember that show.
Imaad: We’re usually pretty intensively well-rehearsed, so nothing incredibly embarrassing. But a moment I’ll never forget is when I missed an entry years ago in Waiting for Godot, where I played the Boy. I was less than 10 years old, and it scared me sufficiently to never let it happen again.
While theatre has for long served to germinate the finest actors, song-and-dance blockbustersundermine these talents. Do you expect to ever make a film again, after Yun Hota To Kya Hota (2006)?
Naseeruddin Shah: “Talent does what it can...” The under-appreciation of worthy actors by our monster industry is nothing new. Actors like me just have to live with it and make the most of it. I seriously doubt if I’ll ever attempt to make another film. I don’t have the stamina for it.
Riding Madly Off In All Directions will be staged in Chennai on June 11. Tickets: in.bookmyshow.com