'I hope OTT stays safe': Ratna Pathak Shah

Ratna Pathak Shah on being a BAFTA Breakthrough India supporter and how OTT is now shaping the entertainment industry
Ratna Pathak Shah
Ratna Pathak Shah

Films, television, theatre and now OTT, Ratna Pathak Shah has graced all kinds of mediums in her almost four-decadelong professional journey as an actor. While her portrayal of Maya Sarabhai, a snobbish socialite in Sarabhai vs Sarabhai earned cult status over the years, she did a splendid job as buaji in Lipstick Under My Burkha, making viewers look at older women in a new light. More recently, she was seen essaying the role of a mother (Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na, Kapoor and Sons, Golmaal 3, Khoobsurat, Thappad and Hum Do Hamare Do) but noticeably, most of them aren’t overtly emotional as Bollywood has shown for decades. Simultaneously, she has also played leading parts in over 40 plays in English, ‘Hindustani’ and Gujarati. As she comes on board as an industry supporter for BAFTA Breakthrough India (applications closed on December 6), we speak to her about the year-long mentoring programme for new talent, how OTT is shaping the industry and her professional journey. Excerpts:

Q. Tell us in detail about your role as a BAFTA Breakthrough India supporter?
‘Supporter’ is the keyword here. I am helping to get this programme across to the largest number of people by lending my voice, since it is a very useful platform for those who want to train themselves and enter the (entertainment) business as well as for those who are already here but want to improve their skills or explore new avenues. Besides, when we think of the industry, we think of actors, at the most filmmakers, or if we go a little bit further then producers or music directors. Beyond that, we don’t talk about industry people, but here’s an opportunity for a costume designer to think differently, for a cinematographer or music composer to ask for interaction with other people in the world. It is a chance to learn the whole business of seeing film, OTT and TV making as an industry that exists because of the contribution of many talents. The fact that this programme is open for people of every age group and puts the focus on an industry that comprises a variety of professions — I think that’s quite a radical idea straight off.

Q. How, in your opinion, has OTT changed or shaped our entertainment industry?
We are still in the process, so it is hard to take any final call on it but what one is seeing immediately is that there is a greater focus on stories. Scripts are being given the importance and the due that they always demanded but never got. So, that’s step one. And because of the kind of stories that are being told now, the kind of people are also changing. Not just actors but the kind of music that one is listening to is from all over (the world). The actors that are coming into the business are much more skilled and proficient in their work than people I remember working with as a younger person. In fact, I remember myself as a younger person and I certainly wasn’t half as skilled or half as confident as a lot of the younger actors I work with, today. OTT has had a lovely run for the last two years with absolutely no competition from the big bad wolf — the Hindi film industry — which is back to flexing its muscles. We have to wait and see how that goes and what changes occur.

Q. You have worked in the television industry when it was at its prime, and haven’t shied away from pointing out that it became regressive to the point that you can’t watch it. What do you think went wrong?
Yes. I am lucky that I got a chance to work in television when it was a really new fledgling industry. There were new people coming into the business as they are (coming) today in the OTT world. The early ’80s and ’90s were a very fertile time for television in India. And I genuinely thought that here is something that will be able to speak in different voices to different people. It’s a medium that’s democratic, much more so than Hindi films or any kind of a feature film industry can be, and one that could be explored in many different ways — not just fiction but also documentary, reality programmes, talk shows, etc, the way it had happened in the west, particularly in England. But of course, it didn’t. Bollywood and some terribly regressive ideas took over. The saas-bahu world came into being. It was probably aided and abetted by the general mood of the nation, the politics of the nation, the way in which we were becoming a more nervous kind of nation. This was, don’t forget, the time when liberalisation was beginning to have its impact. We were becoming more of a consumerist society. So all that reflected in the way in which television changed and became the regressive mess that we see around us today.

Q. How would you describe your professional journey, so far? 
I think I started out as a pretty average actor. I got some things right. But I can’t say that I had any real command over anything that I was doing. I was blundering along and sometimes getting things right. So, I’m very grateful that I got a chance, particularly through theatre, to try out different kinds of roles and to be advised very closely by Pandit Satyadev Dubey — one of the finest in the Indian theatre in Mumbai and a man who knew what he was talking about. He was one of my mentors and so was Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah, her husband and co-actor). I was also lucky to find extremely wonderful opportunities on TV, like Sarabhai vs Sarabhai, mainly because it was excellently written and that’s why it has stood the test of time.

Q. You once said in an interview that you haven’t explored yourself fully as an actor, and you hope your wishes come true, slowly and steadily?
I don’t want to ever feel that I have done everything that I wanted to do as an actor. I want to stay hungry although it becomes harder to stay hungry as you grow older because so much of ‘been there done that’ stuff comes your way. I would like to play contemporary, real Indian women. I would like to explore playing a homeless woman or someone who has genuinely been hungry — something similar to what Rajkummar Rao did in Trapped. The fact that I have the chance to live lives I otherwise wouldn’t, is the real pleasure of acting. I could play a murderer and yet never have to go to jail!


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