She has scripted some of the most memorable Hindi films but holds her identity as theatreperson closest to her heart. A freewheeling chat with Shama Zaidi...
She's at work when I intrude, concluding the writing of a trilogy of operas. It is a typical September morning in Bengaluru. Lingering clouds occasionally allowing the sun to tease and Shama Zaidi is in transit once again. Between cities and the numerous vocations, she juggles scriptwriter, filmmaker, costume designer and academic while holding on to her primary identity of a theatreperson closest to her heart. “Theatre happened to me from the time I was a child. My mother ran a theatre group and the boarding school I went to, Woodstock in Mussoorie, encouraged us to write short plays and act in them.”
Passion for the stage
Her passion for stage is evident in the way she holds forth on the rise and decline of folk theatre in states like U.P. and Bihar, especially the Nautanki. I learn from her that the origins of this form, vulgarised in the current context due to lack of patrons, lie in Ram Lila historically performed at Varanasi and Raas Lila that had its origins in Braj. She takes me back to the era of Wajid Ali Shah, who was a patron and loved to enact the role of Krishna before the British crushed his empire and his artistic soul with a single stroke of colonisation. She is eager to resurrect him as a true connoisseur of performing arts. “He was been reviled unfairly, much like Tipu Sultan,” Zaidi protests. She is right. Text books in school never focussed on the secular credentials of the last of the Mughals, content to portray him as a self-indulgent, weak man.
It is a mark of Zaidi's range and intellect that we are talking about Salman Khan next. “He's not dumb as the media projects him to be. He paints and you need intelligence for that. He is as intelligent as the other two,” alluding to Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan. Zaidi should know. She has worked with the best of Indian film directors. She wrote the dialogue for Satyajit Ray's Hindi feature film “Shatranj Ke Khiladi”, and collaborated with Shyam Benegal to write for many of his films and his seminal work for television “Bharat Ek Khoj”. She is married to reputed filmmaker M.S. Sathyu and scripted his “Garam Hawa” along with Kaifi Azmi, undoubtedly the most powerful treatise on the Partition. She has written a memoir focussing on her work with Ray, yet to be published.
I ask her why she chose screenplay writing as her vocation when it is the most thankless among all forms of creative writing. A novel is immediately identified with the author, a poem with a poet and a play with the playwright. A film ultimately belongs to the director even though clichés abound about the script being paramount. She shrugs her shoulders. It is evident she lives by the choices she made. The dissatisfaction she airs are about the larger context. She is unhappy about the state of Hindi theatre after Habib Tanvir, English writing, Television soaps... “I asked a friend who writes soaps why he had all these women dressed up at home like that. He said my director wants upper class characters with lower middle class values,” she chuckles, making me laugh. Turning serious, she adds, “Even millionaire wives like Ambanis have chosen to pursue a vocation. They are not content to play the mother-in-law at home.”
The Government of India asked Zaidi to make a documentary on Islam in India. She directed the film that was never released. The BJP thought the film had overestimated the influence of Islam, the Congress wanted changes to project the party in the film. Zaidi declined and it lay in the cans for years until friends put it out on YouTube. She is used to it now, creating works with uncompromising integrity that she may get paid for but never gets to see the light of the day. But the worldview she holds hasn't turned bleak because of these setbacks. She is happy that she has been corresponding with a young man from Indore who sent her a script he had written on how the Bombay Film Industry took over Parsi Theatre. “We are friends now on Facebook,” she says. That there are people in smaller cities who continue to pursue their passions despite the demands of daily life gives her hope.
Zaidi's current project is the three operas she has finished writing. The first is a retelling of Laila Majnu against the backdrop of the Iraq war. Zaidi was in Germany along with Shyam Benegal's unit, shooting for “Bose”, when the American invasion took place. The same evening she saw the poster of the musical “Hair” and got inspired. The second is on Imam Hussain, the Islamic martyr revered by the Shias. The third is about Gilgamesh, the ruler of ancient Iraq and Kuwait. She is weaving all three around the theme of death and is currently on the lookout for a good composer to set them to music. She is also working on two film scripts, one a mainstream Hindi film and the second is a Spanish one set in an Indian milieu.
We have talked for a little over 40 minutes and Zaidi is already looking bored. It is obvious she would like to engage in something more creative. I take my leave happy at the thought I finally got to meet the writer who gave words to so many memorable characters in films that linger on in the memory of all those who appreciate good cinema. There was so much music in them.