Naseeruddin Shah, whose ‘Antigone’ opens the MetroPlus Theatre Fest, chats about his passion for the stage...

For over three decades Naseeruddin Shah has been part of Indian film history with brilliant performances in a range of films from his debut in “Nishant” (1975) to his latest“Firaaq” (2009). Yet his involvement in theatre has been remarkable for someone so active in cinema.

As his “Motley” celebrates its 30th year, Shah is in Chennai to open the MetroPlus Theatre Fest with Jean Anouilh’s ‘Antigone’, directed by the legendary Satyadev Dubey. In the team are his first stage partner Benjamin Gilani, and life partner Ratna Pathak Shah.

When Shah met Gilani at FTII, they hit it off straightaway. Later, shooting together in Lucknow for Shyam Benegal’s “Junoon” (Obsession) led to indulging in a junoon of their own in staging ‘Waiting for Godot’ (1979). They drew a mixed response but kept trying to do more from their wish list — Albee, Ionesco, Pinter and Becket. They also explored the Shakespearean and Shavian worlds. Shah was not afraid to follow his ideas, even if they sparked criticism, as when the meaning of Oedipus (swollen foot) gave him the idea of playing the man with a clubfoot. “We were eventually fatigued by the western stuff,” he says in a telephone interview. “But where are the Indian plays?” He refers to Vijay Tendulkar, Mohan Rakesh, Badal Sircar, Adya Rangacharya and Girish Karnad only to ask, “Where’s the next generation to speak to us here and now?”

Why has he not staged the master playwrights he has mentioned? “I’d love to do Karnad’s ‘Hayavadana’ or Tendulkar’s ‘Ghashiram Kotwal’. But Dubey and Jabbar Patel have already created their definitive productions. So it is with ‘Tughlaq’, ‘Baki Itihas’ or ‘Adhe Adhure’!” Shah chuckles in exasperation. Any argument about reinterpretations in today’s context is countered with a louder laugh, “I don’t flatter myself that I can go beyond Ebrahim Alkazi and Satyadev Dubey.”

When Shah stepped into fiction with the works of Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hasan Manto, he found himself in a different world. Born in Uttar Pradesh, he felt an immediate connection to their small town middleclass setting, recognised and empathised with the characters as with his own family. He was delighted to be able to do ‘Ismat Apa Ke Naam’ and ‘Manto Ismat Hazir Hai’ in both Urdu and English.

The spoken word remains crucial to him, but the story telling mode wrought a sea change in approach and technique. “I didn’t tamper with the text, simply tried to convey it with clarity and precision. After all, story telling is the oldest form of performance. Now I consider myself more a story teller than anything else.” Shah has come to believe in “the actor on the bare stage.” Sets, props, frills and paraphernalia actually get in the way. But isn’t minimalism dictated more by lack of funds than aesthetic preference? He retorts, “Remember (Jerzy) Grotowski said lack of resources should be theatre’s strength, not weakness? We’re moving towards that Poor Theatre which is truly rich theatre.”

He admits that theatre beyond entertainment has to be tremendously committed to ideologies and causes. “I’d be terrified to attempt street theatre. I don’t have those skills or that involvement.”

Best and worst moment

His voice glows when he recalls his best moment in theatre. “I was an ill-adjusted, withdrawn 14-year-old, certainly not a teachers’ pet, with brilliant brothers to make things worse, when I got friends together to put up ‘The Merchant of Venice’ at school. My first time on the stage, first time of being accepted for myself, feeling the kind of liberation I’d never experienced, a turning point. That was exactly when I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. No doubts since then.”

There is also a worst moment to record. For ‘Mahatma versus Gandhi’ Shah had practised changing in 30 seconds from dhoti to shirt, trousers, socks, shoes and tie. At one show, “I found my fly open. A flash of underwear before I zipped it up!” Nonchalantly?

Like all thespians, Shah has had to give up some dreams. “Only Kamal Haasan can play everything,” he laughs. “Nor do I want to display all my wares all the time. I think I’ve realised now, each time I’m on the stage, it’s really a big thing if I make a small contact with my audience.”