Naseeruddin Shah has high expectations of you. Which is only a fair reversal of roles. After all, he's spent the last three decades living up to your expectations: traversing between commercial cinema, art house movies and live theatre.
Hence he persists in finding and staging plays that are challenging. He stays true to scripts, no matter how obscure. His stages are stark, forcing viewers to exercise their imagination. His theatre is demanding, not just of actors but also the audience.
In a telephone interview with MetroPlus, Shah discusses ‘The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial', Herman Wouk's Pulitzer-winning work, which will be staged in Chennai this weekend.
It premiered under the Motley Productions banner (Shah and Benjamin Gilani's theatre company) in 1979 with Shah playing the pivotal role of Captain Queeg. Now, more than 30 years later, he's back with the same play — but this time as director, and in the shoes of another character. Which he states isn't too hard given how familiar ‘The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial' has become over the years. “At a pinch I could play all the characters in this play,” he chuckles.
Explaining why he chose this script, he says, “I've been teaching a group of students and I suddenly realised I had the perfect cast. So I cast them all and I'm very proud.” He adds, “Ankur Vikal, who played Maman in ‘Slumdog Millionaire', plays Queeg, which was my role. I personally consider this production superior to our original.” As the play's director, he says it's interesting to revisit the production. “My understanding of theatre has improved. Well… It has to have. If I haven't grown in 30 years, I should just lie down now and go to sleep!”
They've come a long way from their first production, ‘Waiting For Godot,' performed to a semi-empty auditorium filled with bemused people in 1979. Though Shah's not so sure. “We still have audiences sometimes bemused by our work… But I feel the need to test myself against high quality writing. To test my actors against high quality writing. And yeah, why should we underestimate the audience's intelligence?”
The role of theatre, he believes, is to bring alive great scripts, with great actors. “I don't believe in making a stage look pretty. The actors are the most important thing. They take centre stage.” He adds, “I'm not saying mine is the only kind of theatre. But I don't feel a need to compete with cinema, or television, or a reality show to make a statement.”
This dedication to good scripts means Motley Productions never really gives up on a project it believes in, whether it's welcomed by the public or not. “It's not that we don't care about the audience. We care deeply. But we don't do the plays we do to pull an audience. Though I've seen that once you get a production ready, venues open up.”
‘Waiting For Godot', for instance, never closed, despite its original lukewarm reception. “It's been alive for 30 years. Apart from Benjamin (Gilani) and myself, all the actors have changed.” More recently, Shah did ‘ Arms and The Man' for children: With no cuts or changes. “I think children should be given a thing in its entirety. Then it's up to them to take what they can out of it.”
His reliance on the classics stems, he says, from a lack of good contemporary playwrights. “I think the art of writing and reading is dwindling. Maybe it's just a stage. In India we have seldom had a good Indian play in English. With the exception of Girish Karnad and Vijay Tendulkar… I would be hard pressed to name a third… We need playwrights who can use a living language in their plays. Use the kichadi that we all speak. English is now an Indian language. And a chaste Hindi play sounds wrong. No one speaks like that in the cities.”
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial will be staged at The Music Academy on July 10 at 6.30 p.m. Tickets are available online at www.indiastage.in and at Landmark outlets (Spencer Plaza and Nungambakkam).