Playwright, actor, director Mohammad Ali Baig talks about being part of the Footsbarn’s Theatre Festival in France and his special invitation to the London’s Globe Theatre.
Mohammad Ali Baig believes in living life king size. The award-winning ad filmmaker returned home to Hyderabad in 2005 to set up the Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Foundation. Named after his father — eminent theatre personality Qadir Ali Baig — the Foundation stages plays on an epic scale. Baig’s latest play Quli: Dilon Ka Shahzaada that opened the NCPA Theatre Festival in Mumbai was part of the Footsbarn’s Theatre Festival in France last week. From France, Baig went on to London as a special invitee at Globe Theatre. In this interview, the playwright, director and actor talks about his vision of theatre and what these honours mean to him.
Tell us about the Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Foundation.
The idea is to pay tribute to a towering dramatist who was ahead of his times. The foundation’s basic mandate is ‘meaningful theatre with popular appeal’. Baba’s theatre, like his persona, was larger-than-life; epic-scale productions at real forts and palaces, way back in 1970. The Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Foundation produces and invites work that fits in this mandate as a tribute.
When and why did you decide to move away from a flourishing advertising career to theatre?
I am surprised myself. The reason I got into ad filmmaking was because, as a teenager, I found theatre too intense and too static a medium. But Baba’s 20th anniversary commemoration function in Hyderabad was a turning point. There I saw writers, directors and actors paying tribute to him with moist eyes and choked voices, as if they were talking about someone they had lost, not 20 years ago, but the previous day. Through them I started seeing aspects of Baba’s personality that I could not see earlier.
Why do you prefer the epic?
My theatre is a celebration of life. I accentuate the visual element to a magnified stylisation because I believe that theatre, like ad films and cinema, is a visual medium. I take pride in my Indianism, my heritage and lifestyle. To an extent, that is also a comfort zone because I don’t have to look outside to recreate.
What are the pros and cons of the epic?
Larger-than-life is how I mount my work, both in theatre and ad films. That’s the way I learnt theatre as a child. The disadvantage is that you cannot travel with these productions, as they are designed and blocked on epic scales with a 40-strong cast, dancers, singers, horses, camels and massive sets and props.
You stage your plays in iconic settings. Comment.
The monumental structures become natural sets for the story I recreate, whether it’s Mughal, Rajput, Asaf Jahi or Qutub Shahi. I use it not just as a venue but as an inseparable part of my story-telling and production design. I enjoy performing to large audiences in the open, period settings. I find the challenge of multiple stages, difficult technicalities that Spectacle Theatre entails exciting.
What are the challenges?
Such venues are challenging and nightmarish when it comes to logistics and acoustics.
What are the positives?
It garners people’s interest in not just this performing art form but also history and heritage
Can you tell us about the genesis of Quli: Dilon ka Shahzaada?
It is part of my heritage theatre work. It’s the legend of the founder of Hyderabad and his beloved — a poet and a danseuse — and how their unconditional love for each other gives birth to a city. I structured it like an elaborate piece of modern theatre with embellishments and narratives.
How difficult is it to wear the different hats of actor, director and writer?
When you are playing a character you have conceived of as a playwright and envisioned as a director, then the process of internalising becomes a natural evolution for an actor. It brings in an additional layer of depth and saves a lot of time and creative energy. Anyway, I am used to that as I have worked in over 400 ad films where I sometimes wore 10 hats.
What was the NCPA experience like?
Adapting to their space was challenging and I enjoyed it thoroughly. The audience’s response was overwhelming.
How did the Footsbarn and Globe Theatre invitations come about?
Footsbarn is like family. We have had along association with them, a co-production Forty Winks with their lead actor-director Paddy Hayter and me on stage, several workshops on space, masks and Jacques Lecoq’s acting techniques. Though this will be my fifth overseas festival outing, it’ll be a first in a theatre-tent. Performing in a tent in arena-theatre format should be an experience. I am probably the only non-Shakespearean Urdu playwright-director to have been invited to Shakespeare’s hot seat.
What do you expect at the Globe and Footsbarn?
Any exchange of creative ideas and techniques is useful. Performing for audiences in different parts of the world is an enriching experience.