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The shah of screen and stage

He may have shocked Sean Connery by telling him that he has acted in 150 films. But Naseeruddin Shah's good old heart still beats for Indian language theatre.

Naseeruddin Shah: `Theatre protects me from the insane world of Hindi cinema.' — Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

"I'M EMBARRASSED," said Naseeruddin Shah, smiling somewhat sheepishly. "But I have to confess that I didn't know Ismat Chughtai when I met her on the sets of Junoon. I mean, we all knew of her but I didn't know then what a terrific writer she was. Now, years later, having read her, I can't forgive myself for not having got to know her then. If you look at Junoon now, you'll see that hers is the most convincing performance — the rest of us were acting. She was just herself!"

Motley, a theatre group from Mumbai, consisting of Shah, his wife Ratna, and daughter Heeba, were in Bangalore recently to stage Chughtai's Ismat Apa Ke Naam. The play, a series of three short stories narrated by the trio, was a fundraiser for India Foundation for the Arts (IFA), the country's first independent, professionally managed grant-making organisation for the arts. At the press conference (at Park hotel) Naseer looked happy, relaxed, friendly — his recent Hollywood experience had brought him international fame and new acclaim. Ratna Shah didn't look too different from when we knew her in those Doordarshan comedy serials. For many Bangaloreans, this was their first glimpse of Heeba, who had just returned from a stint at National School of Drama (NSD).

Naseer said he had grown tired of staging English plays and was looking for Indian material when he came across Ismat's stories. He was at once drawn to them: "I identified with her writing strongly; she recreates a world I feel I belong to and a language that I grew up hearing." The trio prepared for nine months. Six of it was spent just learning the dialogue — which posed difficulties because parts of it were in literary Urdu. Ratna and Heeba had to particularly work on getting the accent right. "Theatre has kept me in shape," said Naseer, "and helped me to reinvent myself. I've never enjoyed doing anything as much as I have directing and acting in Ismat Chughtai's stories." Asked about his Hollywood experience, he dismissed it with: "The shoot for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was long and it was cold in Prague. It was fun when I was working; boring when I was not. I'll tell you what was interesting though — the way Sean Connery and the others where shocked to find out that I had acted in 150 films. I refrained from telling them that it was too little in Bollywood. After all, my contemporaries themselves have starred in 500 films!"

For many of us who have followed his career with admiration, Naseer confirmed something that we have always suspected — that he uses the money and clout that comes with stardom as a means to keep him in theatre. "Theatre sustains me — well, all three of us, actually — and protects us from the insane world of Hindi cinema. You know, when I was growing up, I never looked to any Hindi actor for inspiration. And I have to admit that I don't have what it takes to make a typical Hindi star. I have no regrets — what you learn from perfecting acting in Bollywood is to sing convincingly, dance well, and cry (a lot) on cue."

What is perhaps most interesting in all this is that the play was in aid of IFA. Come to think of it, a funding agency in India for artists, and projects related to heritage, culture, and the arts. It's heroic! While there are hundreds of funding agencies for social causes, there are only a handful for the arts. "IFA completes 10 years next month," said Anmol Vellani, its Executive Director. "We began making grants eight years ago and, in that time, we have committed some Rs. 5.6 crore to over 100 projects in 17 states. Our mandate is to bring new perspectives to bear on the area of arts philanthropy. In the pursuit of this mission, we have given emphasis to supporting artistic processes, strengthening discourse on the arts, and facilitating artists to connect with each other."

Since the last two years, IFA has appealed to established artists and arts groups to raise funds to support younger, struggling artists.

Naseer looked genuinely pleased to be helping IFA with its arts cause. He called it an honour for Motley to be included in the company of Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, Aditi Mangaldas, and Alarmel Valli, three eminent artists who have supported IFA in the past. It is the artist, after all, feels IFA, who knows best what it takes to become an artist. They are unlikely to easily forget their own early struggles, the disappointments, the self-doubt, and the lack of recognition. They also know what it takes to sustain artistic inspiration and, therefore, they best understand the value of having a place like IFA to turn to, which can share their excitement and respect their visions, which is willing to take risks as they take risks, and which, perhaps in a small way, can help them realise some of their dreams and aspirations.

"Looking to the future," says Mr.Vellani, "IFA has introduced a Special Grants category to be able to support especially innovative or path-breaking initiatives, perhaps works that have larger national value or significance, even if such projects fall outside the framework of our existing grant programmes. We have also been considering how our grants can enrich the lives of a larger public beyond the arts sector. For instance, our arts education programme has been expanded to accommodate public education projects that offer skills development and appreciation courses in diverse arts disciplines. Support will also be available to enable individuals and organisations to bring to life public museums and art galleries for students and other audiences. By reaching out to groups other than those directly involved in arts research and practice, such grants would address the need to make the arts a part of everyday life."

In India where the arts itself is a cause in need of support, IFA should be celebrated.


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