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Playing at the heartstrings

ZEENAB ANEEZ
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Chat Veteran actor Benjamin Gilani talks about his latest television show and his undying love for the stage

Questions and answersBenjamin Gilani
Questions and answersBenjamin Gilani

To those who grew up watching television in the early Nineties, the name Benjamin Gilani is sure to ring a bell. The actor is well known for his performances in Indian theatre with Motley, a theatre group he formed with Naseeruddin Shah and Tom Alter, television and films. He has played many a character, be it Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ or his role in Aamrapali , which aired on Doordarshan, but this time he is “not playing a character but just being himself”, he says during a telephonic interview. He is referring to Disney’s Channels new show, Disney Q – The Family Mastermind , a quiz show he is hosting.

The show follows the same format as the popular British television series Mastermind except with a twist – instead of individual participants, the show will test the abilities of the entire family. “There is a basic structure to the show but it is devoid of any theatrics. It is a content based show and, as you will see, the content will speak for itself,” informs the actor who has worked with film directors like Shyam Benegal, Basu Bhattacharya, S. Ramanathan and Ketan Mehta. In between time spent on stage and on screen, Gilani has found time to teach English at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. “I’m also a visiting professor at the Whistling Woods Film Institute in Mumbai,” he adds.

While he is comfortable doing television, Gilani’s gets the greatest pleasure out of theatre, his first love. A postgraduate in English Honors from Delhi University, Benjamin went to the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) where he ran into Naseeruddin Shah. It was their shared passion for the stage that led to the founding of Motley in 1979; Gilani continues to be driven by the same passion. “Entertainment is a part of it but the aim is to try and make the audience think about something,” he says. Motley is one of the few groups in the country that has found the sweet spot where undying love for theatre, captivating performances and evocative scripts meets commerce. Thirty years since it’s founding, it continues to take its plays to various parts of the country.

“We do human interest stories and our choice of script is very personal, we try not to overly underline political interests but we do like to ensure that our plays are for education, to make people think and show them different perspectives. We also try to bring out the richness of the spoken word, never once exploiting the language but giving vast importance to the way it is delivered,” he clarifies.

This time around he will be working with people who have never faced the camera or been on stage. Having lived through the many different stages of television in India, Gilani feels that the medium has a long way to go.

“Remember, private channels haven’t been here that long,” he points out. “but with the level of permeation they have in the country now, there is immense scope for television today.”

ZEENAB ANEEZ

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