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Synergy of the arts

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He says there is much raw energy in Kerala theatre that can be harnessed.

Salim Arif

"My concern is the spoken word," says Salim Arif, Mumbai-based film personality and noted theatre director. "We are losing the importance of the spoken word in theatre. Here, we are trying to bring back word into theatre."

Arif belongs to a group of artistes who try to balance twin careers both in film and theatre. Starting as a student of theatre, Mr. Arif entered the world of miniscreen after graduating from the National School of Drama (NSD). And, his name appeared in the team of some of India's legendary serials Mirza Ghalib, Chanakya and Chandrakantha, for which he designed the costumes.

Arif's break into the world of television was through Shyam Benegal's teleserial, Bharat Ek Khoj. Soon, he made a foray into the film world. He designed costumes for Maachis, Gulzar's feature film, of which he was also the associate director.

Hailing from Fatehpur in Uttar Pradesh and brought up in Lucknow in a traditional U.P. Muslim family, Arif chose theatre as a career against the wishes of his family of engineers and doctors. "The onus was on me to be an IAS officer," he laughs. "But, NSD beckoned stronger." After completing the course from NSD in 1984, he travelled all over India in 1984-85, working with leading theatre personalities of the time, including B.V. Karanth, Habib Tanvir, Rathan Thiyam and Kavalam Narayana Panicker. His subject was `Interaction Between Contemporary and Modern Indian Theatre in their Regions.'

From 1986, Mumbai, the capital of Hindi filmdom, became his base, from where he launched a successful career in films and television. The legendary mega serials from the initial hey-days of Doordarsan followed one after the other.

He also directed a number of television shows, including Daaman, for Sahara Television, Saath-Saath, for DD National Network, Nakhat Rani, for DD and Rishte, for Zee TV.

During the early days of his career in filmdom, Arif could not devote much time for his first love, theatre. By 2002, he started to balance both careers. In that year, he presented Ghalibnama, a stage performance based on the life and works of Mirza Ghalib.

In the same year, he produced his first play after coming to Mumbai. Taj Mahal ka Tender was a satire on corruption in the country's political and administrative system. "It is like an R.K. Laxman cartoon," he says. The play was produced by Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA). He had been associated with IPTA over decades.

In 2004, he directed Aap Ki Sonia, written by Javed Siddiqui, casting the Bollywood actors Sonali Bendre and Farooque Sheikh. It was a sequel to a much-acclaimed earlier play, Tumhari Amrita, which starred Farooque Sheikh and Shabana Azmi.

Kacche Lamhe, (vulnerable moments) was another play he did, also written by Javed Siddiqui, based on Gulzar's short story titled Seem. The popular actors Harsh Chhaya and Kiran Karmakar acted in it and Lubna Salim, actor and Mr. Arif's wife, did the major role.

His latest work in theatre was a 40-minute musical titled, Agar Aur Magar, inspired by the German playwright Bertolt Brecht's He Who Says Yes and He Who Says No. It was produced by the IPTA's children's theatre wing. The play had been adapted by Gulzar himself.

Arif is no stranger to the theatre scene of Kerala. Having been familiar with theatre activities led by Kavalam Narayana Panicker from years ago, he has made frequent trips to Kerala watching theatre activities here. Though he holds a high opinion of theatre artistes here, Arif feels they are in need of some good channelising.

"The variety seen in the theatre scene here is quite interesting. There is so much raw energy, waiting to be harnessed and channelised. A lot of aspects need to be improved, if you want to put them on the national scene," he says. He says theatre in Kerala needs a more professional attitude. "It is the attitude that makes you professional. With the School of Drama in Thrissur, Kerala has already developed a tradition of theatre training. What is needed is a professional approach to the work," says Arif.

He has struck the right balance between his twin passions of theatre and film. Salim Arif talks to Renu Ramanath about his career and future plans.

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