Ratna Pathak Shah on BAFTA Breakthrough India, why south Indian films trump in originality, and more

The actor-filmmaker talks about being an industry supporter for the initiative, the areas she feels urban actors need mentorship in, and how the pandemic has influenced her as a creator

December 08, 2021 12:11 pm | Updated 12:20 pm IST

Ratna Pathak Shah

Ratna Pathak Shah

After last year’s success, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) has once again initiated their Breakthrough programme, in partnership with Netflix, to nurture prospective talent across film, games and television industries.

Akin to the debut initiative, BAFTA Breakthrough aims to help participants develop knowledge about the industry, address barriers to progression, and network globally with people who can influence their careers.

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Apart from composer A.R. Rahman who serves as Ambassador to the cause, actor-filmmaker Ratna Pathak Shah, film producer Guneet Monga, and CEO/ gaming entrepreneur Vishal Gondal have also come aboard the initiative as industry supporters. The trio will help BAFTA navigate India’s diverse and creative talent pool as well as educate audiences about the charitable remit; increasing opportunities for people to pursue careers in the arts.

Guneet Monga, Vishal Gondal and Ratna Pathak Shah are the BAFTA Breakthrough India Industry Supporters for 2021

Guneet Monga, Vishal Gondal and Ratna Pathak Shah are the BAFTA Breakthrough India Industry Supporters for 2021

As far as mentors go, it doesn’t get more prestigious than Ratna Pathak Shah. A true connoisseur in her field, the star of several acclaimed theatrical plays, as well as film projects like Kapoor & Sons and Lipstick Under My Burkha — not to mention her still-iconic turn in the sitcom Sarabhai Vs. Sarabhai — the veteran actor is looking forward to interacting with the participants and sharing her expertise with them.

Excerpts from an interview with Shah:

As someone vastly experienced in your field, what are some of the key points you would be sharing with these young breakthrough artistes?

This BAFTA Breakthrough programme is a very unusual idea. It’s not like a course that has been designed by somebody else; it’s BAFTA acting as a facilitator to help you discover more about your craft and questions that affect you at a particular time in your career.

The greatest thing about this is that there are no winners as such. It’s not a competition, there are participants. It’s just a way in which you can ask for help and get it if your demand is interesting enough. My job here is really to let people know that this program exists, and to encourage young practitioners of various arts to actually apply for this option.

I remember as I was going through the early stages, I wondered what kind of an actor I wanted to be. What kind of craft do I want to pick up as I go along? Where would I be able to get that kind of information from? I was lucky that I had very good mentors that I was working with, but not everyone finds that opportunity. So here is a chance to speak to people who you feel can answer those questions for you.

But the posing of those questions is the really tricky part, isn’t it? Satyadev Dubey used to always say that young people are constantly keen and eager to get answers. But the more important thing is how to pose questions. That is something that I would advise the young people who are applying for BAFTA just now; to look out for what it is that you want to learn yourself. This is for young professionals in the business in various fields, not just actors. I am not sure how much advice I could give to the non-actors, but to the actors, I would like to say that here’s an opportunity to think beyond what is immediately expected of you in the kind of work that you are doing so far. What is something that you don’t know just now, and would like to extend yourself towards and learn?

If such a program had been present when you entered the industry — as a filmmaker and an actor — what would you have wanted help or mentorship with?

I remember I felt that as a young actor myself, and I’ve often wondered, what it would be like if I had had this opportunity when I was starting out… if I’d been able to speak to anyone that I wanted to do, well within reason, of course, and get to learn from them.

I think the two areas that would have interested me then — and have continued to interest me all my life — is the use of the voice and speech and the use of the body. In India, we are particularly poorly trained in these two departments. Well, let me be more specific; modern, urban actors are not very well-trained in these two areas as they have completely different requirements. Whereas traditional and folk actors used to have only this as part of their training; how to use their voices and bodies effectively.

People think of their bodies — particularly as actors in today’s day and age — needing to be impressive. That they need to be built up with six packs, slim as sticks, or beautiful in some form which is accepted today… but that’s not what it actually is. The actor’s voice is not necessarily supposed to be very pretty. The actors’ speech too, is not expected to be perfectly pronounced, nor is the body required to be of one type always.

Shah in a still from ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’

Shah in a still from ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’

What’s most important is flexibility and the ability to change their body and their voice and their speech, depending on the demand of the performance and of the character. With the body, it’s a little easier to do maybe, but with speech, particularly, I have discovered while working over the years with younger actors, that it is something that’s not paid much attention to. I can’t sometimes even hear them speak in the same room while we are performing together! Everyone seems to be performing only for mics.

Now, human beings don’t talk like that; we don’t wear mics. So how people use voice and speech is something that an actor should be concerned with, and should learn how to use to their advantage whenever required. But it immediately presumes that your voice, your speech has to be good to start with clear, expressive and audible under all circumstances... that’s the basics. Then you can change. Then you can use your abilities to create different kinds of characters, and alter your voice and speech to suit that. But the starting point has to be one of audibility, clarity and expressiveness for the body, as well as for speech.

Do you think the youngsters of today are better equipped to deal with the rigours of the film industry, as opposed to your generation?

I do think the youngsters today that I am seeing and working with — both actors as well as in the other technical departments, directors, DOPs, costume people — seem to be much more sure of what they are doing. They seem to be better educated in their field of work, and following good practices that they have developed or borrowed.

I also find generally that the atmosphere on a set is significantly more democratic today than it used to be. At least that’s been my experience with the kind of people I’ve been working with, but then I’ve been working often with first-time directors. I find that absolutely wonderful, and I like the atmosphere that they create on a set.

There is a significant change in work culture today. The younger professionals seem to be very much more equipped to handle the difficulties. They learn to face rejection very early on and lots of rejection. That’s something that seems to build up the desire to make your mark in the world.

Being part of this initiative is also an opportunity for you to meet some interesting talent; what are you looking forward to gaining from the experience?

Yes, I am hoping to meet some of the people who have applied for this. I am not necessarily a mentor, but if somebody asks to work with me, then I’d have to see if I’m capable of providing the mentorship of the sort that they want. I do hope that we will get a chance to interact, and I’d be very curious to see the kind of demands that they make, how that demand is met, and the progress that they make as they go along the year.

Ratna Pathak Shah with her husband Naseeruddin Shah on stage

Ratna Pathak Shah with her husband Naseeruddin Shah on stage

In recent years, several south Indian films have truly gone national/ global, expanding the mainstream Indian market. Both of India’s Oscars submissions in the last two years — Jallikattu and Koozhangal — are from the south as well. What do you attribute to this?

One of the pleasures of the OTT platform is that it has introduced us to content from various parts of the world, and more importantly, parts of our own country. I have seen and heard of, and heard people talking about projects from all over India, particularly the south Indian films.

Though I haven’t seen the two films that you mentioned, I have seen some others and I am quite pleased, terrifically pleased actually, to see the maturity with which subjects are being handled and the unusual subjects. South Indian films always have had much more unusual subjects to offer than the Hindi films. In fact, Hindi films have copied right, left and center from films down south and continue to do so. It seems originality is not something that the Hindi film world considers very important, but in the south, that definitely is true. That originality is something that is looked for, and there are minds that are capable of producing this kind of work.

Could we see you working in a different film industry soon?

I am looking forward very much to working in languages other than the ones that I have done. I’ve only acted in Hindi or English. I speak Gujarati fluently, and I’m going to be doing a Gujarati film hopefully next year. I also speak Marathi also fairly well… atleast I can learn up my lines and do a good-ish job, so it is a language that I would very much like to work with. South Indian languages would be tough, but I’d love to work with those kinds of writers, directors and actors very much!

Shah with Rajat Kapoor in ‘Kapoor & Sons’

Shah with Rajat Kapoor in ‘Kapoor & Sons’

Apart from Jayeshbhai Jordaar , any other upcoming films or web-series you are a part of? Perhaps even the much-mooted Sarabhai vs Sarabhai reunion at some point?

Jayeshbhai Jordaar is a film that I’ve done, as are Attack with John Abraham and Hum Do Hamare Do recently.

I have already been part of a web series Selection Day ; I loved my part in it, in fact, and I am sorry that it was not seen more widely. But people who have seen it have liked it very much. It was based on Aravind Adiga’s novel of the same name and I thought it offered me the chance to play a very eccentric and very interesting character… and not a mother. Thank heavens!

Ahh.. the Sarabhai reunion. Oh, much looked forward to, but always up in the air until it happens. We often meet and just get together because we truly like each other’s company, and we have become friends over the years, not just co-workers. So I’m always happy to work with this group anytime, anywhere. Fingers crossed.

Finally, how have the events of the last year affected you as a creator?

The pandemic has definitely had a major impact on me, like it has on everyone else. But I don’t quite think I’ve processed what has happened and what it has meant. It’s undoubted that lots of things have changed around me, inside me. But I’m not quite sure if I can articulate that as yet.

I have become quieter for sure; I don’t feel like adding to the noise around and don’t feel quite sure of my opinions anymore. It’s a rather disconcerting feeling. But as a creator, I am sorry that I haven’t been able to find a play that means something to me, and that I would like to explore either as a director or as an actor. I don’t really feel like talking about things at the moment; it’s as if I’ve gone into some sort of an absorbing mode. I hope it’s not laziness.

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