Ekjute’s best, revisited

greatest hits: The festival is bringing back some of Ekjute’s most well-known works. — photos: special arrangement

greatest hits: The festival is bringing back some of Ekjute’s most well-known works. — photos: special arrangement   | Photo Credit: HARJEET

The theatre group, founded by Nadira Babbar, will celebrate its 35th year of existence with a festival of plays

Nadira Babbar’s earliest memory of acting in a play is from one featuring fellow NSD (National School of Drama) students in Bertolt Brecht’s The Elephant Calf. Directed by Amal Allana, the satire had Babbar playing a barmaid. “It was a small role. I had just one scene with a song,” recalls the thespian. It was not the role, but the character’s outfit and make-up that had the actor in tears. “They gave me the mini-est skirt and a top with a plunging neckline. My cheeks and lips were scarlet. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I burst out crying. Alkazisaab (Ebrahim Alkazi, the then-director of NSD) gave me a stern talking-to. He explained to me that I didn’t need clothes to cover my honour and modesty,” she says.

But the reviews of the play mentioned Babbar, and her scene-stealing barmaid act marked the beginning of her love for theatre that started almost 48 years ago. “Theatre is the love of my life. No matter what was happening in my life, being on stage always gave me immense joy,” she says.

We met the 68-year-old actor just days before the Rang Parwaaz Mahotsav at Prithvi Theatre that celebrates 35 years of Ekjute theatre group’s existence. At her residential office in Juhu, she is fielding calls, and preparing schedules for workshops and rehearsals.

The festival is bringing back some of Ekjute’s best-known works, starting with Sarita Joshi in and as Sakku Bai. “This is one of our most successful plays. Sarita is brilliant. We also have Yeh Hai Bombay Meri Jaan that gives you a glimpse into the lives of five people who have moved to Mumbai to pursue their dreams. Ji, Jaisi Aapki Marzi is about 12-year-olds and features stories about four female characters at different stages of their lives. Salaam 1950s ke Naam is a tribute to one of my favourite eras of Bollywood,” says the actor.

She might live in the heart of Bollywood and be an unabashed fan, but Babbar has consciously kept her distance from the big screen. Her most memorable film outing was as the loud and overbearing Mrs. Bakshi in Gurinder Chadha’s Aishwarya Rai-starrer Bride and Prejudice.

“In the initial years, I thought it won’t be right for both husband and wife to be working in the same industry, and then the kids were there. I just never loved the camera as much as I love the stage,” she says. She was last seen in Sunny Deol’s Ghayal Returns earlier this year.

The actor-director moved to Mumbai in 1980 with her husband Raj Babbar when he wanted to try his luck in the movies. While he found almost instant stardom with films like Insaaf ka Tarazu, Nikaah and Aaj ki Aawaz, Babbar formed Ekjute. “In those days, there weren’t many theatre companies. There was Dineshji’s (Thakur) Ank and IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association). Prithvi had recently been built so I continued doing what I loved and set up a theatre group,” she says. Initial members of Ekjute included Anupam and Kirron Kher, Satish Kaushik, Alok Nath and Kavita Chaudhary.

From their first production in 1981, Yahudi ki Ladki, Ekjute has tackled numerous social issues. As one of the four daughters of Syed Sajjad Zaheer, a stalwart of the Communist movement in India, and Razia Sajjad Zaheer, an Urdu teacher and author, Babbar’s exposure to liberal thinking started very early. “The Progressive Writers’ Association (whose members included Saadat Hasan Manto, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and Ismat Chughtai) started in our home. Even though I was too young to understand what was being discussed, I would hear things, serving them tea,” she shares.

After the Rang Parwaaz Mahotsav, Babbar is hoping to stage a play based on the life of her mother. “It’s tentatively titled, Nothing Better Than Cotton. My mother couldn’t afford anything other than cotton. Every time she would wear a new cotton sari, she’d walk out of her room gently caressing the fabric and say, ‘There’s nothing like cotton’,” the actor says, smiling at the memory.

After a long pause, she adds, “My mother was an incredible woman. I never saw her sad. She is the single biggest inspiration in my life. She started teaching Urdu at Lucknow University to support the family. Even when we didn’t have the money, she would take us to watch Bimal Roy and Dilip Kumar’s films.”

Even as she prepares to honour a previous generation, the next generation is already hard at work to preserve Babbar’s legacy. After a brief foray into films, her daughter Juhi is now closely involved with Ekjute.

“She handles the children’s wing of Ekjute. She does workshops with kids all over the city. I have always been very passionate about teaching theatre and acting, and I am so grateful that Juhi is carrying the tradition forward,” she says with pride.

The Rang Parwaaz Mahotsav which celebrates Ekjute’s 35th anniversary will be held from today till October 2 at Prithvi Theatre. Visit for details.

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Printable version | May 21, 2020 10:21:18 AM |

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